The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has approved plans to transform the city’s Champs-Élysées into a mile-long stretch of greenery and pedestrianised zones. The €255 million project aims to halve the number of cars on the famous boulevard, thus transforming it, in Hidalgo’s words, into an “extraordinary park at the heart of Paris”.
The need for traffic reduction is paramount; air pollution in Paris is responsible for up to 48,000 premature deaths every year, according to the Public Health France agency (2019 report). Hidalgo’s initiative would benefit public health while fulfilling one of the key targets outlined in the 2016 Paris Agreement: the reduction of CO2 emissions by 20% – part of the 20/20/20 plan which also aims to increase renewable energy’s market share to 20% and increase energy efficiency by 20%. As far as sustainability is concerned, the project is world-class. But Hidalgo’s ambitions do not stop there.
She wants to restore the Champs-Elysées to their former glory; once the capital’s most coveted street, nicknamed ‘la plus belle avenue du monde’ (the most beautiful avenue in the world), it is now a congested thoroughfare, blighted by flashy chain stores and overpriced restaurants – and shunned by les Parisiens. Hidalgo’s logic is that replacing traffic lanes with greenery will automatically bring locals back to the area. Of course, this assumes there are locals in the area to begin with.
But the Champs-Élysées have been devoid of locals for the past thirty years. There are two reasons for this: it is a tourist-trap (Hidalgo has understood this much) and no one lives there (this fact seems to elude her). The surge in property prices in the last twenty years have made an already expensive area unaffordable even for well-heeled Parisians, with the desirable district between George V, Champs-Élysées and Montaigne Avenues (the latter is the most expensive street in the city) aptly renamed ‘le Triangle d’Or’ (the Golden Triangle). While the empty apartments in the area are sometimes converted into homes for super-rich international buyers wanting a pied-à-terre in the French capital, they are more often repurposed as commercial properties: retailers from Adidas to Chanel occupy the ground floors, while the upper floors house legal firms, private banks and other corporate enterprises.
Although Hidalgo’s regeneration project will certainly improve the experience for the shopper and the tourist, its lure for ‘locals’ seems delusional. A long but narrow park on either side of what will undoubtedly remain a busy street is hardly an optimal setting for Parisians seeking a bucolic escapade. The capital already has its fair share of parks and green spaces, each providing a different experience: the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens offer a classic, regal feel with fountains and palaces; the Bois de Boulogne provides a lush, rural retreat from city life; and the Pere Lachaise cemetery offers a hilly labyrinth of celebrity tombs. Realistically, with such competition, no Parisian is ever going to say: ‘Hey, let’s go to the park along the Champs-Élysées. I’ve heard the new fountain outside Sephora is charming’.
There is another problem too. The project will seal off part of a thoroughfare used daily by commuters driving and out of Paris. In fact, over half the working population in the French capital commute from beyond the périphérique, representing a vital economic asset to the city. With metro and railway stations scarce outside the centre, and an ever so unreliable transport network, with strikes and delays occurring more often than in any other capital in Western Europe, workers are left with no choice but to use their car. The advent of the ‘Grand Paris Express’, which seeks to connect suburbs to one another and to the centre more efficiently, is still too far in the future for such drastic town planning measures to be put in place as they require genuine transport alternatives.
This concern has surfaced time and time again in response to Hidalgo’s green initiatives. Indeed, the regeneration of the Champs-Élysées is merely the latest in a series of urban transformation schemes spearheaded by the town mayor, now in her second term. Replacing traffic thoroughfares with urban parkland ahead of the Olympic Games of 2024 has been something of a priority; other notable projects include the overhaul of the congested Trocadéro neighbourhood for an estimated €72 million. The pont d’Iéna linking the Trocadéro (Right Bank) to the Eiffel Tower (Left Bank) – a tourist hotspot for obvious reasons – will see its tarmac replaced by grass, thus extending the parks on either side of the Seine into a single, continuous stretch of green.
Clearly, Hidalgo’s sustainable principles go hand in hand with a desire to rival greener cosmopoleis. Paris’ urban layout, historically, has been a case of carving impressive avenues in the West, annexing charming (but not all that green) villages in the North and South, gentrifying the East, and preserving a rich architectural heritage in the centre. The parks in Paris are, by consequence, small and quaint, often former courtyards or private gardens of royal residences. The Bois de Boulogne, of course, is an exception, but it’s on the edge of town. Hidalgo appears to be battling with the fact that Paris does not have the equivalent of a Central Park or Kensington Gardens, and has yet to realise that, for all her efforts with the city’s sustainable redevelopment, it never will.
Still, Paris’ place on global environmental rankings is sure to shoot up. As for the commuters who make use of soon-to-be-parkland routes on the daily, their habits have been transformed by repeated lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The abandonment of office space and the adoption of remote working has rendered these ephemeral thoroughfares quiet at the best of times, and obsolete at the worst. If businesses and corporations choose to maintain a flexible approach to work once the pandemic eventually subsides, there is a chance Hidalgo’s projects will succeed in their sustainable objectives without having a negative impact on the economy and society.
While her ambition to bring locals back to the Champs-Élysées can be dismissed as utopian, the overall timing of the project may be perfect. The default reduction of traffic on commuter arteries in central Paris provides ideal conditions for roadworks as well as a raw, real, and visual justification for them. Two parties now bear responsibility for the scheme’s success: the Société du Grand Paris in charge of delivering substantial and competent transport services for those commuters who cannot work from home, and the companies whose employees can work from home who should keep prioritising remote working where possible.
Though democratically debatable, it would not be a bad move for the Mayor (and Parliamentarians) to impose such policies through legislative means; what Paris needs for this scheme to succeed – and meet its sustainable goals across the board – is a comprehensive approach, which can only truly be delivered at the level of the State. The project requires an overhaul of past practices regarding car-use, public transport and commuter lifestyle; changes which can only occur if they are legally enshrined.
The new Champs-Elysées could be the key to a new geopolitical map in which France would become the world leader in the fight against climate change at city level, setting an example for other signatories of the ambitious European Green Deal reached at the COP25 summit in 2019, which aims to lower emissions to zero by 2050. With the stakes so high, this project’s long-term is doubly crucial.
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