Exploring sustainable Paris

Can a metropolis home to millions really be environmentally friendly? Paris experiments with vegetable gardens, repair cafés and railroad tracks with a green future

La Recyclerie was established in an old station on the inner railway ringDeutsche Welle

From Eiffel Tower selfies to walks in Montmartre, there are many reasons Paris is one of the most-visited cities in the world. Tourists can’t get enough of the Louvre museum, the Arc de Triomphe or Notre-Dame Cathedral.

But there is another, less-chic facet of the French capital that cannot be overlooked: Congested boulevards, street noise and trash. Such unpleasant realities are a thorn in the side of many Parisians.

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of sustainable initiatives in the city which aim to combat this — from industrial areas turned into parks to apps that promote walking instead of tourist buses.

From train station to urban farm

Sustainability initiatives in Paris extend to the world of fashion. In the city’s many second-hand clothing stores — many are located in the Marais district in the city center — garments easily find new owners. Meanwhile, in the city’s 18th arrondissement to the north, the Recyclerie eco-culture project is situated in the former Ornano train station.

“The building was the former station of the Petite Ceinture, the predecessor of the Métro,” says Marie-Eugenie Chanvillard, director of Recyclerie, which started in 2014 with the mission of promoting eco-responsibility and social justice. “The station has been used in different ways over the years, including as a bank. We wanted to keep the space and remind people of the station’s past,” she said.

Marie-Eugenie Chanvillard and Margot Desmons at the Recyclerie
Deutsche Welle

The Petite Ceinture was a 32-kilometer (19 mile) circular rail line that ran around Paris. In 2007, a first section was made into a pedestrian area, and others followed. Over the years, nature has started to take over and the tracks became a thriving green space — and now one that has been developed for public use.

In France, “Recycleries” refer to places where non-functional equipment is repaired and resold. As the name suggests, the Recyclerie still has a workshop where broken items can be repaired.

The sustainability theme is complemented with a cafeteria, urban gardens and even the sale of organic food and natural wine. The old tracks are now a cozy public courtyard, while there’s also a vegetable garden with a chicken coop in the space’s urban farm.

From train track to park

The Recyclerie is not the only place in Paris where a train track has been converted into an outdoor space for people to enjoy. The Coulee verte Rene-Dumont is a four-kilometer-long elevated park on a disused railroad line that begins near the Place de la Bastille in the city’s center.

It’s unsurprising that converted train tracks should find a new use. Train lines have a special place in the French capital, especially considering the city’s main means of transportation is the Metro. Despite what heavy traffic on the streets might suggest, Paris has an extensive public transportation network that is constantly being expanded. It connects the city’s suburbs with the centre.

Pre-Olympic changes

In recent years, however, some Parisians have switched to riding bikes for their work commute, making use of the bicycle lane network that continues to be expanded. The Rue de Rivoli between the Louvre and the Bastille, for example, was converted into a bike lane just three years ago.

The Coulee verte Rene-Dumont is a former train track that has been converted into an area perfect for taking a stroll
Deutsche Welle

In preparation for the 2024 Olympics, the city of Paris is also planning several environmentally conscious changes to the city’s busiest squares, including the Place de la Nation. The administration hopes to reduce traffic in tourist hotspots and provide more space for pedestrians. The area around the Eiffel Tower, for example, will be expanded and landscaped.

A break from Paris’ urban jungle

In the southeast of Paris, the Cite Fertile in the suburb of Pantin is another area where old meets new. The converted freight station is on a large site that also includes a brewery, greenhouse, restaurant, workrooms and around 250 plant species.

This urban oasis was created four years ago as part of the eco-quartier Pantin, a project to create an ecological urban district. It’s popular with people living in the neighbourhood, too.

“On Sundays, many families come to the Cité Fertile. It’s right next door, in the fresh air, and is a great place to linger for a little while,” says Helene Flourac, who is responsible for its development and partnerships.

An app helps tourists discover Paris by foot
Deutsche Welle

Both the Recyclerie and the Cite Fertile see themselves as retreats from the busy Paris metropolis; and as places to explore ways to create sustainable futures. In addition to festivals in the summer, the Cite Fertile organizes various sports classes and is a platform for environmental political topics.

The aim is to bring together ideas about sustainability from a variety of fields. “Ecologically designed events are a real issue for the city of the future,” says Flourac.

Through the city with an app

These days, it’s not necessary to hop on a classic tourist bus to see Paris. Tourists can choose a more sustainable option by using an app called Balades Paris durable (Walks in Sustainable Paris). Developed by the city, the app allows people to leisurely explore the green areas of Paris on foot and includes over two dozen routes that go through almost all Parisian neighbourhoods.

The Cite Fertile is a popular destination for young and old
Deutsche Welle

Ranging from 2 to 5 kilometres (1.2 to 2.1 miles) in length, each walk features different stops on a map. The app displays images and information about the sustainable features of these locations — from drinking water fountains to local community gardens. The walking routes lead curious city strollers through neighbourhoods like Clichy, with its energy-friendly building designs.

In other green places, such as the Buttes Chaumont park or the famous Père Lachaise cemetery, you can also use the app to get to know the city’s animal and plant species better. Some stops are located in well-known neighbourhoods in the historic city centre — but in locations where tourists are less likely to take a closer look. With the help of the app, for example, users can learn about hidden green oases on the banks of the Seine that might be missed on a conventional sightseeing tour.

Paris is notable for its places and innovations that show how sustainability can be explored in a metropolis of 2.1 million people. Whether tourists will make use of them — or continue with the classic tourist sites, it’s up to them.