With massive building works for the 2024 Olympics being implemented, Parisians are organising against the systemic use of this “symbol of global unity” to bulldoze and remake communities for the benefit of elite interests.
Seven hectares of allotments around the edge of Fort d’Aubervilliers, in the Parisian suburbs, known collectively as the Vertus workers’ gardens, have been maintained for more than 85 years — an oasis of tilled earth at the foot of a former pentagonal fort which guarded the route to Flanders. Built up before the main rise of jardins ouvriers after the Second World War when the State was anxious to head off working-class unrest, the beautiful green spaces were formally established in 1935 and have provided a rare, beautiful retreat for the historically deprived area ever since.
Surrounded by the high-rise towers of Paris’s impoverished northern banlieues, the gardens have been targeted by any number of gentrification proposals thanks to their position on the edge of the wealthy inner city, but are facing a concerted assault this year as preparations for the 2024 Olympics get underway.
In a few weeks’ from now the construction of an Olympic training pool and a “mineral and plant solarium” is scheduled to begin, with notices having been sent out last month telling people to vacate their long-held plots, despite previous promises from elected officials that they would not be touched. Spread over 36 hectares, the full works could raise population density in the borough to 17,000 people per km2 making it both the most densely-packed part of the banlieues (comparable to central Paris itself at 20,000) and the poorest in terms of green space with only 1.2m2 per capita (12 times’ less than Paris).
Noises have been made about “replacement” plots for gardeners, but these would be created by adding to the broader problem, chopping down woodland on the south of the site which would not and could not replace the incredible fertility which their long-tended land has built up. As one resident put it: “I am not going to be able to recover the soil and the worms won’t be leaving in my pockets. I don’t have an earthworm-moving truck.”
Residents have been mobilising against these evictions and are planning a major protest on April 17th against the Olympic plan, arguing both on both social and ecological grounds — recently the government has explicitly noted a need for more green space to combat pollution and urban heating. In a statement, organisers explained:
“These Gardens are fundamental, both for food and also as a place of conviviality. They are home to protected species: pollinating insects, hedgehogs and birds. They offer the neighborhood a green space that refreshes us.
“This swimming pool project is not designed for the inhabitants. Its size is unsuitable for our needs and its exorbitant maintenance costs will be left at the expense of the municipality. It will above all be used to initiate a larger and equally absurd project, piloted by Grand Paris Aménagement: an “eco-neighborhood” of 2,000 housing units, 50,000 m2 of offices and shops, hotels and a Grand Paris Express station.
“In the end, we will have an ultra dense district with several thousand new inhabitants while 10,180 m2 of allotment gardens and 37,000 m2 of woodland will have disappeared under the concrete … for a so-called ecological district!
“In the name of the Olympic Games , which serve as the accelerators of their ‘Greater Paris’ vision, more rampages are being prepared: the amputation of Georges Valbon Park in La Courneuve, the eviction of a home of migrant workers in Saint-Ouen, urbanisation forcing new living quarters on Île-St-Denis or Plaine Saulnier … The logic is the same everywhere: under the guise of “housing creation,” “sports facilities for locals” and a greenwash-oriented PR blitz. They privatise public spaces and equipment, expand concreted areas (there are already so many empty offices and brownfields!), increase house prices and gentrification, increase police surveillance … and above all leave no choice to the inhabitants and the other species that live here.
The city’s plans, in their intent, are almost identical to the way the London 2012 Olympics bulldozed through a privatised, gentrified and marketised zone from Hackney Wick to Stratford and West Ham in the 2000s on the grounds it was “in the public interest.” And just as Aubervilliers residents are warning today, the “regeneration” and leisure facilities built then were never intended for working-class residents. Indeed Navin Shah of the London Assembly Regeneration Committee admitted in 2017 that:
“… the Olympics has not helped to support healthier lifestyles, and progress on developing successful neighbourhoods is limited. Levels of physical activity and obesity are getting worse, and the life expectancy of local people is not improving.”
While developers and the city got rich, the original working-class residents were either kicked out or made, ultimately, to pay the price for that orgy of profit-making through higher rents, less space and a loss of all things green.