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.
But, if it plays its cards right, the French capital can use the 2024 Summer Games to speed redevelopment.
Could it have been Paris’s transit network that won it the 2024 Olympic Games? The French capital’s role as host won’t be officially confirmed until September 13, but with Los Angeles pegged to get the games in 2028, Paris pretty much has 2024 in the bag. Already, some French voices have suggested that what gave Paris a clear edge over L.A. is the huge ongoing expansion of the region’s already extensive public transit.
This may well be true. The need for a decent transportation network was made very clear during the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. That mega-event ran less-than-smoothly for any number of reasons, but one major factor was Rio’s heavily clogged roads, at times so badly congested that, as the New York Times noted, not even staff responsible for managing Olympic transit itself could get to work. Even the new subway line that opened just in time to serve visitors to the Olympic park was widely damned for diverting funds to a project that did little to serve the ongoing daily transit needs of ordinary Cariocas.
So where can Paris succeed where Rio struggled? Like L.A., the city claims that almost everything is already in place: 95 percent of the Olympic infrastructure it needs is already built, says the Paris 2024 campaign. Track-and-field events and the opening and closing ceremonies can nest comfortably in the Stade de France, the long-planned stadium completed for the 1998 soccer World Cup. Tennis and boxing events should do fine with the Roland Garros Stadium, the tennis center that hosts the annual French Open, while martial arts can fit into the elaborate exhibition space of the Grand Palais. But it’s Paris’s excellent transit network that make it singularly well placed to manage its load of Olympic visitors smoothly.
That’s because Greater Paris’s public transit is already undergoing one of its largest expansions ever, in the form of the Grand Paris Express. A four-line expansion of the metro system due to enter service between 2020 and 2030, most of the GPE lies—like the majority of proposed Olympic venues beyond the narrow official limits of Paris itself—in the banlieue, the Paris suburban zone that, with its many areas of medium or high density, so often refuses to resemble an American suburb. The GPE will not just ensure greater access for people living in this zone to inner Paris, but connect different suburbs to each other via series of looped lines that do not pass through or near the city’s core. The Olympics should in part benefit from this expansion. A new metro station at Stade de France (which already has a commuter rail RER station) will link it to Orly Airport via central Paris and should be open in time for the games. The same station’s connection to a future orbital line may not be ready in time, but it’s construction should at least be well underway by 2024.
Improvements like these are already budgeted for, which should help Paris keep within its (hardly modest) planned budget of €6.6 billion ($7.8 billion). But there’s still much to build, including an Olympic and Paralympic village, an aquatics center, a media village and a second indoor arena at Bercy—all of which makes the claim that 95 percent of infrastructure is already in place seem a little over-optimistic. (Paris last hosted the summer games in 1924, when the event was a far more modestly scaled affair.) If Paris tries to speed up construction of the Grand Paris Express, meanwhile, in order to have more of it ready come games-time, that could require more cash too. But while unforeseen costs inevitably seem to pump up Olympic expenses, Paris is better placed than many previous hosts to emerge from the event with dignity and financial health intact.
This in itself leads to a question: What are Paris’s games for? Beyond being an astronomically expensive podium for the host nation’s prestige, the typical argument for throwing an Olympics is that it can help introduce or accelerate major improvements. This was certainly the case in Athens where, despite bequeathing Greece a host of now abandoned venues, the 2004 Games at least saw the city’s metro transformed from a single line to a three-line network. It was also the case in London, where the games were intended to assist in the redevelopment of East London. If Paris already has a host of transformative infrastructure projects in place, why does it need the games?
So far, Paris seems to be taking a leaf out of London’s book and plans to use the games as a regeneration tool. The Département of Seine-Saint-Denis, a relatively deprived, partly ex-industrial area just north of Paris Proper’s city limit, should get the most dramatic Olympic makeover. As the site of the Stade de France, Seine-Saint-Denis will receive the largest number of visitors, while it will also host the aquatics center and the Olympic Village, which will be converted into 2,200 homes after the games. A major injection of cash here could speed a redevelopment process that might otherwise take decades.
But Paris should take heed of London’s lessons. As in Paris, the London Olympics sparked development in a relatively deprived area, East London’s Lower Lea Valley. Once the athletes went home, London admittedly ended up with quite a nice a sports park, a mall, and some new housing. Overall, however, the event helped encourage some of the worst aspects of contemporary London: the displacement of lower-income residents and the creation of new apartments complexes that have resolutely failed to deliver on their developers’ disingenuous promises of providing affordable housing.
When the 2024 Games come round, Paris’s high level of preparedness should help the French enjoy a great fortnight where they bask in international success. Whether the French get real value for that €6.6 billion outlay, or genuinely benefit from the urban changes the event provokes, is another matter entirely. Maybe the French can crack the Olympic code. If they do, they’ll be almost alone in having managed to.