A Paris match?
Boston can learn something about creating new civic space from the City of Light
By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 3/12/2002
First in an occasional series examining how leading cities, here and abroad, have confronted design problems similar in scale or complexity to the development of the open space the depression of the Central Artery will leave behind.
PARIS, France -- A historic design question faces Boston today. What should we do with the 30 acres of land that now hunker down in the dark shadow of the Central Artery? When the artery comes down in 2004, we'll receive a remarkable gift of real estate, a swath of land a mile and a quarter long and about as wide as Paris's famous Champs-Elysees, slicing through Boston's downtown. What should it become?
The shops at the Viaduc des Arts display arts and crafts, some of them made on the premises.
The Globe went to Paris to seek ideas. We weren't looking for models that Boston can copy directly. Boston and Paris are different. But nobody in Boston has yet been able to come up with a compelling vision for the artery. We're trapped in cliches. Park lovers are afraid that greedy businessmen want to fill the artery surface with profitable development. Some urbanists, on the other hand, fear that park lovers will turn the artery surface into a vacant green wasteland of wind-blown newspapers and homeless men. It's time to get beyond such caricatures. One way is to look at what other cities are doing.
As most people know, the majority of the artery land is supposed to be something called ''public open space.'' Alas, we live in a culture where nobody is quite sure what public open space should be. We've often courted disaster when we've tried to create it. City Hall Plaza, that baked clay desert of emptiness, is only the most egregious example.
There exists a so-called master plan for the artery surface, done by planning consultants last year. The planners listened to everybody at stupefying length. Not surprisingly, they ended by proposing the lowest common denominator. Mostly grass, trees, and paths. There's nothing wrong with grass and trees.
But we wondered if, along with welcome greenery, there might not be other exciting things to do with civic space in a busy downtown. There's still time. Designers of the artery surface won't begin to finalize their work until perhaps the end of this year. So we took a look at Paris. In coming weeks, we'll also be reporting on other examples of downtown public space -- in Barcelona, in San Francisco, and elsewhere. And WCVB-TV's ''Chronicle'' (Channel 5, weeknights at 7:30) which accompanied the Globe to Paris, will be looking at them too.
By contrast with Boston, Paris is a bracing shock. The quality of new civic space here is stunning. And -- just as with our artery -- Parisians create it on the sites of old industrial infrastructure. The astonishing Parc Citroen replaces a former auto factory. The Parc de Bercy was once a tangle of rail yards and warehouses. Both are as fresh and inventive as Boston's master plan is tired and platitudinous.
But the case study that really wipes you out is the Viaduc des Arts.
The Viaduc was an abandoned, crumbling, decaying 19th-century railroad viaduct. It was scheduled to be demolished. Instead, it has been transformed into a rich 21st-century combination of shops and parkland. The shops are tucked into the arches that support the viaduct. The park is a strip of green that follows the old train bed, up on top of the arches. You get the life of commerce and the peace of greenery in the same place.
The shops recall the history of the neighborhood, which was once the blue-collar home of artisans, craftspersons, and antiques shops. The shops, therefore, display the arts and crafts of today, some of them made on the premises. Each shop occupies a single arch of the old viaduct. The arches have been refaced in a handsome orange-red brick that deliberately recalls another historic icon, the famous Place des Vosges not far away. Parking is tucked almost invisibly underground. The shopfronts themselves are elegantly detailed in glass, metal, and wood in a taut, minimalist architectural language that is very much that of today and becomes a kind of modern craft in itself. The architect was Patrick Berger.
The shops, though, wonderful as they are, are less than half the story. The rest is the park upstairs. It's called the Promenade Plantee. Three miles of the old track bed have been converted into a linear park, a kind of aerial nature walk in the city. The landscaping is a botanist's dream. You're never bored. Your path is endlessly varied. Some of the plants ripple in the wind like natural marshland. Others resemble formal parterres. In places, the park spreads out into playing fields and strolling parkland. At other times it narrows to a tight file edged by dark trees. Or it becomes a courtyard where oldsters, sipping their wine, watch kids playing games. Sometimes you walk through a trellised arbor. In one place, there's a cave-like hideaway. In still another, the park shears its way through a new building, splitting it in half. The designers -- Philippe Mathieu and Jacques Vergely -- seize every chance to dramatize the anomaly of a linear park that slips through Paris like thread through a needle.
