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Civilizing the Urban Jungle

Colorful Housing

Colorful Housing

Every time I visit a French city center, I’m always surprised to discover how planners seem to harmoniously integrate such a varied mixture of village houses, cathedrals, ancient walls, history and culture into such a modern, innovative urban landscape.  Despite narrow, twisting roads and lines of centuries old buildings, delivery trucks still somehow drop off their wares in the morning, traffic manages to flow, cars find parking spaces1 and pedestrians can safely navigate through the different streets and neighborhoods.

Culturally Aware

Through the Artist's Eyes

Through the Artist's Eyes

Walking in a French city is an invigorating learning experience as they are frequently lined with commemorative landmarks and plaques explaining past events.  These can range anywhere from the brown ”History of Paris” signs that are scattered throughout the French capital to beautiful replicas of famous paintings setup in the exact spot where the artists created their colored masterpieces.  Even tiny, forgotten villages will frequently have a plaque to immortalize the death of a resistant during World War II or the birth of a famous person in one of their houses.

Histoire de Paris

Une Histoire de Paris

Streets and schools are also named after famous philosophers, artists, writers or other historically influential figures, forcing anyone walking through the city center to endure a subconscious whirlwind of culture.  It makes sense that students would be more intellectually inspired attending “Lycée Charlemagne” instead of “Public School #276″!  And you’ll almost never see streets named after ascending letters or numbers, such as “East 7th Street” - the road layout in France is so twisted with age2 that it’s very difficult to impose an uninspiring, American grid street system (thankfully!).  You’ll also notice that many of the main city squares and boulevards are named after “Charles de Gaulle”, who was France’s first president under the current constitution3 and is considered by many to be the founding father of modern France.

Urban Innovations

French Style Parking

Don't Forget to Feed the Meter?

The French like to pride themselves on their cartesian sense of logical efficiency and managing cities is no exception.  Take parking meters4 as an example.  Imagine how expensive it is to place a single parking meter next to every parking space as in the US!  In France, when you park your car in a designated pay zone, there is a single parking meter that services all of the nearby parking places.  You insert some euro coins5 for a few hours of parking and press a green button that prints out a piece of paper with the ending time.  Then you place this receipt in your car windshield for any ticketing policeman to see; be sure to move your car before the ending time or risk getting a ticket! 

GPS Not Required...

GPS Not Required...

Individual parallel parking places are also not marked - it’s just one long dotted line on the left border of the parking spaces.  Cars simply line up behind each other as they can fit, leaving much less empty space in front of and behind each bumper.  Not only is this a more efficient use of the available space, but if the city ever decides to change the road configuration or rearrange the parking area, they can just redraw new lines without having to dig up any meters!

Another example is the logical flow of street signs.  I learned how to drive in Boston, a city that is full of insane intersections and where literally no street is marked until it’s too late!  It was a great pleasure to discover that despite the winding streets and multiple rotaries6, navigating in France is very easy.  The street signs point first to major cities, then to towns and finally to specific places or villages.  So to find your way in France, you just need a vague idea of the cities along the way to your destination and if you’re ever lost, simply follow the sign that says “toutes directions” (all directions) which will eventually put you back on the right track again.  No more trying to figure out if you’re heading North or East on some randomly numbered road, as I’ve frequently experienced when driving in the US.

That Green Feeling

Vélib - The Peoples Bikes!

Vélib' - The People's Bikes!

Especially with today’s emphasis on the environment, French city planners are attempting more and more to accommodate pedestrians and to integrate ”green” transportation into the urban landscape.    Many French cities have a “vielle ville” (old section of the city) with small, narrow streets that are frequently set aside as pedestrian only, usually full of cafés, restaurants and shops.  Sidewalks are also next to most roads, even in small villages.  Major French cities, such as Paris and Lyon, have very successful subscription bike services for commuters (and also for joy riding).   You just swipe your card to unlock the bike and then reattach it to the closest official bike stand near your destination. 
Several cities are also building modern, above-ground ”tramways” and constantly expanding their public transportation networks.  Many buses run on electricity or natural gas and it is now quite common to have an “expected arrival time” displayed on a digital panel at the bus stop.  Ergonomically designed modern buses also literally tilt sideways to help handicapped riders to board.

The Stylin' Tramway

Check Out the Stylin' Tramway!

French policy also frequently requires the construction of a designated bicycle lane or sidewalk during regular road maintenance (when possible).  The theory is that over time most roads will then safely accommodate not only cars, but also bikes and pedestrians, helping to build a European wide network of “véloroutes” (small, picturesque roads that easily accommodate bikers) and ”voies vertes” (designated, bike-only paths).

Bikes are Welcome!

The Breakdown Lane's True Destiny

Despite all of these methods to encourage people to leave the car at home, it can still be very dangerous being a pedestrian.  One lesson that I learned on my first day living in Paris after coming within 5 inches of a speeding bus was 1) if you value your life, don’t jaywalk - wait for the “green” walk signal and 2) always assume that the car or bus doesn’t know you exist (or doesn’t care), even if you’re in the crosswalk!

All I Want to Do is Have a Little Fun…

Below are a few links to some of the more creative diversions found in some French cities:

La Fête de la Musique - Started in 1982 by the “Le ministère de la culture” (culture secretary) Jacques Lang, each year around mid-June France’s cities are filled with professional/amateur bands and musical street performers on every corner and café.  It’s an exhilarating experience to walk through cities during all the partying and there is music for all tastes!!

Paris Plage  - The current socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, started the tradition of “Paris Plage” (Paris Beach) in 2002.  During July and August tons of sand, palm trees, fitness areas and lounge chairs are placed along the banks of the Seine River for all of the Parisians that couldn’t get away during the summer months.  Sun tans and sand castles for all!!

Paris Roller - Every Friday night it’s roller blade mayhem as thousands of roller bladers congregate around a designated starting point (the Bastille, Montparnasse, etc.) to start their non-stop, ~3 hour / ~30km itinerary through the streets of Paris!!  Traffic is stopped, roads are cleared and there’s even a police motorcycle escort in case of any issues.

Vélib FreeStyle!

Ever wonder how rugged Parisian Vélib bicycles are?  Let’s put them to the test!

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  1. massive underground parking garages are common in France in densly-packed, ancient city centers []
  2. many roads still follow the old Roman routes []
  3. De Gaulle was elected first President of the current ”Fifth Republic” in 1959 []
  4. ”horodateur” is French for parking meter []
  5. having high denomination coins for easy payments is also another example of efficiency - 1 euro = ~$1.30 []
  6. rotaries are ”roundabouts” for any British readers []

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