a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit abroad

The park of the future?

The city of Paris has admirable policies on biodiversity, climate change and other ‘green’ issues. Previously I’ve blogged about how these policies are playing out in the capital’s public parks – arguably in a rather clumsy way at the grand parc Monceau, and more successfully at a pleasant new neighbourhood park in the 11th arrondissement.

But here is an example of a full-on sustainable park, recently completed in an area of the 13th arrondissement that is undergoing major, innovative urban renewal. Underpinning the development work is an environmental charter that covers “water, waste, ground and sub-ground, energy, noise, journeys, urban landscape and governance.”

view of park in front of old flour mills

view from bridge

The park itself, known by the rather awkward name les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé Pierre, was designed by landscape architects Ah Ah to showcase “la conquête végétale” [the triumph of plant life], with vegetation spilling over paths, seeding between paving stones, spreading into ponds and clambering up walls. It has two distinct areas: a series of terraced meadows on one side, and a mosaic of different habitats on the other, from pond and bog to meadow and forest under storey.

Rainwater is collected from neighbouring rooftops and channelled down pipes and along open gullies or rills in the park, through the various ponds and marsh areas, and then down to a vast underground storage tank, from where it is used for irrigation.

the water tanks at Grands Moulins

Sketch of the water distribution system at les Grands Moulins, from an exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine

pedestrian bridge

We visited a couple of weeks ago, after six weeks of unusually hot, dry weather. I found it difficult to form a clear opinion of the park: on the one hand, it has admirable ambitions as a sustainable landscape, demonstrates the green credentials of the city far more than policy documents and statements ever can, and is for all of us an example for the future.

There were some lovely design touches, like the curving boardwalk engraved with messages about the park’s sustainable features, and the sinuous pedestrian bridge that invites you up to view the park from above.

sign on pathway

On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine what you are meant to DO in this park, apart from admire how sustainable it all is. My eight-year-old proclaimed it ‘boring’ and I could sort of see what she meant. The water channels were dry and the pond area murky and slightly smelly. The only other child present during our visit was poking round rather disconsolately with a stick. You couldn’t really sit on the grass, and the planting was all environmentally-sound species like clover and prairie-style grasses, with little that was sensually arresting. Despite its claims of encouraging biodiversity, the park’s the only obvious wildlife was some fat feral pigeons waddling round, and we can see those pretty much anywhere.

Maybe the shortcoming was mine, but  les jardins des Grands Moulins – Abbé  Pierre somehow felt almost like the Emperor’s New Clothes…

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19 comments on “The park of the future?

  1. Adam
    June 27, 2011

    I had exactly the same impression when I visited this park. My local park (more a large square really) has given over half of its space to a communal garden, which although nice to look at (sometimes), offers little to the very people who use the park the most often. The hundreds of kids who visit the park at the weekends are crying out for spaces to play football or other ball games, but these never seem to be offered.

    This kind of willful ignoring of the needs of the ‘users’ is quite incredible really, and perhaps systematic of the mentality of the designers. Why fill up part of the overall space with a practical but ugly all weather surface for sports when you can use it for a sustainable water feature?

  2. Chris Upton
    June 27, 2011

    I see your points, but if I lived near that park it would work for me. I expect I’m a limited demographic though; I like plants as much as gardens. There seems to be a tumult of life going on there, and it must all change as the year cycles by. That sort of experience isn’t commonly available in cities. Clearly, all gardens reflect the passing of the seasons, but generally in a “toned down” fashion. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t important for us, for humans, to retain a connection to seasonality; after all, we’re the products of aeons of evolution, most of that time spent in intimate relation to the natural world.

    Having said that though, I wonder too, how do we make choices about land use in densely populated areas? If a great majority want playing fields and benches…..maybe that’s what ought to happen.

  3. jandev
    June 27, 2011

    I agree with your daughter! I think the problem may lie in calling it a “jardin,” which in the context of other Parisian jardins and parcs sets up the human-centric expectations of formal beauty and leisure that clearly take an enormous amount of human intervention and resources to create and maintain — such artificial landscapes are, by definition, unsustainable. From the photos it looks like a former garden was left to go to seed. Perhaps we have zoomed forward a century or so, and economic troubles and drought have gutted the park maintenance budget and this will be what all parks look like in 2111, once “la conquête végétale” is complete!

    • landscapelover
      June 27, 2011

      Thanks for these three reactions. I guess the disparity of our responses to this landscape demonstrates the difficulties for city planners in trying to produce popular yet increasingly sustainable public parks.

      Thinking about it some more, I think one of the issues here is that the park tries so hard to LOOK sustainable – more of a showcase or statement than a genuine place to play. It reminds me of the story of a firm that made recycled plastic goods, whose products were deliberately streaky rather than having the colours fully mixed – otherwise purchasers did not really believe they were getting something recycled.

  4. jandev
    June 27, 2011

    Yes, your streaky plastic analogy is apt. In the early days of the movement many eco-products were the esthetic equivalent of wearing (or eating!) burlap. But that’s all changed as designers and consumers embrace the natural beauty of renewable materials.

  5. maggie
    June 27, 2011

    The bridge looks like the best feature of the park. It sounds like less of a park than a working bit of urban land, or a throughway with ecological processes included.
    As part of a system of new-generation retrofitted landscapes in the city it can represent one typology among many, and it certainly illustrates the amount of space required for water filtration and recharge as is done by naturally occuring wetlands.
    I am a practitioner of poking around disconsolately with sticks, and I eat my vegetables, but maybe this green space is best viewed from above, on the bridge, where its ecological processes may be viewed a a system.

