Paris Returns the Banks of the Seine to the People

October 21, 2012 at 11:24 pm

This article posted a while ago in The Guardian about the banks of the River Seine in Paris caught my attention, not because it’s about Paris but because it seems to make the banks of the Seine seem a lot more traffic-filled than they are. Most of the Seine is flanked by parks and pedestrian walkways on both sides, offering amazing views of the river and Paris’ skyline.

Seine River in Paris. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen

Seine River in Paris. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The photo above was taken when I lived in France two years ago. There are quite a few stretches along the river where you can walk or sit, eating a panini and pastry from a local bakery (mmmm, nostalgia). But the article focuses on this:

Seine River and highway to the right

The Seine River and the doomed highway to the left. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

To the right of the photo you can see the highway mentioned in the article. It is allegedly soon to be removed and made into a pedestrian walkway with bars, cafes, and promenades that, knowing Paris, will probably be as beautiful as any other promenade you can find in the city.

This reclamation of the riverside is in-step with Paris’ plan to create a trampoline on the Seine (I’m not kidding):

Trampoline Bridge on the Seine

Trampoline Bridge on the Seine in Paris. Credit: TIME.

A little different from the standard bridges across the Seine.

Even though the Mayor’s plans to take back a portion of the banks of the Seine is a good idea and makes sense in a city that is so walkable, I don’t think that the freeway was ever a huge deal in the first place. At least it was never as bad as this:

Lake Shore Drive near Navy Pier, Chicago

Lake Shore Drive near Navy Pier, Chicago. Credit: Lonely Planet.

This is Lake Shore Drive near Navy Pier in Chicago. On the lower level is the very narrow portion of the Lakefront Trail that is arguably the worst, most congested (and frustrating) portion of the 18-mile trail:

Lakefront Trail near Navy Pier, Chicago

Lakefront Trail near Navy Pier, Chicago. Credit: Google Maps.

This stretch, which begins near the Oak St. beach and extends to somewhere around Randolph St., is too narrow and frankly, ugly. The cars driving on the upper level get an excellent view and tons of space to drive. This portion of the path is supposed to accomodate walkers, runners, and cyclists in both directions. It doesn’t work.

Dear Rahm Emnauel, follow Bertrand Delanoë’s lead and get rid of this. Give back this portion of the lakefront to people, not those zooming past it to get to another destination. At river level, this would make an excellent connection to an extension of a riverwalk along the river around the loop. Cyclists and pedestrians could use it as an “express” route from the lakefront to destinations inland. It would make an excellent space for these uses as well as restaurants, bars, and other uses (provided they do not monopolize an entire portion of the path, like some riverside restaurants do now).

I’m always fascinated by large European cities because projects like that in Paris seem to go by without heavy opposition. In Chicago, we can hardly get a separated bicycle lane built downtown without outcry from drivers who just can’t deal with 3 lanes instead of 4, or build a reliable BRT system on a four-lane street without drivers getting upset about some lane reduction. I appreciate that European cities have taken initiative early and see the positive effects of giving back public space to all people. Credit to Mayor Delanoë and other European mayors for realizing the importance of this for a more sustainable future as well as economic development (riverside cafés make more money and pull in more taxes for the city than a roadway that costs money to maintain and generates none in return). I hope someday we can see more reclamation of streets/freeways à la française in American cities.