Paris renewed interest in natural monuments

City lawmakers and arborists in Paris are investing in the treescape by planning new urban forests and designing walking tours.

As a Paris resident, I scarcely paid attention to the city’s treescape until a few years ago, when I stumbled upon an arresting scene of a young man stretched out in the elbow of a low-lying branch of a Japanese pagoda tree, its leaves skimming the pond at Buttes-Chaumont Park in the 19th arrondissement.

From that moment, I came to understand that the city’s trees – from the dramatic weeping willows and their trailing fronds along the Seine to the military rows of London plane trees that line the Champs-Élysées – play an underappreciated supporting role in Paris’ inimitable elegance and grandeur.

It was a belated epiphany, and somewhat understandable: urban trees can be overlooked, particularly in Paris, where dozens of stately landmarks command attention.

Public and political awareness has been renewed, not only as natural monuments equal in importance to the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower but also as key assets in the fight against climate change.

City lawmakers, arborists and others in Paris are investing in the treescape by planning new urban forests, increasing the number of protected historical trees and designing walking tours – because trees can offer a fresh perspective of the City of Light.

“Trees are an important part of Paris’ identity,” said Christophe Najdovski, deputy mayor in charge of greenspace. “The alignment of trees and Parisian promenades structure the city enormously and is a 150-year-old heritage.”

As it turns out, the Japanese pagoda tree (which has since been fenced off) is one of 15 in Paris that carries the official designation.

The Japanese pagoda tree in Buttes-Chaumont Park is one of the trees which play a supporting role in the city’s inimitable elegance and grandeur. Picture: istock

“Remarkable Tree of France” from Arbres, a volunteer association made up of scientists, botanists, gardeners, writers and horticulturalists. The association aims to promote and protect the most beautiful, important and rare trees in France with a formal label.

Also on the list: is a 420-year-old tree that is not particularly striking but has extraordinary cultural and biological significance.

Brought over from North America and planted in 1601 in Square Réné Viviani, across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral, the black locust, or Robinier faux acacia, is the oldest tree in Paris.

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Its foliage still blooms green and full, but the tree bears scars from bombing and shelling during World War II, and its splintering trunk is supported by steel beams.

“She is the mother plant,” Béatrice Rizzo, a city forest engineer, said during a guided visit. “You could say all the black locust trees in France came from this tree.”

In addition to the Arbres list, the city of Paris keeps a separate, more expansive catalogue of remarkable trees – all 176 are plotted on a public interactive map.

Both lists share similar criteria that include age, size and botanical and cultural importance.

The black locust at Square Réné Viviani carries the Remarkable designation from both the city of Paris and Arbres, and is the last of six stops on a self-guided walking tour of trees created by the city.

Horse chestnut trees grow in the centre of the Place des Vosges square. Picture: istock

“A damaged tree like this would never have survived in nature,” said Georges Feterman, Arbres president. “It’s like protecting monuments. Why do we preserve old churches? Because they testify to the history of men.”

Other tree landmarks on the walking tour include the orderly formation of linden trees that border the Place des Vosges square and flood-resistant poplars at Place Louis Aragon on Île-Saint Louis.

Last year, Paris lawmakers approved a project that aims to plant 170 000 new trees in the city by 2026, and create pockets of urban forests in strategic areas to mitigate the effects of extreme urban heat and soak up air pollution.

It released a “tree charter” that includes a pledge to protect Paris’ exceptional specimens.

“The goal is to completely review the urban approach, protect existing trees and plant as much as we can in six years,” Najdovski said.

“The alignment of trees along avenues and main boulevards are mostly monospecific trees, often either the London plane or the horse chestnut tree, which creates a repetitive landscape,” said Avila Tourny, the city’s lead urban architect.

“The effect is a monumental perspective, a bit like Versailles. And in the heart of Paris, it creates a very classic landscape.”

In recent years, Rizzo said, the climate emergency has made Parisians more attached to the trees. When tapping the trunks with wooden mallets to listen for illness, she will be stopped by concerned passers-by and has to reassure them that she’s simply conducting a “medical visit.”

“The tree has never been as front and centre as the saviour of the planet and our well-being in the city as it is today,” she said.

“I’ve been doing this job for 30 years, and I’ve never spoken so much about trees.”

Indeed, news that a 200-year old London plane tree near the Eiffel Tower could be torn down as part of the city’s plans to renovate the area for the Olympic Games in 2024 drew protests and ignited online outrage for weeks.

When asked about the fate of the tree, Najdovski said the city is reexamining plans and “zero trees” will be felled during construction.

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