Over 150 years ago, Napoleon built canals and railroads to bring goods and fresh water from the French countryside into the heart of Paris. Today’s wholesale markets ring the city’s outskirts and the industries that lined these waterways are gone, but the routes that once carried flowers, water and produce to please and feed Parisians have been transformed into landscaped public walks—perfect for an afternoon of leisurely exploration and enjoyment, with time out for shopping and a rest at a local cafe, of course. Let us—walkers and bikers—now explore miles of traffic-free Paris from the Parc de la Villette to the Bastille and on to the Bois de Vincennes. These byways, slipped within neighborhoods in the eastern section of Paris not on the usual tourist itinerary, connect newly refurbished neighborhoods complete with markets, cafes and galleries. Some are great, some are boring, but all bring us a deeper understanding of this city. [Photo 1—The Grande Halle (originally designed by a disciple of Victor Baltard, the designer of the pavilions of Les Halles) at the Parc de la Villette was once a cattle market but now serves as the park’s entrance and hosts spectacles and other events.]
The refurbished promenades that thread through eastern Paris also represent a French approach to urban development. From the days of Haussmann to the present, Paris boldly makes large city-planning gestures—efforts that completely transform the city and how we experience it. Its recent and sweeping approach to renovating abandoned industrial properties and city artifacts of bygone days reflects this tradition. Confronted with the city’s deteriorating eastern section, jam-packed with grim and neglected neighborhoods of derelict factories and decaying infrastructure, Paris’s master planners positioned parks as keystones to new development and, to tie the city together, connected them with promenades and landscaped quays. Barges which once conveyed goods into central Paris markets and the Seine River through a network of canals constructed under Napoleon I now transport weekenders and sightseers. Revived neighborhoods replete with boutiques and lively restaurants now occupy renovated buildings and storefronts.
As with all neighborhood transformations, development did not happen over night (the first parks were designed over 30 years ago), but here we can see how the slow accumulation of small changes adds up so that their effects appear to suddenly come about. Now a walk or bike ride through the newly landscaped promenades and parks of eastern Paris turns into an exploration of post-industrial Paris. We will start our Paris jaunt at the Parc de la Villette, formerly a slaughterhouse ominously dubbed the “City of Blood.” Then we will wander into the Bassin de la Villette, which in turn connects to the Canal St. Martin, which leads to the Promenade Richard Lenoir, which brings us to the Bastille. At the Bastille, we can either continue to the Seine by the banks of the Bassin de l’Arsenal or meander to the 19th century Bois de Vincennes over the Promenade Plantée. If walking seems too ambitious, we can hop on canal boats that cruise from the Canal de l’Arsenal to the Parc de la Villette.
As a result of these newly created or refurbished public open spaces, adjacent and surrounding areas have improved. Ironically, local controversies now revolve around issues of gentrification, increased rents and fear of displacing long-time residents rather than the continuing deterioration of abandoned vacant lots and weed-clogged waterways.
Parc de la Villette
The design of all publicly-funded projects in France today is chosen by competition, and the international competition for the conversion La Villette (in 1976 and then in 1982) was one of the first and attracted over 470 entrants. The competition mandated an innovative cultural urban park—a 24-hour center that combined a science museum, a center for music as well as public open spaces—created on the grounds of this former animal market and slaughterhouse in the 19th arrondissement located in northeast corner of Paris. Bernard Tschumi’s winning design reflects deconstructionist philosophy espoused by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and does not build upon the area’s historical use or context but, with the exception of the renovation and reuse of some historic buildings by other architects, consists of an intellectual construct of three grids that are superimposed upon each other.
The most obvious of these systems is the point grid which is marked by 30 red “follies”—structures of different shapes with some claiming an aesthetic connection with the Russian Constructivist movement. They contain restaurants, concession stands, information booth, first aid stations, lookout points and other uses. Despite, or perhaps because of this intellectual overlay, the Project for Public Spaces has put this park in its Hall of Shame and on a list of the worst parks in the world stating that its “dull landscape [that] substitutes absurd sculpture and disproportionately scaled structures for playfulness and variety.”It is hard to refute this assessment.
Although the park is public space owned by the government, building revenue-generating venues or institutions within parks is common in Europe and does not lead to great controversies as it often does in America. Two enlivening major institutions—the Cité de la Musique (designed by Christian de Portzamparc in 1994) and the Cité des Science et de l’Industrie (1986)—border the park on the south and north respectively. A geodesic dome houses an IMAX-like movie theater. The cast-iron and glass Grande Halle, the site of the former animal market, is now an entertainment venue, just one of several actively programmed spaces that host theater, spectacles and shows to attract people to this former uninhabitable section of Paris. Regardless of the Project for Public Space’s derision, the park is well-used by the neighborhood, partly because of planned events, but also because it provides large open space areas where none existed before.
