Helen McKerralPromenade du Paillon in Nice, France: A Public Open Space that Works!

Why are public open spaces so often empty of public? Sometimes it’s obvious – my hometown Adelaide’s infamous Festival Centre Plaza’s concrete desert is blazing in summer and icy in winter, and images of the proposed AUD $90 million facelift suggest little to change that. Adelaide’s Torrens Linear Park and Parklands greenbelt girding the CBD are magnificent, but the latter is most full of the public when it’s fenced off for pay-per-visit events, such as Clipsal or Womadelaide! Specific areas for sporting clubs and small playgrounds exist, and people walk dogs or jog through, but perhaps the people for whom the parklands are most vital are the most vulnerable: those who have slipped through our country’s ever less-funded-safety nets.

Australia’s sprawling suburbs with backyards and council playgrounds differ from countries whose cities comprise high-density living, where the only open space is public. But infill policies are making public space more essential for more people, and a more diverse range of them. Can small public spaces simultaneously provide this for lots and lots of different people? The City of Nice’s fabulous Promenade du Paillon says yes.

The Promenade du Paillon in Nice is packed with people – promenading

With a Mediterranean climate and a population of about one million people, Nice is comparable to Adelaide (1.3 million), but with about five million annual visitors and EUR$5 billion (AUD$7.5 billion) associated revenue spread through the French Riviera, they have more tourist dollars to spend than Adelaide City Council (approx 2.5 million visitors and income of about AUD $2 billion).

Oppressively hot beach in Nice

Oppressively hot beach in Nice

Nice may be the playground of the rich and famous but, frankly, few Australians will be impressed by its most famous open space: a small, crowded, pebbly beach, oppressively hot on the day we visited. For me, the real attraction lay within the city.

The twelve hectare Promenade du Paillon is a linear public urban park that replaces what seems to have been a universally loathed redevelopment comprising a multistorey car park and bus station whose concessions to public space were a rooftop skate park and “hanging gardens,” neither of which suggest useable green space or appeal to a broad section of the community! So in 2011 both were bulldozed for a new development created by landscape designers Christine and Michel Pena, of Pena Paysages :

“The major goal was to create a large urban park in the heart of the city thereby capturing the sensuality of nature. The park would give the city the green space it lacked, while showing that it could take an ecological vocation by a return to nature in the city…
“…The project proposes to re-establish the rivers course on the surface by the symbolic creation of two riparian forest on the edges of the park. The presence of a long stone ribbon, which runs from the theater to the beach, evokes the flow of the forgotten river. This constitutes the main promenade, longitudinally bisecting the park. The central part has a wide green carpet on which rectangular mineral spaces are arranged delineating recreational activities areas for children. A large mirror of water and an array of misting fountains take place on either side of the Place Massena.”

Mirroir d'eau (water mirror) in Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Mirroir d’eau (water mirror) in Promenade du Paillon, Nice

After three years of construction, the Promenade opened in February 2015.

I often find landscape design themes obscure. Rather than foundation, they seem an affectation, added afterwards to explain the designer’s decisions. Not so the Promenade. The theme is clear the moment you see it. Invisible though it may be, the underground river and the way the buildings have evolved on either side strongly inform the entire project, providing an exceptional cohesiveness rarely seen in public open spaces. It fits. The space works. The way people move within it works. To me, it made sense in a “sitting by the river” kind of way. Even better, almost everything is designed for people to interact with or use, not just to look at. The price tag? About EUR 40million (AUD$60 million) – less than one tenth of Adelaide Oval’s $650 million redevelopment cost!

Sitting on the 'bank of the river', Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Sitting on the ‘bank of the river’, Promenade du Paillon, Nice

So what elements make the Promenade so versatile? The most striking are the four interactive water features – two cooling misters and two “mirrors” spread along the length of the Promenade. You notice them because, on a hot summer’s day, they are filled with people. In the mist, every age and ability has fun!

In the mist garden, every age and ability has fun.. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

In the mist garden, every age and ability has fun. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Mist garden, Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Mist garden, Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Mist garden, Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Mist garden, Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Nor are the mirrors passive: the water that creates the reflections pulses, bubbles, or jets vertically in sporadic patterns and strengths… and then pauses for a time. Kids – and the occasional mum or nana – simply love it:

Everyone loves the Water Mirror. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

At the far western end is a more traditional fountain (predating the Promenade?), but again with plenty of places to sit, on the edges of the fountain looking out, as well as around the perimeter of the space looking in:

Traditional fountain at the western end. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Traditional fountain at the western end. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Bordering the mirrors and mist – the river and its bed – are grassy riverbanks. Just as on the banks of a real river, the areas invite play, with equipment for older children,

Equipment for older children. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Equipment for older children. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Play area for older children. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Play area for older children. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

younger children..

Equipment for younger children. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Equipment for younger children. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

and tots. Wood and rope materials enhance the natural ambience, and can you spot the continuation of the aquatic theme? Nor are children fenced off in cages for their own safety, although a perimeter fence separates the Promenade from the streets. Instead, plenty of seating and space is provided around the play equipment for parental supervision at distances appropriate to the age of the child. Tiny tots are enclosed, but look how cleverly it has been done!

