The legal battle that saved a local communal garden from an olympic solarium

In 2024, the Olympic Games will be held in Paris. Presidential candidate and Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo is “committed to delivering the greenest games in modern history,” but local gardeners in Aubervilliers are experiencing environmental destruction first-hand. Against the construction of an Olympic Aquatic Center, they assumed an intense legal battle to safeguard their parcels. In March, they won, serving a rare victory for green spaces in times of environmental destruction.

On a recent March afternoon, Dolorès Mijatovic, 62, closed the gate to the Aubervilliers communal gardens behind her. It had been a long, sunny day, which Dolorès had spent caring for her freshly sprouted corn salad. With a plastic bag full of salad in her hand, she was walking down the sidewalk on her way home, when her phone vibrated. She took out her phone. “Pierre Hedin, lawyer” flashed on her screen. At first, when she picked up, she did not react.

“We have won”, Hedin said from the other end. “We won the lawsuit.” Dolorès let out a sigh of relief. Then, a small laugh.

Dolorès is a long-time parcel-owner in the Aubervilliers communal gardens, located just north of Paris. For her, it is a green haven. The gardens’ moss green metal gate opens to a path of compact earth, stretched out in the shadows of freshly cut hedges. In March, the sun sat low over the canopies, sending golden light over the well-kept garden parcels. Birds were chirping, and here, it’s easy to forget the bustling life of central Paris, only a 20-minute metro ride away.

Now, imagine an alternative reality. In the gardens’ southeastern corner, 20 parcels would be replaced by a huge wooden terrace, where visitors could relax in sunbeds instead of foldable camping chairs. White beach parasols would provide the same cooling shade as 40-year-old cherry and apple trees. Instead of a garden hose to wash the dirt off one’s feet, the gardeners could sit on an artificial beach, dipping their toes into an outdoor pool.

But the solarium, beach parasols, outdoor swimming pool, are not drawn by the gardeners themselves. Instead, they are all part of a construction plan launched by the city of Aubervilliers in 2020. “The Aubervilliers Aquatic center,” as it would be named, is subsidized by the Paris Olympic Committee and would serve as a training facility for athletes coming from all over the world to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

According to the Paris Olympics’ environmental ambitions, “Paris 2024 made environmental responsibility a core part of its bid, and now its work.” Presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo, who oversees the project as Mayor of Paris, also told Le Journal du Dimanche that she is “committed to delivering the greenest games in modern history.”

But for Dolorès and the other gardeners, these promises were not reflected in the plans for building the Aquatic Center. The gardeners realized that, if the construction would start, the usual tranquility of the gardens would disappear behind a constant hum of excavators, overturning century-old garden parcels and destroying rich biodiversity. It was thus against these plans, notably the solarium which would impact the gardens the most, that the gardeners mobilized under the group name “Jardin à Défendre” (JAD), and assumed a legal battle to stop the construction.  

And in March, they won. After almost two years of fighting, the court deemed the construction illegal because the environmental criteria in regional urban development plans were not respected. The fight resembled a when-David-met-Goliath moment, with the City of Aubervilliers, supported through subsidies by the Paris Olympic Committee, on the one side, versus a group of gardeners and activists on the other. In a time when the number of natural green spaces in Paris is shrinking, and the fact that previous Olympic Games’ have shown disrespect to natural environments in other countries, the court’s decision to prohibit construction has provided a rare win for our natural environment.

The reality of the construction project hit one warm summer day in 2020. Gathered near the entrance to the gardens, Dolorès and the other parcel owners were carefully reading two sheets of paper recently put up on a display board, which detailed the construction plans. It explained how one-fifth of the garden parcels would be destroyed, primarily to make way for the solarium.

In France, all public construction projects are subjected to a so-called “Ênquete Publique” – a public inquiry in which local inhabitants can express their perspectives. “It is very, very important,” says Paul Galan, who works as a public inquiry commissioner. “No major urban project can take place if there is not a public inquiry beforehand.”

