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.
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).
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.”
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!
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!
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:
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:
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,
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!
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.
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”.
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:
And finally, along the very outside of the Promenade are dense multistorey plantings that will soon completely screen the busy streets.
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:
Other than small toilet blocks, the only building within the Promenade is a small, timber-clad tourist information office…
with more clever covered seating areas on each side to cater to yet more different users: timber decking that teenagers like:
plus rotating chairs for family groups and tired tourists.
Clever, clever, clever. Sensible amenities:
sensible, non-excessive rules:
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)
and – testament to the non-prudish nature of the French – a full-sized bronze of Michelangelo’s David overlooking one of the play areas!
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.
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.