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It's easy to park yourself in Paris

May 21, 2012

Anyone who has ever traveled to the City of Light is amazed by the wondrous and plenteous green spaces and parks. Stroll through the Jardin des Tuileries, between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde, or the Champs de Mars, near the Eiffel Tower, and you see families, young couples, tourists and a variety of people enjoying the sunshine, trees, fountains and ponds.

Paris is a city known for its parks. In fact, said Richard Hopkins, a faculty associate in the School of Historical Philosophical and Religious Studies, during the 1850s and 1860s, over a 10-year period, the city of Paris increased its public green spaces and parks from just 45 acres to more than 4,700 acres.

At the same time, Hopkins added, “Paris underwent an unprecedented transformation, where city administrators oversaw the opening of new tree-lined boulevards, the regularization of building facades, and the modernization of city’s sanitation and water supply systems.”

Hopkins became interested in the history of Parisian parks after reading texts about Paris in the mid-19th century and learning about the city’s commitment to a vast increase in park space. “I wondered what kind of impact a dramatic change like that had on the lives of city residents,” he said.

Hopkins recently completed his doctoral dissertation on the growth of parks and green spaces in Paris from 1852 to 1940 and how the Parisian model influenced other cities. He also researched “how green space became explicitly linked to questions of public health and quality of life in the city.”

He is now seeking a publisher for a book based on his dissertation, titled “Engineering Nature: Public Greenspaces in Nineteenth-Century Paris.”

Hopkins, who grew up in rural Connecticut, attended the University of Connecticut, then started a career in business. He did personnel management for startups, but his heart was in teaching. So, he went back to school to pursue graduate degrees in history.

In his research for his dissertation, he learned that the development of parks beginning in the mid-1800s was motivated, in large part, by the cholera epidemics that swept through Paris in the 1830s and 1840s, Hopkins said, which caused people to connect open spaces with health.

And Louis Napoléon, when he became emperor of France in 1852, decided to modernize Paris after spending time in exile in Great Britain and seeing the effects of the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. “He sort of fancied himself an amateur landscape architect,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins spent a year in Paris doing research in archives and libraries throughout the city particularly in the Archives de Paris near the Porte de Lilas, where he found a wealth of information about the development of parks, their use, and how they were maintained.

In cartons of papers and in files, Hopkins found petitions that were submitted to the park service to fix things that were dangerous to the children who frequented the parks; reports from the guards who watched over the parks; essays about how parks came to be seen as healthful places; and scientific studies written by doctors who believed that children should be exercising more – in the parks, of course.

The 19th century Parisians were so comfortable with their local squares, Hopkins said, that mothers often left their children in the parks to play by themselves, under the watchful eyes of the guards, who knew where the children lived and would take them home if they started misbehaving.
Hopkins learned that the Parisians really cared about their parks, and that they wanted them to be self-sustaining. “The city would harvest the ducks from the lakes and sell them to make money for the parks, and stock the ponds with fish for the people to catch.”
The city also set up tree farms outside the city to maintain extra trees so they could replace damaged or dying trees with mature trees, and they set up schools to train horticulturalists and landscape architects, Hopkins added.

Through his research, “the people who used the parks, and cared for them, came alive,” he said. "I came to know these people, these characters, the human stories.”

And that spirit remains. “Today, parks remain an essential part of the fabric of Paris,” he noted. “Intimate relationships are lived out in the parks in a way that is not self-conscious. Parisians ‘inhabit’ their parks.”

The Parisian concept of parks and green spaces has influenced cities such as Cairo, New York City and Buenos Aires, and even today, cities are looking at ways to make urban life healthier and more enjoyable, Hopkins noted. New York City’s PlaNYC, for example, is a citywide program that aims to have green space available to every resident within a 10-minute walk, and to plant a million trees in the city over the next 10 years.

So, after spending a year in Paris reading about the development of parks and green spaces, and visiting the city’s many parks in his spare time, does Hopkins, who is also managing editor of French Historical Studies, have a favorite Parisian park?

“I really don't have a favorite,” he said. “For me, they are all part of a whole program of green space development – one that had a significant and lasting impact – within Paris and beyond. That is what is so interesting to me as an historian.”