The Evolution of Modern Parks in Paris


Parc Monceau and Parc Martin Luther King (victortsu/Flickr)

Historic Parc Monceau, undulating Buttes-Chaumont and the newest green spaces of the city like Parc Martin Luther King are not merely some of the best parks in Paris, they also share a common thread: the picturesque. Discover how garden design, and the picturesque, has transformed in these beautiful parks in Paris below.

18th Century Picturesque – Winding Paths, Follies & Vistas

One of the first public parks in Paris, the Parc Monceau was begun in the 1770s and managed to survive the widespread destruction of the French Revolution. An excellent example of “picturesque” design, the garden features winding paths and wide lawns that are interspersed with small structures called follies. Popular during the era and in the form of fake ruins, gothic archways, and even miniature pyramids, these were designed to recall paintings–like pictures–and amuse visitors. 

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and Le Square des Batignolles

19th Century Picturesque – Urban Renewal & Bucolic Distractions

New city parks, and the picturesque, also made their way into the vast urban projects undertaken in Paris in the mid 19th century. The reference to the picturesque was essential to Baron Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine and mastermind of the urban renewal of the city. He commissioned engineer Jean Charles Alphand to create over 20 parks in the city including le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Square des Batignolles.

A former quarry that had been a favored place for fugitives and criminals, Alphand transformed Les Buttes-Chaumont into a modern landscape, suitable for fashionable promenades. For nineteenth century visitors, looking up to the soaring rock formations surmounted by a copy of a Roman temple, the reference to antiquity assured viewers that this site was beautiful: it signaled that the garden was picturesque, meant to recall the landscapes ancient Rome. Today the 5.5 kilometer park is one of the first examples of an urban park renewal, where extensive planting of trees and flowering shrubs, a lake and cascading grotto continue to enchant visitors.

Built in the then burgeoning northwest of the city, the Square de Batignolles, like similar small squares around the city, was meant to function like today’s green space: as the city’s lungs, offering fresh air in the city center. Located near the Saint Lazare train station, the trees, palm house and ornamental cascade at the Batignolles offered a picturesque distractions to local railway workers in the neighborhood.

Parc de la Villette (Victortsu/Flickr) and Parc Martin Luther King (JTMN)

20th Century Picturesque – Reclaimed Spaces & Contemporary Follies

The last few decades have seen the arrival of some impressive and very modern gardens in Paris, however, these haven’t completely rejected the past nor the picturesque. Like the Buttes-Chaumont, the land around the Parc de La Villette was insalubrious as the site of the slaughterhouses of Paris until the 1950s. Inspired by Alphand’s urban renewal project, the architect Bernard Tschumi’s turned to landscape architecture to reclaim the area and turn it into a cultural hub. Tshcumi integrated picturesque elements to his design when he created red follies, that can be kiosks or temporary workshops, but have no real function, imitating the playfulness of picturesque design.

Today landscape architects continue to be inspired by picturesque gardens as they design new green spaces for the city. For example, the Parc Martin Luther King, begun by Jacqueline Osty in 2004, was specifically designed as part of an eco-quartier, to contribute to water recycling and the greening of the city. While ecology guides the design, the picturesque hasn’t been forgotten. All one needs to do is climb the elevated platform, which provides a magnificent view across the park and recalls the temple at Butte Chaumont and even the red follies of the Parc de La Villette.

You can delve further into the evolution of Parisian Gardens on our tour of the Butte Chaumont and La Villette. We can also arrange tours of the Parc Monceau, Les Batignolles and Parc Martin Luther King. Contact us here to design to perfect tour to suit your interests.