Urban Awesomeness 101 – Place de la Contrescarpe, Paris

I found a pretty damn fine public square on my recent visit to Paris. By stroke of luck, my Latin Quarter AirBnB was just around the corner, so it didn’t take me long to stumble upon Place de la Contrescarpe. Those of you who have been there know it is beautiful, walkable, well-scaled, and has some nice cafes, allowing one to sit and people watch. I did so on my first evening there, and made sure to return each morning and evening thereafter. I felt as though I’d found a little slice of urban perfection. The question is, are places like this simple or difficult to create?

Place de la Contrescarpe, a lovely urban place, day and night

Place de la Contrescarpe, a lovely urban place, day and night

Place de la Contrescarpe seems strikingly simple at first blush. It is square, about 100 by 100 feet across. At its center are four trees, two lights, and one fountain.  A circular street wraps the center, like a mini-roundabout, but with very little traffic and the vehicles that do pass through move quite slowly. The square is surrounded by three- to five-story buildings. No starchitecture here; the buildings blend in with their surroundings. Four cafes face it the square, as well as a number of retail spaces. There is a clock. Urban simplicity.

100 by 100 feet, four lights, two trees, one fountain - simple!

100 by 100 feet, four lights, two trees, one fountain – simple!

A few additional details I noticed. There are curbs between the roundabout street in the square and its surrounding sidewalks, but the height difference is a couple inches, and essentially the entire square is one pedestrian zone. Also, although there are hundreds of chairs at the four cafes around Place de la Contrescarpe, they don’t encroach in a major way on the square. Most space is indeed public. Lastly, there are no benches. Granted, there are hundreds of café chairs, but no actual public places to sit (although some people sat on the wrought iron fence surrounding the fountain, so there is demand for seating).

One of the simple pleasures of cities is shopkeepers sweeping their sidewalks and greeting passers-by

One of the simple pleasures of cities is shopkeepers sweeping their sidewalks and greeting passers-by

Context is important, of course. Five streets provide access to Place de la Contrescarpe, including the popular rue Mouffetard. These five streets are all quite narrow, as this is one of the older sections of Paris, and there are no grand Haussmann boulevards nearby. Still, cars are allowed, they just aren’t encouraged. This includes delivery trucks, which simply park on the square to unload. My favorite memory is watching a delivery truck driver drop off a shipment at a café, then stop in the nearby patisserie for a baguette. He emerged with a huge smile on his face, clearly happy the patisserie was on his rounds.

The immediate area is outlandishly pedestrian-friendly. One block of rue Mouffetard has an insane GDA of 42 (interestingly, another block facing the square has a single door, making its GDA quite low, but outdoor seating for more than 50 people is a very good tradeoff!). The narrow streets and general abundance of people keep traffic speeds below 10MPH. And honestly, the vast majority of people arrive on foot, whether stopping or passing through. Want a litmus test? I watched many children walk alone, an indication that parents do not fear for their kids’ safety. Kids are more likely to choke on a croissant than get hit by a car. On weekday mornings Place de la Contrescarpe is full of parents walking their kids to school, and on weekend nights it is full or diners and revelers.

One clock. 8AM, just prior to the streets filling with children walking to school.

One clock. 8AM, just prior to the streets filling with children walking to school.

The population of the 5th arrondissement is a little more than 60,000 in what is essentially a square mile, with a density of 98 people per acre. Given its location at the center of the district, a significant number of people live within the all-important five- and ten-minute walk of Place de la Contrescarpe. Moreover, it is (along with rue Mouffetard) a major draw citywide.

I got to thinking, am I just wowed by being on vacation? Sure, the food and wine are excellent, and Paris is beautiful, but why do I like Place de la Contrescarpe so much? And moreover, is there anything remotely like this in the Twin Cities? I didn’t want to think about this for too long because I would quickly get depressed, but alas, I did, and two places came to mind. One is Grand Way at Excelsior and Grand, and the other is the space between Mozaic and the future second phase of the project. Both spaces are intended to be pedestrian-friendly, include restaurants, and they manage cars pretty well, draw visitors from an area beyond the neighborhood, and are overall pleasant places for people.

