Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Does Everyone Love Paris?

Americans have a special place in there hearts for Paris, as do many others around the world. The hotels of Paris chalked up more than 15.4 million visitors in 2006 of which 8.8 million came from outside of France and 1.5 million from the U.S. Paris is amongst the most visited cities in the world. Why do so many people want to visit such a densely packed, crowded city? After all, Paris itself covers only a bit more than 105 square kilometers of land but contains almost 2.2 million residents. Scottsdale, Arizona, one of my favorite upscale American suburbs, possesses 480 square kilometers and has just 220,000 residents. Visitors come to Paris of course to see its unmatchable attractions, such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Sacré-Coeur Basilica, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. Paris contains so many attractions that scores of tourists visit repeatedly to take them all in. It is not just the museums, the shopping areas such as the Champs-Élysées, the architectural wonders, or the grand boulevards that people want to experience. They also want to enjoy Paris’s restaurants, cafés, colorful markets, parks and open spaces, walkways along the Seine, neighborhoods with their intimate lanes and squares, impromptu cultural events and street entertainments, and creative nighttime lighting. Most of all, people want to gain a sense of what it’s like to live in a place like Paris. This is especially the case for visitors who return to the city multiple times. Surveys of tourists suggest that repeat visitors work hard at avoiding the touristy parts of the city and devote their efforts to getting out into the neighborhoods and experiencing the everyday Parisian life. They want to “enjoy the atmosphere and environment of the city.” Instead of rushing around to see the major sites, the experienced visitor adopts a more relaxed pace, taking time to search out the interesting details of Paris’s cityscape.

Guidebooks, such as Rick Steves’ Paris 2006, devote considerable space to Paris’s main attractions, but they also usually offer suggested walking tours that give one a taste of city’s neighborhoods. Steves’ guidebook supplies an introductory window into Parisian streetlife. If you read through his walking tour for the popular right-bank Marais neighborhood, you gain a sense of the features that many people enjoy in a city. As Steves emphasizes, the Marais contains more pre-Revolutionary narrow-lanes and buildings than any other part of the city. The street-level scale of this neighborhood appeals more to most than the wide, traffic-clogged boulevards blasted out in the mid-1800s under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann. Luckily Marais managed to avoid 'Haussmannization.' Steves’ takes you to the key historic sites in the Marais, such as Place de la Bastille, but he also leads you through intimate courtyards containing interesting architectural details and to the park-like setting of Place des Vosges with sandboxes for children, benches for lovers, fountains for pigeons, and shaded trees for all to escape from the summer heat. He guides you to blocks lined with not just fashionable boutiques, but antique shops, cafés, and interesting eateries and food shops that reflect the area’s Jewish and Muslim heritage, two groups that seem to have little trouble living here side-by-side. Parisian’s love there markets, and Steves’ ends the tour at rue Montorgueil across the border into Montmartre where a daily market flourishes in a traffic-free setting.

Paris is knitted together by the Metro, an underground subway system that will deliver you within a few blocks of wherever you want to go anywhere in the city. The Metro is a marvel of urban transportation efficiency, except of course when the transportation unions call a strike in protest of an attack by government on their own or other workers’ standard of living or conditions of labor. The impact of traffic-laden boulevards on pedestrians have been softened somewhat by wider sidewalks, bike and bus lanes, bush shelters, and rows of trees and parking that separate and buffer walkers from fast-moving vehicles. Parisians love their cars just like Americans, but high gasoline taxes along with parking limitations motivate the French to choose smaller models and to own fewer per household. The Parisian planners in recent years have become experts at separating motor vehicles from pedestrians, making extensive use of bollards—short cement rectangular columns or round iron stanchions—to keep cars out of pedestrian territory. Planners have even gone so far as to close numerous shopping streets to all vehicular traffic except for delivery vans, which have the magical ability of making the bollards retract before your eyes. Paris has not been immune from human-scale killing skyscrapers, ugly public edifices, and stultifying high-rise apartment complexes. Despite such errors, much of Paris continues to be an easy-to-navigate pedestrian paradise with visual delights at almost every turn.

