'Greening the City' Paris & Amsterdam: Flagship examples of European green space urban initiatives

Research has convincingly demonstrated that vegetation is an efficient instrument against urban warming up and for cleaning urban air.
It is astonishing that local governments, architects and urban planners still do not use vegetation as a prominent feature in all their designs. Why don’t we have green roofs, vertical green on buildings and trees along the roads as a standard equipment of all our planning and building activities?

In the sphere of public health, urban climate and recreation the opinions of civil servants prevail and often judicial regulations from the twenties and the fifties are still valid.
Most of the cities, de planners and architects are still thinking and feeling in the spirit of modernisme. Urban greenery is still mainly used for its aesthetic aspects.These decades knew totally different  living conditions within the cities. Parks and avenues in cities were designed from aesthetic and philanthropic points of view – not as essentials for healthy urban living conditions. Vegetation is regarded as ‘nature’, as another world – separate form the world of men. This attitude finds its clearest expression in the planners’ language; buildings and streets are red in the plans - parks and sports fields are green: enclosed and domesticated urban nature, distinct from built up areas. Red and green is clearly separated. A row of trees along a road makes an acceptable inconsequence and is tolerated for aesthetic reasons. But as soon as the function of the street, the buildings and their equipment change and trees form a hinder, the trees have to be cut...
Completely in the spirit of Modernisme - although the problems of microscopic particles, CO2 content of the air and water control have emerged dramatically, and the role that vegetation can play in defending environmental conditions is well known meanwhile – at least among scientists and experts.
Every day practice still is 'red against green'. Look here, some buildings designed by achitectural icoon Jean Nouvel: 

Now we need the opposite:
Red under green, red as green – red as a support of green!

It means a complete change in thinking! This is what urban planning and architecture have to deal with today.
A good idea but is it possible? Yes! Red in the role of green is possible, there  is no lack of technical solutions. Many technical possibilities for green on and around buildings and in dense streets have been developed and tested of late. The problem is not a technical one but a question of mental barriers.

Architects, urban planners, politicians, investors and citizens will have to revise their ideas about priorities and about what a building, a street, a city should look like. For over a century we have been immersed in modernism and its style. This is how our feelings of what things have to look like are still determined. This will lay a heavy claim on change.
We need a complete switch in our mental and aesthetic approach of the city! this is what makes things so difficult - the highest barriers are never material or technological, they are mental...
The whole thing is a question of mental flexibility, of intelligence, of courage....
But as always, there is an avant-garde, the mainstream and tail lights - this is the case now, too.
Let’s have a look at the avant-garde:
There is a cautious first beginning in handling green in the city, there are signs of changing ideas among architects and urban planners. In some places we can observe the first signs of a real switch in practice.
Of course local situations differ, people differ, the cultural and political climate can be very different. There are towns that dare to take exceptional steps in the direction of more green in just one respect. Green roofs are good examples. There are cities that have obligations for green roofs on each new building. Other cities are quite advanced in water management, and so on...


The example of 'Greening Paris'.
When I point out Paris, it is because for a couple of years Paris has developed and realised an astonishingly coherent policy of ‘végétalisation de la ville’ , of making the city green. A policy which comprises the whole range of green development. 

Paris is the densest city on the continent. Paris has an enormous problem to live up to the European standards of microscopic particles and CO2 content of the air. For the first time a coalition of social democrats and the green party has been formed in 2001. From a changed political approach by the local government, an offensive has been developed to tackle the environmental problems of the city with the whole range of all that can help.
On the one hand measures have been taken to reduce individual traffic and increase public transport and to stimulate the use of bikes (meanwhile a famous and very successful bike-approach). On the other hand a broad green-campaign. This started with an animation campaign for citizens to make Paris green - to extend vegetation wherever possible, and it has taken shape in a range of green strategies by the local government which has even led to new tasks and change of structures within the administration.

In 2007 the city started with a spectacular exhibition inside and in front of the city hall. During the summer months the large square in front of the city hall was changed into a temporary garden. The city gave information about all its green initiatives and new gardens and demonstrated the possibilities of how residents themselves can contribute to increasing Paris’ greenery. In the summer of 2008 the garden has been laid out again, even with a lake in front of the city hall, the heart of Paris. 

