Parisians often moan about the Americanization of French society. But no city center is complete without a McDonald’s, and most small cinemas have long been replaced by US style multiplex theaters where American films pull in a fair share of the overall audience.
At least one transatlantic import, however, seems to get a thumbs-up: New York inspired community gardens. Nonetheless, compared to the Big Apple, which has no less than 700 of them, Paris is still a newcomer to the phenomenon.
Ever since the Socialist Party took over the capital at municipal elections in 2001, community gardens are mushrooming in the Eastern part of the capital. As in New York, most of these “Jardins collectifs,” as they are dubbed here, are in run-down areas with a high concentration of immigrants. One of these gardens, located in the gruff Stalingrad area, infamous for its crack dealers and vandalism, has even become a spot where tourist buses slow down to get a sight of a green oasis sprawling among grey buildings, before jetting off to Montmartre or the Louvre.
While some of these initiatives aim at boosting the confidence level of high school drop outs through gardening, others simply intend to enhance the living standards of people in lower income neighborhoods. In late September, the Mayor’s team even organized a “garden week” to popularize a trend which is getting more and more media attention in France.
Bertrand Delanoé, Paris’ mayor, seems set on pushing the green agenda: in addition to giving the go-ahead to various community garden projects, his team has also implemented a bike and bus-friendly policy, badly needed in a city suffering from air pollution caused by car congestion. On many main roads buses und bicycles now have their own lanes. Unfortunately, it will prove hard to convince Parisians to swap the privacy of their cars for a bike, even when only moving at five mph. To date, only 96,000 of a total of two million inhabitants have switched to the latter means of transport.
Another green project driven by the new city leaders might not be a big deal to Americans, but it makes a big difference to Parisians. They are at last able to sit down on public lawns during lunch time without fearing the whistle of a park ranger. Opening up the lawns to the public has been a huge success this summer with employees occupying every inch of the freed grass to swallow up their sandwiches.
Finally, Paris at last has a capital-wide recycling policy. Until recently, some quarters still had people dispose of trash in one single bin. In France, each inhabitant produces on average 830 pounds of household waste per year. While this is only half of what Americans produce, it is more than in most European nations. Catching up with eco-warrior nations like Sweden or Austria might prove difficult, but the tides are turning in a town that refuses to be better known for its smog than the Eiffel Tower.