The Urban Space in France

Editors : Anna, Emma, Sophie, Charlie and Josh

Sine their arrival in France, the students have had the opportunity to explore Toulouse and sometimes other cities. Be it that they’re themselves from Boston, or from rural Pennsylvania, it’s always interesting to observe the urban space in France, and to notice the differences with the urban space in the US. Our editors have gathered their observations about Toulouse and some other Southern cities.

Public Parks and Sustainability in the City

During our time in Toulouse, we spend a lot of time in public gardens, specifically Compans Cafarelli Park and Grand Rond Park. Each park has its own identity, but it shares commonalities that influence and exhibit the values of Toulousain society.

Compans Cafarelli Park is close to the Dickinson Center, and it that includes greens spaces, walking paths, benches, and a variety of flowers and trees; a stereotypical garden. On this day in late September, we went the to park around 1 o’clock and so there were many people who were eating their lunches outside thanks to the nice weather. The park goers represent a collection of humanity – people of all genders, ages, religions and races – who come together in the park. In the background, shopping malls and apartment buildings are visible, which function as a reminder that work is always present. Given that it was the afternoon and the weather was pleasant, people took advantage of spending time in the park before the winter weather came. Their actions highlight the importance of having time for oneself as well as the importance of communal spaces within French society.

Public gardens offer a variety of ways to live a holistic and sustainable life. By offering a juxtaposition between the fast-paced city life and an ecological way of life, public parks allow the possibility for us to respect ourselves, humanity in its entirety, and the earth.

We observed the public composting system in the Grand Rond Park in Toulouse. Composting is a system to reduce the waste inherent in food preparation or landscaping. In Toulouse, composters are installed in the Jardin des Plantes, Grand Rond Park, and Royal Park.

“Is the ‘Pink City’ Green?” is the title of a program that Prof. Ngong created with Dickinson, and it’s a question we ask ourselves often. The answer is complicated. The university and the city encourage us to use public bikes and to take advantage of farmer’s markets. Are the French aware of environmental problems? In general, yes.

The French are more ready to take public transport or to choose organic produce than Americans, but there are aspects of their daily life that do not correspond to the goal of a sustainable life. Smoking is a habit that produces a lot of waste; moreover, smokers often throw their cigarette butts on the sidewalk, rather than in a receptacle. Coffee to go is becoming more acceptable, but here we only rarely see travel mugs. Bring your own mug is an understood concept in the USA, but not yet here!

Is Toulouse green? No, because all modern cities have an enormous impact on the environment and the climate. But it is true that Toulouse makes an effort to minimize its footprint through increased public transport and various initiatives. This provides a model for others and offers possibilities for improvement. In coming together in a public green space with people of all ages, the French partake of communal life and think about the future.

Communal spaces play an important role in French culture because they bring together people for a common purpose. Of course there are different objectives for public parks and squares (such a Place Saint George and Place Saint Pierre), but there is the collective goal of reuniting people. Therefore, the display of humanity shows the richnesses as well as the challenges within French society. These spaces create occasions for people of all backgrounds to come together, which can generate conflict, but moreover promote contact and cooperation.

Popular Spaces: The Market and the Train Station

During our travels, we largely explored the Midi Region of France, Charlie to Biarritz and Josh to Narbonne. Although our destinations were different; both of us got the chance to see different elements of French cities that thoroughly illustrated the convivial aspect of everyday French life.

For Charlie, the market in Biarritz was first and foremost an excellent microcosm of differents aspects of the city. For those who might not know, Biarritz is well known throughout France as a premiere vacation destination, and a surfing hotspot. For him however; one of the main draws was the market in town, Les Halles of Biarritz. Upon visiting Saturday morning, it was very easy to observe the touristic side of the city, as they were one of hundreds of different tourists walking around the market. Secondly; however, the market provided him a chance to see, and obviously to taste, a few basque specialties. He especially like “le fromage de brebis”, and a glass or two of sagarno, a basque apple wine. Though its touristic side and its basque side were certainly on full display at the market, there could be no mistaking that Biarritz was through and through a French city to it’s core.

To elaborate, Biarritz offered Charlie a more positive side of “la mission civilisatrice” in France. Although the city has an undeniable Basque side, it was through the progressive building of classic French structures, la Corniche along the Beach, les Halles Marketplace, and the unmissable Hotel du Palais built for Napoleon III that quite literally cemented this city’s French character. More recently, France has been able to integrate the Basque region of France more fully into the rest of the country by the sheer exchange of French tourists every year that descend upon its beautiful beaches, spending in their stores, their restaurants, and booking their apartments. In other words, Biarritz seems like an excellent way to both balance traditional “French” culture with one of the many other cultures that are found in France, be they Basque, Catalan, or German for instance. The continued economic integration of a city seems to be an excellent blueprint for the harmonious coexistence of both. Who knew markets could be so educational!

During Josh’s trip to Narbonne, he met several French travelers both on the train and at the station. Overall, people were very friendly, frequently initiating and engaging in conversation. After the initial greeting, Josh would continue the conversation, explaining that he is an American spending two semesters in France and taking courses at Sciences Po Toulouse. At this point, the discussion would revitalize as the travelers would ask questions about American politics, economics or his overall experience living abroad in France. Despite the diversity of opinions, all of the travelers shared a common sentiment; that they were delighted to see an American speaking their own language.

Although both of them visited very different places, both locales provided them the opportunity to see a different side of French culture. In visiting Biarritz, Charlie saw the way in which cities can retain their local and regional personality, in this case Basque, all the while fully being “French”, just by visiting the market! At the Narbonne train station, Josh ran into several French people, providing a meaningful opportunity for cultural exchange on subjects like the economy, politics, and his time in Toulouse. Most strikingly, this was done in a way that was far warmer and friendlier than any stereotypes about the French would have you believe.

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