If you Google pictures of “La Defense,” you’ll find glamorous photographs of a beautiful esplanade draped on either side by sleek skyscrapers that look like they belong in New York or London. No, they’re actually found a short subway right from Paris, a city that’s practically built its name on historic preservation. Just as amazing as its contrast with the character of central Paris is its relatively low profile–I had never even heard of Paris’ financial and business center until I visited. But what struck me particularly sharply as I was walking down the central esplanade was how much it reminded me of a traditional college campus.
I know my beloved USC doesn’t exactly provide me with one of those, but no matter your experience, there are certain aspects of traditional campuses that tend to repeat themselves from school to school. A central gathering space (let’s call it a quad), accommodation for pedestrian linkages (assuming the majority of their students won’t own a car–or at least won’t drive them the short distance to class everyday), and a central monument, statue, structure, idol, or other ridiculous looking figure flexing every muscle in his body (couldn’t leave you out, Tommy Trojan) with the purpose of providing the students with a sense of pride, unity, observation of glorified history, etc., as well as being a nice thing to put on recruitment pamphlets.
La Defense has all of these and then some. Since Paris developed La Defense for the purpose of being the financial and business district of the city, they ensured transportation infrastructure would be in place; a great number of commuters arrive on the Metro or regional train, and those who drive find themselves separated from the pedestrian areas above once they enter La Defense. This means that during the day workers find a comfortable central gathering space to meet with other employees or have lunch or even hold small group meetings on a nice day. The linkages even continue to buildings not directly on the esplanade, often providing direct paths so workers need not interact with cars at all. And of course, the central point of interest: the massive Grande Arche at the western end of the plaza, commemorating the French Revolution bicentennial.
La Defense has found a lot of success, even developing enough to begin building housing and schools (a nice service, given how expensive housing in Paris is due to its stringent building codes). I don’t see why this can’t serve as a further model, so long as we’re looking at PEOPLE rather than PLACE, and this is a necessary distinction. A lot of things that college kids need/desire also tend to be pretty important for workers, and really just city-dwellers in general. With gas prices going way up, good transit and pedestrian accommodations are great–especially for our long-term health. Central gathering or hanging-out places can serve very well for business meetings when you just need to get out of the office, showing clients around, or just re-stressing with coworkers after a long day. And of course, a central monument or emblem not only makes you feel at home but provides for a nice navigation tool (fellow Trojans, how many times have you said “meet me at Tommy Trojan”). However, notice that we’re talking about people’s actual needs, and not just generalizing into themes. For instance, we can’t get caught up in simply having open space in a neighborhood because that doesn’t mean anything unless we actually put it in the context of how it will be used by the people.
This may all seem obvious, and of course a big reason all cities can’t provide this is because they don’t have the money nor the willingness to spend so much on such projects. But simply reorganizing our built environment so as to serve its people better need not be necessarily too pricey, and a lot of what we need is already there. A number of neighborhoods in our greatest cities already have central monuments of one sort or another–even if it’s just an old, cool-looking building. Most cities have some sort of central open space that can be reconfigured to be good (see my post on Pershing Square). Simply reorganizing seems to work wonders just so long as we actually put ourselves in the users shoes. Let me know what you guys think.