Anyone who has promenaded the Avenue des Champs-Élysées of late will know that the grande madame is somewhat past her best. Despite being named “the most beautiful avenue in the world”, and luring some 300,000 people each day to its theatres, monuments and designer stores, the 1.17-mile stretch – traced by Louis XIV’s principal gardener, André Le Nôtre, in the 17th century – has become one of the city’s most polluted areas, swamped by eight lanes of traffic (with a fume-belching 3,000 vehicles per hour). It is a place most Parisians avoid. 

The avenue’s businesses have campaigned for intervention. And Mayor Anne Hidalgo, an advocate of urban greening, has listened. Now, architect Philippe Chiambaretta’s practice PCA-Stream has garnered support among Parisians for a radical £250mn plan to “re-enchant” the Champs-Élysées. If it goes ahead in full, the avenue will be transformed into a green-fringed urban oasis by 2030.

A view of the Champs-Élysées by Auguste Cadolle, 1843
A view of the Champs-Élysées by Auguste Cadolle, 1843 © Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Phase one, greenlit by Hidalgo in 2021, has paved the way for cosmetic tweaks that will refresh the avenue in time for the July Olympics. Paving, pedestrian crossings and fixtures are being smartened up or replaced, terraces are being redesigned and, so far, more than 108 trees planted, while owners of luxury stores are busy beautifying their edifices. The ring road around the Arc de Triomphe, which attracts more than 1.5mn visitors a year, is also being widened (in line with Hidalgo’s plan for new green highways), with pedestrian and bike access around the monument. 

As with most cosmetic procedures, Parisians will have to wait for the drilling and discomfort to subside to feel the benefit of intervention. What’s more, the full phase two facelift won’t start until after the Olympics. PCA-Stream’s final feasibility studies, conducted with engineers, will be handed to the city in late spring. “It’s a gift – now it’s up to them which parts they take on and finance,” Chiambaretta says.

A visualisation of the proposed plans for the Avenue de la Grande Armée towards La Défense
A visualisation of the proposed plans for the Avenue de la Grande Armée towards La Défense © PCA-Stream

If all goes to plan, traffic on Les Champs will be cut from eight to four lanes, while planting, trees and refreshed pathways will connect existing gardens, punctuated by oases of art, leisure and dining. “It’s less about changing architecture and more about the environment and experiences. We see the city as a metabolic – a living body with incoming and outcoming flows of water, traffic, energy, goods, people and data,” Chiambaretta says at his own peaceful studio on the Rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais. “What we do here is more than architecture,” he continues. “We’ve created a think tank and are building a knowledge resource that can be shared with others.” The practice, which he established in 2001, has become a leader of theoretical research and prospective thought. 

Its empirical-based study of Les Champs revealed just how disenchanted Parisians had become with the fabled thoroughfare. Chiambaretta rolls off the statistics: on an average day, 68 per cent of pedestrians are tourists; 22 per cent work there; and only five per cent of Parisians intentionally choose to hang out on the avenue. “An area once loved by the inhabitants is being rejected by them because they don’t feel they belong there,” he says. “It’s an issue faced elsewhere, like Fifth Avenue in New York or Orchard Road in Singapore.” He hopes his urban garden will become a test case for other cities. 

Gathering evidence for change led to their case for reducing the number of roads in Paris. “Motoring was thought of as progressive and modern in the ’60s. And so we re-dimensioned the city that was once there for pedestrians and horses,” says Chiambaretta. “In Paris, there was even talk of covering the Seine with a highway. That’s how far we went!” 

Cyclists prepare for the Tour de France, 1926
Cyclists prepare for the Tour de France, June 1926 © Topical Press Agency/Getty images
Traffic in the Champs-Élysées, 1962
Traffic in the Champs-Élysées, 1962 © Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

I’m reminded of former president Georges Pompidou’s famous declaration: “The French love their cars.” And certainly, Hidalgo has made no friends with her ongoing efforts to reduce traffic. Major opponents include motorist groups who say investment is being made at the expense of necessary improvements to roads and those who need to commute from the suburbs. Pierre Chasseray, from the campaign group 40 Million Motorists, put it thus: “All motorists feel like Paris City Hall is more focused on attacking them than supporting public transport. We demonise people who are forced to use their cars, we hold them responsible for all pollution, which cannot possibly be the case. Of course cars pollute, but so does your heating – all human activity pollutes.”

