Saturday 1 June 2013

I Remember When This Will All Be Trees

A visit to what will become, in 2014, the city's first forest.

You need a lot of imagination to visualise a forest in this location. It looks more like an oversight or a service road, squeezed between what was until recently a wasteland and the city's périphérique motorway. The wasteland - or friche - has given way to a strip of modern office blocks and a new multi-screen cinema that will open in a couple of months time, but the motorway still announces its presence with a continuous rumble.

'Ici, Paris plante sa première forêt' (here, Paris is planting its first forest) announce signs around the construction site, but currently it is just a large pile of earth being manipulated by mechanical diggers. A lady wanders past with a dog, a sign that people have already adopted this new neighbourhood. Perhaps the dog is already dreaming of the sticks it will be able to find, and the birds it will be able to chase.

The forest will be more of a wooded pathway, 350 metres long and around 30 metres wide. It will be made up of over 3,000 trees - oaks, ash, lime and maple, but also more exotic pines - but these will be planted as young saplings. The first explorers of this forest will feel like giants, strolling through the dwarf wilderness of 1 metre high trees.

The reason for this is twofold; younger trees will be able to adapt more easily to what will remain a hostile environment, and secondly 3,000 saplings are a lot cheaper than the same quantity of mature plants. "Une forêt ne se fait pas en un jour" explained Fabienne Giboudeaux, in charge of Green spaces for the Paris city council, in a recent interview. "Nous préparons aussi la ville de nos enfants et petits-enfants.*" 

Walking through this environment today it strikes me that I'm experiencing a somewhat unique perspective on a feature of the city that future generations might look at as being without age. How often do we experience the creation of a forest in an urban setting? We are more used to the opposite situation, the chopping down of trees and digging up of fields to lay down concrete. 

That said, the project is also clearly a form of reverse nostalgia, a longing for a future of things that never really were. The city is trying to reclaim a lost virginity, but the forest will also play a more practical role. A sound barrier is being built alongside the motorway, and the trees will provide a cosmetic shield. The boardroom of unsmiling BNP bankers, observing me as I wander around the construction site, must approve.

The rather garish multicoloured offices of the bank, recently transferred out to this city limit from the comforts of the city centre, mark one end of the forest, alongside the unkempt post-industrial Canal de Saint Denis. If this side is a reborn environment, at the opposite extermity of the forest to be, there is the mature landscape of a previous generation's vision for the city.

The trees here will provide a prolongation of the forest, a return to a carefully managed environment. The forest will - artificially - allow nature to be wild, but here we clearly see man's domination of nature. The city limits are though notoriously difficult to control.

Just beyond this garden is a strip of land alongside the motorway that seems to belong to no-one. It is just beyond the Paris city limits, but not yet in the neighbouring town of Aubervilliers. Installed here is a wooden shanty village housing those forced into such unmapped pockets. Although there are trees here this is not a forest but rather an island, an unplanned territory that no-one will remember in the future...or the past. 

*A forest isn't made in a day. We're also building the city of our children and grandchildren.


gee said...

paris really is awful in parts, great blog

Anonymous said...

As one who will not live to see this forest grow to maturity, I respect those who can find the will to plan long term. In my youth it felt that such planning was kind of a hopeful gesture at best. But even today I was admiring the thickness of the trees in the Place du Chatelet, remembering (what seems like yesterday) how bereft of such it felt like in 1998. And then the cynic in me arrives, the saplings will be pilfered for wood or otherwise destroyed by the encroaching armies of the desperate. e.g.

Monday, May 27, at 8:13 a.m., Officers responded to the 1500 block of Palisades Park regarding a report of a woman who had just pulled a newly planted palm tree out of the ground, breaking it at its base. When officers arrived they spoke with a witness who identified the suspect. They told officers that for no reason the woman pulled the tree out of the ground and threw it. The suspect refused to speak with police and was subsequently placed under arrest for vandalism.

Adam said...

Anonymous: In times past, people would commence immense projects such as cathedrals and castles knowing that they would never see the finished item. Today we expect vast skyscrapers to appear in months, and parks and forests to be instantly mature.

What interested me here was this in-between period. We usually know what things once were and what they've become, but we rarely look at the transition periods. Here though there was not even a past as such, so the future environment will also come to represent the past.

Philippa said...

I love your choice of title. And how interesting that there are still shantytowns like those that once covered vast areas north of Montmartre. Didn't they call it the "Zone"?

Astrid Steinhilber said...

This is great! Can't wait to visit on our next trip to 2016!

oliviadog said...

inspired, hopeful and thanks!

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