Bassin de la Villette
After taking in a show or just picnicking, we can wander over to the Canal de l’Ourcq adjacent to the park and walk under a red undulating canopy. Then it’s on to the half mile long Bassin de la Villette, built in 1808, whose industrial heritage is revealed by the former warehouses that border it. Many of these storage facilities have been converted to offices, artist studios and even a youth hostel. A ferry shuttles from shore to shore, transporting people to restaurants and movie theaters on both sides of the waterway. The area thrums with recreational and boating activity especially during the summer’s Paris Plage cultural and leisure events. This being Paris, we won’t go long without something to eat or drink. During the summer, barges double as cafes, which after skating, biking, strolling or even just sun bathing on the wide flat sidewalks bordering the canal, are welcomed respites in our day.
Canal St. Martin
Ambling down the Bassin, we come upon the Place de Stalingrad anchored by its famous round former toll station, called, not surprisingly, La Rotonde de Stalingrad. It was designed by Claude-Nicholas Ledoux in 1788 and is now a brasserie. Walking west after la Rotonde, we follow the leafy Canal St. Martin, built about 20 years after the Bassin de la Villette. The nine filigree metal bridges built between 1822 and 1825 span the canal and contribute to the picturesque quality of this area.
The full arc of Paris urbanism is reflected in this waterway—first as a means to combat disease by bringing fresh water along with goods from the countryside to the center of Paris. Then came a slow, long descent into disuse and deterioration as the distribution of goods by water dried up and the neighborhoods around it declined. With the public policy of reviving former industrial areas through upgrading public spaces and the gentrification of former abandoned neighborhoods, the Canal St. Martin is once again a source of activity for this section of the city. We have our choice of many new restaurants that are cropping up or we can just sit on the banks of the canal—prime real estate for twilight picnics in the heart of the city.
Approaching the Place de la République, our promenade becomes more interior as the water of the Canal St. Martin is channeled underground and the promenade turns into Boulevard Richard Lenoir where the pedestrian walkways and park areas are set back from the street. Although there are different types of seating areas and activities including petanque, the separation from city street life creates a sinister atmosphere with certain areas claimed by the homeless or mentally ill. Parts of the promenade come alive only during market days when more people are drawn to the area and the feeling of desolation and despair dissipate.
The promenade opens up when we approach the Place de la Bastille with the Marais on our right and the bustling boutiques and restaurants of the Bastille on our left. Once we reach the Bastille, we have a choice—we can go straight to the River Seine via the Bassin de l’Arsenal or veer a bit to the left past the new Paris Opera, climb up on the Promenade Plantée and walk all the way to the Bois Vincennes. Because the Bassin de l’Arsenal appears to be a busier Bassin de la Villette, we will veer a bit to the left and go up to the Promenade Plantée and walk down the Coulée Verte.
From 1859 to 1969, a railroad transported commuters over viaducts, within tunnels and at the bottom of ditches through the 2.5 miles from the Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes, home to the flower market. The city literally grew up around it. By the time the line was supplanted by an underground system, many abutting buildings were actually attached to its infrastructure. Now the rail line that once divided neighborhoods is a park connecting them.
First we pass by the brick and stone vaults underneath the raised promenade. Silversmiths, carpet weavers and sculptors work and sell their goods behind the glassed-in arches now called the Viaduct des Arts. We climb up a hidden, blind staircase on a side street to reach the raised park where linden trees and flower-laden trellises border narrow paths that expand into larger neighborhood parks further east. From second story vantage points bridging busy intersections to the backyards of leafy housing courts, this linear park follows the rail bed, changing character with each section.
As we walk through this park, it’s hard not to think that sometimes learning from the mistakes of pioneers benefits projects that follow. The proponents of a park in New York now called the High Line cited Paris’s Promenade Plantée, built during the 1990’s, as an inspiration. Despite these claims, the Promenade Plantée is one of the least interesting of the new Paris parks. Its main problems stem from the difficulty of access and the separation of the park from the city it hovers above. The park’s elevated structure does not offer spectacular views and its design is static, and as a consequence, it is lightly used. The design encourages movement as there are few places to just sit and relax and there are no cafes or vendors to generate activity. Until we get to the more welcoming open areas that are more heavily used, we should expect to either be alone or meet people who are more interested in talking to themselves than to us.
As the park expands and becomes more integrated with the surrounding areas, the character of the city changes. It is evident that we’re in residential/mixed-use Paris, not the old industrial section. Its more known feel brings an end to our day’s explorations.
The interesting thing about this approach to development is that many of the “nodes” of this walk have existed for a long time and these places, such as the Bastille, were popular with Parisians and tourists alike. The goal of this new development was to enhance the existing infrastructure and the connections between these points—an approach that has served Paris well.
Photos: Carol Berens