All green activities by and in the community are also broadly described on the website of the department of gardens and parks.  There one can read as a leading principle:

“Les Parisiens sont régulièrement encouragés à participer à la végétalisation de la ville par la création de jardins partagés, concours de fleurissement des balcons et fenêtres, cours et conseils de jardinage, un guide pour jardiner bio…“ (the parisians are regularily encouraged to contribute to the greening the city, by the creation of community gardens, balcony and window flower competitions, lessons and advice for gardening, a manual for bio-gardening... )
What is expressed here - and to my mind is really exceptional and exemplary - is that the local authorities think and work from a shared point of view. This vision is propagated to the citizens and is the basis for generating acceptance of the strategies developed in the various fields. In this way all these activities reinforce each other.
A consistent strategy encompassing all urban green activities also has its positive effects within the civil services. Many activities are executed by more than one department in close cooperation, apparently running smoothly. I know of other communities how much opposition green initiatives often experience from other departments. In my interviews in Paris I always received relaxed answers. Here the departments seem to cooperate better than elsewhere. This has all to do with the autorities´ strategy of propagating initiatives unitedly and broadly.

As to the details, there are only a few points  in which Paris is exceptionally progressive.
The strategy on vertical green is exceptional.
This is regarded a cornerstone in the strategy to make Paris greener. Paris is a densely built city. As there is little horizontal space, the idea has been developed to include vertical surfaces in the efforts to green up the city. For this innovative vertical green an extra department was formed. Citizens, proprietors as well tenants, can apply for the greening up of the outer wall of their building.
This request is then checked and, if approved, the plants are supplied and the city takes over the maintenance (!).

In this way remarkable vertical gardens have been created: 92 green walls in the past few years. In this number de
number de ‘murs végétalisés’ outside this program are not included. The most famous are the creations by Patrick Blanc on outer walls of the new museum Quai Branly, a tourist attraction, and at the wall of BHV Homme, Rue de Verrerie. (See also several articles and interviews in BIOTOPE CITY JOURNAL on vertical gardens in Paris.)The great number of new public gardens – often pocket gardens – and parks laid out in the last few years must also be mentioned.
Paris is a very dense city but also a city with a tradition of many parks and public gardens. Meanwhile there are 485 in number, 36 of them made during the last years.

 A famous example of a nieuw garden in the center of the city where no space for gardens at all, is the garden on the roof of Gare Montparnasse, a crouwded station which now offers silent green space in a beautifull garden on it's roof .

The strategy to realise so called jardins partagés, community gardens is new. These are gardens in the middle of the dense city, that have been laid out by the local residents themselves in small plots of public space, made available by the local authorities. These are a great success among citizens. Meanwhile they are spread over the whole city and there are long waiting lists.
Concerning trees: Paris has 96.000 trees along streets and another 87.000 in small parks and churchyards. That sounds a lot but in comparison with Amsterdam it is not so impressive. Amsterdam, being far smaller, counts 350.000 trees in the streets, not counting those in parks, churchyards en wooded areas.
The number of trees in Paris increases with almost 1 % a year. That is an additional 900 trees. They are  replaced every sixty years, which means 1,6 %  a year. They are replaced by six year old trees.
Here the new policy is  to introduce a far reaching diversification.
Since 2001 each tree has a chip, fixed in the foot of the tree from which a digital device can read information about it. Detailed information about every tree is digitally stored. (This way of registration is considered outdated in Amsterdam. The chips are encapsulated by the growing trees. After six years they are no longer legible and have to be replaced by boring new holes in the trees. In Amsterdam each tree is recorded in a GPS system without having to mark the tree itself.)
In comparison with Amsterdam, Paris is less advanced in the way of trees. With one exception:
gardening around trees. An attractive and interesting initiative in Paris is stimulating local residents to adopt the free space around a tree for gardening.

It is perfectly in line with the policy to rouse citizens´ interest in urban nature. Where there is no room for jardins partagés this provides opportunities for gardening, which children love.
The rules are as follow:
Residents that want to do some gardening around trees in their street have to form clubs, which are then assisted by the local authorities. These clubs will be held responsible for their activities. They are instructed in selecting plants and cultivating their tiny plots.
It is a cheap and playful way to let people, especially children, participate in the greening of the city.
Other steps in that direction are the competitions in dressing up balconies, the many courses on plants, urban nature and gardening offered by the city and a widely propagated campaign ´main vert´ (green fingers) with its slogan:

The city is a refuge for biodiversity.

In this context the city´s well tried appeal fits perfectly:

Fight climate change, create woods
One Parisian - one tree
A million Parisians - a million trees.

To summarize:
Paris has committed itself to a broad, coherent and centrally managed policy on vegetalisation de la ville, that is accompanied by a very effective public relations strategy directed at all the citizens.
It is a clever policy, based on the simple truth that greenery in the city is extremely vulnerable and dependent on the benevolence of the residents to support it actively and have it realized on a wide scale. 

