PARIS — Long a favorite spot for picnicking and sunbathing, the lawns surrounding the Eiffel Tower have recently become the scene of furious protests. First came a social media campaign. Than a rallyy by dozens of local residents. Before long, a protester had huddled in a nearby plane tree for a hunger strike.
The source of their anger? A plan to cut down more than 20 trees, some over 100 years old, around the tower as part of an effort to create a massive garden and reduce crowds for tourists.
The controversy is just the latest in a series that has engulfed Paris’ city hall as it attempts to make the city greener, a task that seems all the more urgent as scorching temperatures plague the French capital and the rest of Europe.
Trees are considered some of the best defenses against the radiation that contributes to the heat waves that are increasing everywhere due to global warming. They provide much-needed refreshment in densely populated cities like Paris, where temperatures were in the high 90 degrees on Monday and are expected to go higher.
“Without the trees, the city is an unbearable furnace,” said Tangui Le Dantec, urban planner and co-founder of Aux Arbres Citoyens, a group protesting the felling of trees in Paris.
In recent months, small protests have sprung up across Paris, with residents and activists gathering around trees condemned by the sprawling urban development projects that have sometimes turned the capital into a giant construction site.
In April they have filmed the felling of 76 plane trees, most of them decades old, in the Porte de Montreuil on the northern outskirts of Paris. City Hall wants to turn the site into a huge plaza, part of a project by the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, to create a “green belt” around the capital.
“Ma’am. Hidalgo please stop the massacre,” Thomas Brail, the founder of the National Group for the Surveillance of Trees, said as machines cut down trees behind him, in a video he shot in April. Mr Brail later went on an 11-day hunger strike in the plane tree near the Eiffel Tower.
Yves Contassot, former deputy mayor of Paris in charge of the environment and member of the Green Party, said that tree felling had become “a very sensitive issue that is causing a bit of a scandal at a time when we are talking about fighting global warming.” in big cities.”
Initially, the plan to redevelop the traffic-calmed area around the Eiffel Tower for the residents of Paris seemed environmentally friendly. Most vehicles would be banned and a network of footpaths, cycle paths and parks would be created.
“A new green lung”, the town hall boasted on its website.
But residents discovered in May that the plan also involved cutting down 22 established trees and threatening the root systems of several others, including a 200-year-old sycamore planted long before the Eiffel Tower was built in the late 1880s.
“The poor tree was planted in 1814, and one morning some boys want to make room for luggage storage and it is swept away,” said Mr Brail, the protester who went on a hunger strike at the tree, mocking the plans. to improve the facilities for visitors.
A series of protests, as well as an online petition that garnered more than 140,000 signatures, eventually forced the city council on May 2 to change its plans and pledge not to cut any trees as part of the greening project.
Emmanuel Grégoire, Paris’ deputy mayor in charge of urban planning and architecture, said in an interview that the city realized it was “losing a symbolic battle over the project’s green ambitions”.
In 2007, Paris adopted a climate plan that helped reduce the city’s carbon footprint by 20 percent between 2004 and 2018 and nearly double its renewable energy consumption, according to a recent report from regional authorities. Paris’ new goal is to become a carbon neutral city powered only by renewable energy by 2050.
Mr Le Dantec, the urban planner, acknowledged that “in terms of reducing pollution, there has undoubtedly been an improvement.” He referred to Ms Hidalgo’s successful, though disputed, plans to limit car use in the capital.
But he added that Paris’ city plans had neglected another reality of climate change: rising temperatures, against which trees are considered some of the best defenses.
Trees cool cities by providing shade and mitigating the effects of so-called “urban heat islands.”
common in Paris, by absorbing radiation. Météo France, the national weather service, estimates that temperatures on those heat islands were sometimes 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding areas during recent heat waves.
In mid-June, when France was sweltering with scorching temperatures, Mr Le Dantec roamed Paris with a thermometer. On the Place de la République he has Hospitalized temperatures up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit on concrete surfaces, compared to 82 degrees under a 100-year-old sycamore tree.
“Our best protection against heat waves is trees,” says Dominique Dupré-Henry, former architect at the Ministry of the Environment and co-founder of Aux Arbres Citoyens.
But of the 30 major cities studied by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Paris has the lowest tree cover, at about 9 percent, compared with 12.7 percent in London and 28.8 percent in Oslo.
“This is the exact opposite of climate change adaptation,” said Ms Dupré-Henry.
Mr Grégoire said Paris planned to plant 170,000 new trees by 2026. Following the example of the Porte de Montreuil, the area in the north of Paris, he said that many more trees would be planted than felled.
“It is a project with very high environmental standards,” said Mr Grégoire, focusing on the transformation of what is now a huge asphalt roundabout into a green square. “The result is positive in terms of fighting urban heat islands.”
Regional environmental authorities have less confidence. In their assessment of the project, they noted that the construction works and new infrastructures will “on the contrary add more heat”.
Mr Le Dantec also said that in the short term young trees are less effective than older ones at combating global warming because their foliage is smaller and cannot absorb as much radiation. “A 100-year-old tree is worth 125 newly planted trees” in terms of absorbing carbon dioxide and cooling the environment, he said.
At the Porte de Montreuil, residents had mixed feelings about the project. Lo Richert Lebon, a 57-year-old designer, praised the “green efforts” and said they would help improve the quality of life in this long-derelict suburb.
But “lawns aren’t worth trees,” she added, standing in the shade of sycamore trees slated to be cut as part of the refurbishment of a flea market in the area. “Trees should be integrated into these efforts, rather than being an adaptive variable.”