The tragic and heartbreaking events of the past few weeks in Paris, France confirm my belief there’s an ever greater need for vibrant public space in cities – places where people gather together to live, work and play.
Parks, plazas, streets, cafés, markets, gardens, waterfronts, transit hubs and other spaces are places to fulfill our hopes and aspirations as well as places to cure root causes of alienation and disaffection of citizens. These public spaces are the lifeblood of cities, that shape our civic and individual identities. Serving as the circulatory system as well as gathering places that connect us to each other and our residences and commercial establishments as well as key public buildings, schools, libraries, healthcare, cultural institutions to name a few.
When a person sets foot outside their door onto the street, into a park or playground, or into a subway station, they perceive whether they are valued and respected, or not. Is this place clean, well-maintained and lit? Are there trees and plantings? Or is it dark and desolate, trash strewn and dirty, filled with vermin?
In Paris, AIA colleagues Françoise and Tom Vonier introduced me to Didier Vincent, Frédéric Rémongin, Elisabeth Carteron, Lise Thély-Muller, and others from a grassroots organization ACTION BARBÈS. Similar to the Design Trust’s Under the Elevated project, Action Barbès’ Promenade urbaine project seeks ways to reinvent spaces under the viaduct between the Métro Barbès-Rochechouart and Stalingrad stops in the 18th Arrondissement beyond its famous weekly market, marché Barbès.
The viaduct and its noisy and chaotic spaces beneath and around have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood and this community with of over 35% African and North African descent. Instead of bringing the community and its institutions together, it divides them.
Reading the accounts in The New York Times and the Guardian of how the Buttes-Chaumont group used the public park to recruit young French Muslims as jihadists, it is clear, neither parks alone, nor plazas, such as the Place de la République, as places of protest or places to demonstrate unity are enough to create safe and dynamic cities.
All are parts of an ecology in cities that contribute to the well being of the city and its people. Bringing people together in shared quality spaces is essential to develop a common understanding, create economic opportunities and thriving and safe cities.
Action Barbès began transforming the neighborhood by converting a parking lot into a planted boulevard as a place for strolling and sitting. They also plan to link the area and surrounding institutions, historic Cinema Louxor, Hospital Lariboisière, Bouffes du Nord, Centre Barbara, Goutte d’Or public library, Jardins d’Ecole, to the Rotonde de Ledoux and the Bassin de la Villette.
Under the viaduct, they have proposed better Vélib stations, a rest area in the market center, street art projects, a new Metro exit near Cinema Louxor, wider sidewalks, designated parking and cycling lanes, replanting, removing trash and pollution.
This diverse community would clearly benefit from this positive activity.