Clever enclosure of young children's play area. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Clever enclosure of young children’s play area. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Carefully pruned trees. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Carefully pruned fig trees. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

For shade, the banks have also been planted with “trees”, cleverly selected and pruned. Most are mature food plants – olive, pomegranate, loquat, fig – either small-growing or pruned to create a canopy low to the ground, like beach umbrellas. Towering plants here would destroy the sense of river and open space in the centre of the Promenade.

Pruned loquat trees. Promenade du Paillon. Nice

Pruned loquat trees. Promenade du Paillon. Nice

Ancient olive trees. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Ancient olive trees. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Old grape vines. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Old grape vines. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Look at how people are enjoying them! And look at these amazing ancient grape vines and olive trees – transplanting them must have been a story in itself! Not to mention the other plantings, which comprise “1,600 trees … 6,000 shrubs [and] 50,000 perennials and grasses”.

Plenty of comfortable seating. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Plenty of comfortable seating. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Outwards from the banks are two promenades, a wider one on the north, a narrower one on the south, both with plenty of specially commissioned comfortable seating. When we visited, every seat was occupied by people chatting, reading, relaxing or people-watching. The western end of the Promenade, more conventionally planted and parklike but still with plenty of seating, had a quieter ambience for different users:

A quieter ambience at the western end. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

A quieter ambience at the western end. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

And finally, along the very outside of the Promenade are dense multistorey plantings that will soon completely screen the busy streets.

Dense, tall plantings that will screen out nearby buildings. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Dense, tall plantings that will screen out nearby buildings. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

The plants are from Mediterranean areas around the world, and a smart phone allows you to access information about them via interpretive electronic signage. Here’s one of Australia’s representatives:

One of Australias tree representatives

One of Australias tree representatives

Other than small toilet blocks, the only building within the Promenade is a small, timber-clad tourist information office…

Small, timber-clad tourist office. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Small, timber-clad tourist office. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

with more clever covered seating areas on each side to cater to yet more different users: timber decking that teenagers like:

Timber decking - preferred teenager seating. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Timber decking – preferred teenager seating. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

plus rotating chairs for family groups and tired tourists.

And chairs for tired tourists. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

And chairs for families and tired tourists. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Clever, clever, clever. Sensible amenities:

Sensible amenities - water fountain in Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Sensible amenities – water fountain in Promenade du Paillon, Nice

sensible, non-excessive rules:

Sensible rules in Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Sensible rules in Promenade du Paillon, Nice

unobtrusive yet ample surveillance (scroll back up and look at the photos for the brown – yes, brown! – poles). The only jarring elements were two sculptures that I very much doubt originated in the landscapers’ minds – a huge arc that in my opinion is completely at odds with the style and scale of the development (it would look better on the beach)

Out-of-scale sculpture. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Out-of-scale sculpture. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

and – testament to the non-prudish nature of the French – a full-sized bronze of Michelangelo’s David overlooking one of the play areas!

Bronze Michelangelo’s David. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

The Promenade is free. It is open from 7am until 11pm. It is clearly respected by its users: give people what they love, and they will comply with requests to look after it.

Signage requesting park visitors care for their surroundings. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

Signage requesting park visitors care for their surroundings. Promenade du Paillon, Nice

It is a place for walking and sitting and meeting and greeting and playing and people-watching. It has deservedly won National landscaping awards and it is not just clever. Michel and Christine Pena’s creation is ingenious, original and brilliant – a revelation of what a public urban park can be.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

6 thoughts on “Promenade du Paillon in Nice, France: A Public Open Space that Works!

  1. Judi New on said:

    My partner and I were passing through Nice last September, with only one night in the city. We had the opportunity to drive past the Promenade and I liked the look of it (although it wasn’t quite finished). Even then, the mists and water mirror areas were working and the people loved them. I didn’t find the inverted arc too out of place, as to me it blended with the modern theme of most of the park.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Yes, I agree that like any art, it’s largely subjective! And a tiny quibble in what I thought was an overwhelmingly successful and beautiful space. I’d love to know what the designers think of the statues, though!

  2. Peter Whitehead on said:

    Helen
    Great article. I was in Nice in early June this year and the ‘everyone’s park’ was looking sensational. 2 years previous it was a construction site – what a change and every city planner should be made to go and study its design, layout, facilities and sheer exuberance of plant selection.
    Peter Whitehead – Ross Tour Leader

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Thank you, Peter – and snap! As I was walking through the area, I kept thinking, “I wish Adelaide planners could see this!” Something like the promenade could so easily (and relatively cheaply!) be incorporated into our [so similar] city, with its own river and park lands and space. Everyone loves national parks and wilderness, but what so impressed me about the Promenade was that urban open space could become a tourist attraction in and of itself.

  3. This looks fantastic, Helen. Thanks so much for your great photos and thoughts. It really does seem to have everything; great ‘fit’, great functionality, beauty and all for a very sensible price. If only all public spaces had so much thought put into them. It’s not impossible, I just think so often we either lack imagination, over do the safety aspect, forget where we are or just don’t bother to think at all! I’m about to start a module of my Master of Horticulture on Urban Landscaping; this has given me so much inspiration for it!

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Thanks, Janna. What struck me was that this space would work so brilliantly in my hometown. Maybe the city planners will take a look!

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