  6. Not sure what to think. My first reaction was there must be something better than this that’s sustainable. Perhaps you could look at a few other sustainable parks–are there any?–for comparative purposes.

  7. Andrea
    June 28, 2011

    except for the unseen water recycling system, it looks like neglected landscape of developing or least developed countries. We have those scenes here, but not parks, just neglected spaces, with colonizing spaces trying to conquer space.

  8. Garden Walk Garden Talk
    June 29, 2011

    It really is hard to judge the park without experiencing it first hand as the natural space as intended. Andrea has a point that areas exist like this in places devoid of human intervention to create beauty. But, the architects concept is noble, yet the execution must be less than desired. I find these unintended patches quite a relief in the city. Sure they are supporting volunteer species, but they bring a little nature and lack of structure to the harshness of city living. It is all about context. I suppose the park is really not a park.

  9. Cathy
    June 29, 2011

    OK, here goes… MY first impression was that weeds are sustainable LOL. I ordinarily love your posts and especially the photographs of the gardens you introduce us to on your blog, but this is the first garden you’ve shown us that I’m not at all inspired to visit.

    I love green in the city too, but it reminds me almost of an untended vacant lot. I am also missing a certain softness and gentleness in the aesthetic of this garden. Maybe I would perceive it differently if I experienced it in person but even the hardscape did little to draw my eye.

  10. Thomas Rainer
    June 29, 2011

    If a park is ultra-sustainable, does it have to come at the expense of beauty? Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that park looks like the City stopped maintaining it four years ago. It’s easy to get romantic about self-seeding, uncontrolled landscapes, but I fear the reality is less than romantic.

    My worry is that parks like this create a backlash against sustainability. We must design sustainable public spaces that are stunningly gorgeous. It’s the only way to broaden the appeal of sustainable landscapes. To create biodiversity in our cities means we must create highly artificial landscapes that require ongoing human input (gardening). Otherwise, you get weed lots with nice hardscape . . .

  11. jandev
    June 29, 2011

    This subject has touched off such an interesting debate. I agree with Thomas — sustainability and beauty are not mutually exclusive and biodiversity is an important goal of landscape design. I just read that a beetle from China has invaded several US midwestern cities that planted only ash trees to replace the elms that were victim to Dutch Elm Disease a couple of decades ago. Now all the ash trees are dying too. A great pity.

  12. landscapelover
    June 30, 2011

    Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. This place is a conundrum. I should stress that it is a newly installed park – the design is very deliberate and it’s certainly thought-provoking in the middle of the city. Originally the area was to be more densely developed, so having an open green space instead of more apartment blocks is probably valued by the local residents. And to be fair it’s so designed around its water features that the park is probably more fun to visit after heavy rain, when the gullies will be running and gurgling with water.
    But it is difficult to warm to the place, as several of you have said. Thomas’s comment reminds me of the Nassauer article I mentioned in a previous post, which argued that people need to see evidence of human intervention before they readily perceive beauty in a landscape. And this park certainly, deliberately, feels like it has been abandoned by humanity.

  13. Cathy
    June 30, 2011

    Just a thought…. isn’t an area without evidence of human intervention the very essence of “natural”?

  14. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    July 4, 2011

    Jill, reading your post and comments my first reation is to remember that every new project needs a time to adjust and I believe it is especially true when it comes to urban planning, including green or landscaped areas. And every new idea needs time to prove right. Sustanaible spaces are more than a plan in paper, they need to be livable. Maybe your child had a right answer, it needs to be engaging, not boring!

  15. Stacy
    July 6, 2011

    I’m trying hard to give this one the benefit of the doubt. As you point out, six weeks of hot, dry weather can’t have helped. Hopefully the “green space” (it really doesn’t seem like a park or garden) would look more lush and less abandoned if all those nifty water harvesting systems had some rainfall to work with. Especially in the middle of such a large urban area, too, I would think biodiversity will take several years to develop. And maybe once the trees have matured the “tone” will be a little softer and wilder in a good way; they might give the meadow-y area a better context. I agree with many of the above points, though, that it’s trying too hard to show off its sustainability. It looks serious and virtuous, but not like a place for recreation. If I were a child in Paris and had parks with carousels and pony rides and Punch & Judy shows and miniature boat races to choose from, I would find this one pretty boring, too…

    (It sticks in my mind that you’re moving soon–best wishes with that! Hope things go smoothly for you.)

    • landscapelover
      July 7, 2011

      Lula and Stacy,

      Thanks for your replies. I agree that the notion of time must be an important one here – both for this park, and for our ideas and responses to the whole complex issue of sustainability.

      I’m glad to have written this post – the comments have been so thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  16. Deb and Kim
    August 21, 2011

    My new place in Paris, near the Bois deBoul (a huge park a la Central Park) is close to downtown via a shuttle. We woke up around 8 am and Kim and I were excited we’re here to experience this wonderful place. If you have time, I recommend you try this area.

  17. Pingback: Grands Moulins revisited | Landscape Lover's Blog

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This entry was posted on June 27, 2011 by in Gardens, Modern design, Paris, Parks and tagged , , .

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