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Olympics as an Accelerator to Solve Urban Problems in Paris?!

The Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games will begin with the opening ceremony on July 26, 2024, for the Olympic ceremony and then continue on August 28 for the Paralympic ceremony, ending on September 8. The opening ceremony, unlike the usual ones held in sporting halls, is planned to take place on the river Seine, promising a spectacular and extraordinary event. The four-week-long event means accommodating a massive number of athletes, coaches, organisers, fans, and visitors, organising the time and place of events, and ensuring safety and security measures. These all present significant changes to the infrastructure of a city. Paris’s aspirations to host sustainable Olympics while also ensuring them are memorable, groundbreaking, and impactful puts major pressure on the city.

Preparations, Goals, and Aspirations

Paris was drafted as a host city on September 13, 2017, during the 131st session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held in Lima, Peru. Paris was awarded the opportunity to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, marking the return of the Games to the  French capital after a gap of 100 years, as Paris previously hosted the Olympics in 1924. Since 2017, various goals have been set in the preparation for the 4-year-round global competition in 32 sporting games. In particular, the most significant construction plans announced are the “Olympic Village” plan to house sporting teams, the “Swimming Plan” to clean up the Seine River, and the “Transportation Plan” activating cycling lanes and transit lines, dedicating €4.4 billion for these construction projects.

by: AP Photo via olympic.ca
Comparison of the 1924 and 2024 Olympics. By: AP Photo via olympic.ca

Olympic Village Plan

Comparative view of the Olympic Village Plan
by: Dominique Perrault Architecte
Comparative view of the Olympic Village Plan by: Dominique Perrault Architecte

To accommodate around 10,500 athletes, Paris is constructing new housing properties with 3,000 apartments in a designated Olympic Village in Seine-Saint-Denis. This suburban area is considered one of the poorest districts in Paris. After the Olympics, these housing units were promised to be turned into social housing. However, concerns still remain about whether this will help to rejuvenate the poor district or, on the other hand, cause undesired gentrification. According to one of the real estate investors, Icade, some of the housing units are already placed on the private market selling at market price, which leads to higher rents than people from the area cannot afford.

The design of the Olympic Village and surrounding area is well-thought-through by sustainable building practices. The New Aquatic Center at Saint-Denis is designed in a wave-like shape to reduce the building’s footprint, minimising the energy required for heating. Athletes Village is constructed using timber, which is recognised as a more sustainable alternative to concrete, although environmental costs depend on how it is grown. Buildings also introduce unconventional air conditioning, which cools water underground and then circulates to cool building interiors. This geo-exchange system that promises energy efficiency and sustainability raised concerns about efficiency in heat waves, and some delegations are preparing to bring their own air conditioning units. Mayor Hidalgo has urged teams to “trust the science.”

Swimming Plan

The Seine River has not been open for public swimming for over a century due to concerns about safety and pollution. Historically, the Seine was an important waterbody for transportation and commerce in Paris, but industrialisation and urban development led to significant pollution of its waters. Before swimming in the river was banned in 1923, the first Olympics held in Paris in 1900 hosted seven swimming competitions in the Seine.

Olympic swimming race in the river Seine 1900
via: wikipedia and olympic.org
Olympic swimming race in the river Seine 1900 via: wikipedia and olympic.org

Paris’ big ambitions to show off for the Olympic and Paralympic games include cleaning the river to allow for two long-distance races and the swimming part of the triathlon to take place. Essentially, the plan, which was given the name “Swimming Plan,” involves implementing new underground pipes, tanks, and pumps designed to clean up the river from harmful bacteria, particularly E. coli (Escherichia coli) and enterococci.

Essential for the clean-up of the river is to reduce the sources of incoming pollution, such as the untreated water entering the Seine. So far, in overwhelming events with rainwater, the wastewater from households and rainwater is being dumped into the river. The goal of the Paris stormwater and sewage management projects is to reduce the number of these overflow events into the river by building storage tanks and underground tunnels.