There is one exception to the public inquiry rule: the Olympic Games. While inquiries can occur in various forms—a 20-page complaint, for example, or oral consultations with the public inquiry commissioner responsible for the project—a law from 2018, “Relative to the organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024,” provides an exception for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Inquiries can only be submitted by electronic consultation.

Other than an email from the town hall inviting her to fill out an online form, Dolorès felt like she was not given a real opportunity to express herself. “It was a huge surprise,” she says.

Yet, inquiries are not meant as a tool to evaluate the legality of construction projects, Galan explained. They merely serve to create a dialogue with citizens. In very rare cases, strong objections can constitute valid grounds to cancel the projects. However, this is never the case regarding environmental concerns, according to Galan.  

Initially surprised by the construction plans, the JAD nevertheless began to mobilize. They arranged so-called “toxic tours” around their parcels, inviting outsiders to witness the biodiversity and natural environment that would be destroyed. Large brown cardboard plates carrying slogans like “Pumpkins, not concrete!” and “Olympics of shame” started appearing on garden sheds.

Their fight started gaining considerable media attention, and the gardeners received immense public support, which gave Dolorès hope. Environmental destruction became the rhetorical backbone of their fight. “At the time of a sixth mass extinction of species and climate change, more than 10,000 sq metres of communal gardens are threatened by destruction in one of the densest regions of greater Paris: Aubervilliers”, opens the “Garden Notebook” – a booklet that lays out the gardeners’ cause.

For the next year, the gardeners worked to keep the spirit alive to drive the fight forwards. They arranged movie viewings and sold tiny posters with leaf prints to finance the fight. Their message had a strong appeal, maybe because it so clearly exposed a clinch with the Paris Olympic’s environmental ambitions. An online petition to safeguard the gardens reached 90,000 signatures, and eventually, they gathered enough support to arrange demonstrations that sometimes amounted to hundreds of people.

“We told ourselves several times that we could indeed win this,” says Dolorès.

The Olympic Games in Paris are far from the first where environmental concerns collided with sportsmanship. According to Sven Daniel Wolfe, a researcher on the sustainability of large scale sports events at the University of Lausanne, the Games have a weak track record regarding environmental management. “When I say sustainability, you say sustainability and the organizing committee says sustainability, those are not necessarily the same thing.” He says. “That, to me, is the big problem.”

More often than not, environmental sustainability loses against the Olympic Games’ goals of economic sustainability. The 2020 winter Olympics in Sotsji is a good example. $50 billion, the largest budget ever dedicated to the Games, would render the region an economic hotspot, which it indeed became. But from an environmental perspective, it was catastrophic. The natural environment was destroyed in ways that will never recover: many species went extinct during construction, and the Russian government changed the border of a protected forest to be able to develop there.

Wolfe was thus surprised when the gardeners of Aubervilliers succeeded in court in March, in a case whose objective was to preserve a natural space. “I found it very encouraging,” but “whether or not the gardens are saved, they will build it some other place,” he says.

“It’s like this Hydra that comes up with ever more creative ways to change a community.”

In August 2021, Aubervilliers received a permit to start construction. Dolorès and a few other gardeners decided to sleep in the gardens. With a makeshift camp and self-made kitchen area, they stayed for 18 nights, witnessing how excavators advanced into the gardens.

One early morning last September, as Dolorès was sleeping in her tent, she received a text from another parcel owner on her phone. “The gardens are being evacuated,” it said. She got out of the tent and rushed to the neighboring parking lot. It was packed with people. The police were there, including representatives from the prefecture.

Between garden parcels stood a yellow excavator that had already begun digging. “I remember seeing this backhoe grabbing a 30 or 40-year-old fig tree and chopping it like it was a matchstick,” she said. “I kept crying all the time.” Now, the excavator was driving into one of the cabins. Too much for her to bear, Dolorès went home.

