You can say that the urban fabric of Paris (and indeed all great cities) is composed of some basic elements: first are the famous civic buildings from the travel book checklist: Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre; and second, the townhouses and small scale urban buildings in between, typically with cafes and stores at street level. Then there are the variations on public space, ranging in character from the monumental green gardens of Luxemborg and the hardscaped plaza at the entrance of the Louvre, to more intimate spaces, as in the lively outdoor rooms of the Latin Quarter. Finally, lets not forget to count the great pedestrian streets: avenues for dining and shopping like Champes Elysee, the bridges that receive the breeze of the Seine, the continuous sidewalk connections between one’s front door and the day’s daily coffee and bread.
What if Paris could only keep one of these elements? Which is the more essential to Paris’ identity? Which is more important to the visitors who make Paris a top travel destination in the world? Imagine that the French Ministry of Transportation was to reduce either the great monuments or the great neighborhoods to parking lots to accommodate increasing auto ownership. Imagine that Corbusier’s plan for Paris had been taken seriously.
My guess is that even the ever-present Eiffel Tower is actually a small part of the lives of the millions of resident Parisians. My guess is that newlyweds would still go to Paris from throughout the world to sit in cafes and wonder upward at the cast iron balconies considering what life was like in one of the world’s most liveable cities — even if Paris lacked the Arc D’Triumph.
To choose between public spaces and streets is more difficult, but I doubt that the parks and plazas of Paris would be used as much, or at all, if they required a freeway commute to reach.
Paris does not have to choose between its dignified urban residences, inspiring civic buildings, great streets and cherished public spaces. Even secondary elements such as the subway system or bicycle network, are in place and the city is committed to them. But as urbanists in Miami we must prioritize. To achieve high-quality urbanism of this kind, as has not been built as the norm in the US in one hundred years, requires an education process, a reprioritisation of public funding, a hundred instructive meetings with both the public and the responsible agencies.
The latest economic downturn is making us choose between these four elements of great cities, not because we haven’t any longer the resources to build them all, but because the budgets that would otherwise be spent on planning, education, and involvement, on the dialogue about urbanism as a choiceworthy endeavor, has been reduced, and we must focus our energies. Consider this ranking: great streets, dignified fabric buildings, proud public spaces, and monumental civic buildings.
The popular dialogue in Miami concerning these four elements seems to value the reverse order. Starchitect new buildings (the stadium, Arsht Center, etc.) and experimental forms of landscape architecture (Bicentennial Park) are most likely to be on the minds of the city and county commisioners. But the streets and buildings of our daily routine need, if only by virtue of being more plentiful items than the other two, far more consideration than they are currently given. If I take just one point home as an urbanist visiting Paris, it is that we should focus our effort to make Miami a truly liveable city by building high-quality, walkable, multi-modal streets with urban infill buildings that define the street as a place of shared activity — in the way of Paris.
Jason King, AICP is a Town Planner at Dover, Kohl and Partners Town Planners and has worked on numerous award winning city and regional plans .
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