Chiambaretta shrugs. “Actually, we found Parisians were happy to see less of them,” he says. “Traffic has been declining slowly for 20 years, and we proved the number of lanes on the Champs-Élysées were not needed – most cars are just passing through; they’re not there for the shopping or the restaurants.” He is scathing of the situation around the Place de la Concorde and Place de l’Étoile (“they’ve become huge roundabouts”), while other areas (“that should be magnets for people”) have been cut off by roads and largely forgotten. “We found a big void around the garden of the Petit Palais and Grand Palais – nobody is going there, yet it’s 24 hectares in the centre of Paris by the Seine.” Backers of his plan say Les Champs could once again become a destination for locals, as well as tourists. There are precedents. Hidalgo has already reclaimed parts of the city for pedestrians and bikes beside the Seine – and she took direct action on the Champs-Élysées in 2016 by banning cars there for one Sunday every month.

The 2030 vision of the Avenue linking the Jardin des Tuileries to the Jardin des Champs-Élysées
The 2030 vision of the Avenue linking the Jardin des Tuileries to the Jardin des Champs-Élysées © PCA-Stream

Chiambaretta, however, was not commissioned by the city but by the Comité Champs-Élysées (a non-profit association made up of 180 shopkeepers, property companies, museums, theatres and cinemas on Les Champs that formed in 1916 to promote and protect it). It has been campaigning for some time to stop the decline of the avenue – an unusual case of the private sector proposing a new vision for public space. 

The committee’s first presidents were Gaston-Louis and Georges Vuitton,” Chiambaretta says, of the influence of luxury brands on the avenue. The current Comité Champs-Élysées chairman is Marc-Antoine Jamet, general secretary of the LVMH Group, and Bernard Arnault has been on a spending spree on the avenue, snapping up 150 Avenue des Champs-Élysées late last year for around €1bn – adding to a property portfolio that includes the Louis Vuitton flagship at No 101 (for a reported €770mn) and a building at 103 that will host a branded hotel. 

“The Comité Champs-Élysées has launched a unique initiative. Why? To be a facilitator and save precious years of work,” says Jamet. “After all, the City of Paris didn’t have to pay for nearly €5mn worth of studies. But the Comité’s role is not to replace the public authorities. When the study is submitted, the City of Paris will have to assume its responsibilities and will be able to rely on very solid scientific conclusions.”

A cross-section of the proposed plan for “Les Champs”
A cross-section of the proposed plan for “Les Champs” © PCA-Stream

Returning the splendour of Les Champs, it seems, is less about turning back the clock and more about looking to the future. “We made a time-capture movie of how Paris evolved since the 1600s using original drawings which we put to scale; everything explodes with Haussmann and then with cars. It took us three months with five people, full-time. It was like watching a plant grow,” Chiambaretta enthuses. This exploration helped them to understand how they could link the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin des Champs-Élysées. “By connecting them and making it easier to enjoy them without traffic cutting them off, you have 60 hectares in the centre of Paris.”

Those curious to discover what a day in this urban haven might be like can watch PCA-Stream’s virtual tour online: birds twitter in the trees and children squeal with delight in a gigantic timber playground – the camera zooms over plazas, art installations and inside a restaurant terrace before swooping over gently flowing traffic sandwiched by wide pedestrian walkways and bike lanes punctured by greenery. “The idea is that you can spend all day there: take the family, do some sports, visit artwork and then go for something to eat,” says Chiambaretta. 

It’s a compelling dream, but not all will agree with the changes – and upheaval – required to make it happen. “We had to show why some of the planting established in the 19th century as a statement of empire is not fit for the 21st century. It’s finding a middle ground between conservation and the ecologists who say we need to face the future,” Chiambaretta explains. His study treats Les Champs as an organism. “Like a forest or garden, you can’t just look at the trees and plants, it’s how they all work together as an ecosystem to cool the city as we face global warming. Some of the trees need less water – and the use of water is going to be an issue in the future – some can adapt to temperature, and some capture more CO₂ than others. It’s a new way of planting the city.”

Will Parisians want the dream? The studio is now conducting the same research for the Comité Grande Armée, focusing on the area between Place de l’Étoile and the Bois de Boulogne. “It’s the same idea – how you can create an experience on the sidewalk,” says Chiambaretta. “I think it will become a little village.” 

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