Parisians have abandoned the legendary avenue, leaving it for tourists and military parades. But there are plans to return it to its more humanistic glory of the past.
PARIS — In everyone's mind, the Champs-Elysées remains as a via triumphalis bordered by monuments recalling Napoleonic conquests, utilized by victors of war, recently elected heads of state and World Cup champions. It is an irreplaceable theater for moments of national commemoration or popular enthusiasm.
This spectacular image of the Champs-Elysées placed the avenue among the world collective heritage, but also erased another historical truth: for centuries, the avenue was mainly a place for strolls and leisure time for ordinary Parisians.
You can find it in novels from Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant and Proust, how the Champs-Elysées was until the early 20th century, one of the most popular promenades in the French capital, attracting families with puppet shows, street theater and singing performances. It was the place of historic premieres to wow the public with the latest innovations: the first universal exposition, first subway line, first car dealership, first movie theater.
A century later, the numbers tell a cruel truth: Parisians have abandoned the avenue. Of the 100,000 pedestrians striding along daily, just 5% are Parisians taking a stroll, the rest being tourists and local employees. Even more pitiful, the almost 40 acres of gardens are 40 times less visited than the Monceau Park, less than a mile away. The children have literally disappeared from the avenue and its gardens.
Traffic and pollution have taken over the Champs-Elysées — PCA-Stream
And there are good reasons for this. The Champs-Elysées have become the "last" urban road of the capital city by being the most trafficked (64,000 vehicles per day), most polluted and noisiest (averaging more than 75 decibels).
The public space has been deserted: the upper side of the avenue, overcrowded with buildings, sees its pavement and road quickly crumbling away. Because of a lack of equipment and animations, the Champs-Elysées gardens have become a no-man's land, a veritable scandal in light of its history and the need of present-day Parisians for green spaces.
Yet, we are convinced that its power of fascination is buried just below the surface of today's Champs-Elysées. The emotional ties that bind Parisians to this part of their history is just waiting to come back to life.
In that perspective, a committee has started to work on a large-scale urban reorganization, led by architect Philippe Chiambretta and his agency PCA-Stream. Dubbed "Réenchanter les Champs-Elysées" (to re-enchant the Avenue) the project has called on nearly 50 notable artists, scientists, landscapers, engineers, historians, designers, entrepreneurs, Michelin-starred chefs, who have been busy for 18 months and is now in view at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal.
Its gardens have become a no-man's land.
The committee were created with two ambitions: one "local," the other "universal." The local goal is to make Parisians come back, for the Avenue to again become a privileged space of relaxation and leisure that appeals to families for a stroll or friend for a drink or just to stare at the passing human spectacle. How? By favoring pedestrians over cars, making the sidewalk larger so that it can be equipped with green spaces and patios; by recreating Paris' most incredible gardens and adding new playgrounds, ponds, running paths and outdoor cultural spaces. It will also be done by making the "Place de l'Etoile" and "Place de la Concorde" accessible, and encouraging the 14 yearly millions of visitors in the Tuileries Gardens to cross the Concorde Bridge, to carry on with their walk, by creating kiosks with affordable restaurants for everyone. And finally, the locals will be drawn back by a spirit of wonder with creative events and a top-rate artistic line-up.
The new avenue project by 2030 — PCA-Stream
The "universal" goal is to make the Champs-Elysées the centerpiece of tomorrow's inclusive, attractive and sustainable city. That's why the 2024 Olympics are an incredible opportunity. The Champs-Elysées will become a place of competition – fencing and taekwondo will take place under the newly renovated and magical vault of the Grand Palais and break dance and skateboard on the Place de la Concorde – a place of popular gathering and a hub for international TV channels. The Avenue will then sear into people's mind a renewed image of Paris, and France in general, for the decades to come. It is too good of an opportunity to pass up.
This ambitious project can only be realized if public authorities commit themselves very seriously to it. It appears to be in tune with the messages carried in the upcoming mayor elections in Paris. So we are calling out every candidate to publicly endorse this new and ambitious renovation project, so the Champs-Elysées will again be known as "the most beautiful avenue of the world."
*Architect Philippe Chiambaretta leads the committee signing this editorial, which includes 24 others.