I do think the intimacy of Place de la Contrescarpe, at 100 by 100 feet across, is very important. The ability to make eye contact with someone across the square is very humanizing. By comparison, Grand Way is about 160 feet from building face to building face, and its first block is 250 feet long, so it is much bigger than Place de la Contrescarpe, and thus less intimate. The restaurant patios that do front Grand Way add to the pedestrian-friendliness, as do other retail storefronts and good management of car speeds.  The Mozaic “square” is more intimate, or will be when phase 2 is complete, and right now measures about 75 by 175 feet. Still, until phase 2 is complete we can’t know how it feels.

Although Excelsior and Grand is a dense project by itself, the surrounding area is nowhere close. There are about 35,000 living within one mile of Mozaic, so this area of Uptown does have relatively high density, but not quite that of the Latin Quarter in Paris. Still the “square” at Mozaic provides very good north/south pedestrian access to and through the site. One major advantage is cars are not allowed through the site. A drawback is the Bar Louie patio occupies a significant portion of the square, and is clearly private space, leaving less casual public space on which to just hang out. Still, the public spaces at Grand Way and Mozaic are far from depressing, even if they don’t quite match the simplicity and sheer awesomeness of Place de la Contrescarpe.

As wonderful as Paris cafes are, most don't encroach too much on the public realm

As wonderful as Paris cafes are, most don’t encroach too much on the public realm

It’s fair to say that we sometimes try too hard when attempting to create attractive places. We think that landscape elements and public art will draw people, but forget that the right scale and a few simple elements do the trick, and they can do so any place on earth. And then we’re reminded that it takes more, like the right surrounding context, density and transit system to get people there, etc. Still, it is amazing what can be achieved with two lights, four trees, a fountain, and limited traffic speeds, all in a space just 100 by 100 feet.

Simplistic, excellent, intimate human scale. It seems so easy, right? But to get to this level of simplicity would require new zoning, transportation engineering, and a further increase in nearby density. In other words, while the Twin Cities and other places are making strides, to build something as elegantly simple as Place de la Contrescarpe is, in reality, exceptionally difficult. And that is precisely why I stopped by one last time before boarding my train from Paris, for one more cup of coffee and a look around.

One more cup of coffee before I go

One more cup of coffee before I go

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.

17 thoughts on “Urban Awesomeness 101 – Place de la Contrescarpe, Paris

  1. Matty LangMatty Lang

    Don’t have the time to read right now, but I have to leave a comment.

    I spent time here pretty much everyday during the year I lived in Paris as a student. I hope you tried the Lebanese sandwich shop a couple of doors down from the clock.

    Ernest Hemingway also lived just off of this Place during his time in Paris. It’s a top notch urban space. I’ll come back to comment again after I get a chance to read.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Hemingway – I was aware he lived nearby, but I have to wonder if he and his fellow expatriates were constantly too “tight” to understand what a wonderful urban environment they were part of. Or maybe we’re just nerds!

  2. Matty LangMatty Lang

    Excellent post, Sam. I think that 7th Place in downtown Saint Paul has the potential to become a similar awesome urban place if it can continue to be activated with more uses and downtown’s residential density continues to rise.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Yes, 7th Place has the right scale and is already a good place. No reason it can’t become awesome.

      1. Stephen

        I went to Brussels and Paris last year. Walking down 7th Place earlier this summer with my spouse, we were instantly swept away with memories of our European travels. It is already awesome and can only become more awesome!

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Sam. When I’ve gone back and forth between the U.S. and Europe I’ve often wondered what all make places like this work. What role does the surrounding neighborhood play? How many people frequenting this square live nearby so this is ‘their’ square? They know people and are greeting people and shopkeepers. Car noise is certainly an element. Slower is quieter. Aside from noise slower is sort of more comfortable for people nearby. People in the U.S. talk really really (and annoyingly?) loud compared to elsewhere, does that make a difference?

    People (fashion) watching is officially a key element! It’s interesting how chairs at places outside the U.S. often face the street. Of course this arrangement also allows more chairs and tables in a small area.

    Besides sidewalk seating many cafés there will have an open front wall with either doors or windows that open to connect the inside with the outside. We’re seeing some of that here. Along Grand a number of places like Wild Onion, Axel’s, and Brasa have opened up their sidewalk side walls. This makes the sidewalk more inviting. Just compare walking by Axel’s on Grand to walking by The Salt Cellar (Selby & Western). It makes the inside more inviting feeling as well. We don’t go to Salt Cellar largely because it feels so closed off inside and outside.

