It’s not much of a photo. I almost deleted it. A picture taken on an autumn day with flat, grey light. One lamp post, two rows of lime trees, about forty park benches. And the legs or backs of several people, half hidden behind the trees, (reading, texting, chatting or embracing). Not much of a photo but (if you listen hard enough) it says something important about public space.
Square Jean XXIII is a small, L-shaped public garden, just behind Notre Dame cathedral, right in the heart of Paris. The narrow arm of the unequal L, facing the river, is bright and colourful with well-tended borders of seasonal flowers. That’s the place for holiday selfies, with a choice of floral, riverside or ecclesiastical background. It’s busy all year round. The wider arm (or base?) of the L is planted with four rows of lime tree, and is supplied (as the city website points out) with ‘numerous benches’.
In the traditional style of French public gardens, the benches are placed back to back, lined up in the gaps of the rows of trees. The familiar arrangement has much to recommend it, offering a sense of shelter and seclusion in an open, shared space. Imagine the benches in a row between the lines of trees. Then imagine this space without the trees.
City trees are hugely important for their role in moderating temperature, reducing air pollution, supporting biodiversity and ‘softening’ the built environment. Trees are also important, beyond measure, for their role in making places where it feels good to slow down, to rest and relax. Tree time is a bit different from ours.