Last summer I wrote about Paris’s latest and greatest public space project, Les Berges, located on the banks of the River Seine. I recently returned to Paris and was curious to see how it looks, one year later. Les Berges continues to amaze me: 2.3 kilometers of former roadway are now dedicated as public space, featuring bars and cafés, green spaces and floating parks on former river barges, picnic benches and even small containers you can rent for a party or performance. There are children’s play areas, a skate park, as well as art exhibitions and cultural performances. The cars are gone; cyclists, walkers, nappers and café goers now dominate. I won’t go into the details – I already wrote about the project’s background last summer.
Briefly, this was the legacy project of Former Socialist Party Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë (2001- 2014). Delanoë was mayor when the bike-sharing (Velib) and car-sharing schemes were introduced and he worked to improve Paris’s cycling infrastructure – extending bike lanes and improving safety. Les Berges was the final step: take back Paris’s most beautiful and central space from the car and return it to the people. Delanoë stepped down in April 2014, replaced by Ana Hidalgo (the first woman to hold the office.) While they are from the same political party, I was curious to see if a new leader in town would change the nature of Les Berges… A few things are different. In July 2013 during Les Berges’s opening there was more grandeur: more public performances featuring professional artists and actors, more athletic competitions, more temporary art displays and more workshops to learn how to paint, dance or act. It was more manicured.
In July 2014, some of the well manicured gardens are overgrown – now providing plenty of hidden picnic spots in the centre of Paris. The formal project organization was quieter and fewer workshops were scheduled (although I did see one scheduled on urban farming – my favorite topic!) Still, Les Berges has not gone quiet. It is thriving. One year later, Les Berges has been taken over by the people. The cafés are full, as are the children’s climbing wall, Skate Park and floating gardens. The performances remain, but they are more random: we stumbled upon a dance routine featuring a bunch of stunning 60+ year olds. I laughed when several jugglers were interrupted when their three-year-old switched their background music. Meanwhile, the most popular activity at Les Berges was to relax and take it all in – we found countless persons resting, conversing, enjoying a picnic, a nap or a bottle of wine by the river. It sounded like an excellent idea at the time. Besides, to really understand the project, one needs to experience it right? A cold bottle of riverside Rosé on a warm summer evening did the trick just nicely. Paris, you win again!