Landscape architect Bas Smets on the redevelopment of Notre-Dame

Bas Smets on landscaping Notre-Dame and ‘hacking’ a city to fight climate change

Landscape architect Bas Smets tells us about Notre-Dame, modern gardens, microclimates…

When the medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire in 2019, the world was devastated. Now, as restoration plans for the important monument are underway, Bas Smets has plans to help bring this beloved iconic space back to life. The Belgian landscape architect was commissioned to redevelop the expanses around Notre-Dame, greening the Île de la Cité into a verdant mini paradise in the heart of one of Europe’s largest metropolises.

Its mission, however, goes beyond the immediate landscape. Using plants to help manage the temperature, especially in a large urban hub like Paris, is a key tool against climate change. ‘This [climate change] is such a hard thing to grasp and we all feel so small, but we can work on a smaller scale and make a big difference through microclimates. My job is to create these microclimates. Once you understand how a city works, you can “hack” it and improve the current conditions. I don’t think I have a style, but I do have a methodology, and that’s trying to understand a site and improve its resilience. Use the force of nature to improve life and the environment.

Landscaping Notre-Dame

Image: Studio Alma for the BBS Group

Working with architecture studio Grau, Smets also collaborated with a variety of consultants on lighting, water, engineering, public space safety, preservation and even philosophy, to craft his proposal. The team worked on enriching an extensive area around the cathedral with new trees and all manner of leafy delights, stretching the planted sections, unifying the public space, while aligning it with the city that surrounds it. ‘surrounded. A large paved space just outside Notre-Dame’s main entrance preserves important and well-known views of the monument, celebrating it from every angle.

“We had to rethink the Notre-Dame district, but also rethink the whole city, because the Île de la Cité is the cradle of Paris. For example, no one [used to go] behind the church, even if there was a green space – the Parisians never went there”, Smets specifies.

Parc des Ateliers, Arles. Photography: Iwan Baan

Design development begins immediately, and while work may stall around the 2024 Paris Olympics, the aim is to have the landscaping completed by 2027.

Features will include a new – and rare – linear park along the Seine, offering views of the Panthéon and the Paris skyline across the water; a brand new dedicated visitor center; a mix of species, including chestnut, European nettle and others adapted to drier climates; and a fountain-like feature that will see the paved open space in front of the cathedral flooded with a thin film of water once a day, probably at a set time, mimicking wet sidewalk after a summer rain, cooling the area while adding one more element of dynamism and nature to the composition.

Part Dieu, Lyon. Photography: Laurence Daniere

“What we do is use shade, humidity, wind and water to lower the temperature in the heart of Paris,” Smets explains. And he should know, because that’s exactly what he’s managed to do in other places, like the Parc des Ateliers, home to Luma Arles, where Smets turned what was a very dry landscape into a lung green. Other past works in Smets’ portfolio include Place Part-Dieu in Lyon and Sunken Garden in London, a private verdant microclimate in a heritage building. A sculpture garden on Long Island, USA is part of the work in progress.

As for his ambitions for Notre-Dame? “We wanted to do a nuanced composition,” he says. ‘You will enter, sit, stay, enter underground, open to the river, emerge near the entrance… More than giving form, we give experience.’ §

Sunken Garden, London. Photography: Francois Halard

Terri S. Tomasini