Why the Suburbs of Paris Provide an Invaluable Resource for Urban Forestry Research.

Many professionals view Paris as the city of trees. It’s tree lined avenues and surrounding forests certainly give it a sylvan horizon and the trees are considered an asset beyond value. In the centre, having chosen Horse Chestnut as a replacement for many of the street trees in the 60’s & 70’s, the effects of leaf miner have in turn highlighted the importance of trees, as so many look like they are close to death at the same time as budget cuts affect the maintenance regime of these trees. But it is not in the centre where the decisions with regards urban forestry are made, it is in the suburban districts whose microcosms of urban land management allow for a huge range of case studies to investigate ultimately helping provide answers for the future of urban forestry in France and further afield with the risks all trees face.  

 The banlieue of Paris, the suburban ring, is a unique landscape one which has very much been shaped by people and practitioners in a bottom up approach historically. It is landscape of urban sprawl, unregulated development and all the problems associated with it, (no longer possible in France), but conversely clearly defines the desires and taste of those choosing to settle there and which ultimately resulted in a  landscape shaped around these desires.  

The pattern of the Banlieue is one which appears to be consistent around the exterior of central Paris on a map, but the differences are all too apparent when visiting the various districts and unlike many other large cities, the trees and greenspace do not decline in poorer areas, rather the reverse. And certainly the health of the trees is significantly better in poorer areas.

This is easy to see, look at the trees on the Champs Elysées and then travel out to St. Denis and have a look at the trees there.

The Mairies, local government of the various towns surrounding the City, often only distinguishable by way of a prominent road sign, outside the périphérique have to deal with a population who are very vocal in how they want trees placed in their neighbourhoods. Suburbs become increasingly or decreasingly popular, this is reflected in house prices but are sometimes driven by house prices – the estate agent has been able to create self importance by way of selecting a particular area and then concentrating on it in a drive to up prices, as the French immobilier takes a percentage > 5% of the final sale, it is of course very much in their interests to do this. It doesn’t help the Local authorities, whose income remains the same but it does invariably kickstart regeneration through private sector finances. A classic example at present in Paris is St Ouen, where the Marché aux Puces can be found. This model is actually referred to as ‘Anglais’.

The private sector investment invariably leads to commercial landscaping, which usually ignores local factors which will affect plant and tree growth, often resulting in rows of dead trees and pointless hard landscaping, which allow for nothing more than a scrutiny to try and decipher what was going on in the head of the designer. Economics is directly linked to care and attention of the trees and landscaping – in poor financial situations, you can safely assume that the surviving trees have absolutely no future at all. The ‘Anglais’ model is heavily criticised and the Mairies lack the budget to repair the problems caused.

It is very different to what is genuinely an English model and the result of Ebenezor Howard’s influence on the French psyche – the garden city. L’Vésinet, Vèrrieres le Buisson and further afield Lamorlaye are textbook examples. Whilst rich and housing a population which includes politicians, bankers and footballers, such areas are far from exclusive. Trees are often vestiges of ancient woodland, forming a backdrop to a landscape which all British would instantly recognise, the classic English garden and parkland landscape.

But the trees and plants in these areas are under greater threat than any of the neighbours. The problems now seen in the English country landscape are rife in these areas, pests, diseases and invasive vegetation threaten what has become the very essence of these communities. Muntjac, Phytophthora ramorum and Japanese knotweed are rapidly destroying the local biodiversity at an alarming rate.

But the most exciting case studies are the vast majority of the other areas, those which follow a pattern linked to the people who live there. And I would recommend that anyone with an interest in urban trees visits a classic example; Rueil Malmaison. Just south of Nanterre, an impoverished area and North of St. Cloud a very rich area, it is a blend of the two. With all the elements of modern French society contained within it, it defies the comments of Angela Merkel and others who claim that multiculturalism does not work.  

Geographically it is bordered on two sides by the meandering Seine, with a cultural history linked to the great impressionists. Its soils are rich alluvial soils, capable of growing almost anything.

And it is all these elements and more which have combined to create an invaluable modern attribute as a landscape. A landscape where you can climb a residential tower block and look down onto tiny plots of orchards, potagers and that most ‘french’ of landscapes; vineyards.

The tree lined avenues have all been carefully planned. The absolute reverse of the quotation:   

“Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.” 
–  Bill Vaughan
  

The streets were named after trees and then planted with the trees in such density that officially they can be classified as woodland.

Follow a street map and you can see what affects climate, (for example the spring drought and exceptional autumnal temperatures), has on individual tree species with ease. It is a huge resource for tree professionals, which allows for easy policy making decisions with regards urban trees.

It also worth remembering that this area, although in ancient history was woodland, throughout much of history was an area of farmland, intersected with quarries and small industrial sites. Despite the current population it is now richer in biodiversity than it ever has been before.

This peoples’ landscape is the proof that localism, site specific planting and trust in practitioners can work. Expert led, design led, top down or centralised policies would have thwarted the progress made in Rueil.

The other area of Paris which is a must for anyone interested in trees and plants is Levallois Perret, one of the most densely populated municipalities in Europe, an area of apartments but which contains without doubt some of the best designed parks and greenspace in Europe, if not the world. Every space that could accommodate a tree does so, and the choice of species is as rich as the biggest tree nurseries.

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