With less than 250 days before the beginning of the 2024 Paris Olympics, the games which the organising committee defined as “irreproachable” have already left a bitter taste for defenders of green spaces in the suburbs of the French capital. Construction works for the games have eaten away at public spaces and green areas. An unsurprising situation for many, as previous Olympics have a legacy of destroying green spaces and gentrifying host-cities. Proponents counter that the Olympics will prove largely beneficial, with much of the development in Seine-Saint-Denis, France’s poorest department.
“Without the games, the department would have never had the funds to do all of this”, says Stéphane Troussel, chairman of the Seine-Saint-Denis Departmental Council. The left-wing politician refers to the latest rehabilitation of roads, the new bicycle lanes, the depolluting of a former oil and gas depot, as well as the construction of the new swimming pools and more than 4,000 housing units.
But the positive view of Troussel on the games is not shared by all.
“The games cannot and will not be beneficial for Seine-Saint-Denis,” says Yun, a member of the anti-Olympics collective Saccage 2024 who asked that his full name not be used out of legal concerns.
Yun lives in Saint-Denis, the department’s biggest city, and says he has witnessed first-hand the detrimental impact of the games, with infrastructures being built over green spaces and heavily gentrifying low-income neighborhoods.
From ‘greenest in History’ to greenwashing accusations
The activist is not the only one questioning the games’ urban impact. Several local groups have formed in recent years to defend community gardens and public parks from being eaten away by the games’ constructions.
Aubervilliers, a city with a chronic shortage of green spaces, is hosting the games’ aquatic training centre. The plans included an Olympic-size swimming pool, built over a deserted parking lot, and a solarium, originally planned to be built over parts of century-old allotment gardens.
Under the banner “Des potirons, pas du béton!” hundreds of locals organised to defend the threatened plots, and an appeals court invalidated the construction plans after months of legal struggle. The court ruled the plans represented a “threat to biodiversity.” But victory was still bitter for the gardeners of the 4,000m2 of plots destroyed in preparing the works.
Another catalyst for tensions has been the games’ Media Center, being built on seven hectares in the small town of Dugny, in the north of Saint-Seine-Denis. The plot in question, known as “l’Aire des vents,” (or the windswept area), is a large public grass pitch. A third was sold to build the Media Center that will host 1,500 journalists accredited for the games.
Jean-Marie Baty, head of the regional chapter of the environmental NGO National Movement for the Environment, considers the area in question part of the Georges Valbon park, a site classified for its biodiversity value. Meanwhile, the departmental council does not consider that the plot belongs to the park.
“It is just grass with asphalt pathways,” Troussel says. He said the area was created to host large-scale events, and is used for that purpose around 150 days a year.
From Paris to Rio : Cities’ Relentless Gentrification
This is not the first time the Games have been deemed responsible for erasing green spaces and negatively affecting the local population.
For the 2012 London Games, the largest co-operative-run social housing estate in the UK, Clays Lane Estate, was sold and tenants were evicted. Over 18,000 m2 of allotment gardens, the Manor Garden Allotments, were also demolished in October 2007 to make way for an Olympic site – despite local opposition.
The 2014 Games, held in Russia’s Sochi National Park, led to the destruction of parts of a national forest, home to a wide variety of endemic flora and fauna. The natural area was previously protected by Russian law, amended when Sochi won the Winter Games to allow the construction of hotels and Olympic infrastructures.
For the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, vast areas of South Korea’s 500-year-old sacred mountain forest, Mount Gariwang, were wiped out to build the slopes that would host the 16 days of skiing competitions. Despite being protected, the National Forest Service lifted its conservation status after the city was selected for the games – allowing for the removal of 58,000 trees.
After the Paris Games, the Media Center is slated to be transformed into more than 1,300 housing units by 2026. Despite 20% of the units being destined for social housing, Baty says they’ll be unaffordable for the majority of Dugny’s existing residents.
“Many had asked to be among the beneficiaries of future housing, but given the estimated prices, they won’t be able to access it,” Baty said. According to him, the development is part of a “policy of gentrification” of Dugny, where 73% of current homes are social housing.
Troussel acknowledges the choice made by developers, saying “social diversity” within neighbourhoods is essential.
“I’m against ghettos of rich people, but I’m also against ghettos of poor people”, the politician says.
Because the Dugny inhabitants lacked the legal status to oppose the project in court, the National Movement for the Environment pursued the legal battle. This time, the Paris appeals court ruled against the activists, and allowed the construction project to continue.
The rise of an anti-Olympics movement?
As the games are approaching rapidly, the anti-olympics movement is only starting, according to Yun.
“We’re not just protesting against Paris 2024, we’re campaigning for there to be no more Olympics – not here, not anywhere.”
Last year, Saccage 2024 organised an international conference where activists from Rio, Hamburg and LA discussed the impact of the games on their respective cities and populations. Although Yun recognizes that there is “a clear difference in scale” between the organisation of the games in Rio and in Paris, for him, the pattern is identical.
“The 1992 Games led to mass-tourism in Barcelona, a tremendous gentrification of the city centre and an out-of-control increase of housing prices,” says Maria, a Barcelona-based activist who represented the collective STOP JJOO at the international anti-olympics conference. “None of the investments actually took into account the population’s needs”
In June 2022, Spain withdrew its bid for the 2030 Winter Games. The Pyrenees-Barcelona project failed due to disputes over the distribution of competition sites between the regions of Catalonia and Aragon. Maria, however, wants to see it as a victory of local action, with demonstrations against the Pyrenees-Barcelona project gathering a few thousand people before the bid was withdrawn.
“For others, the Olympics led to gentrification, or in the case of Rio, the expulsion of tens of thousands of people, and environmental destruction,” Yun said. “Why did people think it wasn’t going to happen to Paris too?”
In November, the French Alps officially submitted their candidacy to host the 2030 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. They are now the only bid selected by the International Olympic Committee.
Criticised for not taking into account the realities of climate change, the candidacy for the 2030 games is already more widely discussed than the 2024 Olympics ever were, with opposition “only starting to emerge,” according to Yun.
“Making people question the games is the biggest step,” he said.