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 French capital, under Mayor Anne Hidalgo, could be a model for how cities can mitigate and plan for climate change. But change has not come easily.
The schoolyard of Paris’s Avenue Daumesnil École Maternelle doesn’t look like the site of a revolution: It’s the modest play space of a state-run kindergarten.
But look closer. The yard has just been subtly remodeled to make it better able to tolerate a hotter, wetter world. Over the summer break, its conventional impermeable concrete surfaces were ripped up and replaced with a porous sub-layer that can act as a sponge for stormwater. Over this base went a layer of fully permeable pavement that allows water to drain through, minimizing the risk of flooding.
Soon, vines will be trained up the building’s concrete walls to help prevent them from absorbing summer heat, while an awning and a little row of trees provide shade. The trees, meanwhile, are corralled behind something the three-to-six-year old students specifically requested: an openable, castle-like fence with numbers on it. (They got letters in the end, but you can’t have everything.)
So far, so cute. But this adaptation doesn’t immediately reveal the bigger story. Think of this tiny yard as a small symbol of Paris’s ongoing transformation into one of the most sustainable, environmentally resilient cities in the world. The city is in the process of executing its plan to green and cool public spaces and dramatically cut pollution and carbon emissions within its borders.
“We’ve actually started an urban revolution—we really believe we are looking at the city in a different way,” Paris Environment and Sustainability Commissioner Célia Blauel told CityLab during a recent visit. “We’re getting nature back—first for the children, but also as a way of escaping from endless concrete and preparing the city for adaptation.”
Such grand claims are possible because the Avenue Daumesnil schoolyard is part of a suite of far more elaborate projects. It’s part of a collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities, the global organization devoted to making cities more adaptable and sustainable. By the end of 2019, the playground will be joined by 40 other similarly adapted spaces, and those in turn will eventually form part of a 761-piece mosaic of climate-adapted schoolyards across the city. Similar collaborations with 100 Resilient Cities will go on to remodel entire streets, both for safe play and for better heat and storm resilience. The city is also creating trained volunteer brigades to help out during periods of crisis, from natural disasters to terrorism.
Pulling this transformation off, says Mayor Anne Hidalgo, takes more than just money and political will: It requires some Gallic cultural recalibration. Traditionally, the French prefer their urban nature to be fenced off and trained. This is a country where city trees are ruthlessly pollarded into an agonized tangle of limbs, where parks are often half gravel, with fenced-in grass intended for resting the eyes on but never the feet. Simply including greenery in a play space is a bit of a shocking departure.
“In the past, we’ve sometimes protected ourselves from nature as if it meant us harm,” Hidalgo said. “We’re rediscovered quite simple things, and it gives me pleasure, along with my team, to return to simplicity: the idea that trees can bring coolness, that touching plants isn’t going to make anyone sick. Things as simple as that that are unfolding in this city.”
A piece of the puzzle
Greener play spaces are just one cog in a far larger machine intended to battle Paris’ heat-island effect. This summer, the city inaugurated the first three of what it calls “Ilots de Fraicheur”—“isles of coolness,” specially adapted public spaces where people can enjoy a carefully but naturally cooled environment during blazing summer heat. Gradually, these islands of coolness will link up across the city, providing respite from future heat waves. Officials have also been working on informing residents about where these cooler spots can be found using an app that charts immediate local temperature and directs users to the one nearest their location.
Meanwhile, some of the key axial squares on Paris’s boulevard rings are in the process of having some car lanes partly replaced with new tree plantings, which are among the total of 20,000 new trees to be planted between 2014 and 2020, accompanied by around 500 acres of new green roofs. Paris plans to be carbon-neutral and entirely powered by renewable energy by 2050.
It’s a plan that’s been attracting global attention for some time, with Paris introducing groundbreaking new laws and projects on everything from car bans to bikeshare programs, from green roofs to electric buses. In the wake of this week’s UN climate-change report, which warned that we have just 12 years left to stave off catastrophic levels of global warming, it’s also a plan whose goals now seem ever more imperative.
In a way that few other cities have so far, Paris is actively seeking ways to manage the environmental, political, and economic storms to come. As 100 Resilient Cities’ managing director Michael Berkowitz explained, “Resilience is not just about saying, ‘We have heat—let’s build a solution.’ You can start with heat and climate adaptation, but then, for example, you introduce better drainage to reduce pressure on the stormwater system during flooding.” These spaces can then be opened up to the wider community for joint activities, strengthening the city’s social connectivity. That in itself is a source of resilience, Berkowitz says.