The special advantages of compact living in a place like Paris include proximity, diversity, and scale. The Parisian café life, which has proven so fascinating and stimulating to many artists and writers, depends for its survival on a sufficiently large clientele who live within walking distance. Cafes bring people into contact with one another for vicarious and actual social engagement and thrive on a diversity of personality and cultural types they attract. We don’t want to hang out in a café to look only at people just like us. We want the opportunity to fantasize about what another’s life very different from our own might be like, or perhaps to look askance at someone of which we don’t approve. In the same vein, a diverse street life makes wandering through Paris especially interesting—different sorts of people hurrying about pursuing assorted purposes and goals. Philosopher, playwright, and author, Jean-Paul Sartre, flourished in Paris because of the scale and variety of activities that can only survive in a large, compact city. For someone like Sartre to have plays successfully produced, or to give well-attended lectures on philosophy or politics, a large, concentrated population is required to generate a decently sized audience. Writers and artists naturally migrate to large, dense cities with their ready access to not only audiences but also libraries, universities, publishers, bookstores, theatres, art museums and galleries, cheap living space, cafés, and self-selected communities of the like-minded.

Life in a compact world can be good, but it isn’t all a bed of roses. A price is to be paid for compactness—noise, crowds, traffic congestion, and threatening people. The ultimate limitation of compact living is space. Paris covers roughly 105 square kilometers and contains within its boundaries 2,168,000 residents. This means that each gets not quite 50 square meters of land area. Of Paris’s total area, parks, gardens, squares, and other open spaces cover roughly just 1.5 percent, but when we add the huge Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes, huge parks and woodlands on the city’s west and east edges, the figure goes up to 17 percent. Streets, boulevards, sidewalks, and service roads bring the total land area covered by public spaces to nearly 30 percent. The remainder is left for Paris’s businesses, public buildings, and dwellings. Each Paris dwelling on average has a useful floor area of roughly 58 square meters (600+ square feet), giving each resident an average of about 31 square meters (Paris’ average household includes 1.87 individuals). For France as a whole, the average householder enjoys about 37 square meter of floor space. By American standards living in France would not be considered very spatially expansive. The median dwelling in the U.S. includes about 160 square meters (1,700+ square feet), or roughly 62 square meters per occupant (assuming 2.6 individuals per household). The typical Parisian lives in about half the space of the typical American.

We know from the Parisian experience people more readily gain a passion for cities that have certain qualities. There is no better place to go than the writings of Jane Jacobs to discover those features that make for attractive urban spaces. In her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs offers powerful arguments for high density cities as we have already pointed out, but she bears repeating. Her emphasis is on the importance of vibrant neighborhoods. According to Jacobs: (1) A city’s neighborhoods should serve more than one primary function, ideally more than two; (2) Most blocks should be short; the opportunity to turn corners should be frequent; (3) Neighborhoods should mingle buildings that vary in age and condition and should include older buildings; (4) The density of population must be sufficient to support the purposes for which people are attracted to a neighborhood. For streets to be successful and offer a sense of security and safety, people must appear on them throughout the course of the day. This is fostered by a neighborhood having different primary uses. Neighborhood streets are active throughout the day, for example, if people come to work in their in the morning, spill out on the streets for lunch, and go home again at night. In between, local residents add to activity by coming out to shop. Perhaps in the evening, people are attracted to the area for the restaurants or entertainment. Streets that are used steadily are secure, can be safely occupied by children, and are attractive as a place to engage in casual social contacts. Short blocks create a variety of paths through a neighborhood to the benefit of pedestrians. Long blocks are isolating and less used by a neighborhood’s residents. A city needs a mixture of older buildings to attract an assortment of new businesses that can’t afford very high rents. Older buildings with low rents can often be cleverly adapted to new uses and serve as incubators for new enterprises. These are the features Jacobs envisions for a socially successful city and they are exactly the features one finds in the neighborhoods of Paris.

Despite the wonders of the Metro, automobiles in Paris continue to play a critical role in the city’s urban matrix—Parisians like everyone else feel passionate about cars. A successful modern compact city effectively balances space for motor vehicles against the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists, a challenge that Paris meets about as well as any large urban center. One means for doing this is traffic calming, something that can be accomplished with wider sidewalks, center islands on streets and boulevards, and traffic circles—the kinds of design elements so common in the streets of Paris. Traffic calming can be combined with landscaping on the widened sidewalks, center islands, and traffic circles to make streets increasingly attractive to pedestrians. One reason people leave increasingly auto-dominated central cities for the suburbs is that city life has often been given over to the automobile. Long unbroken streets with high speed traffic, narrow sidewalks, and a lack of landscaping are unappealing to pedestrians as are acres of parking lots or large, noisy freeway structures. Conversely, high density, pedestrian friendly cities combined with convenient public transportation are likely to win converts back to a less auto oriented way of life. This doesn’t mean giving up cars completely, it just means balancing there use against other ways of getting around, as do Parisians.

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