In the midst of a global pandemic and with the fate of the Tokyo Olympics still very much in the balance, Tony Estanguet, in charge of organising the 2024 Paris Games, has plenty to occupy his thoughts.
On February 3, however, he was set to be tossed into a new furnace as he faces a group of gardeners from the northern Paris district of Aubervilliers who are furious at the prospect of losing their allotments to a new aquatic training centre that will be used for the Olympics and by the local community.
“Pumpkins, not concrete”, they chant regularly as they hope to persuade Estanguet and his committee to spare their simple patch of shrubbery.
It is an awkward rapid to negotiate for Estanguet, the former gold medal-winning canoeist.
Paris 2024 has made a huge deal over being the “first ever carbon neutral Games” which, according to the statement of intent on its website “will blaze a new trail as they will be both spectacular and sustainable”.
Paris 2024 has made a big noise about the environment and yet here is a group of gardeners being forced from their plots.
And these are no ordinary plots. Aubervilliers, to the north-west of Paris bordering the district of Saint-Denis which is home to the Stade de France, is on a plain that historically produced the best vegetables around the capital.
It is fertile soil.
The plots on this green enclave of 2.25ha with their sheds, roosters and fruit trees are in sharp contrast to the neigbouring high-rise towers and the adjoining car park.
In three months a large portion of this remnant of a rural past is slated to disappear under a blanket of concrete as the aquatic training centre takes shape.
According to the plans, the gardens will be cut by 1ha – 10,000sqm – in two phases.
Leisure facilities will spring up across 4,000sqm of allotment, which will be used as training facilities for the Olympics, including a “mineral and vegetable solarium”. The gardeners are not impressed.
“A mineral solarium? Basically it’s a terrace for sunbathing”, says Viviane Griveau-Genest, who prefers “to have her hands in the earth”.
Like this 30-something, some gardeners and conservationists have no intention of abandoning their 18 plots at the end of April, hence the meeting with Estanguet.
“We don’t need it, we already have the pandemic, I would say that we have an additional virus called ‘concrete’. It is winning everywhere,” says Gerard Muller, vice-president of the local Jardins Ouvriers (Garden Workers) association.
In phase two, another 6,000sqm will be removed after 2024 for a station for the Grand Paris Express, the future public transport network in the Paris region.
These operations are all part of the planned development of the old fort, dating from the 1840s, which adjoins the gardens.
“Within this project we are looking at the preservation of this heritage including 7ha of gardens,” says Camille Vienne-Thery, project director at Grand Paris Amenagement, owner of the land.
“It is a long-standing commitment.”
The dislodged gardeners will first be relocated to new plots in these neighbouring gardens and then to another site.
“A football field which is out of use on which it is proposed to reconstitute the gardens,” says Vienne-Thery.
If the idea works for the planners at the town hall it is less popular with the gardeners who have, in some cases, spent many years nurturing their existing plots.
“The soil,” says Viviane Griveau-Genest. “I am not going to be able to take it with me to a new plot. And I can’t put all the earthworms into my pockets. I do not have an earthworm-moving truck.”
The emotional arguments, however, are likely to fall on deaf ears.
“Too late,” says Karine Franclet, the UDI centre-right mayor of Aubervilliers who believes stopping the project would cost “€4.7 million” ($5.65 million) in penalties while modifying would cause unwelcome delays.
“We are already very tight on the schedule,” she says.
Olympic organisers have also said that if the work is done “we will be delighted to use it”, but added they would only be “one of the users” of this public amenity.
Franclet says it is an “essential” development which will allow Aubervilliers to be “part of the Olympic adventure”.
It will also take on an educational role in a department where one child by the age of 11 or 12.
In September, the swimming events proper were removed from the neighbouring socially-deprived area of Saint-Denis and relocated to the financial district of La Defense.
To build the aquatic centre, which is slated to cost €33.6 million, the town, which is the contracting authority, will benefit from certain subsidies, including around €10 million from Solideo, the company charged with delivering the Olympic structures.
Several defenders of the gardens formulated an appeal to save them on December 16.
“We must arrive at a position of compromise . . . but not waste time,” says Mathieu Hanotin, who heads an inter-community committee.
For the gardeners who were set to face Estanguet on February 3, time is the one thing they do not have.
“It is an aberration which is against the grain of history because we need trees, we need nature,” says Gerard Muller.
“Listen, we can hear the birds, it’s beautiful.”