Paris, France – Preparations are underway for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, which are set to be held primarily in the suburb of Saint-Denis. The Games are being marketed as being the most eco-friendly yet and proponents claim that they will offer an economic boost to one of France’s poorest regions. However, many local residents and activists remain skeptical and worry that the Games will transform their city for the worse.
The organizers claim that Paris 2024 will be the “first major sporting event to positively impact the climate” by offsetting more carbon emissions than it produces. Part of their environmental plan includes the use of 95% preexisting or temporary venues, mass public transportation networks, and 100% green energy.
After the Games, the IOC plans to transform Saint-Denis into the “ultimate eco-district,” with 1,300 new housing units, including 20% social housing, a public swimming pool, and new green spaces. However, critics aren’t buying it.
“It’s complete greenwashing,” said Maëlle, a local resident and activist with Saccage 2024, a group dedicated to resisting the “ecological and social destruction” caused by the Games.
Maëlle said she joined the anti-Olympics activists after she noticed increased police presence and surveillance cameras popping up around the city, which she predicted was in preparation for the Games.
New opportunities and gentrification fears
Maëlle worries that the Olympics will lead to gentrification and increased surveillance in a working-class area that has been historically marginalized.
Supporters say that the Games will open up new opportunities for residents. According to the local government of Saint-Denis, the new city district will open up 6,000 new jobs as well as public facilities, including a health center, gym, and school. The area will also become better connected to Paris through the introduction of a new motorway exchange and the future expansion of the Grand Paris metro.
According to Manon Vergario, an urban researcher and data analyst, Saint-Denis is already at high risk of gentrification, and she is concerned the Olympics will speed up this process. With new transit stations planned, previously “undesirable” neighborhoods will be more attractive to more well-off Parisians, Vergario said.
“Low-income residents run the risk of being displaced as property values increase in their neighborhoods,” Vergario added.
Environmental benefits and trade-offs
As part of their ambitious environmental plan, Paris 2024 pledges to offset more carbon emissions than they produce by supporting local environmental projects across France. However, activist groups such as Saccage 2024 have pointed out that environmental damage remains will still occur.
In Georges Valbon park, seven acres will be made into the Media Village. SOLIDEO, the Olympics construction company, plans to improve the rest of the park, which is currently highly polluted, by planting trees and de-waterproofing the soil. However, environmental activists worry that the construction will interfere with local species who use this area as a migration corridor.
Furthermore, a new freeway interchange constructed in Saint-Denis next to a local school in preparation for the Games has left 700 children “trapped” between three motorways, with an average of 10,000 to 30,000 cars passing through per day. Saint-Denis currently has the worst air pollution levels in all of France.
Paris 2024, however, recognizes that some emissions are inevitable and has established a global “voluntary compensation plan” to make up for this, which includes the restoration and protection of forests and oceans and other carbon capture projects.
New green spaces: a double-edged sword?
Much of the anti-Olympics movement has centered around the role of green spaces, with parks serving as major points of contention.
For instance, construction of the new Media Village in Georges Valbon Park was temporarily halted in the summer of 2021 after activists raised issues about the potential harmful impacts of construction. Despite plans to improve and de-pollute the park, Maëlle isn’t convinced. “This space is already green,” she said, citing worries that the construction would cause more harm than good.
Tensions were also raised last year in the nearby suburb of Aubervilliers, where activists occupied the local workers’ gardens which were slated to be destroyed and replaced with the new Olympics pool and solarium. In Aubervilliers, each inhabitant only has 1.30 m² of green space, compared to the 10 m² considered necessary by the WHO.
After months of protests and a lengthy legal battle, the Paris administrative court of appeal ruled that the pool would be built in a way that would spare most of the gardens (after many of the plots were already destroyed in anticipation of construction).
Olympics planners have pledged to introduce new green spaces and roof-top gardens. Green spaces help to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which is especially helpful for places like Saint-Denis which have poor air quality, in addition to offering physical and mental health benefits.
However, as pointed out by Manon, the introduction of new green spaces to an area can also raise gentrification risks by driving up property values.
“We’re not asking for new green spaces in our cities,” says Maëlle, “we just want to protect the gardens and parks that are already there.”
While acknowledging the importance of urban green spaces, Maëlle worries that these new spaces will not be accessible to low-income residents.
“It’s not just about trees,” she says, “it’s about the way people are using the spaces.”