The history of Parisian gardens is closely tied to the monarchy and the religious congregations of the period. When royal power came to rule Paris under the Capetians, a considerable wave of construction swept through the capital. The garden as part of the estate appeared at this time when land was divided up into lots. Religious communities like Saint-Martin-des-Champs, Saint-Germain-des-Près, Sainte-Geneviève and Saint-Victoire also played an important role in establishing plots where plants were grown.
In the XVth century, gardens were enclosed plots divided into rectangles. Above all, they were private, of moderate size, and hidden behind the shelter of high walls or fences. A garden was first and foremost a functional space: the vegetation grown fulfilled the adjacent estate's food needs or provided medicinal plants. Yet such utilitarianism did not preclude elegant flower compositions and cloister gardens often adorned with fountains; the garden was well on the way to becoming a place of reflection and meditation.
By the end of the Middle Ages, and especially under the influence of the Crusaders who brought back new notions of the garden from the Orient, a distinction grew between pleasure gardens and functional gardens. Exotic animals became a common garden sight; the garden was becoming picturesque. Mechanical devices of the Renaissance turned gardens into places for amusement, an approach brought to full fruition in the XIXth century when green spaces became more and more popular.
From the XVIth century on, the development of private noble architecture considerably enriched the capital's stock of parks and gardens. During the same period, Parisians took to strolling near the city walls which, little by little, as their military functions declined, became places for relaxing amidst flourishing theatres, cafés, gardens, shady bowers and cottages. The planting of the Jardin des Tuileries was a first step in extending the capital beyond the city walls. This movement, begun by parks, played a notable role in Paris' westward urban development.
The art of the French formal garden reached its pinnacle in the XVIIth century. While XVIth century spaces were simply treated as sequential plots, a remnant of the medieval period's square garden enclosures, the XVIIth garden became a vast landscape with vegetation creating perspective. Flights of fancy, especially grottoes, were used to set off the geometric exactness. The most famous grotto designer, Bernard Palissy, worked for Le Nôtre at the restructured Tuileries gardens. But on the whole, Parisian gardens went ignored next to the ostentatious royal flowerbeds of Versailles.
For XVIIIth century gardens, 'fantasie' or flight of fancy became the important feature. Whilst XVIIth century gardens had called for a wide perspective to see and appreciate the mastery of the overall composition, XVIIIth century gardens emphasized the element of surprise. All along their strolls, visitors came upon small monuments, Chinese temples, colonnades, sheep pens and fountains, all expressive of a new fondness for ruins set in recreated natural landscapes.
The garden as a display of power made way for the garden as a miniature replica of the world. All the features of natural surroundings were reproduced: valleys, hills, rivers, paths. Follies were de rigueur in gardens of the period. The Saint-James Folly in Neuilly and a few others in the Parc de Bagatelle and the Parc Monceau are still standing, although they have undergone considerable modification.
Gardens such as those in the Palais-Royal were opened to the public, the Palais-Royal gardens becoming a favourite promenade among Parisians of the Enlightenment. Religious congregations also began welcoming visitors to their gardens, the most famous of these gardens being the Chartreux Orchard at the Observatory.
During the French Revolution, aristocrats' private gardens were vandalized, looted, divided up and sold. Fortunately the Empire repaired the damage. Napoleon made a general plan for the gardens of the capital where green spaces made powerful statements creating sweeping vistas. Such projects included the culmination of the Champs-Elysées with the Arc de Triomphe, the renovation of the Tuileries and the impressive design to develop the Chaillot hill.
The Restoration brought the interesting contributions of Prefect Rambuteau, who proved to be the pioneer of gardens intended for public use. The first public garden for local use was planted at the foot of Notre-Dame. Reshaped by Alphand, this garden is now known as the Square de l'Archevêché.
It was the Second Empire which established a real strategy for landscape development in Paris. For both philanthropic and health reasons, Napoleon III outlined projects for four major parks at the cardinal points of the capital: the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Parc de Montsouris respectively to the north and south, and the Bois de Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne to the east and west. Moreover, he planned for a whole array of small local designed to offer a moment of relaxation for both working-class and bourgeois visitors. Countless intersections and avenues were also created and lined with plane and chestnut trees. These were in fact Baron Haussmann's favorite trees and he happily planted them everywhere, much to the chagrin of the civil engineers who saw them as a threat to their macadam roads! Major projects included the Place Malesherbes, the Place de Grenelle, the Avenue de l'Observatoire and the Avenue du Président Wilson (called the Avenue de l'Empereur at the time), the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, and the list goes on... The architect Davioud was responsible for designing all the urban furniture, much of which still graces the city's landscape today: benches, bins, pavilions and bandstands, fountains, lampposts, poster boards and signposts, fences and balustrades, jetties, diverse shelters, restaurants and park attendant pavilions. Aside from the relatively common chestnut and plane trees, gardeners planted sophoras, lime trees, maples, acacias, cedars, poplars, ash and black pines, and also bushes with year-round foliage such as aucubas, spindle-trees, box trees and laurels. Flowerbeds bloomed with rare blossoms like geraniums, begonias, dahlias and petunias which adapted so well to the climate they have become commonplace today.
After the war in 1870 this approach to landscaping received little attention, although the underlying principles had become engrained in people's minds. For over one hundred years housing developments took priority over parks and gardens, especially when the last fortifications were levelled. After World War II Parisian gardens went more or less overlooked, until the early 1970s when the City of Paris launched a campaign to create parks and gardens in the vein of the Imperial design and new sites were born: the Parc Georges Brassens, the Parc de Belleville, the Jardin des Halles, the Parc de Bercy, the Parc André Citroën, the Daumesnil or Reuilly-Bastille tree-lined paths, the Jardin Atlantique over the Gare Montparnasse train station and the renovation of the Tuileries as part of the Palais du Louvre construction project.
Add to that long list a multitude of small local squares and all the historic gardens still in existence, the Jardin du Palais-Royal, the Jardin des Plantes, the Jardin du Champ-de-Mars, the Jardin du Trocadéro, the Arènes de Lutèce and Musée de Cluny gardens, and Paris literally seems to overflow with impressive and incredibly lush vegetation.