Paris (16) The Seine embankment

By the Musée d'Orsay

By the Musée d’Orsay

A playground

A playground

Between Concorde and Pont Alexandre III

Between Concorde and Pont Alexandre III

The Municipality of Paris has closed to traffic a part of the embankment on the Seine that had been used as a freeway during the second half of the XXth century. This can be ascribed to a drive to limit the use of the car that originates in European rules on air quality and a fight against traffic congestion that was shared by the two main options in the recent municipal election. The Parisian solution has been almost the opposite of what Madrid did facing what seemed an identical problem.

Madrid has chosen to bury the freeway under its former site, creating a new public space project on a much larger scope. Paris has not substituted the eliminated car space, and the asphalt has not been removed; it has become a platform for varying uses, as a tv set in some way. The cost is much lower, and the use more flexible. Doubts can rise on whether this is a more or less ambitious scheme, but it seems more sustainable.

A project as the one in Madrid would have been far too complex, among other reasons due to the cross section, which in Paris maintains the traditional embankment walls (essential in case of flood, a problem tackled in Madrid with a preexisting upstream reservoir), and on the higher level the conventional traffic goes on as usual.

There is also a historical dimension, on how the “urban prosthetics” end up reconfiguring the city. In Paris as well as in Madrid, these fluvial freeways appeared when the city was already present on both sides; but in Paris it was the historical core of the city around the corridor, while in Madrid the Manzanares shores were recent tissues of scarce urban quality, so the freeway was located with a rather savage approach. In Madrid the freeway was the street on which the entrance halls to the apartment buildings opened, and burying the freeway has given for sure a substantial reduction in noise; in Paris, cars still run over the higher parts of the embankments.

This is a matter of choice between closed (and expensive models) that try to deliver substantial transformation (and a compromise, trying to entice the car-loving voters…) and more flexible models that try to address a more complex problem, including historical heritage and flood risk, with chances for incremental change.

Conserving asphalt (as it has been done in the car-less embankment in Paris) doesn’t seem a bad solution. Sure, as the 1968 revolutionaries said, the beach is under the paving stones, but on asphalt things can actually happen.

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