It's a beautiful, sunny autumn afternoon in Paris. Lovers stroll hand in hand, a grandmother quietly reads a story to her granddaughter, a group of students sits on the ground discussing philosophy, joggers weave in and out of the pedestrian flow. It's a typical Parisian urban scene but this isn't the Jardin de Luxembourg or the banks of the Seine. It's the Promenade Plantée, Paris’ elegant elevated walkway built on an abandoned 19th century railway viaduct.
Known by Parisians as the Coulée verte (“flowing greenway”), the 4.5 km long park is essentially a boardwalk landscaped with an array of vegetation and trellises sitting high above the bustling neighborhoods of the 12th arrondissement. As it meanders, the Coulée verte widens and narrows; sometimes the vegetation is so thick you feel like you’re in the middle of a forest.
The plants range from rose bushes to cherry trees to bamboo and many other varieties. Designed by landscape architect Jacques Vergely and architect Phillippe Mathieux, the Coulée verte runs from the Opéra Bastille to the eastern edge of the city, passing at some points so close to residential and commercial buildings I can reach out and touch the adjacent structures. At one point, I'm so near to an office building that as I peer into the windows, I can see personal chatkes decorating individual work areas. No one seems to mind.
I enter the Coulée verte from an arcade below, which has been enclosed and transformed into shops, artists' workshops, restaurants, and cafés, and walk for about a mile. It's remarkably easy to forget I'm in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The walkway feels like a universe unto itself, quiet and verdant, completely apart from the concrete environment just below. You become lost in a different world up here whether you stroll along by yourself like me or sit reading like the three people I pass who are so totally absorbed in their books they’re oblivious to the other passersby and to my picture-taking.
I don't have time to get as far as the eastern end, where the Coulée verte splits into a pedestrian path and bike lane and then sinks below street level, but I see enough to imagine how magnificent our own viaduct could be if it were transformed into such a flowing greenway. With due respect to Paris' beautiful 19th century architecture (blighted now by a distressing number of characterless modern buildings, including some along the Coulée verte), the City of Light has nothing like the magnificent views that we can see from our viaduct.
I imagine one day taking a stroll along our own Coulée verte, bright summer sun peeking through the trees above, waters of Elliott Bay glistening below. I imagine stopping at the Market to pick up a gourmet sandwich or pastry, then wandering over to the viaduct and luxuriating in the flavors of my treat and in the emerald landscape around me.
I imagine taking my laptop and being inspired by the quiet around me in a way that my local coffeehouse can’t match. I imagine a city that resolves to capitalize on its natural beauty and makes a decision quickly and definitively to turn the viaduct into our own Coulée verte. And I dream on…