It’s a sprawling Avenue famous not only for its expensive sidewalk brasseries and high-end shops, but also for its headache-inducing traffic, noise and air pollution. Now, the city of Paris has won approval to transform the famous stretch of real estate into what Mayor Anne Hidalgo bills as an “extraordinary garden”.
The ambitious renovation plans, valued at €250 million, will see the 1.9 km (1.2 mile) Avenue stretching from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe transformed into a green corridor of sorts by 2030.
French architectural firm PCA-Stream is behind the plans, which will include extending sidewalks–creating more space for pedestrians and greenery-lined restaurant terraces– reducing traffic on the busy Avenue by half (notably by redirecting some of it through a new tunnel), and planting more trees, shrubs and plants along the avenue to improve air quality.
And even the hellish, famously impossible-to-navigate traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe, the Rond Point des Champs-Elysées, is slated to be transformed with greenery, increased space for pedestrians, and traffic-reduction measures.
The greening project will take place in two distinct phases. In the lead-up to 2024, when Paris is slated to host the Summer Olympics, the area around the Place de la Concorde will be “greened”– effectively creating a connection to the Jardin des Tuileries on the opposite side of the immense square.
The rather stark Place de la Concorde, once the site of the guillotine at the time of the French Revolution, has traditionally lacked trees and green spaces, and is notorious for its traffic and noise. That’s set to change, with plans for a water mirror similar to the one that graces old Bordeaux, as well as more trees at the edges of the square– ones that will hopefully reduce pollution.
Mayor Hidalgo told French newspaper Le Journal de Dimanche that the remainder of the renovation efforts would be completed by 2030. The project has been in the works since 2018, and initial plans were unveiled in 2019.
An organization called the Champs-Élysées committee applauded Hidalgo’s announcement in January 2021.
“The legendary avenue has lost its splendor over the past 30 years,” the Committee said in a statement. “It was gradually abandoned by Parisians and suffered the full brunt of several respective crises: yellow vests, strikes, health and economic crises, etc.”
Indeed, and as the Committee notes in their statement, Parisians don’t tend to view the “Champs” with the wonder and admiration that many tourists do.
This might represent a bid not only to transform the famed Avenue physically and environmentally, but to win back affection (and footfall) from locals.
A Wider Green Transformation of Paris
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Hidalgo, re-elected Mayor of Paris in 2020, has co-conceived what is likely the most ecologically ambitious plan for the capital to date.
After all, since taking the helm as Mayor in 2014, Hidalgo has led a number of remarkable initiatives in a bid to “green” the city for the 21st century.
Three years ago, she carried out plans to transform many of the roads along the Seine river into pedestrian-only paths– to the delight of some and the consternation of those who don’t think .
Her government has also been credited with cleaning up and “rewilding” the part of the Seine that runs through the city, even de-mucking previously filthy canals and waterways in the northeast.
And in 2019, the Parisian government unveiled $80 million plans to radically transform the area around the Jardin du Trocadero and the Champ de Mars, in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower, into genuine green belts.
The objective? To reduce air and noise pollution, ease overcrowding, and make a part of Paris that sees constant foot traffic and heavy tourism greener– not to mention safer for pedestrians.
Like the Champs-Elysées renovation project, these initiatives are being carried out in two phases, with the first slated to be completed by 2024 and the second six years later.
In mid-2020, only a couple of weeks after Paris emerged from a strict three-month lockdown in response to the global pandemic, Hidalgo and Paris Green Party leader David Belliard released an ecological “manifesto” for the capital.
The plan pushes the vision for a less car-centric, more ecologically sound Paris even further, and puts a “green” ethic at the very center of urban planning. And unlike many I’ve seen in the past, this one doesn’t smack of greenwashing, either.
Interestingly, too, the manifesto frames itself as one that responds directly to the challenges of coming out of lockdown (deconfinement) in French, characterising the current moment as one that requires a radical rethinking of public health and city environments.
The pandemic, according to the document, has led to temporary urban planning measures
“that have allowed [policy-makers to turn the city into an urban laboratory, a space for experimentation and innovation in which citizens as well as professionals have the opportunity to take part in how their environment evolves. These refurbishments will be evaluated for long-term application, in consultation [with the public and others].“
In other words, Hidalgo and Belliard see long-term opportunities for radical urban transformation in some of the temporary measures that have been taken to improve public safety during the recent health emergency.
