Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The project fits into the suburb’s plans for a more equitable future, but some are skeptical, as similar ambitions have not panned out at past games.
As the host of the 2024 Summer Olympics, Paris is the latest city to use the world’s largest sporting event as a massive regeneration tool. Just as London did in 2012, the French capital is hoping that it will be able to use the games to effect the economic transformation of a relatively neglected part of the metro area—in this case, the inner suburbs of Northern Paris. This spring, concrete details of the facilities that will help to bring about this hoped-for transformation are starting to trickle into the public domain.
Among the first are plans for the Olympic Village from the studio of architect and urban planner Dominique Perrault (known, among other projects, for his National Library of France and Berlin Velodrome) due to be erected on a riverside site in the suburb of Saint-Denis. The plan is especially significant because, like all Olympic Villages, the new quarter will transform into a regular neighborhood after the games, ideally bringing life to an ex-industrial corner of the metropolis. So will the village deliver?
Perrault’s plan is for a mainly mid-rise development of apartment blocks grouped around a central complex containing offices, stores, and community facilities. Besides a large parking lot onsite, the streets linking these blocks will be car-free and will provide excellent connections to the city’s public transit system. This network’s great extension in this area is already underway with the construction of the Grand Paris Express, a 200 kilometer, 68-station expansion of the city’s metro system—almost all of it beyond the historic core—that should make Paris’s suburbs far more easily navigable. The Olympic Village will lie close to a new metro station that forms a junction for three of the Grand Paris Express’s new lines, making the area a hub for the whole of northern Greater Paris.
Visually, Perault’s plan looks likeable enough, though apart from its building materials and verdure cropping up fashionably on rooftops, it all looks pretty familiar, even slightly conservative. The charms of the plan, however, are arguably not in its appearance, but in its sustainability goals and attempts to open up a rather neglected stretch of the River Seine. All construction materials will be bio-sourced (which will mean a lot of wood), while the buildings should be either passive or energy plus (producing more energy than they consume). The complex’s many plants will be watered exclusively by stored rain and ground water, while every part of the neighborhood will be accessible to people with limited mobility.
Meanwhile, buildings will be oriented as much as possible to open up river views, while a new pedestrian bridge will connect the site to parkland and the Cité du Cinéma film studio complex on Saint-Denis Island, a long, thin islet that curves around a bend in the River Seine. The riverside of what is currently under-used ex-industrial terrain could become a pleasant place to hang out, and possibly a destination. The term “could” is nonetheless important here. The site‘s northern edge is flanked by a highway. Money has been set aside to provide a sound-proofing wall for this road, but local representatives already fear than the budget isn’t enough—an important issue that could still make or break the site’s success.
The choice of such a site nonetheless chimes harmoniously with a recent shift in Olympic objectives. Chastened from past criticism that, for most host cities, the Games have proved to be little more than a wasteful white elephant factory, the International Olympic Committee’s produced the Olympic Agenda 2020, a blueprint for hosts and organizers that emphasizes legacy and sustainability. Prospective hosts are now actively encouraged to create proposals that prioritize long-term use and that strengthen good governance and ethics.
The site of the Olympic Village is well chosen to fit such an agenda. Saint-Denis is currently one of the poorest and youngest areas in France, a place of low incomes, high unemployment, and social exclusion made more striking by its location just beyond the gates of inner Paris itself. It remains not just deprived but a place in which many residents are excluded from the mainstream of French life thanks to a combination of limited opportunities and training and institutional barriers informed by systemic racism.
The idea is that by building high quality housing here, among new sporting and leisure facilities that themselves could provide jobs long-term, the Olympic Village could do more than reintegrate a currently forlorn ex-industrial space more fully into the city. It could help Saint-Denis develop a reputation as a place where people live by choice, not out of necessity, and provide a launchpad for greater prosperity and life satisfaction for local people.
This isn’t necessarily utopian hot air. A substantial portion of the housing in the Olympic Village will indeed be earmarked for lower income local people, with 25 to 40 percent (a figure whose vagueness rings alarm bells) destined to be public housing. Games organizers estimate that 150,000 jobs will be created in the run-up and during the games (though not necessarily thereafter), many of which will be accessible via a publicly-run Olympic employment agency. To ensure that this medium-term job boom profits local people, ten percent of vacancies will be reserved for groups that commonly struggle with job market access, such as the long-term unemployed or young people without training. The Games should also leave a relatively lighter footprint, with games organizers pledging to use only bio-sourced materials and 100 percent renewable energy, serve sustainably sourced food during the games and ferry spectators via clean, non-polluting transit transit.
This sounds good, but Olympic hosts have made grand projections in the past only for the public to later find that the finished projects failed to truly deliver. London is an obvious comparison. The U.K. capital’s 2012 games have been widely cited as an example of an Olympics that strove to deliver more for lower income local residents. They seem to have speeded up the delivery of new infrastructure to the Olympic Park’s site in East London—an area similar in profile to Saint-Denis—but later research revealed that they actually did nothing to narrow the gap between median incomes in the local area and those across London as a whole. Despite a heavy focus on regeneration and job creation, unemployment and life expectancy levels have remained broadly the same, while physical activity rates have fallen.
So far, Paris’s Olympic Village plans seem to be working on creating a sustainable mode of development. Ambitious social goals for it and other Olympic installations may prove far harder to meet.