A Walk in Paris

How do other western cities reconstruct major areas of their inner urban core?

I set off to visit 7 such major urban renewal projects in Europe. I added a few more neighbourhoods on the way, bringing the total to over 10. Such work and suffering on your behalf, dear reader !

The results were surprising to me, mostly in how much they all looked alike. Architecture and urban planning has truly gone global.

Anywhere is now everywhere and nowhere.

And Ottawa is one of those players, with major urban renewal projects remarkably similar to those more famous ones in Europe. More than once I had to rub my eyes, thinking I was seeing the same building transplanted from Ottawa to Amsterdam, or Paris to Copenhagen. Truly ! Stay tuned over the next months and all will be revealed.

Having just reviewed some major US projects in the reprised stories immediately preceding this one, lets warm up by starting off with a walk in Paris, City of Light, where legend has it all buildings are six stories high.

Branding is a major factor in our perception of the value of things or events. We all see this daily on the media, where if something doesn’t happen where the MSM is, then it didn’t happen. If it happens near them, then it is important.

New York City went through a great period of branding under Mayor Bloomberg. You heard about the High Line, right? More than a decade later, second tier cities are trying the same thing with slight variations, eg Rail Deck in the (Canadian) Centre of the Universe.

The modern original urban rail to park scheme is in Paris, the Promenade Plantee, constructed in the early nineties. It starts near the Paris Opera (Bastille edition). If I recall correctly, the Opera was designed by a Canadian architect which may be why I thought of the Toronto Eaton Centre when I walked by:

The Promenade is built on a former elevated railway viaduct. The viaduct is made of brick arches with occasional steel bridge sections.

It is designed like a series of linked rooms. There are no long vistas down the length of the path. It is heavily planted. Yes, it felt a bit isolated. The main viaduct pathway is almost 5km long, and a number of extensions and finger parks now extend off of it creating a much longer network of green spaces. The green trellises reminded me of the Sparks Street Mall design in Ottawa of the same era.


Path lighting was subdued with foot-level lumaires:

There were people strolling and numerous joggers.

Lamps, signage, and furnishings were traditional Parisian park designs.

There was the occasional elevator access, although most were out of service.

The roof of an adjacent building (school?) had an exercise park on it.

Some of the streets that crossed under the viaduct had clearly been revitalized with street trees and fresh sidewalks:

Others were still “old Paris” of the auto-era:

Buildings adjacent the viaduct varied a lot in quality and upkeep:

A viaduct is a sort of low bridge. Often in Europe these viaducts are made of arches, with useful spaces under the arches (picture elevated freeways for a post-1950 comparison …).

In Paris, the 47 viaduct arches were all enclosed in identical wooden framed arched windows in 1998 and occupied by design and furniture businesses, facing a really wide and well planted sidewalk:

In Ottawa, our crosstown railway tracks were deemed to be disruptive and noisy and dirty and a barrier between neighbourhoods. We replaced it with the Queensway to solve those issues.

The CPR line that ran through the Little Italy neighbourhood was thrown in an open cut or trench in the 1960’s, but the adjacent Champagne freeway didn’t get built. After a half century of neglect, the space alongside the cut was recovered, planted, and became the Trillium Pathway, deservedly one of the most popular pathways in the City.


If visiting Paris, take the metro to Place Bastille and walk alongside the Opera building to the back of it. The Promenade Plantee begins within a block, and is very difficult to miss, given it is 10m elevated and 5km long ! Note, the Opera building replaces the Bastille railway station, which is in itself something of a commentary on gentrification.


4 thoughts on “A Walk in Paris

  1. So, in my many vsits to Paris I missed this landmark. Thanks for making us aware. You speak of the opera, obviously not the “old” opera building, but a recent addition. Many cities have elevated masonary, abandoned rail structures (Vienna, Berlin come to mind) but have not made such imaginative use ot them. The new storefronts are particulalry attractive and inviting. Who actually owns and leases these? The rents must be reasonable I surmise, perhaps better adjusted to the demand than our Sparks Street offerings.
    Converted (abandone) elevated freeways exist in several US cities, and have occasionally been used for sheltering interesting commercil developmnt below. But the “architecture” offers less attractive opportunies in the usual post and beam framing. Steel structures are not likley candidates. Looking forward to more.

  2. The Bastille Opera replaced tbe gare bastille, ergo the unneeded railway

    the shop spaces are owned by the city in some way. It is they who decided it would be an arts district created by fiat. Many shops were vacant or underused as display windows.

    When we get to amsterdam we will see the city trying to create a furniture district by fiat.

    Imagine if the city of ottawa told claridge to provide x feet of retail and obliged any new stores o a particular f business type they had to locate there. I saw similar schemes in germany.

  3. Gentrification is what concerns me. Urban Renewal should not suck the soul out of an already vibrant neighbourhood. The elevated park in Paris doesn’t seem to do this and is certainly lovely. I really like the bike memorial. Really thought provoking. The elevated highway in NYC is completely opposite. Streets and whole neighbourhoods were either hyper-gentrified or razed. Condos sprouted along the site like mushrooms on a damp morning. I’ve visited NYC regularly starting in the 70s and found a lot of the individuality of the city missing. Yes it’s much less dangerous and extremely clean, but it’s also less fun and interesting. I used to think that NYC was more like a different country than a U.S. City. Now it’s becoming a “generic mega city” with ubiquitous chain stores and coffe shops. Applebee’s in Times Square?

    I really look forward to your next posts. Thanks for travelling “just for us”!

    1. I agree with Glen on all of this. Is there anywhere in particular in Ottawa that you think the individuality of the area is disappearing? Thanks for the series Eric.

Comments are closed.