It essentially views the pandemic as one of several interrelated crises– alongside climate change, threats to biodiversity, and a gentrified Paris becoming less accessible to economically disadvantaged citizens– that must be thought through, and tackled, together.
Their plan revolves around how to make big changes both achievable and sustainable, and it’s frankly remarkable for its ambitious yet detailed proposals.
If you read at least some French, you can see the whole manifesto here. If not, here are a few of its key points, detailed in a whopping 34 page PDF proposal:
Lower the Speed Limit to 30 km– Throughout the City
Paris is well-known for its terrifying traffic circles and busy intersections, and even in neighborhoods with small, narrow streets, being a pedestrian or cyclist can feel scary at times.
The Mayor’s green manifesto proposes to cut back on pollution and increase street safety by slashing speed limits to 30 km/hour throughout the city. This is less than 19 miles an hour– even lower than the 20 miles/hour limit enforced on many city streets in the UK.
Meanwhile, the notorious ring road or “Boulevard Peripherique” that surrounds the city would see speed limits cut to only 50km per hour– or around 31 miles per hour.
Given that it’s essentially a giant freeway, this proposal won’t likely go over well with many commuters. But Hidalgo and Belliard see this as essential for discouraging cars as a primary mode of transport around the capital, and to improve fatal accident rates.
Finally, some 100,000 trees are to be built around the monstrous ring road, while pedestrian crossings will be added to make it safer to navigate.
The borders between Paris “intra-muros” (inside the walls) and the surrounding suburbs would theoretically be made less forbidding, leading to potential social as well as environmental benefits.
It’s well known, after all, that many Parisians living in the suburbs, especially in the economically disadvantaged north, often feel cut off and alienated from the city. This may help to address those structural disadvantages, while promoting healthier air and safer conditions.
Maintain New Bike Lanes, Encourage Electric Scooters & Reduce Parking Spaces
The plan also suggests that the some 50 km of additional bike paths carved out to help give Parisians more transportation options during the lockdown period might be permanently maintained.
This includes on streets such as the historic Rue de Rivoli, a major street near the Louvre that in normal times is crowded with car traffic.
It includes provisions for creating bike paths all around the aforementioned Boulevard Périphérique (Ring Road), and making cycling something that all Parisians, of all ages and a variety of physical ability levels, might feel comfortable doing.
Finally, it envisions cutting parking spaces back significantly to discourage car use, and lays out policy proposals for creating an electric scooter system operated by the city.
Create Large New Green Spaces & Rethink the City-Nature Divide
One of the things that impresses me about the proposal is that it applies philosophical concepts that ecologists and natural philosophers have been grappling with for decades: namely, how to break down the traditional divide between “nature” and “city”.
The proposal notes that the city of the 21st century should work to create “symbiotic” relationships between natural life and human-made structures.
Promoting greater biodiversity, reducing air pollution, creating environments that promote mental as well as physical health for Parisians of all income levels, and creating vast new green spaces are all major cornerstones of such a project.
The proposal notably mentions the creation of a “third wood” (after the huge Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes parks at the western and eastern borders of the city) near Bercy, in the 12th arrondissement.
It also suggests that the Bievre river, which feeds into the Seine but has been buried underground by streets and sidewalks, might be uncovered in places to allow more access to waterside areas and improve biodiversity.
Green walls and ecologically friendly constructions are another big part of the plan, which specifies that low-cost, accessible housing for all is essential to the manifesto’s “green” vision for the city.
This last point seems especially promising to me. Since the 1970s, many have been advocating for a brand of environmentalism that takes social justice and accessibility to resources like safe housing and clean water into account.
Hidalgo’s and Belliard’s proposal doesn’t just nod to that need; it makes it a central part of their ambitious project for urban renewal.
A Hopeful Future?
Reading this short-(ish) but remarkably concrete plan for a 21st century Paris that places ecology at the center of urban life, I’m hopeful.
While there’s no guarantee the proposals will all be carried out– Hidalgo still has to get stakeholders on board with what are some pretty radical ideas in some cases– it’s heartening to see municipal leaders using a public health crisis as a springboard for an urban revolution of sorts.
And with parallel projects in the works, including a proposal to turn the severely-polluted Place de la Concorde into a pedestrian-only square— Paris may change in some pretty transformative ways in the coming decades.
I happen to be one of the people who thinks that’s a good thing.