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.
Bikes, games, picnics, and dogs are finally getting a warmer welcome in the French capital’s famously stringent parks and gardens.
Paris’s parks and gardens may be beautiful, but they’ve never been the most easy-going of public spaces.
With tidy gravel paths, rigorously trimmed bushes, and patches of lawn behind wrought iron fencing, the French capital’s public gardens—at least the many smaller ones—tend to present themselves as orderly, somewhat buttoned-up places. You may stroll and sit neatly on benches, but please don’t sprawl on the grass or throw a frisbee.
That, however, is starting to change. Following a vote last fall, many of Paris’s public gardens have loosened their rules since the start of the new year. As a result, locals are now starting to enjoy novelties that are taken for granted in other cities. As of January 1, they’ve been allowed for the first time to ride their bikes through more parks, play more ball games, have more picnics, and even—under still strict conditions—walk their dogs. Previously, only 77 of Paris’s 490 public green spaces allowed for that.
The changes stem from a policy rethink encouraged by parks commissioner Pénélope Komitès. That effort is part of an overall City Hall-led drive to make Paris greener and more pleasant to live in.
The rigid set of rules experienced in most Paris parks may sound draconian to North Americans, but they’re not without reason. Except the huge, far more loosely controlled parks that bracket Paris’s eastern and western borders—the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes—the city’s parks and gardens aren’t usually very big. In one of Europe’s most densely populated cities, small green spaces have to stay green and serene for large numbers of people. If the city let them become anything-goes cookout spaces, they might end up looking bare and rundown pretty quickly (as happens under far looser regulations in some of London’s most popular gardens).
Culturally speaking, there’s also a more hands-on approach to managing urban nature in France. Following a highly formal garden tradition, Parisian trees are often pruned until they resemble figures from Picasso’s Guernica, while there has long been a tendency to look upon the effect of mud and leaves on children with suspicion. It’s perhaps these ingrained attitudes that prompted Mayor Anne Hidalgo to make the apparently obvious statement to CityLab at the opening of a new green schoolyard that “touching plants isn’t going to make anyone sick.”
This tight rein has led to some frustrations. As newspaper Le Parisien notes, until the rule change, cyclists peddling from the city’s main college dorm complex at Cité Universitaire had to take a detour around the edge of Parc Montsouris to reach central Paris. And while no one would stop you eating a sandwich on a bench, any larger group eating in a garden could risk being broken up and moved on. Given that parks are places to relax, this attitude somewhat spoiled their primary function.
Parisians themselves want a more relaxed, easy-going approach. In an attempt to cool the city and make it more resilient to climate change, the city is extending park opening hours, and hoping to keep some spots open 24/7 during hot spells. The rule change could push behavior changes in Parisians, but they also reflect changes in mentality that have already taken place, as can be seen in the huge popularity of the summer beaches installed along the Seine.
The new rule-loosening is multifaceted. Picnics (but not barbecues) of any group less than 30 people are allowed without requesting permission. Cyclists can ride along any designated park cycle path, and stay mounted on other paths providing they keep their feet on the ground. Come spring, trees that are strong enough for slinging hammocks will get signs advertising their suitability, while sunbathers in swimwear will be allowed on lawns between April 15 and October 15, other months being barred to give the grass time to recover. This has until now been a gray area, with sunbathers actively encouraged along the river bank, but rather frowned upon in formal parks such as the Jardin de Luxembourg. What’s more, parks will get more places where you can play board games and, under certain circumstances, dogs will be allowed on leashes into the smaller parks where they’ve previously been barred.
On that last point, the rules are still pretty strict. Leash or no leash, dogs will still be banned from parks that have children’s playgrounds. Small playgrounds are actually something the city has been pretty good at providing, so that means a huge number of parks will remain canine-free. The suggestion has been floated that this ban of mixing kids and dogs (even when the playgrounds are fenced) may end up being relaxed, once people see that allowing pooches into parks doesn’t end in chaos.
Even if that doesn’t happen, Parisians are being invited to take a more breezy attitude to green space—whether those Parisians have two legs or four.