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4794Neal Peirce's column today

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  • J.H. Crawford
    Jun 2, 2002
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      Very interesting column:


      NEAL PEIRCE COLUMN
      For Release Sunday, June 2, 2002


      © 2002 Washington Post Writers Group

      PARISIAN GREEN:
      A HINT FOR US

      By Neal R. Peirce

      PARIS -- We’re living in an ever-more-crowded world – the population of the U.S. alone is set to soar by 60 million by 2025. How do we learn to eschew sprawl, to share scarce space -- and like the result?
      For a hint, walk the streets of some of Paris’ choicest neighborhoods -- located at the city’s heart and home to well-to-do, even very wealthy families. This is apartment heaven -- block after block of cut-stone, often elegant six-or seven-story buildings. At a glance, most Americans would turn up their noses at such dense living -- no ramblers or McMansions, no driveways, no grassy front yards. And quantities of people living above, below, left and right of one.
      But take another look, counsels my friend Stanhope Browne, talented Philadelphia lawyer and civic leader. With his wife Libby, an experienced tour leader, Browne is spending three retirement years enjoying some of the world’s greatest cuisine and culture, living in a Parisian apartment, and observing.
      The Brownes’ revelation starts with Paris’ great green secret. Knowingly, they push the entrance buttons of selected apartment buildings in the upscale Left Bank 7th “arrondisement” where they live. Many doorways spring open. One walks through to discover the interior of apartment block made into verdant oases, with grass, bushes, ivy-climbing high trellises, benches, walkways. Apartment living is not all stone and concrete after all!
      An aerial view from one of the few high-rises near the center of Paris reveals the same patches of green in the center of block after block, matching the verdant lines of meticulously groomed trees along many of the city’s chief boulevards and grand parks.
      French nobility first set this style, within gardens inside their expansive palaces within the city. Nobility’s early inspiration, notes Browne, “has inspired 19th and 20th century architects to create equally delightful spaces for less exalted dwelling places.” A companion model: townhouses or apartments surrounding delightful urban parks; a prime example is the Place des Vosges in the Marais district, first designed for King Henri IV in 1612 as a place for royal spectacles and celebrations.
      Can Parisian urbanity speak to America -- to our pioner, open-space loving souls? It’s not an easy fit. Though providentially, the U.S.A does have a new initiative called Community Greens: Shared Parks in Urban Blocks (www.communitygreens.org). Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, veteran and revered leader for more urbane, livable cities, is a chief supporter.
      Community Green’s mission has a peculiarly American ring -- to support any and all kinds of parks, tucked into residential areas, that are collectively owned and managed by the neighbors whose homes and backyards, decks, patios and balconies enclose the green.
      A prime example: Montgomery Park, a third of an acre backyard green oasis shared by 85 households in the midst of Boston’s dense South End neighborhood. Families garden together, gather to play and lounge and picnic in their park, and are often treated to practice sessions by local cellist Augestine Rodriguez.
      Such places, argues Community Green, have multiple benefits – accessible and safe play spaces for children, community building, increased safety and security and property values, and “a prime antidote to sprawl by making city living more attractive, especially to families with children.”
      What a relief from the helter-skelter jumble of backyard spaces, ugly walls and barriers that now divide so many city blocks and their people! Progress will require legal shifts to make it easier for owners to negotiate a communal open space.
      Yet such cities as Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles have literally thousands of blocks with hollow centers that might renew themselves, notes William Drayton in The Atlantic Monthly. Modified shared green plans could also be developed for yards of denser suburbs coast to coast.
      Why not think even more radically? Americans, notes Browne, have used zoning to separate things on a horizontal plane -- residences in specified places, commercial and professional in others. But if we want to think a denser future, Paris offers a dramatic shift – separate vertically. Parisian apartment houses’ ground floors are intensely commercial -- bakeries and butcher and beauty shops, clinics and travel agencies, real estate offices, hairdressers, tea shops.
      Yet directly above, for up to six stories, live families -- sometimes the upper crust of French society with magnificent apartments. Often families own or rent several units, inhabiting the same apartment houses for entire generations, everyone from parents with small children to grandparents, in separate units but under a single roof. Baby-sitting is virtually automatic. And older folks have family support, right there.
      Plus a touch of independence. If there’s a traiteur (combined delicatessen-caterer) downstairs or around the block, elders can access warm meals without bothering the family. Asks Browne“Who needs a retirement home?”
      So the Parisian formula isn’t just hidden greenery. It’s mixed use; it’s abandoning show for true life issues. Density and mixed use aren’t bad; they’re just different-- and sometimes better.

      - 30 -


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      J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities
      mailbox@... Carfree.com
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