Public Space in Paris

One thing I’ve noticed about the great cities of the world, particularly Europe, is their lack of wide open spaces. Isn’t that counterintuitive? Aren’t American cities constantly building more plazas for free concerts and festivals? We need to bring more life to our cities with special events! In reality, life is brought to European (and probably cities everywhere in the world) due to people, and lots of them. Where there are public spaces, they are often small, and intimate, and usually carefully designed to encourage community. Let’s look at some of the most famous in Paris.

The Place Vendôme is perhaps one of the most famous, which is an octagon punctuated with a triumphal column in the middle based off the Column of Trajan in Rome.

Braquehais, Bruno, Photographer. Fallen Vendôme Column. Paris Île-De-France France, 1870. [Place of Publication Not Identified: Publisher Not Identified, to 1871] Photograph.

The famous Ritz Hotel and extremely expensive stores line the plaza, but it is mostly pedestrian friendly, and it’s a fun place to visit. But if you’re going to vandalize the Column, don’t get your picture taken in front of it! The Paris Commune destroyed it, and in another photo (not shown) the French government rounded them up and fined them for the cost of restoring it. The painter Gustave Courbet had to flee the country since he couldn’t afford to pay his portion of the cost he was fined for repairing it.

Then there’s the Place Concorde, which I snapped below quickly. It’s a good example of a public space that Paris has not fixed yet, and it’s a mess of traffic. But the mayor of Paris has announced plans to replace all the automobile lanes and plant more trees. That’s another misconception of Europe that many American urbanists have: that everything has always been perfect in Europe. It hasn’t; cars used to rule many cities and it was a conscious decision of policymakers and governments to seize back control of streets and public spaces for pedestrians. The Place Concorde is next.

Public Space can also serve as an example of serving as a void to make a message of what is no longer there. The Place Bastille now only contains a large Roman-style triumphal column like one would see in Constantinople; before this was the site of the hated Bastille fortress, which had become a symbol of the lack of due process in royal law. It was razed during the French Revolution.

Next up is the Place des Victoires, which is anchored by an equestrian statue of Louis XIV. It’s also an example of a round plaza, and one that is a quiet neighborhood public space.

There is little traffic, and probably there could be fewer traffic lanes–I think of the bloated avenues of St. Louis and their widths designed for a much larger city.

We wandered out into the traffic circle with little worry about oncoming cars.

Finally, the Place des Vosges is a masterpiece of quiet, residential space that is carefully quartered off from the busy street grid of Paris.

You enter down this narrow gateway, which has not been widened for modern automobiles; cars are forced to slow down to pass through the arch.

Individual houses are unified in architectural style.

The street is pushed to the edge of the greensward.

A statue provides a visual centerpiece to the quiet oasis. There is a better way to provide for public space, and these places in Paris, though some are imperfect, show us.

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