In Praise of Public Parks

In 1990, after graduating high school, two friends and I set off on a five-week adventure through Europe. It was my first time overseas, and changed my life (as does all travel, really). As with many trips, there were ups and downs; one of the downs was the day we spent in Paris. Yes, just a day, and not just any day – Bastille Day. And a Saturday. Exhausted from the overnight ferry from Britain, we really only had the energy to wander through the Musee d’Orsay before napping on the lawn under the Eiffel Tower.

Bastille Day, under the Eiffel Tower, in 1990

Bastille Day, under the Eiffel Tower, in 1990

I haven’t been back to Paris, or France, since, but I still remember that day in the park in Paris.

Parks play a large roll in the world of smart growth, where the TDM industry tends to finds itself. So much has been written about the importance of parks, and green space, and trails, and their impact on our physical and mental health.  The EPA just yesterday recognized seven communities as Smart Growth Achievement Award winners, with Atlanta’s BeltLine winning the Overal Excellence in Smart Growth Award, for its re-purposing of old train lines into 22 miles of public parks and green space.

Green space in San Antonio

Green space in San Antonio

Recent news stories provide evidence of the importance of nature, including one from Windsor, Ontario, where schools are beginning to encourage unstructured play in nature, and a recent study by the University of Exeter Medical School , which showed that mental health improvements from living near nature followed study participants long after they moved away from greener areas where they had lived. The importance of green public space, and playing in nature, is becoming a louder and louder conversation.

And yet, it is not a new concept. I started reading Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City, by Stephane Kirkland, last night, and was struck by some background information Kirkland was sharing as a set-up to his story. I am familiar with the restructuring of Paris by Haussmann from my grad school days, and encouraged The Mechanic to buy the book so I can read it while he finishes his last semester of civil engineering.  I was not familiar, however, with Count Claude-Philibert Barthelot de Rambuteau, an “aristocrat from Burgundy,” who was prefect of the Seine in 1833-1848, and began modernizing Paris to make it more hygenic and modern.

Claude Philibert Barthelot Count of Rambuteau

Claude Philibert Barthelot Count of Rambuteau

Paris by the 1830s was, by accounts I’ve read in this book and elsewhere, a big mudpit of a broken, divided city, disgusting to locals and visitors alike. Rambuteau created the new street that carries his name today, Rue Rambuteau, but more importantly, added sidewalks, gas lamps, trees and public gardens.

Rue Rambuteau, Paris; Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons

Rue Rambuteau, Paris; Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons

According to the author of Paris Reborn, Paris had almost no trees in it before Rambuteau, and prior to the opening of his first public garden in 1844, the only parks were privately owned, and not all were accessible to the public. Because of his love of trees, Rambuteau planted them “generously” throughout the city. I can only imagine what a difference this must have made to the inhabitants of the city!

In my fantasy life, I spent almost every evening in a place like this. Photo, Shawn Lipowski, Wikimedia Commons

In my fantasy life, I spend almost every evening in a place like this. Photo, Shawn Lipowski, Wikimedia Commons

Of course, we all know how the story of Paris ends, famous for parks and gardens and lawns and people mingling, canoodling, living life. We all want to be Parisians, and enjoy fresh pastries and cheese (and not get fat!) while we sit and watch fashionable-dressed others wander past our envying eyes. This is something else the Europeans clearly have figured out a bit earlier than us Americans – the importance of green space. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more creative, having grown up playing in large, aristocratic parks, or less stressed, because they get to walk through bits of nature every day, but I’m willing to be it has something to do with that European flair we all some of us long for.

Until I get the opportunity to live in Europe, I plan to always live in an area like Washington, DC, with tons of public parks, gorgeous Arlington neighborhoods with giant trees, National Parks such as the C&O Canal, and plenty of place to walk and bike that are surrounded by rivers and trees and wild growing spaces.  I feel better after enjoying even tiny bits of nature, and I know it’s not just me.


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