I decided to take a closer look at this immense haven of fields, lakes, forests and prairies - although even finding an access point already proved to be quite a challenge!
“Our ambition,” declared French star architect Roland Castro, “is to create a kind of parc Monceau for the people but forty times larger, and to give Parisians a reason to cross the périphérique motorway.” Castro, a veteran of transformation projects in the Paris suburbs, was describing his ‘thirty-year dream’ which aims to mold the existing park into a key feature of the new Grand Paris.
Castro though doesn’t want Parisians to just visit. Instead he wants them to pack up their bags and move out to what would become Paris’s ‘Central Park’. With a surface of over 400 hectares, it is already 25% larger than its New York cousin, although Castro’s plans involve lopping off that additional surface to construct 2,000 new buildings, including 24,000 apartments, shops, cinemas and offices around the 13km circumference of the park.
For Castro it represents a project that will “win back one of the most poetic sites of the metropole.” For the local residents of the towns that currently share the park though, it represents a confiscation by the Parisian middle-classes and a concrete asphyxiation of the region’s largest green space. Rather than a place of peace and relaxation, it may well become one of the major battlegrounds of the future Grand Paris.
I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and how the park might look in the future. The problem - as with much of the Paris suburbs - is access. The park originated in the 1950s, and was designed at a time when the motor car was king. It is cut off on one side by the A1 motorway, sliced down the middle by a railway line and surrounded by immense, largely empty, car parks.
Today it only ever really attracts a crowd for the annual Communist party sponsored 'Fête de l'Humanité' festival of music, culture and political debate.
For anyone who actually wants to get there from Paris (without a car), it’s a struggle that involves combinations of Metros, tramways and buses, then access over railway lines and motorways, via periurban clutter or through unwelcoming housing estates.
It is worth the effort though. For Parisians constantly in search of pockets of greenery, it is a park of an unimaginable size. It is also clearly an underexploited resource. The Georges-Valbon park receives around 2 million visitors a year whereas the Buttes Chaumont park in Paris – over ten times smaller – receives 3 million. On a sunny 14 July public holiday, this means choosing between squeezing a picnic blanket into a small square of available space on the steep slopes of Buttes Chaumont, or having enough space to set up a cricket pitch or baseball diamond in Georges-Valbon.
A little touch of 'Central Park' already?
In the centre of the park there is an abandoned outdoor theatre. If it weren't for the concrete 'backstage' buildings, it would be difficult to say whether the theatre had ever been used, or if it had been created simply to give the park a little more 'history' and gravitas.
Walk along a steep pathway to the central viewing point and you get a great vista across the main lake back towards Paris. It's perhaps not immediately clear in this photo, but yes, there is the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré Coeur, La Defense and the basilica of Saint Denis in the shot!
Further to the north-east, an artificially landscaped and more recent section of the park gives the same view from a little further away. The park here is more playful, with waterfalls and hills like camel humps to run up and down.
The park ends on this side - or begins for those entering from here - with a vast prairie. It also dominates one of the runways of the Le Bourget, Europe's leading private jet airport!
After walking for several kilometres across the full width of the park, I exited here on the edge of Garges la Gonnesse and Stains, and was immediately confronted by a large roundabout, a KFC and a 'drive-thru' McDonalds and no idea about how I would make it back to Paris.
Roland Castro's project is rather to bring Paris here, and the idea does at first seem to be an attractive one. Would it not be better to surround the park with new communities, new schools, a greater mix of social backgrounds rather than fast-food establishments, supermarkets and bus depots?
There are though different ways and means of achieving this goal. One of the park's designers, Allain Provost, has described Castro's plans as representing the "genocide of 10,000 trees." 70% of the park has also been awarded the highest environmental classification, and standing on top of it's highest point it seems difficult to imagine it completely surrounded by offices and apartment blocks.
The area in which the park is situated features some of the poorest zones in the country's poorest department, and it is difficult to refuse such an influx of investment. If local residents had been more involved in the project then it is probable that they would not now be organising mass picnics each weekend to gather support against it. Yes, it is a good idea to bring Paris to the park, but it should also be used to stitch together the five towns and its various communities that are little more than a series of abandoned islands today.