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Is Paris greening?

In October, Paris' mayor Jean Tiberi announced that the city was mostly withdrawing from a 336-acre urban renewal project, "Rive gauche," which was to include high-rise buildings on platforms over rail lines, with over nine million square feet of office space. The city will now encourage development near the Seine, and donate land for a university. The turnabout was in part the result of the real estate market. The office space was unneeded; the project had become a financial black hole.

The fight against urban renewal began in 1990 at the seventeenth-century Couvet de Recollets and the attached jardin Villemin in northwest Paris. Residents wanted to turn the convent into a social and cultural center, and the garden and adjacent land into a public park. The arrondissement (municipal district) had no park, but the city authorized the building of apartments instead.

Residents occupied the construction site each morning. Reinforcements from other neighborhoods and the media arrived. After 200 days, plans for the apartments were abandoned.

That same year a "battle of the trees" broke out in Paris. At rue Saint Martin, a developer had been authorized to build an underground garage for a Marks and Spencer department store. Construction would entail cutting down 22 large plane-trees. Residents raised banners, campaigned against Marks and Spencer, and sat in the trees. The mayor finally had the trees transplanted on the other side of Paris, under police supervision.

Meanwhile, in the outer ring of arrondissements, massive urban renewal programs -- ZACs -- were being carried out. These arrondissements, inhabited by people with little money and varying ethnic backgrounds, still showed traces of the villages they once were. Buildings tended to be dilapidated but repairable. Nevertheless, existing housing was razed, high-rise apartment buildings erected, and streets widened. Activists charged the motive for the urban renewal programs was removal of ethnic groups and an alteration in the character of the electorate. In the 19th arrondissement, 85 percent of the built area, about three square miles, was demolished between 1960 and 1995.

In Paris' central arrondissements, developers replaced structures with tall office buildings. The result was a loss of residents -- many streets are now deserted at night -- as well as of part of Paris' cultural heritage. Involved in the developments were "SEM," companies backed by private and public monies. Through the SEM, political parties stood to gain from construction projects.

By noting vacancy signs on buildings, The CLAQ -- a loose federation of neighborhood activists -- calculated that Paris in 1993 had more than 10 million square feet of empty office space. The federation announced its findings, and also made public a secret report by APUR, the agency in charge of urban planning for Paris, which was well aware of the surplus.

The municipal elections of 1995 marked a turning point. For twelve years, all twenty Paris arrondissements had been directed by right-wing Chirac allies. In 1995 voters in six arrondissements threw out district mayors who had backed dictatorial urban renewal projects. Among those elected in arrondissement councils were CLAQ members.

As a result of the elections, several ZAC projects were abandoned. The destruction is continuing -- a thousand buildings have been destroyed since 1995 -- but more slowly. The ZACs going forward now involve "polluted" areas with concentrations of railway lines or highways.

CLAQ is now monitoring developments in the Rive gauche project as well as various neighborhood campaigns. In the densely populated 11th arrondissement, Onze de Pique is fighting to enlarge a park on the rue de Roquette, and northwest Paris residents are struggling to increase the size of the jardin Villemin. In the 18th and 19th arrondissements activists are fighting pollution from diesel trains, and campaigning for their replacement with electric trains.

A current hot topic is an abandoned railway line, "La Petite ceinture," that encircles Paris. Some would like to see trains travel the line once more. Others, including the CLAQ, would prefer the line become a green corridor with a hiking and cycling trail. The Paris city hall has shown some interest in a green corridor, but the "Petite ceinture" is owned by the national railway system, and the government has not yet weighed in.

Countless buildings in Paris need repair. A program to encourage housing renovation by paying landlords for 90 percent of repairs while forbidding them to raise rents has long existed, but authorities have never fully funded it. CLAQ aims to change this. The money exists; all Paris could be rehabilitated for the price of the Rive gauche project.

Yggdrasil, in cooperation with 02 France, is publishing a green map of Paris. For ordering info, see <>, or contact PO Box 131, Georgetown KY, 40324.
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Title Annotation:Paris, France; environmental movement
Author:Davis, Mary
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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