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The Real Splash At Next Year's Paris Olympics? The River Seine, Reimagined

The Seine, the backbone of Paris' Olympic celebrations, is being reclaimed as a recreational and transport hub. Does it mean Napoleon's dream of a "Greater Paris" stretching all the way to the sea will finally happen?

Simulation of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Paris 2024, staged on the Seine

Simulation of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Paris 2024, staged on the Seine

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — "Groundbreaking" ... That's likely the word that best applies to the next Olympic Games opening ceremony, scheduled for July 26, 2024 in the French capital. That is not to say that previous ceremonies have been lackluster or short on special effects. But they all took place in a stadium. This time, however, the events artistic director Thomas Joly will be using the Seine river as his creative space. No less than six kilometers of it, from the Pont d'Austerlitz to the Eiffel Tower. Enough to dazzle the lucky few who manage to buy a paying ticket, or find a seat at the top of the freely accessible platforms.

For them, and a billion or so television viewers, the Seine will undoubtedly be one of the stars of the ceremony. And, let's face it, it will be one of the markers of the success of the 2024 Olympic Games. Because far beyond the opening show, this legendary waterway – known the world over and celebrated by so many artists – is omnipresent in the Olympic Games Organizing Committee’s (CoJo’s) project. From the Olympic village built on the banks of the Saint-Denis and Saint-Ouen rivers to the open-water swimming events, the Seine's presence was a decisive factor in the triumph of Paris' candidacy.

This global event is also expected to symbolically kickstart a major movement to reclaim the river. Riverbank residents will soon be able to bathe in it again, thanks to the major clean-up work carried out in the run-up to the Olympic Games, and all the economic players will become increasingly aware of the untapped potential of river transport in a time of ecological transition.

"River freight emits up to five times less carbon per tonne transported, and the Seine could carry four times more traffic," says Thierry Guimbaud, Managing Director of French waterways authority Voies Navigables de France (VNF).

In fact, this development spans far beyond Paris and its outskirts. It affects the whole valley, all the way to the sea. Napoléon Bonaparte's grand vision of "Paris, Rouen, Le Havre as one city with the Seine as its main street,” which he put forward just over 200 years ago, has never been so close to becoming reality.

Carbon emissions halved

The Paris Olympics are both a driving force and a showcase for this major project. By setting itself the target of halving carbon emissions compared with the London Games, the Olympic Works Delivery Company, Solideo, has committed itself to giving river freight a priority while constructing the Olympic Village. Over 500,000 tonnes of rubble were removed via river barge, avoiding 27,000 truck journeys.

We also wanted this event to act as a driver for innovation.

The Seine was also used to transport a large proportion of the prefabricated wooden structures for the Olympic Village’s buildings. Similarly, concrete production plants were supplied with sand and gravel via the river. Never before has a major construction project relied so heavily on river freight.

But the impact of the Olympics doesn't stop there. "With all the institutional parties involved, we also wanted this event to act as a driver for innovation," says Thierry Guimbaud. They want to invest in the field of low-carbon urban logistics, in particular.

A transport barge on the Seine river

A transport barge on the Seine river.

Remon Haazen/ZUMA

A river's decline – and revival

Having peaked before the Second World War, from the 1960s onwards freight transport on the Seine declined steadily as the valley gradually de-industrialized, putting an end to coal and steel transport. Grain and construction traffic continued, but was unable to make the switch to containers as those operating out of Antwerp, Amsterdam and Hamburg did in the 1980s.

"We gave up on the river in favor of trucks and roads," observes Stéphane Raison, Chairman of Haropa Port's Management Board. As a result, the infrastructure of the Seine network suffered from under-investment.

However, a new trend has recently been set in motion. The first turning point came with Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency in 2009, when he revived Bonaparte's idea of a Greater Paris extending to the sea. He asked urban planner Antoine Grumbach to imagine the shape of it – but nothing really took off.

But the real turning point came recently, when the French government and Voies Navigables de France signed a objectives and performance contract to be finalized in 2021, endorsing the return to favor of river freight.

What now remains to be done is convince shippers and logisticians, who have been used to thinking in terms of trucks for 60 years, to change their habits.

Simulation of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Paris 2024, staged on the Seine

For the first time, the Opening Ceremony will take place outside of an Olympic stadium


An under-exploited resource

Until now, the idea of creating an administrative Greater Paris as far as Le Havre, a port about 180km northwest of Paris, has always been rejected by the regional authorities concerned. When Anne Hidalgo and Edouard Philippe revived the idea at the Greater Paris Summit in September 2020, Hervé Morin, president of the Normandy region, responded on Twitter. "No, Normandie is not Île-de-France's doormat."

This requires relocating companies that have no justification being on the banks of the Seine

Instead of creating a Seine Metropolis, as urban planner Antoine Grumbach had envisaged, these councilors decided to launch the Seine Axis Agreement, a concept that inspires far fewer misgivings. "This highly flexible form of cooperation enables us to avoid polemics and move forward on concrete projects," says Patrick Ollier, President of the Greater Paris Metropolis.

The Agreement wants to focus on the valley's touristic and cultural potential, which is just as under-exploited as river freight. The aim is to give the valley a strong identity. A first wave of initiatives has been launched, including a collaboration on reduced rates for museums in the three cities, as well as the promotion of the Seine by bike. But this alone is not enough.

According to a study carried out by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Paysage (ENSP Versailles) and funded by the CPIER, the banks of the Seine "have been degraded by decades of neglect". The authors state that the river has been used as "a resource to be drawn from'' and the territories along its banks "divided into large areas to which functions have been assigned". In their view, this "unflattering living environment" does not encourage residents "to unite around a common identity".

So, land redevelopment is essential. This can be done most notably by relocating companies that have no justification being on the banks of the Seine, which is a colossal undertaking.

James Chéron, mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne and president of the association La Seine en partage ("Sharing the Seine"), notes that "after having distanced themselves from the river, more and more local councilors are reinvesting it as a quality of life asset for their constituents.

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