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Keeping Cities Green

Perhaps a Trip Back in Time to Paris Might Provide Some Answers


October 2014

BY RICHARD HOPKINS

Imagine a world without parks. Imagine your town without them—your neighborhood! Many people tend to take those leafy green respites from our urban, concrete jungles for granted.

Yet in recent years, municipalities across the United States have started partnering with residents’ groups to implement comprehensive planning initiatives aimed at increasing urban green space and the urban forest. In New York City, for example, PlaNYC is committed to creating a park within a 10-minute walk for all city residents by 2030.

In Oakland, California, Urban Releaf (yes, it’s a play on Relief) stands as a successful public/private venture in which residents plant and maintain trees in their own neighborhoods, at once building a sense of community, increasing the urban forest, and restoring neglected sections of the city.

In 2012, the Chicago city administration announced a five-year plan to invest in green space acquisition, development, and renovation throughout the city, a plan that would impact the lives of an estimated 800,000 city residents. Similar programs have been launched in cities like Sacramento, Phoenix, Dallas, Portland, Oregon and other cities nationwide and around the world.

When we consider the kinds of changes to our contemporary cityscapes today–their meaning and implication—it’s often fruitful to look to the past, and even as far afield as Europe, because doing so adds a broader perspective on urban development and society, and raises larger questions for our consideration.

More than 150 years ago the city of Paris began an extensive program of green space development that involved the establishment of neighborhood parks and squares in every quarter of the city, coupled with the creation of tree-lined boulevards that effectively increased the urban forest. Administrators and citizens at the time were concerned with the quality of life within the city, and public health and welfare issues.

City planners, public health reformers, and physicians recognized the benefits that urban green space might provide to city residents. They cited nascent research in the fields of biology, chemistry, and medicine to make their case. They argued that plantings opened the city to the circulation of air and light, provided shade and reduced heat when necessary, and importantly, worked to cleanse the air of irritating and harmful pollutants.

Moreover, they asserted, parks and squares provided recreational spaces that significantly improved the physical health of city residents, particularly children. Scientific and sociological rationales were prevalent in their discussions of the need for trees in the urban environment and they successfully pressed for expansive green space development.

For its part, the Parisian municipal park service, which was established in 1854 to execute this green space development program, practiced site reclamation and renewal employing park building projects to rejuvenate particular areas of the city.

The construction of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in 1867 on the site of an abandoned quarry and dump in a decidedly working-class section of the city is one example. To construct the park, the city cleared away tons of polluted and toxic soil and replaced it with new topsoil and plantings creating a fully public park on the spot. A reporter for the New York Times at the time wrote that the city of Paris had, most certainly, made a mistake by creating such a beautiful park in what was clearly not the best part of the city.

Neighborhood residents, however, welcomed the change–watching closely the construction and subsequent management of the park. They successfully petitioned the city for adjustments and alterations such as new paths, increased pedestrian access, fishing and festival permits, and entertainment for children, all of which helped ensure that “their park” would better address the needs of those who lived close by.

This kind of community engagement in park construction and management occurred in other neighborhoods across the French capital as well. Thus, the design of the parks and squares throughout nineteenth-century Paris reflected the public’s involvement and the park administration’s recognition of the need for multiuse spaces that would serve a wide spectrum of park goers. In this way, parks and squares constructed in every part of the city of Paris and in close proximity to the homes of city residents came to engender a particular proprietary sensibility toward public green space. These newly constructed spaces functioned as centers of community and were woven into the fabric of daily life in neighborhoods throughout the city. They helped to improve the quality of life for many who lived and worked in the increasingly urbanized and crowded environment of the expanding capital.

Certainly, discussions about the need for public green space within the city have evolved since the nineteenth century. Today, they include not only public welfare and quality of life, but contemporary environmental concerns and questions of sustainability as well.  Still, the overall objectives and implications remain quite similar.

Indeed, Parisian parks and squares established more than a century ago were created to serve the public good and are renowned today for the way in which they have become so fully integrated into the rhythm of daily life throughout the many neighborhoods of the city.

Thinking about urban park development then and now raises larger social and cultural questions about the place of nature in our fully urbanized world. (Today, more the half the world’s population lives in cities rather than rural areas.)  Like city planners and Parisians in the nineteenth century, many urbanites today place considerable value on green space development. Does this suggest something fundamental about the role of nature in the modern urban environment? How, in fact, is ‘nature’ perceived, defined, and constructed in the urban milieu? What is its connection to a sense of place and well being in the modern city? How does public outreach and participation function in the creation of relevant public space, and how can it be facilitated? Do public green spaces foster community and counter the alienating, anonymity of a crowded city? If so, how? And finally, what is the role of human agency in shaping the urban landscape?

This brief articulation of some of the intriguing parallels between nineteenth-century park development and contemporary planning initiatives does not suggest a direct relationship between them, or that municipalities are not subject to the particularities of their own specific challenges and historical development, or even that history provides us with a universal planning model. Rather, it illustrates some of the threads of continuity between green space development past and present; it highlights the similarity between ourselves and urban residents in the past; and it reminds us that exploration into the past can contribute to an expanded understanding of our world today.

History neither repeats itself, nor is it prescriptive. In broadening our perspective, it does, however, raise questions and offer insights that inform and enlighten. It can certainly contribute to the thoughtfulness and depth of any inquiry into the nature of contemporary living and society.

Richard Hopkins can be reached at rshopkins@widener.edu

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