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Paris beach

08/08/06 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin is in Paris - once again in the grip of a summer heat wave - but he's called to say that Parisians have come up with a way to cool off that's very creative - and very French.

(MARTIN) There's a song by Cole Porter that says, "I love Paris in the winter, when it drizzles / I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles". Well, here in France, this summer has been a sizzler. And nobody's forgotten the heat wave of 2003, when there were nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, many of them amongst the elderly. In crowded cities, where buildings block breezes and smog holds the heat, apartments without air-conditioning turn into furnaces.

In Paris, one place people have been going to keep cool is called "Paris Plage" or Paris Beach. The Seine River runs through the heart of Paris, and Paris Plage is a temporary, public beach resort that is set up during July and August and then taken back down.

It's no small undertaking. We're talking about three hundred deckchairs, two hundred and forty parasols, sixty-eight palm trees, and over two thousand tons of sand. You can play beach volley ball, ultimate frisbee, badminton, bocce, and even rugby. There are little cafes to get a glass of rose and a salad, a paperback library, free concerts, and climbing walls for the kids. There are fountains you can drink from and even big machines that blow walls of cool mist. Of course, with its beautiful facades and centuries-old bridges, just rollerblading, biking, or walking along this two-mile stretch of the Seine isn't bad either.

What's more, Paris Plage is installed smack-dab on top of a highway. That's right, it's on a road that's usually the main artery for traffic through the heart of Paris. Princess Diana died on the same expressway, what the Parisians call the "quais", in a high-speed car accident just a few miles from Paris Plage. Most of the year, cars hurtle along the asphalt that sits under Paris Plage.

Now, for the fifth year in a row, Paris has taken back real estate from traffic and given it over to strollers and sunbathers. Imagine closing off FDR Drive in Manhattan to make a beach and you can understand why this initiative is so radical.

And yet, Paris Plage makes sense for a number of reasons. First of all, it gives Parisians who can't afford a seaside vacation a place to escape the summer heat. Secondly, it reduces greenhouse emissions at a time when pollution turns Paris into a pressure cooker. Finally, it intentionally disrupts traffic flow enough to make people consider using public transportation - a service people agree with in principle, but rarely use in practice.

On the down side, you can't actually swim in the Seine at Paris Plage because the river is still too polluted. As a consolation, there's a small pool instead.

Many said it wouldn't work, but under Mayor Bertrand Delanoe Paris Plage has paid off. This year's will cost over $2.5 million, but private sponsors, not the city, will pay most of it.

Mike Martin's essay came to us directly from the streets of Paris.

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