They squeal and take a deep breath before they jump at the count of five into the murky water. For these five boys, it’s just a day of summer fun in a pool.
For the adults looking on though, swimming in a Parisian canal – long associated with rubbish and nighttime revelry – represents the reclamation of leisure from the creeping development and pollution that has long kept paddling off limits.
Now that Paris has gotten closer to hosting the 2024 Olympic Games – after Los Angeles relinquished its competing bid this week – this scene might one day not be such an anomaly, one that prompts passersby to snap photos and film videos.
Paris has proposed that Olympic competitions not just be organized throughout the city built on the Seine, but in the Seine itself. And the idea is that, by then, Paris waterways will be so clean that residents and visitors will be splashing in designated areas as part of everyday life.
Guillaume Tavitian, a Parisian who was taking a walk with his father over a footbridge spanning the canal, says he remembers when former President Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, announced in 1988 that he’d swim in the Seine within five years. He never did. “Now I think it’s really possible by the Olympics,” says Mr. Tavitian.
'Much better than the park'
These waters were not always banned. This spring when Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo permanently closed down the roadway along the right bank and turned it into a park, the inauguration featured an exhibit called the Banks of the Seine.
Archival images showed Parisians jumping off the Pont d’Iéna, steps from the Eiffel Tower, in August 1945, and dangling their feet into the Seine under it. It featured swimmers at the famed floating pool Deligny, dating back to the end of the 18th century.
But the banks were ceded to transport and industry. Swimming in Parisian waterways has been officially banned since 1923, due to poor water quality, heavy traffic, and strong currents. But it only became truly off limits after the post-war boom and development that ensued. Until this summer, it has been mostly nighttime rulebreakers who have dared to take a dip.
When the pool opened at the Canal de l’Ourcq in July, with three basins including a baby pool and capacity for 300 swimmers at a time, the mayor’s office deemed it “an ecological conquest.”
It opened as part of Paris Plages, an annual summer event that since 2002 has turned the banks of the Seine and canal into a veritable “beach” with volleyball courts, lounge chairs, and views of sailboats and barges passing by. An awesome sight (at least for urbanites who find beauty in the reuse of space), it only lacked one thing: the actual “beach.”
“The water feels perfect,” says one little girl as she climbs out of the basin. When asked if this is her first time at the pool, she looks incredulous. “I’ve been here every day,” she says. “This is much better than the park.”
Swimming in the Seine itself is still prohibited, but the city has promised to clean the water in preparation for the triathlon and swimming competitions of the 2024 Games, which are expected to be officially announced in Paris’s favor on Sept. 13 after a deal between Los Angeles (which agreed to host the 2028 edition), Paris, and the International Olympic Committee. It would be the first time in a century that Paris hosts the Olympics – the last time coming the year after swimming was banned in city waters.
It is part of a revival of urban river swimming around the world. Already Danes swim in the waterways of their capital, Copenhagen. In Boston, the city offers “splash” days in the Charles River, while dozens of urban planners study similar possibilities.
'It's nice only for a look'
Not everyone is enticed. “Do you see that algae?” says Chantel Cajazzo, who was taking a walk with her children at the Paris canal.
The pool, in fact, was briefly closed for a day last month after higher-than-normal levels of bacteria were found, according to local press reports. It reopened the following day. But Ms. Cajazzo says that while the new pool is “nice to look at” and brings back a sense of life – and vacation to those who can’t afford the sea – “it’s nice only for a look.”
Cajazzo says she believes the city won’t ever be able to open swimming to the masses, after decades of industrialization and deindustrialization that has strained waterways. “We can’t return to the era before that,” she says. Nor should we, argue some. Such plans have been dismissed as a “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian) ideal that puts leisure ahead of the realities of jobs, trade, and transport.
Still, the city of Paris keeps purifying.
The graphic design company Klar worked with the city, and illustrator Simon Roussin, to advertise Paris Plages this year. The scene of the canal is a colorful, whimsical illustration that recalls a vintage poster. A man sits on a pier, looking out onto boaters and swimmers in the distance. A woman climbs down a ladder that leads into crystal blue waters.
“The brief from the mayor’s office was to represent Paris as a seaside resort,” says Alix Hassler, project manager at the company. “It’s representing a Paris that is a bit fantastical, imaginary.” Yet with the canal pools just down the street, she notes that their poster also represents the “real drive of the current mayor,” and slowly is turning into reality around them.
Except, perhaps, for the color of the water.