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.
Swimming pools in the Seine, restaurants in old metro stations, and more.
What's the best way to spruce up Paris's image? Could it be to float huge swimming pool tanks on the Seine? Or build a garden bridge across the river, linking green banks to form a Central Park a la française? How about burying the Boulevard Péripherique beltway underground, or turning abandoned metro stations into cinemas and nightclubs?
These plans are in fact all serious proposals put forward by this year's candidates to be the next mayor of Paris.
Paris mayoral elections arrive at the end of March, and the top contenders are currently trying to outdo each other with proposals to transform the city in the splashiest, most headline-grabbing way possible. The most viable (aka the cheapest) plan comes from Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo – she’s currently ahead, at 54 to 46 percent in the polls, against the rival she'll probably face in a March 30 run-off.
Hidalgo wants to float Paris's waterways with swimming barges. These would be water-filled hulls that give swimmers the part-illusion that they're actually swimming in the river itself. Hidalgo's vision is to moor three of these on the Seine Quays, one at the Villette Canal Basin and one in a lake in the Bois de Vincennes Park. She's also floated the possibility of two extra "roaming pools" which could be set up and disassembled on temporary sites across the city.
While these facilities will be summer-only, apparently swimming-mad Hidalgo has also promised four new permanent, indoor pools as well, bringing the total cost up to €250 million. The project's sheer scale is something new, but floating swimming barges have already been created elsewhere in Europe, first in Berlin, then in Vienna, where a frozen pool also functions in winter as a curling pond. With a bit of will, they might actually happen in Paris too.
Yet more ambitious plans for the Seine come from Ecologist Party candidate Christophe Najdovski. He has proposed closing a 2.5 kilometer stretch of the Seine quays to cars. In their place, Najdovski wants a tramway and a woodland park on both sides of the river, joined up by two garden bridges planted with trees and bushes, all to be had for the modest sum of €300 million. That Najdovski has zero chance of actually implementing the plan himself goes almost without saying (a December poll pegged his support level at 6.5 percent) while calling the project a "French-style Central Park" seems a little off. Still, as a suggestion for Paris's future, it's not entirely without legs. The park would draw fresh visitors and cut pollution, while similar plans aren't entirely untried elsewhere. An ongoing project to create a similar garden bridge in London has recently passed a major funding milestone.
But the boldest project of all comes from Anne Hidalgo’s main rival, Nathalie Kosciuszko-Morizet. Her mouthful of a name often shortened to NKM, the candidate for right-wing party UMP has proposed covering over the notorious Boulevard Péripherique beltway at a cost of up to €60 million per 200 meter stretch. The plan's huge expense, NKM proposes, could be funded by building housing alongside the beltway, on previously neglected sites made suddenly attractive by burying the road’s massed cars.
There's some sense to the plan, but it's not fully formed as yet. During last month’s mayoral debate, Hidalgo pointed out that it might cost up to €200 billion, and that tunneling a beltway won’t be easy when large parts of it are actually elevated. NKM has also dented her credibility slightly by advocating a quirky but improbable plan for converting Paris' ghost metro stations into swimming pools, clubs and theatres, even though Paris transport network RATP’s response has been an icy no-way-in-hell. Indeed, NKM is developing such a reputation for wanting to reshape Paris that she has just had to deny that she intends to knock down the Tour Montparnasse if elected. Still, with grand plans the order of the day right now, NKM’s is hardly alone in forming airy visions for the future of Paris.
So why are all the candidates focusing on these sorts of projects? To be fair, these are only a few new policy proposals among many. Candidates have actually given more weight to concerns about housing and displacement. During the last mayoral debate, Hidalgo promised 10,000 new homes a year, NKM vowed to keep the middle classes in Central Paris, and Najdovski advocated converting empty office space into housing. Paris has nonetheless received some pretty poor press both inside and outside the country recently, and the candidates appear to be tapping into a widespread feeling that Paris's image needs a reboot. It's unlikely that these grand urban pipedreams will actually be what swings the electorate. Still, if you want to present yourself as a custodian of the city's future, it might make some sense to present that future as a bright one, full of watery fun, flowery bridges, and subway platform dance floors.