Green Amsterdam

Conversely, Amsterdam's strategy concerning public greenery in the city takes an entirely different direction. The administrative and cultural viewpoints of this city, however, also differ greatly from one another: it could indeed be said they are at odds with each other.
Twenty years ago, Amsterdam was administratively divided up into 14 boroughs which were given autonomy in many areas - this applies specifically to trees and other public greenery. How the boroughs operate in this area also varies greatly. Amsterdam is a city with a certain amount of anarchistic tradition. While people in Paris are accustomed to a centrally managed government, in Amsterdam the reverse is true: government intervention has traditionally been viewed with suspicion. 

Citizens traditionally develop their own initiatives and often try to gain government acceptance after the fact, often with success. A policy which stimulates citizens towards appreciation of public greenery and activities which emphasise greenery is then also far less necessary: there are numerous citizens' group who have provided for sweeping and exciting greenery initiatives in their neighbourhoods:


Hollyhocks interspersed between stones along the canals and wildflowers and (sometimes even rare) wild plants in diverse Grachten which are discovered, cherished and protected from municipal cleaning crews by residents.

Floating pallets for water plants and nesting areas for water birds in a number of canals, constructed by resident .

Plants around the foot of trees and small plant boxes and areas in front of buildings in many streets, some of them simply lacking a permit; in some cases forcibly legalised by contract: a 30 cm strip in front of a facade is left free by the borough for planting.

Strong defence for trees which are placed on lists to be felled. The 'Save the Anne Frank Tree’ action was a spectacular initiative to preserve an historic tree, receiving international media coverage - the action ended in victory by the citizens' initiative: the tree was allowed to remain and a foundation was set up to take over responsibility for it.

All these initiatives, however, take place completely independently of each other; they are not coordinated and usually don't even know of each other's existence: the borough sets the limits, but even within a borough people are working so individualistically that they are hardly aware of what's going on a few streets further up.
In this way there is much happening regarding 'greening the city ’ – although there is scarcely any official policy: it simply happens.
Trees are somewhat of an exception. Amsterdam has an extremely long tradition of street trees. Since the 17th century, trees have been planted along the canals – there are 350,000 trees lining the streets, an enormous number for a city of 700,000 inhabitants. 

Nevertheless, Amsterdam has only a few really old trees. Unusual, valuable and monumental trees are scare because of the specific growing conditions in Amsterdam. The groundwater level is rather high and trees have an extension root system that never extends deeper than the level of the groundwater. The average groundwater level in Amsterdam is 1 metre below the surface. Trees are perfectly able to adapt – trees in Amsterdam have developed a root system in the form a pancake: shallow and horizontally oriented. This method was sufficient for adaptation in the past, when the street was free from underground cables and pipes. On one side of the trees there are quays serving as a boundary, on the other side is the street. Meanwhile the ground underneath has become filled up with a barrier of pipes and cables. Space for growth has become very limited: a thin ribbon along the water. Replacement trees cannot be placed as close together as in the past – or they never will reach their full dimensions.
A number of city boroughs have catalogued old and monumental trees in the city, and the city’s central government has published a 'Manual for Monumental Trees'. Some city boroughs have even appointed a special committee to dispense advice on tree-cutting requests. In addition to tree consultants, local residents can also serve on these advisory committees.
Due to the high groundwater level and accompanying problems, treeexperts in Amsterdam have developed a series of fairly advanced methods to manage trees: to move mature trees and to allow new trees to grow in the most unfavourable conditions. Those who are interested can contact the Metropolitan Tree Consultant [Hoofdstedelijke Bomenconsulent van Amsterdam]; a brochure has also been produced which contains an English summary.
Another note: As already said Amsterdam has an extremely large number of old street trees – this amount will not increase further in the coming years, as is the case in Paris, but will instead decrease. This is unfortunate. It has to do with the problems listed above, caused by the ever-expanding underground cable and pipe system, as well as with the increasing density of the city: Amsterdam is confronted by a continually rising demand for residences. In order to deal with the rise in population, Amsterdam has chosen to increase urban building density and to leave borders of greenery within the city. This has consequences for the growth space of trees. This means the strategies used by Paris are even more important for the city: these show how to expand the surface area of public greenery in an already very densely populated city.
To summarise the public greenery policy of Paris and Amsterdam: Both cities offer a broad range of ideas to motivate other municipalities toward 'vegetalisation de la ville’. The most important conclusion however, which holds in every case, is this: the city must decide on a strategy for increasing public greenery. How the details are worked out depends on the structure and political and social-cultural circumstances locally.