Additional measures to the clean-up treatment are being implemented, such as adding treatments to upstream sewage plants like Seine-Valenton, which serve 2.5 million people. In this effort, teams are persuading homeowners in suburban areas to allow pipe renovations, targeting houses with defective connections that contribute to river pollution. Despite grants of thousands of euros being applied to households undergoing such renovation, only a small number of homeowners have opted to accept these renovation offers.

Although the plan to place triathlon competitions in the Seine has raised concerns, no other plan has been presented yet. To gain trust, the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and other figures involved in the clean-up plans have pledged to be the first people to swim in the Seine as a sign of confidence in the river’s improved condition.

The Olympic Games serve as an accelerator of renewal for public swimming in the Seine since there were no other plans set for swimming before. With the increasing temperature during already hot summers, cooling down in the waterways is becoming a more common action taken by many people, which was seen in past summers when people were bathing in public fountains under the Eiffel Tower.

Additional Clean-Ups

On a smaller scale of the clean-up, Paris is looking into the details of street safety and aesthetics. The Council of Paris is proposing to remove key boxes from public spaces forcibly. These boxes, which facilitate access to short-term rentals, are currently banned due to aesthetic and security concerns, but enforcement has been challenging. The city hopes that stricter regulations will help control illegal rentals, but this could mean fewer options for tourists and potential discontent from Olympic sponsors. On the other hand, these key boxes are not only used for short-term rentals but could also be used in case of an emergency or as easier access for healthcare professionals to a person with mobility handicaps. Wouldn’t it then be more appropriate to discuss higher design standards for these key boxes if they do indeed contribute to visual pollution in public spaces in Paris?

Further clean-ups involved security measures for the venues. Paris aimed to increase security measures by removing iconic and long-traditional bouquinistes, which are small book-selling stands along the Seine river bank, and placing them into a temporary marketplace. Sellers of these book stands feared these regulations and argued that the years-old structure was too fragile to survive such replacement. After protests, it was agreed to keep the bouquinistes in their original place.

Map of the Olympic venues in Paris by: International Olympic Committee via olympics.org
Map of the Olympic venues in Paris. By: International Olympic Committee via olympics.org

Transportation Plan

To accommodate the influx of visitors, specific metro and RER lines, especially those connecting to the football, tennis, and athletics stadiums, will experience a substantial increase in train frequency. With up to 71% more trains than on a typical summer day, Paris aims to ensure smooth and efficient travel to and from the venues. While increasing frequencies is a necessary improvement for mega-events, Paris’ metro is also struggling with ageing infrastructure. Despite efforts to improve metro services, there are no significant signs of improvement, raising concerns about the city’s readiness for the event.

Furthermore, Paris is becoming more bicycle-busy than ever, with Europe’s busiest bike lane at Sébastopol Boulevard. The ambition is to showcase its cycling transformation further by making every Olympic venue accessible by bike. The city has rolled out an impressive network of 415 kilometres of new cycle lanes and provided 20,000 parking spaces for bicycles. In a bold move to reduce traffic congestion and promote eco-friendly transportation, car parking will not be available at the venues. While this initiative is expected to alleviate environmental impact, road closures may lead to traffic jams in the capital.

Safety and Security

The Director of Planning and Coordination for Paris 2024 reassured the public that preparations are on track, although with complex logistics. Despite these assurances, doubts persist, particularly regarding security and transportation. Well aware of France’s high crime rates spiking in recent years and 22 attacks since the terrorist attacks in 2015, the president acknowledges plans B or C in case of a terrorist attack.

To address safety concerns, the National Assembly passed special legislation to strengthen security measures during the Games and for a few months afterwards. This legislation allows for extensive video monitoring controlled by artificial intelligence to enhance monitoring and response capabilities.

Drastic security measures have also been announced by the Paris police chief, including the implementation of restricted areas around Olympic venues. Local residents will need a QR code to access these areas, and visitors wishing to watch events from their residence’s balconies or rooftops must be registered in advance. While these measures aim to protect both residents and visitors against potential security risks, human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have voiced opposition to the use of extensive surveillance technologies. Concerned about privacy rights and possible violations of data protection laws, they caution against the introduction of facial recognition technology.