“Many of these courtyards open onto the streets and can be used by communities on the weekends and off-hours, which increases social cohesion and community. That could serve Paris well with its refugee crisis, or with terrorist attacks. That’s the kind of joined-up thinking we’re trying to inspire in cities all over the world.”
This problem-solving is also, says Berkowitz, about getting disparate parts of government and civil society to work more co-operatively. “The way infrastructure is usually built is that school-construction people only talk to each other. What this is asking is, how can we think about all those concerns together? It’s a new way of thinking about your infrastructure that’s better integrated. Paris can do it; Dakar, Senegal, can do it; Melbourne can do it. It’s a concrete way—no pun intended—of thinking about ways to make cities stronger.”
Along with managing climate-change-related temperature rises, Paris has been working to mitigate the carbon emissions that power it; arguably, the city has gone further with this than almost any major metropolis. Hidalgo’s predecessor, Bertrand Delanoë, introduced the world’s first major bikeshare scheme, inspiring a wave of similar programs worldwide that have helped make more space for bicycle users in urban centers.
Meanwhile, polluting private vehicles have been targeted for elimination from the city. Cars were banned from the Seine quayside—hitherto a traffic-packed route through the city—while the space for cars in adjacent streets is being gradually but systematically whittled away. The city counterbalanced the impact of these moves on vulnerable groups by introducing free public transit for people with disabilities.
New policies pushing to reduce carbon emissions continue to be rolled out on a monthly basis. This October, for example, the city announced that it will make car-free days a monthly occurrence in its innermost arrondissements.
These policies have given Hidalgo’s administration an international reputation as green pioneers. They have also unleashed a whirlwind of complaints and institutional kickback. Much of the controversy has centered around the city’s pedestrianization of the Seine quayside, removing a major car route through the city and returning the riverside to strollers and cyclists.
Paris’s police force has battled the measure, claiming it inhibited its ability to access parts of the city fast enough. In February 2018, a federation of retailers, drivers’ associations, and mayors from the Greater Paris region succeeded in gaining a court order cancelling the quayside car ban. The court acknowledged that some of the claims in the city’s closure decree regarding improved pollution and public health were inconsistent.
But the city has appealed, and hit back in March with a newly reworded decree defending the pedestrianization on heritage and touristic grounds. The verdict on the appeal is due in the middle of October, with a cautious consensus developing that the city will win, and that cars will not return to the quays.
Elsewhere, the city has also had issues with the contractor for its once groundbreaking Velib bikeshare system, after an overhaul of docking stations to make them compatible with e-bikes left large parts of the network frequently unusable, prompting mass rebates and, ultimately, an apology from Delanoë, who approved the deal. Meanwhile, the departure of Hidalgo’s chief-of-staff last month suggests rumblings of discontent at City Hall. Neither of these hiccups directly challenges the city’s green plans, of course—but they have nibbled away at some of the public confidence that gives City Hall the license to push them through.
Mayor Hidalgo maintains that the resistance to the city’s scheme isn’t coming from residents. They derive instead, she says, from the split identity of Paris as both a seat of national political and economic power and a place where ordinary people live.
“Paris is a capital, and sometimes the people who talk of it aren’t the ones who actually live here,” she said. “We’ve struggled sometimes with lobbies, with people who wanted to hold onto a past world of fossil-fuel energy, a less human world than the one that’s emerging. ... Me, I’m the spokesperson for people who actually live in this city. It is Parisians who have inspired us to make these changes. The population is very much on board. And each time we propose a remodeled courtyard, a play street for children, a garden, walks for families, Parisians respond positively.”
The needs of these people, her electorate, are actually quite straightforward, and instantly recognizable as concerns shared across the world, she adds.
“Paris’ citizens have needs just like those of all the world’s cities, and even of France’s smallest village: for schools that work, to have air you can breathe, to have kindergartens, spaces for their parents when they get older, to be able to look after people who are homeless.”
The municipal elections of 2020 will be the true test of whether Hidalgo’s team have succeeded in bringing Parisian voters along with them. So far, however, a certain determination of attitude has left Paris’ green innovations intact and still moving forward.
Given the growing sense of urgency—and the understanding that actions to combat and manage climate change cannot be left to national governments to formulate and must be taken immediately at the local level—more cities are likely to look to Paris as the model for politically feasible climate adaptation. But as her administration’s recent struggles show, Hidalgo provides another important lesson for these city leaders: Any mayor trying to follow her lead needs to be ready for a fight.