Friday, August 12, 2011

Redevelopment of Paris riverbanks

The 61-year-old Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, seems to be succeeding in persuading citizens of the City of Light (so-called, primarily, because of the intellectual force of the Enlightenment), including elected city councilors, to accept and encourage a vast project aimed at redeveloping 15 hectares of the Seine riverbanks.

He is the man behind the rent-a-bike project named Vélib.

Delanoë is also the man behind the summer transformation of the banks of the Seine into an urban "beach": the Paris Plages operation.

Let us examine the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project. The Seine flows from the east to the west through Paris.

In this map, you can see the two islands that constitute the heart of Paris. The bigger one is the Ile de la Cité (with the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris), and the smaller one is the Ile St-Louis. The Arc de Triomphe is indicated by the blue dot in the upper left-hand corner, the Louvre is located in the middle of the map, whereas the Eiffel Tower is located in the lower left-hand zone of the map at the place labeled Champ de Mars. With respect to the direction of the river, the upper part of the map designates the Right Bank region of the city, and the lower part, the Left Bank. The riverbanks redevelopment project concerns 9 sites, 4 of which (in green) are located on the Right Bank, and 5 (in red) on the Left Bank.

A basic goal of the redevelopment project consists of reducing the presence of automobiles inside Paris, and transforming this precious Seine waterfront territory (Unesco World Heritage site) into an attractive environment to be appreciated by pedestrians and cyclists. On 4.5 hectares (30% of the global area of the project), automobile presence will in fact be reduced to zero, while the flow of automobiles will be channeled and controlled stringently in the remaining zones covered by the project. Needless to say, various professional bodies in Paris are already starting to complain about problems likely to be encountered when trying to use a private motor vehicle in the city.

The project will not be terribly costly: a basic investment of 35 million euros followed by yearly operational costs of some 5 millions euros. By comparison, the budget of the Barangaroo development project in Sydney, covering an area that's 50% greater, is 6 billion Australian dollars, which is over a hundred times the cost of the Paris riverbanks redevelopment project. Admittedly, no skyscrapers will be built in the middle of Paris!

The Paris municipality launched the project a year ago, in July 2010, and this was followed by an intensive four-month period of public presentations, debates and workshops. In-depth studies were carried out during the first half of 2011, and a vast public inquiry into the project is under way at present. Actual work on the project will be carried out during the first half of 2012, during which time Paris will inevitably be transformed into a vast construction site. And the new facilities will be opened up to the general public in the course of the second half of next year. So, if you happened to be visiting London for the Olympic Games, you might even be able to drop across the Channel to take a peek at the new face of Paris/Seine. (Clearly, I'm an optimist.)

Retrospectively, we can say that the riverbanks of Paris were largely sacrificed to the goddess Automobile during the presidency of Georges Pompidou, from June 1969 to April 1974. This gentleman from Auvergne—a former Rothschild banker—used to get around in a Porsche. I remember running into him in 1969, out in the village of Houdan, to the west of Paris, where Christine and I had rented a farmhouse. Pompidou, who had a property in nearby Orvilliers, was buying his weekend stock of cigarettes.

At that time, the French people in general were enchanted by automobiles, and they liked the idea of driving into the heart of Paris along a two-lane riverside highway.

It wasn't until much later, when environmental issues came to the forefront, that people started to think that maybe there were better things to do with a lovely river such as the Seine, on its way through a magnificent city such as Paris, than to cover its banks in macadam and transform them into an urban autoroute.

But the damage had been done. So, today, it's a matter of seeing whether it can be undone.

Since it's not yet easy to obtain English-language information concerning the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project, I thought it might be worthwhile if I were to devote the rest of this blog post to a kind of virtual visit of what we might discover in Paris in a year or so's time. So, let's imagine that we've come from Normandy or Brittany, and that we're driving into Paris from the west, along Pompidou's right-bank highway. I propose that we stick to the Right Bank, and that we visit the four sites numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the above map of Paris. Then we'll leave the Right Bank, cross over the eastern tip of the Ile St-Louis and drive back along the Left Bank, visiting the sites numbered 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. So, let's go! Incidentally, all the architects' images that you are about to see can be enlarged by clicking.

We're traveling on the Right Bank to the east, in the same direction as the white automobile. So, this first image points back to where we came from. We've already driven past the Eiffel Tower, located on the Left Bank, which can be seen in the background on the other side of the Seine. As of next year, if we stop here [site n° 1 on the map], we'll have access to several great museums, including the new modern-art space that will be opened in the Palais de Tokyo. The pedestrian Debilly Footbridge, built over a century ago, enables us to walk across to the Left Bank.

On the Left Bank, we can visit the recently-inaugurated museum of the Quai Branly, dear to the heart of former French president Jacques Chirac, concerning the civilizations of Africa, Asia and Oceania (including our Australian Aborigines). But let us return to the Right Bank and continue our journey towards the center of Paris.

Here [site n° 2 on the map], we are within walking distance of the world's most illustrious museum: the Louvre. But we only have to stroll across the Seine to meeet up with the Orsay Museum of painting and sculpture from the period 1848-1914. Let us continue eastwards.

At the level of the Paris city hall, the Hôtel de Ville [site n° 3 on the map], we encounter a couple of joyful barges, the first of which is designed for kids, while the second is a floating bistrot.

We move towards the final Right Bank redevelopment zone, which is in fact a riverboat station, named Célestins [site n° 4 on the map].

At that point, we cross over the Seine to the Left Bank, and head back in a westerly direction.

At the level of the Orsay Museum [site n° 5 on the map], we encounter what might be thought of as the spiritual center of the Paris/Seine riverbanks redevelopment project. Materially, it is a giant aerial staircase descending towards the sacred river. The architects label it a place of meditation… whereas the wary mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has the pragmatic courage to admit that we still do not know if such a fabulous structure can indeed be built! Let's hope that solutions will be found, enabling us to visit this magic place of an evening.

Back at the level of the Concorde [site n° 6 on the map], but remaining on the Left Bank, we encounter a magic archipelago of floating islands.

Next, there's the illustrious Alexandre III Bridge linking the Place de la Concorde to the French parliament building [site n° 7 on the map].

Moving towards the Eiffel Tower, we meet up with a hitherto undistinguished place where barges deposited gravel, known quaintly as Big Stone [site n° 8 on the map].

Then we move into the Left Bank territory of the Pont d'Alma [site n° 9 on the map].

I hardly need to point out that, at the Right Bank extremity of this peaceful bridge, Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997.

Now, what must we think about this virtual journey through Paris/Seine riverbank places that will only become meaningful next year? Well, if I can speak as a former longtime resident of Paris, I would not hesitate in saying that it sounds fabulous… and I heartily congratulate Delanoë on his imagination and courage (because, as you might imagine, there are detractors).

Paris, of course, is priceless, beyond measure. And must be preserved. Bravo Bertrand!

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