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.
A long-planned redesign will semi-pedestrianize some of the city’s most famous public spaces.
Last year, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo promised to makeover seven major Parisian squares. This March, following a public consultation, Paris City Hall came up with the goods, providing detailed plans that will transform these famous, beautiful spaces in the period between now and 2020.
Looking at the details, it seems the city’s ambitions haven’t so far been diluted. Each square will be semi-pedestrianized—literally so, as a mandatory 50 percent of each square’s surface area will be given over to pedestrians. This means slicing away large sections of space currently allotted to cars, abolishing some lanes and slowing traffic in others. In each square, road vehicles will be restricted to lanes with a maximum width of 12 meters (39 feet), with the rest ceded to pedestrians and cyclists.
The scope of this semi-pedestrianization is more impressive when you consider what Paris has to work with. These squares aren’t quiet spaces hidden away from the city’s main avenues. They are the very axes through which most of inner Paris’s road traffic is currently channeled. Here we look at three of the seven makeover plans to see how the squares will be re-shaped and given more space to breathe.
Place de la Bastille
In this square built over the site of the Bastille Prison, redesigning the square’s layout has prompted a rethink of the way cars will navigate it. As the photo below shows, the square’s commemorative column currently stands cut off in the center of a huge roundabout, looking rather like the spindle of a gigantic record player. The effect is monumental, but it renders the heart of the square effectively useless and inaccessible.
In the redesign, the column will be unified with the square’s banks, reducing car traffic to a narrower north-south axis, one that swerves to enhance the curved shape of the square’s centre. The red lines in this rendering represent new street furniture installations placed on what are currently car lanes, while the green patches show further tree plantings along the square’s feeder avenues.
Place de la Nation
In other squares, traffic will be pushed farther away from sidewalks to create larger garden areas. This process is most pronounced in Eastern Paris’s Place de la Nation. Cars or no cars, there’s no denying that this square is still a singularly beautiful place, a quieter, more low-key twin of the Place de l'Étoile. Its orbital lanes are already attractively broken up by thick seams of greenery that help muffle noise to the elegant buildings that line it.
The redesign, however, suggests you can’t have too much of a good thing. In the new configuration, the central circus will be expanded and further greened, while the inner lanes, still necessary for deliveries, will be reduced to snail pace with speed bumps. The section shaded pink will be a space that can be closed to host special events, subtly shifting the square’s character away from being a hub connecting roads to an open-air living room for Paris’s inner East.
Place de la Madeleine
This central square, focused on Napoleon’s church and dedicated to his armies’ glory, has always been handsome. But often filled with cars and not furnished with much in the way of shops, it can come across as a little arid, a place to admire from a tour bus rather than to linger on foot.
The new configuration should help humanize the space, not just by giving the square more room for pedestrians and trees, but by turning it into a market place. A weekly market will take place under the existing avenue of trees, while a flower market will be installed on the other side of the church. The side farthest away from the square’s through traffic will be paved over for pedestrians, while the side that sees the most cars will be softened by twin clumps of trees that, when mature, will shade clusters of benches.
Taken together, changes like these should do much to make Paris more approachable. Already when the city was reconstructed by Baron Haussmann in the mid 19th century, its squares and avenues came across as improbably, almost wastefully spacious. In the 20th century, cars came to fill that generous void, turning many grand spaces into islands separated from each other by torrid, impassable-looking rivers of traffic. Paris has already done much to cut traffic congestion and improve air quality. With this new redesign, citizens will have that much more space to reclaim, giving a densely built city more space to breathe and enjoy itself.