Highways for Habitats #1: Pompidou Expressway

Paris Plage bwTransportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community, often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

In 1967, the President of France Georges Pompidou replaced the green banks of the Seine River in Paris with the Pompidou Expressway, rooted in his belief that “the French love their cars,” and his vision of cars as the way of the future.  Automobiles sped through the city center until in 2002 Mayor Bertrand Delanoë decided to take back the waterfront of the Seine.

Delanoë’s election campaign ran on an anti-automobile, pedestrian friendly platform, and Parisians showed their priorities when they elected him Mayor of Paris in 2001.  Delanoë immediately set out to fulfill his promises improving public transportation opportunities, and in 2001 he enacted a move symbolic to his new policies.  For one month during the summer, the highway was closed to the 70,000 cars a day it normally served, from 6am-11pm.  The following summer, the highway was completely closed for one month and transformed into Paris Plage (Paris Beach) – sand, palm trees and beach chairs were brought in for people to relax; bicycle rentals, climbing walls and cafes were included for recreation and socialization; jugglers and street artists provided entertainment.  Paris Plage attracted over 600,000 visitors on opening day, and the city continued closing the Pompidou every summer afterwards.

In 2010 – following an announcement to cut automobile use by 40%, and due to the positive reception of Paris Plage, Delanoë unveiled his intentions to permanently close the Pompidou to cars.  It would become a completely auto-free zone, and on the opposite bank the road would be downsized to a boulevard to more fully support pedestrian activity.  When he introduced the project on April 14, 2010, Delanoë said, “It’s about reducing pollution and automobile traffic, and giving Parisians more opportunities for happiness. If we succeed in doing this, I believe it will profoundly change Paris.”

The transformation began in the fall of 2012, starting with the bank opposite the Pompidou, inserting six traffic signals to slow traffic, and a narrower road to allow for business and recreation between the road and the river.  This year 1.5 miles of the Pompidou itself is to be completely converted for pedestrian activities. Once finished, the move will have redeveloped 35 acres of riverfront land into public space, providing Parisians and tourists with floating botanic gardens, courts and fields for sports, cafes, restaurants, and an 11 acre park.

Over the next decade and beyond we will get to see the full effects such a transformation will have on Paris.  We expect, however, that this effort, coupled with the promotion of alternative transportation happening throughout the city, will result in a healthier balance between automobile traffic and non-motorized zones, public green space and infrastructure.


Photo from (e)Spry on Flickr.com