Greening the City

The return of the Wild

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Ville et biodiversité


For most people, the word ‘biodiversity’ tends to conjure up images of luxuriant tropical rainforest rather than plants growing around the trees on an urban boulevard. And yet the ecosystems now emerging in the hearts of cities are arousing increasing interest both from the general public and from scientists.
It was towards the end of the nineteenth century, under the French Second Empire, that Nature was officially introduced into public places in Paris. However, it was a highly domesticated Nature. Under the direction of Jean-Charles Alphand, director of public highways and roads in Paris, and Baron Haussman’s right-hand man, the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes were remodeled and the Parc Monceau transformed, while completely new parks and gardens were created from scratch, such as the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the Parc Montsouris, the Champ de Mars and most of Paris’s public gardens. Alphand also developed wide avenues, planted with geometrically aligned rows of trees. This neat and tidy natural environment soon became a favorite place for the elegant ladies of the bourgeoisie to stroll and show off their latest finery. For the ruling classes, it was also a way of improving law and order and public health, and of controlling society.
However, all this urban development meant that the poorest part of the population was pushed out into the fringes of the capital. A strip of land 250 meters wide, bordering the 35 kilometers of fortifications put up around Paris by King Louis-Philippe, rapidly turned into a shantytown. Just like the ‘urban jungles’ that had in earlier times taken over areas of wasteland in the center of Paris, this slum belt, the seamy side of Haussmann’s Paris, aroused the enthusiasm of a few pioneering naturalists who came to collect plants between the makeshift houses. This area was a refuge for wild biodiversity. Later, there were plans to set up a vast green belt there, but the construction of Paris’s ring road, begun in 1958, put an end to the idea.
In the thirty years that followed the Second World War, the area given over to green spaces in French cities was in constant growth, while its management became increasingly controlled. This was the great period of horticultural art and of ‘green concrete’: the lawns and thuya hedges that flourished at the time did nothing to promote biodiversity. The massive use of pesticides led to a natural environment which was no longer natural. It wasn’t until the wave of enthusiasm for ecology in the 1990s that the management of parks and gardens underwent a revolution, with the invention of ‘differentiated management’, which encourages wildlife and seeks to educate the public.
The recent history of green spaces has led to the establishment of new links between managers and scientists, as ecologists begin to discover urban biodiversity. Cities, which are home to an ever-greater share of the population, have above all become the ideal place to raise the public’s awareness of nature. What image of biodiversity do city-dwellers have, and what do they think of public policies aimed at encouraging wildlife in the urban environment? Social science researchers are busy trying to find out. In the meantime, much remains to be done to minimize the impact of cities on biodiversity, especially in the building sector.

Sources: Bernadette Lizet, CNRS senior researcher, Eco-anthropologie et Ethnobiologie laboratory, Environnements, populations, sociétés, USM104 Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Jacques Moret, Professor at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, director of the Institut national de la recherche pédagogique.

CNRS    sagascience