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.
Public asset or provocation?
For the first time, the people of Paris have a chance to (legally) spend a day in the park au naturel.
On Thursday, the city launched its first ever clothing-optional park, a 1.8-acre clearing in the woods of the huge Bois de Vincennes. Marked by signs warning non-enthusiasts of the presence of naked park-goers nearby, the new area will allow visitors to enjoy the woodland meadow textile-free.
While the area is small and introduced only on a trial basis until mid-October, the move to make space for urban naturists is still striking. Urban nudity certainly isn’t uncommon in neighboring Germany, but for Paris, this is a new departure. So why has the city chosen to cater for naked park-goers, opening up one of Europe’s largest urban reserves dedicated to naturists and their friends?
It makes sense when you consider the popularity of naturism in France. While it’s still a niche enthusiasm, naturism is big business in the country, which possesses both the world’s oldest naturist resort, founded in 1950 on the Atlantic Coast at Montalivet, and its largest, at Cap D’Agde on the Mediterranean, a site which is big enough to have been described as a “naked city.” These sites are visited annually by over 2 million people. Given the size of this group, it makes sense that Paris would allot them a small space to enjoy what is an essentially harmless pursuit; previously, they had to make do with sporadic naked swimming days at one city-run pool.
But what wider consequences could establishing a naked zone have within a dense, extremely busy city like Paris? Sunbathing without clothes may seem innocuous enough if it isn’t done with the express intent of attracting an audience, but there’s no denying that even in the most liberal of societies, naked people and their actions are a magnet for the prurient—something naturists themselves have found problematic in recent years. A zone like Paris’s new clothing-optional park could easily become a sort of muster station for peeping Toms and gigglers.
There’s also the simple fact that many reasonable people, even people whose normal lives are not otherwise hampered by any prudery, simply don’t want to see naked people when they’re using a public park. North Americans might sometimes think of the French as habitually licentious (rather delighting the French by doing so), but the plan is not universally popular and has been deemed “a provocation” by some local politicians. Some critics have also attacked the city for its skewed priorities, suggesting that City Hall has been focusing on the quirks of wealthy naturists, instead of covering more important issues such as kindergarten places.
This doesn’t stand really stand up. Within France, naturism is often seen to have intellectual, middle-class associations, but that stereotype isn’t supported by research—one finding suggests more female retail workers had in fact visited nudist beaches than women with professional jobs. And while the park’s opening has attracted much attention, its creation can hardly be said to have taken up a huge amount of municipal energy. The park’s far-flung, bosky location, meanwhile, means that few people will stumble upon it unawares.
It should also be pointed out that considerably more lurid things than naked sunbathing have gone on in urban parks ever since their creation. Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, the western counterpart of the Bois de Vincennes, has long been a soliciting ground for sex workers, who sometimes work the area from their own furnished trucks. And for decades, the banks of the Seine were a frequent night-time haunt for Parisian gay men, meaning tourists on evening sightseeing boats were occasionally treated to an unexpected show. Paris’s new clothing-optional park may be open during daylight hours, but it still seems entirely innocuous by comparison. And if anyone is still sunbathing naked when the park’s trial period ends on October 15th, they don’t merit condemnation. They deserve a medal.