The Legacy and Sustainability Plan

The Legacy and Sustainability Plan for the Paris Olympics is a strategy focused on hosting the Games while managing a lasting positive impact on the city and its residents. While mega-events such as the Olympics do not have a positive impact on climate, efforts are being made for sustainable practices to mitigate effects and reduce the burden on climate. It prioritises sustainability to reduce environmental impacts and create long-term social, economic, and environmental benefits.

While past Olympics showed unsustainable practices that put massive pressure on the environment, the legacy of the Games acts as a guide to lessen the impact. The 2008 Beijing Olympics is an example of ambitions with extensive construction projects leading to habitat destruction. Natural habitats, including wetlands and woods, were destroyed in the process of constructing new stadiums and infrastructure, which disrupted ecosystems and reduced biodiversity. Similarly, the 2016 Rio Olympics faced criticism for high levels of air and water pollution. Increased traffic and building operations caused air pollution, and communities and athletes were at risk of health problems due to untreated sewage and waste flowing into water bodies. The 2012 London Olympics were also criticised for their carbon emissions and the construction of the Olympic park, which had been unused for years. After the 2004 Athens Olympics, many venues and facilities were left unused or underutilised, leading to maintenance costs and urban decay. The Athens Olympic Stadium, for example, struggled to attract events and visitors after the Games, becoming a symbol of wasted resources. Furthermore, during the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, thousands of residents had to relocate to make way for Olympic venues and infrastructure. Many residents were forcibly evicted from their homes without proper compensation or alternative housing, leading to social and economic hardships. These examples prove the importance of sustainable planning for future host cities.

Key legacies of Paris’ Olympics are the cleaning up of the Seine, the transformation of the Olympic Village into residential housing to address the city’s housing needs, the promotion of sustainable urban living, the improvement of cycling infrastructure, and sustainable transport initiatives.

One key strategy in reducing emissions is the strategic clustering of venues, ensuring that they are located within a compact radius of just 10 kilometres from the Olympic Village. This proximity enables efficient travel, with spectators and participants able to reach venues within a mere 30 minutes. Sustainable transport modes will be encouraged, including the limitation of car use and parking in the Paris city centre and at venues.

To further reduce carbon emissions, the ambitions are set for innovative solutions like installing solar panels on the Seine. Recognising the unavoidable emissions associated with hosting such an event, the Paris organisers have pledged to offset these impacts by purchasing “carbon credits.” These credits will contribute to funding emissions-reducing projects worldwide, thereby balancing the environmental footprint of the Olympics to a certain extent. Although it has not been announced which emissions-reducing projects will be supported, we can only hypothesise about the potential impact.

Expensive Party for Parisians

Urged to work from home as significant pressure is going to be put on transportation lines, restricted to accessing parts of the city due to safety concerns; Parisians are not happy about other changes that the Olympics will bring. Although the transportation networks have introduced higher prices for visitors during the Olympic Games period, local residents should be shielded from this. Hotels and other services are also raising prices for this period, taking advantage of the high demand from visitors. Parisians are concerned about the affordability of essential services during this time. Moreover, there is uncertainty about whether prices will drop significantly after the Games or if inflated prices will become the new norm, further worsening affordability misery for residents. This adds to the frustration felt by many Parisians about the economic impact of hosting the Olympics.

Recognising the stress that mega-events place on cities and the climate, suggestions have arisen to host the Olympic Games in multiple pre-existing facilities around the world. However, can Paris demonstrate that this is not a necessary action and prove that the Olympics can have positive impacts? It will be worthwhile not only to watch the Olympic games as a sports fan but also to follow the organisational process as it unfolds, particularly for urban planning enthusiasts.

This article was previously published in the 2024 – End of Year Issue.

Nina Zrubáková
Nina Zrubáková
I am Spatial Planning and Design student at RUG, a media enthusiast interested in urbanism-related topics. I am also working on designing layouts for the issues with the design team.
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