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In Paris, Life’s a Beach

from the magazine

In Paris, Life’s a Beach

The City of Light’s new car-free pedestrian parks have been a hit. Autumn 2017
Cities
Public safety
Infrastructure and energy

We must give full credit to Anne Hidalgo, our socialist mayor, for the success of the Paris plage. Last year, Hidalgo regally decreed that the Georges Pompidou freeway on the banks of the Seine, as well as the Solférino harbor and the Invalides on the Seine’s left bank, would be permanently pedestrianized through the summer. Her predecessor, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, had begun closing parts of the freeway to traffic during the summer of 2002. At first, many—including me—mocked him for it. We predicted a traffic nightmare. We thought that businesses in the center of the city would be destroyed by the impediment to deliveries. We were wrong: the Paris plage has been so successful, and is now so beloved, that when Hidalgo announced her intention to make it permanent, most of the city cheered—though some commuters remain unhappy.

The plage is no mere Paris peculiarity. It could serve as a model for other cities for many reasons. First, it’s what you might call “natalist.” Low birthrates are now such a concern in the West that every developed country needs to put the question “Will this boost birthrates?” at the forefront of public policy. The French are truly innovative at natalist urban planning, and they boast the West’s highest birthrate—though it’s still a hair below replacement rate. Shrewd urban planning likely plays a role in that, forming part of a winning combination: the Catholic revival, financial incentives to have kids (tax breaks, low-cost child care), and efforts to create a family-friendly culture.

Family-friendly is the key. That’s not the same as kid-friendly. In the past decade, more and more public spaces have opened up in France for families—not just playgrounds for kids but also public spaces for parents and children. My own family visited Paris last summer for a few weeks. It proved delightful, and we owe this to the plage. We went every day. Leo (age 8) amused himself safely for hours playing soccer, rock-climbing, bike-riding, drenching himself in the sprinklers, and practicing his French with the other kids. His parents, aunt, and grandfather (ages 43, 45, 49, and 75) were just as amused. Excellent, affordable bars and restaurants now line the quai, with all manner of cuisine. We relaxed for hours in the lounge chairs and hammocks, entertained by live bands and by the sights of tango and salsa dancers, magicians and art exhibitions, massage therapists, and yoga and martial-arts classes. We indulged in the artisanal ice cream; we played with the amusing exercise stations; we watched the pétanque; and, of course, we watched the people. They’ve even opened up parts of the Seine for swimming for the first time in generations.

A small army of street-sweepers keeps the plage impeccably clean, which encourages the public to be tidy, a good civic habit. The cops are visibly on top of things. They’re out on foot, bicycle, and horseback, and at least two of them are always in sight—so the adults can relax and enjoy adult conversation, even as the kids wander off. That’s an unusual privilege in the middle of a big city. The plage transforms school vacations and after-school time as well: mom no longer has to spend all her time driving the children to lessons and playdates. It’s no longer a struggle to get the kids to do something wholesome that doesn’t involve looking at a screen.

The plage serves, too, to develop bonds among extended family members. Aunts and grandparents can take the kids for a day to give long-suffering parents a break. I can’t say for sure that having lots of public spaces like this is the key to a higher birthrate, but it stands to reason that it would have a positive effect. Enough spaces of this kind change the ambient culture.

Many activities at the plage have an educational twist. Tree-climbing creates little botany lessons; this is a chêne, ceci est un pin. Adults don’t have to suffer stoically through activities that only children like—as they do, say, at a kids’ birthday party with a bouncy castle. The adult–child ratio is balanced, so there’s no nightmare of hyperactive kids supervised by a frayed parent struggling to keep track of them. Even the single and childless want to go to the plage; it’s fun for everyone.

What’s more, the plage creates a sense of urban community. Entrance is free, and most of its amenities—the fleet of well-maintained loaner bikes, and even the board games—are either low-cost or free, too. People from every neighborhood and social background can be found here. Easy to reach on public transport, even from the banlieues, the plage vigorously counteracts ethnic and class ghettoization.

Best of all, contrary to predictions that the city center would wither economically without its central vehicular artery, the plage has proved itself not only commercially viable but a huge moneymaker for the city. It pays for itself many times over. It attracts tourists. It supports whole service industries, from massage therapists and yoga instructors to restaurants. Once you get people into the neighborhood and in a good mood, they go out and shop in all the local stores, especially the department stores and boutiques near the rue de Rivoli. Many of these had gone under, or were just hanging on, in the wake of the eurozone crisis; the plage has reinvigorated commerce throughout the center of the city. Some of the businesses that were initially frantic about the proposal are now its most vocal enthusiasts.

Another selling point: it’s wholesome. Because the plage is open to all, and open all day, everyone—especially kids and teenagers—has a healthy, social thing to do. Yes, you’ll occasionally see someone taking a discreet toke on the litter-free, well-manicured lawn, but the overall environment is drug-free. Drinking is moderate and appropriate. Signs warn that the cops will crack down immediately on public drunkenness, and they do.

To everyone’s surprise, the plage has not created a traffic nightmare. In fact, traffic has improved. Waiting times are down 28.8 percent at rush hour, and traffic will probably ease even more when the river-ferry service starts. This also helps with Paris’s massive air-pollution problem. In some weeks, the Eiffel Tower is barely visible through the smog. The effect on the lungs and heart of living in Paris, it is said, is equivalent to smoking eight cigarettes a day in a small, enclosed room. Fine-particle air pollution in France causes 48,000 premature deaths a year. Parisians are constantly sneezing and dabbing itchy, red, irritated eyes. So the diminution of pollution has been a welcome development.

Finally, while this surely wasn’t a consideration when the plans were first mooted, it has escaped no one’s mind that the plage now has a peace-of-mind benefit: with no traffic, no one can ram a truck into the crowd. This tactic, adopted in recent years by jihadis and other murderous lunatics, is on people’s minds. That such a crime could not take place on the plage adds to the relaxed mood.

Paris did this the right way—not overnight, but gradually, beginning with a trial period to see how people liked it, and giving commuters and businesses time to adapt. Such public spaces, designed for families, could be the new wave of urban planning—and perhaps a remedy to a host of twenty-first-century afflictions.

Photo: Lionel Allorge

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