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.