When it comes to parks, Paris is a pioneer. The city has had public gardens since the 17th century, and even then they were used to reclaim unattractive land - the famous Les Tuileries was at one time a tile factory.
But those early parks were for the upper classes, and when urban parks truly became public in the 19th century, Paris led the way. When Baron Haussmann created his long, straight boulevards, he gave them the focal points of parks designed for walking and riding about in, not private enclaves.
Contemporary urban park design has taken these impulses a step further and transformed some of the worst areas of our cities into arenas of pleasure for everyone. Landscape architects have pioneered the rescue of severely polluted industrial land, and in Europe that transition has been especially dramatic. Take Germany's conversion of the belching furnaces in the Ruhr Valley into Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park, which preserves the guts of an iron mill while adding many forms of landscaped gardens and activities. Now, London is rushing toward finishing its vast Olympic Park by 2012. It not only fills unused but valuable land, but adds all the elements of sustainable park design: cultivating native plants, attracting wildlife, providing places for people to walk and play.
In all these cases, the best designers have given the urban landscape back to its citizens. Still, two of the most thrilling examples are in Paris: the Promenade Plantée and Parc André-Citroen, singularly Parisian places that set the tone for many public parks today.
Paris is a city used to urban renewal - think of Haussmann razing entire neighbourhoods. But that process in recent years has been much more benign. Take the Promenade Plantée: a garden built into an unused railway viaduct, vintage 1859. Though the plants are traditional (lavender, roses and other flora), the concept of keeping the elevated railway, its wonderful arches and glorious brickwork, and turning it into something everyone could use is a very modern idea. The result is a park of such unsurpassed charm it's hard to think of travelling to Paris without planning a walk.
The elevated park-walkway has entrances all along, much as it did in its railway days: You can get on and walk for 41/2 kilometres or pop off at any stop along the way. You are streamed in and out of pockets of Mediterranean plants, through rose-laden bowers past buff joggers saturated with aftershave and perfume. It is the height, in every possible way, of sensuality. What you are looking at from this perch are some of Paris's loveliest streets lined with belle époque apartment buildings. You can look into the deuxième étage (third storey) at people living their lives. Just as they can look out and see people trotting along amid an astounding amount of verdure: cherry, lime and maples trees, with a profusion of plants blooming in each season. There are waterfalls of greenery spilling over the exit ramps, some of which look like giant sculptures.
Along one stretch of the park is Viaduc des Arts, an arcade designed by architect Philippe Mathieux and landscape architect Jacques Vergely. The graceful red brick arches have been restored to their original beauty, glassed in and rented out as studios for artists and craftsmen. You can watch people making violins, restoring ancient maps or painting on canvas, which gives a further sense of being involved with the life of the city. It's not hard to see how this elevated park influenced the High Line in New York - which will also have its own transformative thrust.
Apart from peering into people's living rooms, there are tons of things to do in the area, from shopping to eating to staring at the yummy mummies on their cellphones pushing baby carriages, to lovers strolling hand in hand - it is an egalitarian place, an important point in park design these days.
The other influential park is the postmodern Parc André-Citroën, on the original site of the Citroën car company that was left unused and contaminated in the 1970s. It is one of several industrial sites reclaimed in the past generation, including Parc de la Villette which replaced the main meat market. Here, technology for soil restoration and very modern landscape design come into play.
Parc André-Citroën nods to the past with a walled entrance on one side, accompanied by small gardens decked out to pay tribute the senses. It's a bit like a plant zoo: You look at the Garden of Scent, the Garden of Touch, and so on. There are huge concrete rills like the nymphaea of old gardens. It is not a false-natural landscape - it is all modern, yet carries traditional ideas.
But there is nothing like the visual blast of the huge greensward that dominates the north side of the park; a diagonal axial path cuts across it in a breathtaking sweep. At the south end are two of the handsomest greenhouses on earth. Their graceful, hard-edged geometry makes them contemporary even 10 years after construction. The same goes for the greenhouses, which have a permanent exhibition of tropical plants.
People spill out on to the lawns, with their piqniques of wine, bread and cheese; kids play in the dancing fountains (though they are warned not to, everyone does it). There is even one garden where people are allowed to walk dogs, and one for meditation. This is now one of the best-used parks in the city - by locals, that is.
Few tourists hang around these places, but you should, to get a sense of where contemporary landscape design has come from while watching Paris going about its day.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Promenade Plantée 12th arrondissement, from near Bastille Métro; en.parisinfo.com/museum-monuments/1382/promenade-plantee.
Parc André-Citroën 15th arrondissement, near Métro Balard; en.parisinfo.com/museum-monuments/1283/parc-andre-citroen .
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