There is no commercial activity along the Promenade Plantee, the 2.5-mile stretch of parkland that runs along the top of the viaduct. Instead the path provides an aerial nature walk interrupted by courtyards and trellised arbors.
There's no commercial activity along the Promenade, no cafes or flower markets or newsstands or museums or cultural attractions. But the life of the street below is always available. There's easy access by handsomely landscaped stairs (plus elevators). Most important, the planners have salted much of the length of the Promenade Plantee with new housing on both sides, modern apartment blocks of maybe eight or ten stories. The same is true of the other new parks in Paris.
Even in January, the shops and the Promen ade were alive with people. On the wide sidewalk in front of the shops, teenage in-line skaters performed acrobatically, bothering no one while entertaining the shoppers with their skills. Up above on the Promenade, groups of school kids enjoyed outings in the fresh air and studied the plants. Smaller children and their parents and dogs came out of the apartments to the playgrounds and benches. People need parks, of course. But parks also need people. In Paris, planners have made sure that both halves of the equation are present.
What are the lessons for Boston? Obviously, we're not going to turn our own piece of infrastructure, the overhead artery, into an aerial park. (Although that might have been fun too.) But there are plenty of lessons just the same. Start with who was in control of the project: the city of Paris. There's no question that here, too, the city -- not the state or its turnpike authority -- should own and run the surface of the artery. It will be part of Boston and Boston should take charge of it.
Another lesson: You need both clout and cash to do a good job in the first place, and to maintain it afterward. Paris is France's show window to the world, and the city spends, we were told, as much as eight times as much per hectare of park as other French cities do. Boston won't do that. But there's no point pretending you can have great public space without spending money. We Americans, unfortunately, are more inclined to spend our money on our private home entertainment centers than on the public spaces we all share. Parisians love their civic space just as much as their private space, and they take equally good care of it. So should we.
This 1967 photo shows the Viaduct Daumesnil before it was abandoned and left to decay.
Then there's the lesson of comprehensive planning. Open space and the activities that fuel it -- shopping, culture, commerce, parking, and especially housing -- are understood, at the Viaduc des Arts, to be inextricably intertwined. Each activity lives off the others. Public space is fed with life from its edges. If the artery land is to succeed, Boston will have to find ways to get more people living downtown. Most of the buildings and open parcels that line the artery on both sides have turned their backs to it because it is blighting. But when the artery comes down, this privately owned land will be greatly increased in value by the public investment in the artery open space. Nobody has yet looked seriously at how these parcels can best contribute to the life of the new public space.
A final lesson is that if you want to make a city interesting, save what you can of the past. A good city is a mix of memory and invention. The new and the old comment on each other. At the Viaduc, there's the contrast between the brick, recalling the historic Place des Vosges, and the shopfronts that look brand new. There's the way the character of the old surrounding Paris neighborhood, now largely vanished, is evoked by the presence of artisans. And of course there's the old piece of infrastructure, the viaduct itself, living beyond its first life into a new age and a new purpose. The city becomes a temporal collage, new wine in an old bottle, with both new and old made more vivid by the contrast. The lesson for Boston is that we shouldn't be afraid to be fresh and inventive with what is new. But we shouldn't lose sight of the past, either. One suggestion, put forward by Eugenie Beal of the Boston Natural Areas Fund, is for a museum of the history of the waterfront, perhaps partly underground so as not to occupy too much space.
As noted, we didn't expect to find precisely replicable models in Paris or anywhere else. But there's a lot to learn from the approaches and attitudes of designers in other places. The hope is to help ourselves and everyone else climb out of the box of knee-jerk ideas. Boston needs a vision that will bring everyone together.
Robert Campbell may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.