In her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed, “You can neither lie to a neighborhood park, nor reason with it. ‘Artist’s conceptions’ and persuasive renderings can put pictures of life into proposed neighborhood parks or park malls, and verbal rationalizations can conjure up users who ought to appreciate them, but in real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use.” On a recent Sunday picnic at Paris’s magnificent Jardin de Luxembourg, I realized I had entered the Platonic ideal of Jacobs’s urban vision.
My wife and daughter and I spread out on a blanket on the lawn furthest south, and I watched as families, groups of friends and couples of all ages did the same all around us. Some even brought out porcelain and silverware; most poured glasses of cold rosé; and all took a moment out of hectic city existence to bask in what has got to be one of the finest free pleasures in the Western world. We finished our meal and bought my daughter a ride on one of the ponies that makes a half-circuit trip around the park.
As we strolled with her, we passed basketball and tennis courts full of teenagers and young adults, pétanque courts bustling with retirees, a massive fenced-in playground for small children, and groups of pre-adolescent girl scouts in uniform chatting on shaded benches. Joggers raced by. In every direction, there were also places for privacy and contemplation, but nowhere was it so isolated that the kind of violence that happens from time to time in New York’s Central Park or Washington’s Rock Creek Park could even be conceivable.
We returned home feeling rejuvenated. Jacobs, of course, was interested above all in the ways the complex interaction of multiple variables within urban spaces affects residents’ quality of life. It’s hard to imagine striking a better balance than the one on display in the Luxembourg Gardens.