Paris Closes Its Wonderful Parks

CC BY 2.0. A park in Paris/ Lloyd Alter

It's sad, but it is happening everywhere.

UPDATE: This post has been revised. We spend so much time talking about the wonder of parks that I failed to consider the situation appropriately and apologize for this.

All the parks in Paris have been closed in an attempt to control the spread of Covid-19. On March 16 the Government announced that "the parks and gardens in Paris will close in the coming hours... The closing down of the capital's parks was a means 'to amplify the impact of the measures' the government had taken to restrict social movement in the country. This was after a weekend where, "despite French health authorities stressing how important it was for people to limit their social interactions as much as possible and stay inside if they could, many Parisians were out and about on Sunday to enjoy the suddenly sunny weather."

French President Macron complained, “We’ve also seen people getting together in parks, in bars that haven’t respected the order to close as if somehow life hadn’t changed.” Life has certainly changed now.

Life in Paris Park with chairs

Park in Paris/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Paris parks are different from those that we are used to in North America; they are often very formal and are usually surrounded by high fences and gates that are locked at night. They are like outdoor living rooms, with moveable chairs. They are very beautiful and very popular. I first thought that it seemed so wrong that they were closing, but got a serious earful from readers, including some in Paris, and have reconsidered.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, architectural critic Alex Bozicovic pens a paean to parks, noting that in a time of sickness, we all have to take a breath.

For the millions of us who live in cities and lack a lush backyard, green space is something we’ll have to seek out – in order to stay healthy, in body and in spirit. Parks are lungs for the city, and they’re medicine for us.
Tuileries garden/ Lloyd Alter

Tuileries garden/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

He reminds us of why we got parks in the first place: for light, air and openness.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who worked on great urban parks including Mount Royal and Central Park, wrote that trees cleaned the air and prevented the spread of sickness. But he also understood, as did his contemporaries, the value of open space and green space for what we now call mental health. “If we have no relief from [the town] during our waking hours, we should all feel conscious of suffering from it,” Olmsted wrote. Getting a break was crucial to a comfortable urban life, he wrote in 1870, but also to “our ability to maintain a temperate, good-natured and healthy state of mind.”

How to practice 'forest bathing' in a park

Sit on the grass

Please sit on the grass/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Writing in TreeHugger, Melissa Breyer has described the benefits of visiting parks.

A 2019 study found that in cities, the larger the green areas around citizens are, the higher is their wellbeing. People who positively reacted to green areas were found to have reduced activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, also known as the part of the brain that helps process negative emotions and stress. "These results suggest that green areas are particularly important for persons, whose capacity to self-regulate negative emotions is reduced," said Professor Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg.

It doesn't take all that much time

People enjoying a park in paris

Get some social distance going!/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Melissa also writes that two hours of nature a week improves health and wellness, quoting the author of a study:

It's well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people's health and wellbeing but until now we've not been able to say how much is enough. The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing. Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit.
Penalosa tweet

Gil Penalosa on Twitter/Screen capture

Some, like urban design thinker, Gil Penalosa of 880 Cities, wonder if Parisians could just keep some distance from each other, As we are allowed to do and as Alex Bozicovic describes how he will use his local park:

We will be cautious. We’ll stay far from the playgrounds and we will touch no one. But we’ll get outside into the grand places that our society has built and maintained for us: the lungs for the city. We each need to take a breath.
Henri Vidal, Cain after killing his brother Abel

Henri Vidal, Cain after killing his brother Abel, Tuileries Garden/ Photo Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

No wonder this guy in the Tuileries Garden is so sad. If I was in Paris, I would be too, but Parisian parks are so social, like living rooms, and we just can't can't get together in our living rooms anymore.