A week ago, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë inaugurated the new Place de la République. Last Wednesday, he was on the banks of the river Seine, inaugurating another emblematic project of his municipal administration, the newly pedestrianized banks of the Seine.
The banks of the Seine are a very meaningful project for Delanoë’s leadership because of their history.
Georges Pompidou, who was Prime Minister of France from 1962 to 1968 and then President from 1969 to 1974, was a proponent of a modernization agenda for Paris. He imagined highways and skyscrapers, a vision that largely remained on paper. But among the projects that did become reality was a system of highways along the bank of the Seine, allowing for a high-speed East-West connection across the city.
The project was stopped in mid-implementation in 1974 by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Pompidou’s successor, and left until today with some sections completed, others not.
Bertrand Delanoë, who became Mayor in 2001, has pursued an agenda of “liveability,” which has included an ambitious bicycle sharing scheme, the creation of a network of bike paths, and the pedestrianization of a number of public spaces.
Delanoë decided that the banks of the river Seine needed to be taken back from the automobile and given back to Parisians. He wanted to help reestablish the relationship of the city with the river, hampered by the highways along the banks. It was obvious from the outset that the idea would be hugely controversial with automobile users, whose interests have been voiced by Delanoë’s municipal opposition.
The plan focuses on two area, one on the right bank near the Hôtel de Ville and the other on the Left Bank, between the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée du Quai Branly.
The road to implementation was long and eventful, especially at a moment when the national government threatened to veto the plan for reasons of political gamesmanship in view of the upcoming election to succeed Delanoë.
With Delanoë’s allies return to power at the national level, all obstacles were cleared and the project was led to completion. The first section opened earlier this year, the second opened last week.
I visited the left bank portion on the first weekend after its opening, on a cool, overcast June day with a permanent threat of rain. There was a moderate number of people, curious to see what the new space would look like. The dominant sense was one of discovery.
Overall, the space has a pleasant air of informality. It is not overdesigned; instead attractions are added here and there, with pieces of furniture or other objects that people can appropriate and use as they like.
One of the features of the design is that in case of a flood warning everything can be dismounted and removed within 24 hours, which contributes to a happy sense of flexibility.
The starting point is a very strong one, because whatever one does, this place, level with the water close to the heart of Paris, remains quite extraordinary. One can admire splendid views of Parisian monuments, the bateaux-mouche and barges float past, the water of the Seine laps up against the embankment. As people become aware of its existence, it is hard to imagine that this will not become a very popular place to stroll, go for a run, or just relax and take in the views.
But the city has not relied on the location alone. Quite a lot of creativity has been deployed in thinking of attractions that could be created on the newly pedestrianized banks.
The main priority was to cater to children. Delanoë has repeatedly declared that this place would be the “kingdom of children.” On the day of the inauguration the Mayor kicked off his shoes and scurried into a play structure to test out the play structures for the kids himself.
There are several play areas, jungle gyms, and various games traced on the ground for children to spontaneously use. There is also a climbing wall, a teepee village, and a skateboarding learning center. There is even a museum of contemporary art for children housed in a shipping container mounted on a truck.
There are activities for other ages too. On Saturday afternoon an outdoor stage was being used for a series of concerts, there was an exercise class going on, people were exploring the gardens floating on the Seine or just sitting down or lying the big rope hammocks.
There are quite a few nifty ideas of installations, some of which work and others of which do not. My favorite was the “sound shower” under the Pont des Invalides. The sonic experience under the bridge is pretty impressive. Radio Nova and TSF Jazz have teamed up to offer a playlist, but one can also play one’s own tunes from one’s mobile phone.
A little further, a half-pipe with skateboarders provides entertainment, accompanied by the raggamuffin, rub-a-dub and dancehall music that goes together with that activity.
There are cafés and food stands, but these are unfortunately ludicrously overpriced (e.g. € 6.50 for a hot dog, €2.50 for a soda).
Apparently more attractions are on the way, including a traditional Parisian outdoor ball like in the Belle Epoque, a waterside pastry shop, and a restaurant.
It is difficult to say at this point if the new banks of the Seine are going to be a successful urban project. The place is just beginning its teething, starting the slow process of being adopted into the habits of the city’s inhabitants, as new urban functions are gradually being rolled out..
It is how the space continues to evolve, how it is used by people, what sort of activities develop, that will make it successful or not. That in itself is a healthy reminder of what cities are all about : what matters is not so much the initial design, but the vitality that develops.
In any case, when one is in Paris, one should without fail take the few steps down from the Musée d’Orsay or the Invalides and see what is going on hidden away below, by the river’s edge.
Carnet aux petites choses visit of the site (in French)