Paris transforms a three-kilometer stretch of urban highway into a new beach promenade. A green revolution!

Fancy a weekend break in Paris with your loved one? Grab a bottle of wine at Place de la Concorde and amble down to the Seine, hand-in-hand. Feet in sand, you watch the sun go down behind the city’s skyline. What could be more perfect than a balmy beach sunset in Paris …

Hang on, a beach in Paris?

Yes, you read that right. In October, the Paris city council voted to block off a 3.3 kilometer stretch of inner-city highway. The section between Place de la Concorde and the city’s Hotel de Ville is about to be transformed into a green riverside promenade, sandy beach included – and all of this right at the heart of the city.

For the past five decades, the Right Bank of the Seine has served as a busy urban thoroughfare. Now, playing kids, flaneurs, boule experts, and skateboarders are starting to reclaim this vital part of the city. Vive la révolution!

The reclamation

To understand the developments to date, it makes sense to delve a little deeper into the history of the French city of Saint-Quentin and an immigrant called Anne Hidalgo.

Saint-Quentin is a small town to the northeast of Paris, in the department of Aisne. Since large parts of the population were affected by massive social problems back in the mid-1990s, the municipality decided to seek concrete solutions to raise the quality of life in Saint-Quentin.

Then, the summer of 1996 sparked a brilliant idea: The administration simply ordered a few tons of sand and transformed the city’s central square into a temporary artificial beach, playgrounds and pool included. The residents were ecstatic.

Due to the incredible response, the one-off initiative soon evolved into an annual event. In 2002, the acting mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, took inspiration from the plucky town and ordered the temporary closure of the inner-city highway to transform it into Paris Plages – Paris Beaches – during the summer.

Beach volleyball courts, lounge chairs, bars, and cafes offered people a summery playground right in the city center, but for five weeks only. Then, everything would disappear as quickly as it had popped up – and the urban freeway returned.

A historic event

Enter Anne Hidalgo: In 2014, the Spanish immigrant decided to run for mayor of Paris. Her election campaign was dominated by environmental issues, social justice, and culture. One of her most visible promises: the permanent dismantling of the inner-city highway and the resulting environmental transition of the Right Bank.

Now, the time has finally come. Two years after her election, Anne Hidalgo is ready to turn her ambitious plan into reality. “A historic event,” she tweeted right after the decision, following months of heated discussion on the city council.

Sceptics had feared that the 43,000 cars displaced by Hidalgo’s scheme would increase traffic jams in the city center. Hidalgo countered with a key finding: To date, and in the long run, all traffic-calming measures have led to the opposite – an overall, lasting reduction in traffic. “In Paris, 2,500 people die of the effects of air pollution every year. So, why wait?” she asked.

café on the beach promenade of the river Seine
The new beach promenade has made the river Seine an even bigger attraction for Parisians and visitors alike.
Photo: Getty Images / Letizia McCall

The green revolution

So far, the highway closure is limited to half a year. The impact on traffic volumes and air quality will be measured in April 2017.

Until then, Hidalgo is determined to tackle further items on her green revolution agenda. Among them: the expansion of public transport and a network of public rental bikes and scooters. Furthermore, she campaigns for more rental electric vehicles – Paris is planning to banish all diesel cars from its city center by 2020.

In other words – or those of Hidalgo herself: “I was elected to get things moving. And they will move.”

beach at a pavement in Paris
The new beach is swallowing up the asphalt.
Photo: Getty Images / Bruno De Hogues / Photo has been modified