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 city where you’re surrounded by hubbub, abandoned to cars—that isn’t a [real] city,” said Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
This past Saturday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced a campaign to reclaim some of the city’s most beautiful but also most congested squares for pedestrians. Paris will allot €30 million ($34 million) to rerouting and cutting road traffic and opening up seven iconic public spaces to make them more friendly to people on foot. The seven squares slated for redesign are the Place de la Bastille, the Place d'Italie, the Place de la Nation, the Place du Panthéon, the Place de la Madeleine, and the less well-known Place Gambetta and Place des Fêtes. No concrete plans have been announced yet, but Parisians will help shape the redesign through a period of public consultation.
The first five of the targeted squares are grand historical ensembles that will probably be familiar to many people who have visited Paris. That said, by Paris’s unmatchable standards, they are (with the exception of the Place de la Bastille) second-rank squares—slightly less famous and iconic than, say, the Place de l'Étoile or Place Vendôme. They are without exception impressive spaces—broad acreages of cobblestones often lined with honey-colored buildings fronted by elegant wrought-iron balconies. They boast combinations of public gardens, café terraces, and bombastic monuments that remain an urban planning ideal for many people across the world.
That doesn’t mean that, at present, they’re always particularly pleasant places to hang out in. With cars dominating, the broad spaces can become not delightful sites of urban resort but sullen gray rivers of cobblestone with traffic treacherously separating one bank from the other. In the Place de la Bastille for example, half of the square’s surface is given up to cars, while there is no direct pedestrian crossing traversing the square. Likewise, the nearby Place de la Nation may be ringed by concentric circles of green space, but it’s also encircled by eight lanes of traffic.
Turning more of these spaces over to pedestrians and bicycles could easily be enough to make them delightful once more. That isn’t necessarily such an easy task, however, because these squares aren’t filled with cars by accident. They may be widely-emulated urban design set-pieces, but when squares such as the Place de la Bastille and Place d’Italie were incorporated into Baron Haussmann’s massive late 19th-century renovation of Paris, many of them were also cogs in an inner-city beltway. Haussmann and his contemporaries possibly never imagined the future ubiquity of the internal combustion engine, but they created a street plan that coerced city traffic into flowing across just these points, turning them into huge roundabouts from which boulevards emerge like spokes. So how can they be made calmer and more pedestrian-friendly without making vehicle access impossible?
Though concrete plans for the pedestrianization of these seven spaces are still a few years off, there are already some key points to take away from the 2013 redesign of the Place de la Republique. The changes made there are clearly visible on the map. Before the renovation, the open space at the heart of the square was a traffic island around which cars flowed constantly. Now motor lanes have been reduced to a C-shape, the fourth side of the square becoming a largely pedestrian space accessible for buses and deliveries only. This means that drivers heading from the northwest to the southeast now have to do a half-loop around the square, and the garden at the square’s heart is no longer severed from the surrounding streets by traffic.
Republique is now a cleaner, more welcoming space, a square you can stroll across without walking through exhaust fumes or feeling the need to make a will. If this effect can be repeated across the other seven squares, then the plans will strip these spaces of the heavy traffic flows and noise that partially mask their inherent beauty. It will also help Paris’ ongoing self-redefinition as a place where cars are no longer given priority. As Hidalgo herself commented on Saturday:
“A city where you’re surrounded by hubbub, abandoned to cars—that isn’t a [real] city.”