Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Here’s what it should learn from London’s infamous efforts to build one.
London had been fielding serious plans to construct a green link across the river Thames for five years before ultimately cancelling the project last spring. Now, it’s apparently Paris’s turn and the French capital is going a step further—it wants three of them.
New plans for car-free urban river bridges ripe with trees and shrubs comes as part of a huge international city redevelopment project piloted by the C40 Cities group. Called Reinventing Cities, its inspiration is specifically Parisian, as it is modeled on the French Capital’s Reinvent Paris architectural competition, currently in its second round. Right now, City Hall is inviting applicants to tender projects for three sites on the eastern section of the River Seine, to construct planted bridges that would allow pedestrians and bikes to cross with greater ease. Currently the brief is quite vague, with City Hall speaking of “bridges that will be places for crossings and events.” But proposals will need to pay for construction by the creation of some commercial units on each bridge. Florence’s Ponte Vecchio has already been cited as a possible source of inspiration.
The idea of slender bands of car-free greenery snaking across the Seine is pleasant enough, and a few commercial units such as cafés might work if they are not allowed to dominate. Add the image of lovers leaning over the balustrades murmuring in the twilight and you have exactly the sort of image that sends millions of tourists hurtling towards Paris every year. The three chosen sites—two east of Notre Dame and one downstream from the Eiffel Tower, may not be crying out for new crossings. They could still have the positive effect of drawing visitors away from the heavily-frequented riverside between the Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville and in front of the Eiffel Tower itself.
And yet Paris’s plan is haunted by London’s failures. At least, it should be. Paris has shown the ability in the past to learn from London’s mistakes and the success of these bridges relies not just on City Hall, but Parisians being as vigilant as possible to make sure things don’t go awry the way they did across the channel. As CityLab has noted in the past, London’s plans for a green river crossing started off by charming many. Londoners gradually realized they’d be getting a heavily monitored bridge that was closed to bikes and performed no meaningful infrastructural function. Despite initial promises, its need for public funding bloated while its procurement process proved to have been so opaque as to verge on the corrupt.
There’s no reason Paris should make the same mistakes, but if these bridges are going to fulfill their potential, citizens need to watch out for some key issues:
- These bridges are billed as exclusively privately funded projects. As these are primarily attractions rather than vital pieces of infrastructure, Parisians need to make sure they stay that way, otherwise they may end up paying large amounts of money for something they don’t use or need.
- If these bridges are to be paid for by renting out commercial units, the public needs to know how many and exactly where they will be placed. There will also have to have an open public conversation about how many is too many. The fact that London’s Garden Bridge would have blocked some iconic river views ended up being a nail in its coffin.
- Paris needs the competition to construct these bridges to be as open and broad as possible. One thing the first round of the Reinvent Paris competition was heavily criticized for was that its winners tended to be from a very small pool of official insiders that snap up almost all of France’s public projects. In London, meanwhile, evidence suggests that Mayor Johnson had in effect chosen Thomas Heatherwick before the competition was even made public.
- Paris City Hall needs to be open and clear throughout the process. In September, the city’s Deputy Mayor Jean-Louis Missika insisted that a project like London’s Garden Bridge would be impossible in Paris, that the Seine was “inalienable” and that “we don't accept to give the management of public space to the private sector.” There could feasibly be some way in which this statement does not contradict the private developer model suggested for the bridges, but it’s not one that’s at all obvious. It needs to be made so.
These points shouldn’t necessarily be seen as discouragement. Careful scrutiny of major projects is a way of ensuring that they actually deliver on their initial promise, avoiding the understandable disaffection with major works that came in the wake of London’s Garden Bridge debacle. Paris could come up with something beautiful here, but only if its citizens watch carefully.