    Cafés there often have good awnings instead of umbrellas (except in some tourist areas). They understand that people want to be outside but not necessarily in direct sun. This also allows them to be used in rain.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Whew, Walker, you raise some interesting points. While café culture in Paris seems like such a permanent fixture of life there, ours is still evolving, luckily in the right direction!

      You are right about positioning – there isn’t a lot of room at sidewalk cafes there, but all seats face the sidewalk, at no more than 90 degrees, and it seems like rearranging chairs was generally frowned upon. But what the hell do I know – I was there two days!

      But I did notice a measurable ratio of the closest sidewalk table to the speed of moving traffic on the street. On Place de la Contrescarpe and other streets less than 10MPH (and less than 20 feet wide), café tables were a couple feet from the curb and street (and moving traffic), while on larger streets (20 MPH speeds) they were set back by several (8 to 15) feet from moving traffic, and sometimes there were parked cars and/or boulevard trees, whereas at a café I visited on the Champs-Elysees there was a barrier and the tables and chairs didn’t necessarily face the street at all since there is too much traffic moving too fast. These cafes were in the middle of the sidewalk, much like Brits on Nicollet Mall, and the Champs-Elysees is a pretty exceptional street with plenty of width to accommodate this sort of thing.

      Uh oh, I feel another post coming on!

  4. Scott

    This is a very thoughtful post, and makes me wonder why there are so few truly beautiful and lively urban places in MSP. So much of our urban fabric was destroyed and/or lacks several key elements. Grand Way in SLP looks great, but lacks vibrancy and density. MoZaic in Uptown is active, but lacks visual interest (It’s surrounded by an 11-story parking ramp, giant parking lot, private driveways to the parking facilities, and the back side of buildings). I am really hoping a renovated Nicollet Mall will encourage more street level retail and vibrancy making at least a few blocks seem special.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I’m not sure you can do ‘a place’ in isolation. You can start there but I think a place like Contrescarpe needs a lot in it’s surroundings like a lot of people living nearby to make it work. Otherwise it will either be dead without viable businesses or have such a nice parking ramp alongside it.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        Interesting thoughts, Walker and Scott.

        I think Walker is right, doing a place in isolation is tough. Think of it this way: Place de la Contrescarpe has all its ducks in a row, if you will, thanks to around 200 years of decisions that are both good and lucky, but resulted in great urbanism. Context, transit and pedestrian access (a much newer contraflow bike lane has been added!), density, great ground floor design, slow traffic speeds, etc.

        You can measure that stuff – quantitatively, even though so many people like that place, which is simply qualitative.

        What is so interesting is, if you get all that context and pedestrian access right, the actual placemaking is so simple, like slow traffic, a couple trees, etc. That is why PARKing Day and Better Block events work so well – they provide simple additional pieces to what should be good existing context.

  5. Lynne Bly

    Shhhhh, don’t tell about this treasure!
    Actually, it is a lovely gem and where my daughter and I had breakfast every morning of our stay a few years ago.
    Another nearby wonder is the restored Roman ampitheatre — the Arenes de Lutece. It is just off Rue Mongue.

  6. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

    So those of you who own A Pattern Language, open your copy to the book of Towns (chapter 1), verse 123 (it’s kind of the Bible of urbanism, right?): Pedestrian Density.

    If you take the approximate 100 by 100 feet dimensions of Place de la Contrescarpe, you get 10,000 square feet of plaza. I checked my photos, and the Thursday evening I was there at about 9PM, I estimate, between folks seated at the various cafes, hanging out on the square, or just passing through, I came up with a number of 62 people, give or take.

    Regarding pedestrian density, Christopher Alexander indicates that at 150 square feet per person, an area is lively, but once you get to 500 or more square feet per person, an area starts to become dead. So what are 62 people in Place de la Contrescarpe? 161 square feet per person, nearly spot on to Alexander’s liveliness indicator!

    This shouldn’t be a surprise, but since this entire post is based on an initial series of observations and basically a gut feel that this place was scaled right, and therefore something special, it is heartening to have the math of a preeminent urban thinker prove this out.

    What about the mere 21 people on a Friday morning? That’s 476 square feet per person, still, remarkably, below the threshold for being “dead.” At that hour, 8AM, it’s not dead, so let’s call it “just waking up.”

Comments are closed.