It was cold, grey and windy today in Paris, but officially summer. Paris Plage – the ‘beach’ by the river Seine, opened on July 20th, just in time for a couple of days of sunshine before the weather changed. On August 17th the timber edging, the parasols and the deck chairs go back into storage while the sand is loaded onto barges and shipped back to the depot, for reuse in road works or in the city parks. Luckily there’s good beach weather forecast before then.
I was sceptical about the Plage before I’d seen it in action last year – after all, you can’t paddle or swim in the river Seine – but I’m a complete convert now, whatever the weather. For a month each summer since 2002 the Plage has reclaimed the right bank riverside corridor, lost to pedestrians in 1967 when the George Pompidou Expressway was built. It’s said that President Pompidou himself wanted to concrete over the Seine for a six lane highway, but that may be just an urban myth. Either way, that was the flavour of the times.
In 2001 the new city mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, kicked off a campaign to reduce traffic, and air pollution, in Paris by closing the riverside road for a month in the summer. In the face of protests from angry motorists Delanoë took another step forward, rather than a step back. For the summer of 2002 the expressway was transformed into Paris Plage, complete with sand, palm trees, cafés and deck chairs, attracting two million visitors. There was no looking back.
The concept of the Plage has developed over the last 13 years with new features added every season. Now there are boules courts, tai-chi lessons, dance floors and an ephemeral library as well as children’s play areas, bike hire and organised games. Deck chair use and most of the activities are free of charge. It’s an ambitious mix, appealing to all ages, and it works.
This is the last year of the Plage in its current form. The current city mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has announced that from the summer of 2016 Voie George Pompidou will be closed indefinitely and a new park will be developed along the riverbank. There’s ongoing public consultation about the extent of the closure and the features to be included, but the principal is decided.
As Anne Hidalgo has said, ‘c’est un projet urbain, presque philosophique, qui consiste à voir la ville autrement qu’à travers l’usage de la voiture‘. (Roughly ‘it’s a urban project, verging on the philosophical, which is about seeing the the city differently, not through the use of the car.’)
Paris is not alone in starting to look differently at urban freeways. Removing Freeways – Restoring Cities gives details of similar projects around the world. It’s worth a look.