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Admiring the Trees of Paris

As a resident of Paris, I paid little attention to the city’s treescape until a few years ago when I came across an arrest scene of a young man sprawling in the elbow of a low-lying branch of a Japanese Pagoda Treeits leaves shear along the pond of the Buttes-Chaumont Park in the 19th arrondissement.

It was then that I began to understand that the city’s trees—from the dramatic weeping willows and their drooping leaves along the Seine to the military rows of London plane trees along the Champs-Élysées—play an underappreciated supporting role in its inimitable elegance and grandeur.

It was a belated revelation, and one that is somewhat understandable: City trees can be overlooked, especially in Paris, where dozens of stately monuments capture the attention of locals and visitors alike.

But public and political awareness of the city’s trees has recently been renewed, not only as natural, free-standing monuments as important as the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, but also as important assets in the fight against climate change. City legislators, arborists and others in Paris are investing in the treescape by planning new urban forests, increasing the number of protected historic trees and designing walking tours – because trees can also provide a fresh, green view of the city of lights.

“Trees are an important part of Paris’ identity,” said Christophe Nadjovskic, the deputy mayor in charge of green spaces. “The alignment of trees and Parisian promenades greatly structure the city and is a 150-year-old heritage. We are following in the footsteps of this heritage.”

It turns out that the Japanese pagoda tree (which has since been fenced off) is one of 15 in Paris that bears the official designation “Remarkable Tree of France”, from Arbres, a voluntary association made up of some of the nation’s foremost scientists, botanists, gardeners, writers and horticulturists. The association aims to promote and protect the most beautiful, most important and rarest trees in France with a formal label.

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

Brought over from North America and planted in 1601 in the small square Réné Viviani, across the street from Notre-Dame Cathedral, the black locust, or Robinier faux acacia, is the oldest tree in Paris. The foliage is still green and full of bloom, but the tree bears scars from World War II bombing and shelling and its splintering trunk is supported by steel beams.

“She is the mother plant,” explained Béatrice Rizzo, urban forest engineer, during a guided visit. “You could say that all the locusts in France came from this one tree.”

In addition to the Arbres list, which can be found onlinethe City of Paris maintains a separate, more comprehensive catalog of notable trees – all 176 trees have been staked on a public interactive map. Both lists share similar criteria, including age, size, botanical and cultural importance.

The black grasshopper in Square Réné Viviani bears the designation Remarkable from both the city of Paris and Arbres, and is the last of six stops on a self-guided tree walking tour made by the city.

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

Other tree landmarks on the city walk include the orderly formation of lime trees bordering 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 By 2026, create urban forests throughout the city and in strategic areas to mitigate the effects of extreme urban heat and absorb air pollution. The city also issued a 10-point “tree charter” with a pledge to protect Paris’ exceptional specimens.

“The goal is to completely overhaul the urban approach in six years, protect existing trees and plant as much as possible.” Mr Nadjovski said.

The city’s contemporary tree-planting scheme could be seen as reviving a long legacy of urban planners who harnessed the beautifying, cooling, and calming power of trees. Some of Paris’ first tree-lined promenades date back to the 17th century, when Queen Marie de Médicis requested walking paths not far from her palace in the Tuileries Garden where she and her friends could take a leisurely stroll away from the daily traffic. The result was the Cours la reinefour long rows of trees that today stretch from Place de la Concorde to Place du Canada.

Under the vision of civil servant Georges Eugène Haussmann and his chief engineer, Adolphe Alphand, trees also played a central role in the city’s colossal 19th-century reinvention. In 17 years the total number of trees will be almost doubled from about 50,500 to 95,600. Today, the uniformity of the tree-lined boulevards and the leafy, shady passages in parks also give Paris a unique landscape.

“The alignment of trees along avenues and main boulevards is usually monospecific trees, often either the London plane or the horse chestnut tree, which creates a repetitive landscape,” said Avila Tourny, the city’s metropolitan 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, Ms. Rizzo, the forest engineer, says the climate emergency has also made Parisians more attached to their city’s trees. When she taps the logs with wooden mallets to listen for illness, she is stopped by concerned passers-by and must reassure them that she is simply making a “medical visit.”

“The tree has never been more central to the savior of the planet and our well-being in the city than it is now,” she said. “I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and I’ve never talked so much about trees.”

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 2024 Olympics sparked protests and online outrage for weeks this spring. When asked about the tree’s fate, Mr Nadjovski said the city is re-examining the plans and that “zero trees” will be cut during construction.

Mr Feterman said the Arbres association receives daily requests to label new trees with the Remarkable label. The designation has no legal weight and serves more as “moral protection”, but the association works closely with the city of Paris and recently received public support from the Ministry of Ecological Transition, a federal government agency. Several cities, including Paris and Bordeaux, have also signed the association’s “Tree Bill of Rights”, which asks signatories to protect trees as living monuments.

“We’re asking cities to work differently and see the tree as a living, breathing entity, with all the consequences that entails,” said Mr. Feterman.

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