Redesign around France's Notre-Dame to keep tourists moving and lower temperatures

A handout picture provided by Studio Alma shows a general view of the Parc des Berges and Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. PHOTO: STUDIO ALMA/AFP

PARIS (NYTIMES) - An overhaul of the area around Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris will open it up toward the Seine River and help millions of visitors flow through more easily while also mitigating the effects of climate change, city officials said Monday (June 27).

Notre-Dame, which was ravaged by a fire in 2019, is closed to visitors and is still being rebuilt, with plans to reopen partly in 2024, in time for the Olympic Games in Paris.

The understated redesign of the area surrounding Notre-Dame, which leaves the long, rectangular stone square in front of the cathedral mostly intact, will not radically alter the neighbourhood.

But Paris officials said the planned changes would improve visitors' experience and make the city more resilient in the face of rising temperatures.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris said Monday at a news conference that Notre-Dame "had to be left in its beauty and have everything around it be a showcase for that beauty."

But, she added, "A city like ours can no longer think outside of climate change."

The redesign envisions removing fencing to extend and merge parks around Notre-Dame, making neighbouring streets more pedestrian-friendly and planting more than 30 per cent more vegetation in the area, including trees for additional shade.

Plans also call for transforming a parking lot that is under the cathedral's main square into an underground walkway that opens up onto the banks of the Seine and provides access to a welcome centre and an archaeological museum, officials said.

The new design includes a cooling system that will send a 5mm thin sheet of water (about one-fifth of an inch) streaming down the square in front of the cathedral during heat waves, enough to lower temperatures by several degrees without flooding the area - and to give tourists a shimmering backdrop for their photos, officials added.

Paris City Hall will pay for the project, with a budget of 50 million euros (S$73.28 million).

The area would be reopened in 2024, when the bulk of the cathedral's reconstruction is scheduled to end, so worshippers can once again use the space.

But the revamping of the cathedral's outskirts will not start in earnest until the site is free of scaffolding and construction bungalows, and it is not expected to be finished until 2027.

The city had organised an international architecture and landscaping competition for the redesign, with officials from the city, the Paris diocese, and the task force in charge of Notre-Dame's reconstruction acting as juries.

The city also organised a six-month consultation with local residents and businesses, and a commission of 20 randomly selected citizens provided feedback.

The winning team is led by Mr Bas Smets, a Belgian landscape architect, and includes GRAU, a French architecture and urbanism studio, and Neufville-Gayet, a French architecture agency.

A handout picture provided by Studio Alma shows an aerial view of the square of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. PHOTO: STUDIO ALMA/AFP

Mr Smets said that the square in front of the cathedral was intended to be a "clearing" surrounded by trees, highlighting Notre Dame's famous western facade, creating new views onto the Seine, and offering respite from the heat.

"By working on wind, shade and moisture, we can create a microclimate around the cathedral that increases the city's resilience and prepares it for an uncertain climatic future," he said.

Ms Hidalgo has vowed to transform Paris into a greener city by drastically reducing the number of cars circulating in its heart and increasing the number of bike lanes.

The Jean XXIII Square, a park behind the cathedral that is now fenced off, will be opened up, with new lawns extending to the edge of the Ile de la Cite, the island on the Seine where the cathedral is.

The park will also be merged with the gardens that run along the cathedral's southern edge, creating a 1,300-foot-long green space where visitors will be able to admire the cathedral's flying buttresses and stained-glass windows.

Roughly 13 million tourists visited Notre-Dame every year before the fire, snaking in long haphazard lines in front and crowding narrow streets around it.

The Reverend Gilles Drouin, an adviser to the Paris archbishop, said at the news conference Monday that the goal was to "decompartmentalise spaces that were constraining it somewhat."

"I am very pleased that the tragedy of the fire will enable us to recreate physical and symbolic ties between the capital and its urban environment," Rev Drouin said.

The 2019 blaze destroyed the latticework of huge, ancient timbers that made up Notre-Dame's attic, where the fire started, melted the roof's lead sheath and endangered the overall stability of the stone structure, which has stood for eight centuries. Molten metal, flaming beams and the spire fell into the cathedral, doing further damage.

A definitive cause of the fire may never be determined; the leading theories are an electrical short-circuit or a cigarette discarded by a worker in the attic.

Last year the building was stabilised, and restoration and reconstruction work is now underway, in keeping with President Emmanuel Macron's ambitious vow to reopen by 2024.

The cathedral's organ is being cleaned, and 1,000 oak trees have been felled around the country to rebuild the spire and the attic.

Mr Macron dropped the idea of replacing the cathedral's 19th-century spire with a contemporary one, but plans to modernise the inside of the building were given a green light in December.

The fire also contaminated the site with clouds of toxic dust and exposed nearby schools, parks and other parts of Paris to lead.

Advocacy groups have filed lawsuits alleging that the authorities failed to address lead contamination risks, but those concerns have mostly receded from public view in recent months, and the cathedral's roofing is expected to be rebuilt with lead.

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