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Paris to Return Its Great Public Squares to the People

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Paris's Place de la République, before and after a 2012 redesign. Before photo: Google Street View; after photo: Clem/Flickr

If you look at paintings from the pre-automotive era, Paris's monumental public squares were full of people strolling comfortably. But over time, car traffic has consumed most of these squares.

Now, under Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris is setting out to remake the city's squares as great public gathering places.

The city is currently in the midst of an initiative to turn seven plazas and squares into pedestrian-friendly spaces, including the Place de la Bastille, Place de la Madeleine, and Place du Pantheon. Each will be redesigned with the goal of dedicating at least 50 percent of the land area to walking, biking, and public space. And for each project, the city will test out several different configurations, with public feedback and a rigorous analysis of how people use the space determining which version sticks.

The New York-based firm Placemeter is observing how people use the squares and compiling data for Paris officials. The company is currently using cameras to collect travel information from Plaza de la Nation, where six different designs will be piloted over the course of a year.

"You could call it tactical urbanism -- testing," said Placemeter's Florent Peyre. "All of them will go through a phase of temporary installing with deployments before selecting the winning design."

Place de la Nation "has a lot of symbolic importance for Parisians," said Peyre, and serves as a major gathering center for protests. But on a typical day it is practically overrun by fast-moving car traffic.

"It is today a very tough one for pedestrians," he said. "Going across this would be terrifying."

Paris' Plaza de Nation will be redesigned to emphasize pedestrian space. Photo: Wikipedia
Paris's Place de la Nation will be redesigned to emphasize pedestrian space. Photo: Wikipedia
Paris' Plaza de Nation will be redesigned to emphasize pedestrian space. Photo: Wikipedia

Placemeter's tools can measure the number of people using different modes, how much time people spend in a certain area of the square, or how fast they travel through it. Is one design more conducive to cycling than another design? Do benches get more use with one configuration or another? For each of the six different designs being tested, Placemeter will analyze the behavior of bicyclists, motorists, and pedestrians.

City officials are trying to be as deliberate as possible and incorporate public feedback following the 2012 redesign of the Place de République, which was not received very well. Residents complained that there was too much grey space and not enough green, which stung, given the high cost (about 30 million Euros, or about what Paris intends to spend on the seven remaining plazas combined, said Placemeter's Martin Lagache).

Each of the six squares will, one by one, undergo a process of experimentation and measurement similar to the Place de la Nation, for a period of a year to 18 months, Peyre said.

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