Magazine

Reclaiming Paris's River Seine quayside

  • 15 October 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Staircase on to the river bank
Pedestrians walk under the staircase close to the Assemblee Nationale

The quays alongside the River Seine in Paris were once used by boats unloading deliveries but 50 years ago they began to be taken over by the motor car. Now the process has been put into reverse, with a mile-and-a-half (2.4km) of quayside reclaimed this year for fun-seekers and pedestrians.

The latest place to be in Paris requires a short walk down a curving staircase in front of parliament, the Assemblee Nationale.

Up until a few weeks ago, this ended on a busy city thoroughfare - 2,000 vehicles every hour speeding along the Seine and heading for the western suburbs.

Today, it is transformed. Along a mile-and-a-half of riverfront, there is not a car in sight. Just Parisians at play.

These are les nouvelles berges - the new quays - the latest in the city's perennial efforts to improve and innovate in the public space.

It is has long been the good fortune of Parisians that money spent on beautifying their surroundings is seen by the authorities as money well-spent - because it helps bring in the tourists.

That's the reasoning too behind the 35 million euros (£30m, $48m) spent on developing this Rive Gauche (Left Bank) promenade (as well as the five million euros in annual running costs).

If it all fosters the image of a city where on each trip there is something new to discover, then fine. But in between it is the locals who get the fun.

On les nouvelles berges, there are restaurants and bars, concert spaces, running tracks, a massive blackboard for children to scrawl on, cabins for rental where you can eat with friends, or hold business meetings.

There are floating gardens, a perspex bubble called the City Lab, a "sound shower" taking advantage of the wonderful acoustics beneath the arches of the Pont de la Concorde.

You can go fishing, or attend zumba classes, or learn to do the French jive on a boat moored beneath the Foreign Ministry on the Quai d'Orsay. Or you can dangle your feet over the water and share a bottle of wine.

"It is a fantastic atmosphere," says Henrietta, a language student from the UK on her year abroad.

"And the great thing - unlike so many tourist attractions - is that there are actually French people here!"

In fact the berges project - not to be confused with the August Paris-plage on the other side of the river - is part of a wider initiative to re-integrate the Seine into the life of Parisians.

Historically, of course, the river was always central. Paris was founded on an island, and the Seine provided food, transport and protection (though not enough to stop the Vikings who sailed up from Normandy and sacked Paris several times in the 800s).

Clear evidence of the Seine's importance is that the city's heraldic emblem is a boat, with the motto Fluctuat nec Mergitur (It tosses but does not sink) .

The origin of this lies in the powerful medieval guilds of boatmen and dockers, whose corporations transmogrified over the years into the modern municipality at the Hotel de Ville.

The first Paris quay was built in the 16th Century. Before that boats had beached on the muddy bank.

A hundred years later houses fronting the river were demolished to create space for what became - on both banks - a long series of stone wharfs.

River traffic burgeoned in the 19th Century, when the quays were also used for guinguettes - popular dances. Later they were the site of semi-permanent structures erected for world fairs.

But the crucial break came in the 1950s and 60s, when modernising governments decided the future was the car.

River transport disappeared, and along the quays were built the famous voies sur berge - riverside thoroughfares (one on each bank) allowing motorists speedy access to the city centre.

According to Xavier Janc, in charge of the quays at City Hall, "the aim now is to take back possession of the river - to rebuild a connection which had begun to disappear.

The Seine river bank in 1954 and in June, as deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo inspects the new berges

"We want to give pedestrians and cyclists a better share-out of the public space. We want to reduce car emissions, and improve biodiversity.

"But above all we want to show to best advantage what is after all a treasure of urban planning. Don't forget that the Paris quays are on Unesco's list of world heritage sites."

The newly pedestrianised berges are one part of this. Another is the effort to redevelop river transport - putting the quays back to their original use.

Since the 1990s there has been a huge increase in the number of barges travelling up the Seine from Le Havre and Rouen, but most of these load and unload well outside the city centre.

Now a leading supermarket chain - Franprix - has taken the radical step of making its Paris deliveries by boat.

Every morning a barge takes on 26 containers upstream at the port of Bonneuil-sur-Marne. The barge then moves downriver and docks at a quay a few hundred meters from the Eiffel Tower.

At dawn the next day lorries pick up the containers and deliver the goods to stores around the city.

"This is not some marketing gimmick, it is a genuine business decision," says Laurent Kamiel, supply chain director at Franprix.

"Cost-wise it is about the same as taking the containers in by road. But there is no traffic on the river, and this way we can be absolutely sure of making our deliveries on time.

"In addition, we are looking to the future and we can see the way things are going. All big cities are trying to limit motor traffic. It probably won't be long till Paris has tolls, or some kind of time limitation on road access.

"So we think river transport is going to be increasingly attractive."

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine, et nos amours, wrote the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in one of his most famous lines - "Beneath the Mirabeau bridge flows the Seine, and our loves."

Parisians have always loved their river, but in recent times they have felt a little estranged. Perhaps this is the rapprochement.

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