Paris – The Champs-Élysées was once dubbed the world’s most beautiful street. Few of the pedestrians who breathe the exhaust now beside its many cobbled lanes would agree. But there’s a plan afoot to turn back the clock and help the famous road find its soul again.
Imagine only four lanes of car traffic rather than the eight the avenue now has. Alongside are more trees, more benches and more food and drink options. The Tuileries Gardens, beside the Louvre, link up with the gardens now orphaned alongside the Champs, creating more accessible green space. Backers say it could become a destination again for locals, and not just selfie-snapping tourists.
The plan, which was created over four years and funded by a group of local stakeholders, the Comité Champs-Élysées, should be presented to city hall as soon as next month. As Paris looks ahead to hosting the Olympics in 2024, putting the city even more firmly in the world’s gaze, supporters of what they call the “re-enchantment” of the Champs hope to seize the momentum.
While there is no guarantee their plan will be accepted, it fits within a recent trend of local liveability improvements that have put Paris at the forefront of a greener and more resilient approach to city life.
According to the architect behind the plan, the Champs-Élysées was a symbol of modernity that is now suffering the effects of that very modernity: too much pavement, too many cars, too much heat. Philippe Chiambaretta says that when landscape architect André Le Nôtre created the 17th century vista from the Tuileries that became the current Champs-Élysées, he was in effect creating the first modern road.
And now, Chiambaretta added, fixing this road can serve as a blueprint for others around the world.
“It’s like case one, patient zero,” he said in the offices of his firm, PCA-Stream, in the Marais neighbourhood. “We need to invent a new medicine for the city, a new science.”
Although the reputation of the Champs-Élysées gives it global resonance, cities everywhere are struggling with issues similar to those facing Paris. And a warming planet has raised the stakes – cities are heat islands, with thousands of hectares of impermeable concrete and asphalt that can make flooding worse. While some cities, such as Singapore, are starting to look at how to design buildings for a warmer future, greening existing infrastructure has to include altering some of the roads that criss-cross major cities.
The plan in Paris does not have an official price tag, though those involved in producing it say it would likely cost between €100- and €500-million to implement – a meaningful sum but one that is a fraction of the budget of most major urban infrastructure projects.
In some cities, roads have already changed for a modest cost. Part of New York’s Times Square has been closed to auto traffic since 2009 and there is a proposal afloat to reduce car lanes on Fifth Avenue, adding bike lanes and trees.
Barcelona and Amsterdam have redesigned streets to make them safer for pedestrians and more fun for children.
A plan to build a linear park on part of Toronto’s University Avenue, a grand boulevard that lacks charm or vibrancy, won tentative support last year from then-mayor John Tory. In Winnipeg, city planners are trying to figure out how to make the intersection of Portage and Main more hospitable to passersby, albeit without allowing them to walk across.
Recent surveying done for the Canadian advocacy group Park People suggests there may be appetite for meaningful changes to the urban fabric. According to the group, 77 per cent of city residents who responded to their survey said they would like to see more streets pedestrianized or converted to park space.
In Paris, the liveability push under Mayor Anne Hidalgo has led to a striking transformation in only a few years. The network of bike lanes has grown – including rue de Rivoli being given over largely to cyclists – green space expanded and more than 100 streets near schools closed to cars to make walking safer for children.
Coupled with investments in transit and policies discouraging driving, the city has seen an annual 3-per-cent average drop in car use over the last two decades. Under Hidalgo and her predecessor, local greenhouse gas emissions were cut by 25 per cent between 2004 and 2018, UN figures show.
According to the ranking body INRIX, although Paris was third-worst in the world for traffic-related driving slowdowns last year, city motorists had seen their delays drop 16 per cent since before the pandemic.
On the ground in Paris, the difference from some other major cities is palpable: the central area is just as lively but feels noticeably quieter. Instead of cars, it’s busy with pedestrians and cyclists.
However, the changes in Paris are not universally popular. Thierry Véron, who heads an association of small businesses called FACAP, says that Hidalgo has ignored the concerns of merchants worried about losing access by delivery trucks and parking spaces for suburban customers.
“Merchants are not opposed to the development of bicycle lanes at the cost of cars, but it’s all a question of balance and sharing,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange.
Véron said that rue de Rivoli had become “chaotic” and “almost impossible” for pedestrians to cross because there were so many bicycles. And while he acknowledged that pedestrian-friendly streets near schools could be a safety improvement, he wondered why they had to be closed entirely to auto traffic.
Others are even more critical. Led by a well-followed anonymous account on X, formerly Twitter, opponents post about the mayor’s actions using a French hashtag that deplores the “destruction” of Paris.
The person behind account would not be interviewed on the record but their blog offers a litany of complaints. Among them: Hidalgo has allowed historic spaces to degrade to pave the way for introducing major changes; while temporary patio space on sidewalks and roads, another liveability measure that has increased under the mayor, is a gradual invasion of public space.
The changes in Paris have also not been evenly applied. Even as the number of cars on many roads has been reduced, several of the city’s ostensibly most important sites remain ringed by busy traffic circles. Two of those – the Place de la Concorde and l’Étoile – are included in the Champs-Élysées plan, and illustrate the difficult balancing act any remake has to achieve.
L’Étoile, so named for the star formation of the roads that radiate out from it, contains the Arc de Triomphe that was commissioned by Napoleon and included in Victor Hugo’s funeral procession. At the other end of the Champs, the Concorde contains a 3,000-year-old gold-topped obelisk that once stood at Luxor temple in Egypt.
These are not sites to be trifled with lightly. Add in the fact that the Champs is used on the Bastille Day for a military procession, and the Tour de France cycling race traditionally finishes here, and the importance of the road to the French psyche is clear.
However, that importance has not made the street a natural destination for locals. According to a survey done for the Comité Champs-Élysées, only 5 per cent of pedestrians along the street are Parisians there to wander. The vast majority of the rest are tourists and it’s not clear from the survey how many of those are lured there once by the famous name, and never go back.
Edouard Lefebvre, the managing director of the Comité, notes that retaining the history and emotional heft of the spot doesn’t have to mean keeping it the way it is now. The street has changed before and, for example, a century ago was more heavily greened than it is now.
“We can demonstrate that putting back trees is not an insult regarding the history,” he said during a late-summer heat wave, gesturing in the direction of the Place de la Concorde from a sixth-floor terrace overlooking the Champs, as the sun beat down and heat radiated off the cobbles. “People want a less noisy city, a city that is less polluted.”
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