By the time you read this, yours truly will be in Paris, and not for work, thank you very much. We always make a point of staying within easy walking distance of Paris's wonderful park, the Jardin du Luxembourg. We spend a little time there almost every day, and it's one of my favorite public spaces in the world.
What makes it work so well? I can think of a few things right away: First, it's a great size for a large city park, at 60 acres. That means one still feels in the city when there, but in an especially tranquil part. Second, like great cities themselves, it embodies a variety of vistas and experiences, from the majestic old Luxembourg Palace (now the seat of the French Senate), to the pond in the center where kids play with toy boats, to a bandstand, a marionette theatre, a carrousel, tennis courts, the Medici fountain, terrific nooks and crannies in which to eat and drink, and so on.
Third, it strikes a great balance of nearly always hosting a good crowd of people without feeling crowded, in the sense that, say, Bryant Park or parts of Central Park in New York do. There's almost always a place to sit. Fourth, the architecture and landscape architecture is humane rather than heroic or pastoral, and to my eyes, beautiful. In addition, as with many great places in Europe, it conveys a sense of history (it's been there since 1625) that few places close to home can match.
But don't take my word for it. Here's what the Project for Public Spaces has to say:
"The Luxembourg Gardens may well be one of the most successful parks in the world, partly because it is so well integrated into the fabric of the city around it, which makes it easily accessible. There are also many things to do there, evidenced by the wide range of people who use it: children, older people, Sorbonne students, people cutting through on a lunch break, etc. People come to stroll, play chess, to sit and read, people watch, to sit at one of the cafes or to bring their children or grandchildren to one of the many attractions for kids. Organized activities at the park include tennis, pony rides, puppet theatres, and toy sailboat rental (children float them in the large central fountain). Visitors can also stop inside the Palais and attend a hearing of the French Senate, which is open to the public . . .
"Some of the Gardens' more notable features include the Medicis Fountain, erected in 1861, and a bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty. The park, which closes at sunset, also has a multitude of strolling paths, and is filled with hundreds of movable chairs, which can be rented. Outdoor concerts also occur in the Luxembourg Gardens.
"The design is basically formal: a central parterre dominated by terraces. Allees of trees surround the central terraces and continue in every direction except north, where the Palais du Luxembourg dominates. A free, more English-style garden is situated along Rue Guynemer and Rue Auguste-Comte; it was built during the first Empire and contains winding paths, grassy open areas, and a wide array of sculpture."
There's more about the Jardin's history, and a great slide show, on PPS's web site.
There's also an eloquent passage by David Whitley quoted in Terry Sisk's Travel With Terry web site, which I just found and like very much (the site is also the source of a couple of the beautiful images accompanying this post; move your cursor over them for the credits). Here's part of it:
"That it is called a garden rather than a park is a deliberate statement, the emphasis being on magnificent floral displays rather than vast expanses of lawn. The octagonal pool is surrounded by pots filled with vivid blooms which could pierce through the grayest of days. It's a scene to make you fall in love with the city instantly, particularly when you start looking at the detail . . .
"Just to wander from sector to sector, swigging from a bottle of water, is a delightfully affirmative experience. It's like a scene from 50 years ago, done up with modern costumes, and for the people-watcher, there's just so much to see. So many people, so many activities, so many expressions . . . It's magical in the most simplistic way, and if you can't fall under the charm of Paris here, watching happy children rubbing the manes of their donkeys as they ride around the premises, then heaven help."
For the complete passage, go here. Je suis entierement d'accord.
Kaid Benfield writes occasional Village Green commentary on Huffington Post and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard. For more posts, see his blog's home page.