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Public Space Nouveau: Reclaiming the River Seine

A rendering shows the River Seine expressway converted to human public space.

The Mayor of Paris announced recently that the city is closing an expressway along the River Seine in a project that could have a major impact on public space in the city. Time magazine describes the current one-day-a-week closure and how this may spread to 365 days per year:

On a recent Sunday in Paris, stroller-pushing parents, rollerbladers and cyclists eased their way up and down an unusually tranquil stretch of the Seine’s left bank. Normally this road is filled with thousands of cars zipping along, but once a week it is transformed into an oasis of calm as part of an experiment by City Hall to see what happens when cars are banned from Paris’ riverbanks. So far the experiment, which has been going on for the past few years, is proving popular. Delphine Damourette, 31, a Montmarte resident whose cobblestoned neighborhood is a rollerblader’s hell, says the traffic-free Sundays give her a taste of her city as she most loves it — during summer vacation, when Paris slows down, cars disappear, and pedestrians reclaim the Seine. “It would be great if Paris were like this all year long,” she says. Soon, she may get her wish.

The banks of the River Seine are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, yet they are occupied by a motorway. Under the new plan, one side of the river would be converted exclusively to park-like space, while the other side would be converted to a parkway, leaving some space for auto movement.

Most likely, this premiere space within Paris will be popular with pedestrians all week just as it has been popular on the one-day per week closures. Critics argue that this will choke traffic and prevent a more egalitarian transportation system (i.e. in Paris, the poor largely live on the outskirts of the city and this would prevent them from having access, so the argument goes). This fails to acknowledge that visiting the renewed banks would not involve the expensive purchase of a private motor car, and that an existing and improved mass transport system can provide easier and cheaper access to the city.

In any case, if this experiment is a success in tightly packed and street-space poor Paris, then it seems more feasible for less traffic-jammed U.S. cities. It already has happened in a few places — the most well known being Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park and a removed freeway in Milwaukee. There are tons of prospects to at least consider — from the central stretch of Civic Center Drive in Columbus, Ohio to the 10th Street Bypass in Pittsburgh along the Monongahela Riverfront (once proposed to be shut down by Mayor Tom Murphy) to the Potomac Parkway in Washington, D.C. and more. (The Congress for the New Urbanism has a list of “freeways without futures.”)

Such moves could make our cities healthier all around — through less air pollution and energy usage, increased pedestrian and bike safety, more places for physical activity and social enjoyment — which all leads to a greater gross urban happiness.

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