Paris’ Urban Revolution: How Municipal Policy Can Make Cities Greener

by Nash Rougvie

What You Can Do

  1. Advocate for similar solutions at planning board/other municipal meetings
  2. Encourage your representatives to support bills that provide more funding to cities for green infrastructure investment
  3. Join a local cycling advocacy group on efforts to make green transportation more practical in your city

Paris is known as one of the world’s greatest cities. Be it its architectural heritage, the unique urban form originating from the ambitious Hausmann Plan, or the rich artistic history housed in its many museums, there is a certain je ne sais quoi that attracts people from around the world to the City of Love. In fact, Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world; though estimates vary depending on the source, Paris is situated between the 4th and 2nd most popular tourist destination [1][2]. Yet, while outsiders see Paris as a paradise, there are a number of pressing issues that locals face. From excessive air pollution to inadequate cycling infrastructure, a multitude of factors hold Paris back from being a great sustainable city. With the 2024 Summer Olympic Games on the horizon, the host city has taken ambitious steps in recent times to address these issues.

While Paris offers a wider array of alternatives to driving than many cities in the United States, traffic poses major obstacles. Despite its widespread employment of rotaries and extensive network of wide boulevards connecting the city’s 20 arrondissements, congestion is an issue that plagues both drivers and pedestrians. In no specific location is this more clear than on the Champs Elysees.

The Champs Elysees is one of the most recognizable and popular streets in the world. It is home to famous landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and Grand Palais. Additionally, it has hosted a number of critical events in French social history, such as the celebrations following the nation’s victory in the 2018 World Cup and a number of demonstrations from the widespread gilets jaune, or yellow vest, protests against the Macron government. The street also functions as a cultural symbol, immortalized in art such as Joe Dassin’s song “Les Champs Elysees” and the “Paris Street; Rainy Day” painting by Gustave Caillebotte. However, many locals feel that the location has lost its character due to the high traffic that it accommodates. The avenue was once seen as an open, common space for families to congregate and conviviate–much like Central Park is to New York City–but the conversion of the Champs Elysees from a tranquil public space to a six-lane thoroughfare filled with private automobiles prevents a regression to such practices.

Outside of the aesthetic and cultural damage caused by the Champs Elysees’ current state, there are serious negative health impacts, including air pollution. Nitrogen dioxide levels along the avenue are twice as high as the concentrations considered safe by the World Health Organization, posing a significant danger to the hundreds of thousands of pedestrians that stroll its sidewalks every day [3]. The situation was so dire that the French government was fined by an administrative court for failing to improve air quality in areas like Paris [4].

In response to decades of complaints about the state of the Champs Elysees, Mayor Anne Hidalgo promoted a plan to reclaim the street from automobiles and restore it to pedestrians and cyclists. The outline is holistic, including both new regulations for modal use and spatial revamps of the new pedestrian and cycling-designated areas [5]. Prior to the avenue being open to automobiles, the Champs Elysees was known for its many rows of trees lining the street, giving it a unique and pleasant ambiance. Hidalgo’s plan calls for the planting of two new lines of trees along the boulevard in place of traffic lanes. This not only has an aesthetic appeal, but will also play a significant part in reducing pollution along the street, as not only will there be less traffic, but the new trees can freshen the air and sequester harmful greenhouse gasses. 

The planned redevelopment of the Champs Elysees is a microcosm of the larger-scale plans that the Hidalgo administration and other municipal bodies have for Paris. The overarching goal of these efforts is to turn Paris into a “fifteen-minute city,” a model of urbanism that emphasizes decentralization of services and commerce, and promotes easy access to jobs, shops, and fellow citizens. While the implications of this model inform projects such as the redevelopment of the Champs-Elysees, its broader implications tend to manifest most clearly in the redevelopment of transportation infrastructure.

The city of Paris must next wage a war on cars that impede such civilian walkability. This is best exemplified by the city’s recent move to ban cars from its four central arrondissements, with very few exceptions [6]. This area had previously been designated as a peaceful or tranquil zone, but new graphics from the city show the area being labeled as a zone d’interdiction, or a forbidden zone in reference to the ban on automobiles, that roughly spans three square miles large and comprises much of Paris’s dense urban core [7]. 

For reference, the same size, if applied to downtown Manhattan, would stretch from The Battery to Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village, or, if placed further north, from 14th street to 42nd street.

This decision has come as the city has made a number of concerted efforts to encourage cycling in Paris. The city already has a robust cycling culture, with one million trips being taken by bicycle per day –almost double the amount seen in New York City [9]. Yet, the city wants to see an even greater shift in modal use as the new zone d’interdiction will likely dissuade thousands of car trips. Recently, it was announced that 182 kilometers of cycling lanes would be permanently installed in the city, with a budget of roughly $291 million [8]. Fifty-two of these kilometers of cycling infrastructure have been committed to become designated lanes after their experimental use during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a practice, tactical urbanism, allows for low-risk experimentations with urban space to see for any potential improvements.

This process has a great deal of promise for cities trying to induce a modal shift in the same manner that Paris is. Temporary, low-cost changes such as closing an automobile lane in favor of bike traffic or putting up a series of cylinder blocks in at the ends of a street to pedestrianize it allow skeptical cities to experiment with changes that they may want to make permanent. In the case of Paris, the closure of automobile lanes in favor of more cycling lanes informed a later decision to make a large investment in cycling infrastructure, which can be much more easily justified with proven results. 

The perfect embodiment of Paris’ ambitious plans is the revamp of the Place de la Concorde. The plaza is the center of Paris; it sits as the central terminus of the Champs Elysees at one end of the busy Pont de Concorde, and directly to the west of the Jardin des Tuileries situated in front of the Louvre. Given that the Place is currently a massive, pill shaped traffic circle that breaks the city up at its center, Hidalgo is seeking to completely pedestrianize the square, connecting the Jardin des Tuileries and Champs Elysees without the need to cross a road [10]. The transformation of this historically relevant but contemporarily underutilized space into a world-class public green space reflects the ambitious but reasonable approach that the city of Paris is making in its efforts to create a more sustainable city–and is an approach that should be learned from around the world.

Works Cited