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.
The city plans to fill some small but treasured sites with trees—a climate strategy that may also change the way Paris frames its architectural heritage.
Some of Paris’s most treasured landmarks are set to host the city’s new “urban forests.”
Under a plan announced last week by Mayor Anne Hidalgo, thickets of trees will soon appear in what today are pockets of concrete next to landmark locations, including the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s city hall; the Opera Garnier, Paris’s main opera house; the Gare de Lyon; and along the Seine quayside.
The new plantings are part of a plan to create “islands of freshness”—green spaces that moderate the city’s heat island effect. It also falls into an overall drive to convert Paris’s surface “from mineral to vegetal,” introducing soil into architectural set-piece locations that have been kept bare historically. As a result, the plan will not just increase greenery, but may also provoke some modest rethinking of the way Paris frames its architectural heritage.
While “forest” might be far too big a term for plots this modest in size, the plans as a type are necessary if Paris is to meet its ambitious greening goals. By 2030, city hall wants to have 50 percent of the city covered by fully porous, planted areas, a category that can include anything from new parkland to green roofs. This means that, when it comes to planting, pretty much any urban space needs to be up for grabs.
Accordingly, the city imagines turning the square in front of city hall into a pine grove, while future springtimes will see the opera house’s back elevation emerge from a sea of cherry blossom. The paved plaza at the side of the Gare de Lyon will become a woodland garden, while one of the two former car lanes running along the now pedestrianized Seine quays will be taken over by grass and shrubs.
Such plans will require more than sticking saplings in the ground. Creating the new opera house cherry orchard will mean displacing a current parking lot used by tourist buses, a process that the city plans to repeat elsewhere.
As the mayor notes in this interview with newspaper Le Parisien, traffic on Paris’s roads has been reducing at a rate of 5 percent every year during her term, a reduction that is not always apparent on the roads because car lane space has also been reduced. With the number of cars steadily falling, Hidalgo has suggested steadily removing parking spaces and replacing each one with mini-gardens, a process that is due to start already this year on Avenue Daumesnil, an axial thoroughfare bisecting the city’s southeast.
Such proposals will only add to the mosaic of new green spaces that Paris is creating, which include a makeover and extension of the green area around the Eiffel Tower, reduction of parking spaces in major squares, and alterations to schoolyards to make them shadier and more able to absorb rainwater.
Intriguingly, the urban forest plans are a slightly different take on the classic Parisian aesthetic. Sites like the areas around the opera and Hôtel de Ville don’t need beautifying—they are already grand, charismatic showcases for the elaborate, even fanciful historic buildings that they host.
In the past, however, they have been left bare, or at most (as you can see in this street view image by city hall) fringed with small lines of trees that have been rigorously pruned and trained until they form a narrow, wall-like rampart. This is a classically French approach to all things green, one that transforms parks (such as the Tuileries) into elegant but mercilessly symmetrical arrangements of cordoned-off lawn, topiary bushes, and dusty, heat-trapping gravel.
Judging by renderings, the “forests” will be a departure. Even with open space still paved for public events, growing tall, potentially view-blocking pines outside city hall is an unusually bold, rugged choice. Likewise, the mixed-height lindens and cherry trees planned for the opera will partly mask its lower elevations.
Given how charming the designs appear, this seems unlikely to be controversial, but it does suggest a more rustic, quasi-natural approach to greenery than has previously been the rule in Paris.
As the city’s greening plans gather pace, plants will increasingly cover the facades of buildings, trees will spread to fill paved squares and avenues of trees will steadily march outward to occupy more of the roadway.
Paris will look different: softer, fresher, somewhat less regimented—and probably a lot more livable as a result.