Luckily, the gardeners were able to prevent disaster. They had submitted to the Court of Appeal in Paris an “appeal to urgency:” A demand for a swift court decision when the appellants, or the values they defend, are at risk of immediate harm. The gardeners asked the Court to stop construction on the grounds that it would cause irreversible damage to the garden plots and their biodiversity.

The court accepted the appeal 10 days after the construction started and suspended the building permit. Yet, this measure was held only until the court could make a decision on the project’s legal grounds. Three months later, the judge overturned their decision to halt the project, after the city of Aubervilliers modified the construction plans in compliance with the law.

Thus, the construction went ahead. Around a dozen, garden parcels were destroyed. Garden sheds were demolished. The fertile soil was trampled to create a solid foundation for the solarium. The JAD hastily submitted a second appeal against the construction, but the court spent several months landing on its decision. “The cement workers worked much faster than the court,” said Dolorès. “Imagine that it had been judged in 4 or 5 months – we would have avoided the destruction of the gardens.”

Feeling nervous about the construction moving forward, the gardeners waited impatiently for months until the court was supposed to make its decision in early February. However, the judge postponed it. And then he postponed it again. Three times the judges postponed the decision – each time including a new hearing. “There were two hearings on the subject, which is very rare,” says Hedin, the JAD’s lawyer  “In fact, there were a lot of debates, both orally and written.”

Then, a decision finally came on 10 February 2021. The gardeners won.

The project was deemed illegal because the gardens were, by urban law, not a “constructible” zone. The gardens were originally regarded as a hybrid between a green space and an urban zone where no large scale constructions were allowed, but in 2020 the zoning was changed which, according to Hedin, was done to prepare it for the Olympic Games. The judges considered this illegal.

Moreover, the judges made note of the JADs demands to preserve the biodiversity, saying in their court decision on February 10th that the project would “undermine the preservation of a core, primary biodiversity and will further escalate the existing ecological degradation. »

“It sends a strong message to those who want to destroy spaces with life, with biodiversity,” said Dolorès. “The judgment legitimized our fight.”

In a global context, where environmental destruction seems to be the rule, how did a small group of gardeners in North-eastern Paris win a legal battle against a big construction project, supported by the Paris Olympic Committee, to preserve a threatened green space from destruction?

Firstly, a change in the governance of the Games could have been to the gardener’s advantage. Traditionally, the Games have been carried out by the Olympic Committee imposing a set of rules on the host cities, says Wolfe, the researcher. That changed with Paris 2024. “Now, they are working more towards listening to the city and aligning the Games with long-term city plans,” he says.

In the case of the solarium in Aubervilliers, the Olympic Committee itself was not directly responsible for the construction. They subsidized 1/3 of the construction, but it was the city of Aubervilliers that took out the building permit. It meant that the gardeners could contest the construction plans at a more local level, compared to previous Games where national juries would be involved.

Hedin offers a second explanation. They were able to show how the construction of the solarium would deviate from the Île-de-France Region Master Plan (SDRIF) – a regional urban development plan which sets out objectives that local construction plans need to abide by. One such objective was environmental, as it emphasized the importance of preserving green spaces in a region which increasingly sees a built environment.

“So we told the judge that there are, on the one hand, these objectives to preserve green spaces, and on the other hand, a need to create new green spaces,” says Hedin. “But here, in the gardens, we are doing the complete opposite.”

Early one morning in March 2022, Dolorès sat at a small wooden table in her tiny apartment in Aubervilliers. With a morning coffee in one hand, she held the court decision in the other and read it aloud. She emphasized the parts about environmental protection and biodiversity—the basis on which she and the gardeners fought for nearly two years ago.

“I am so happy to live in a country where judges can decide against the state, the region, the department,” she says. “I was super happy and very moved, but still wary.”

Although the court ruled in March to stop the construction, the legal fight is not yet over; the court’s decisions have up until now been provisional only to prevent hasty and irreversible destruction and do not constitute final decisions until the court has been able to look at all the evidence. The final decision is expected to arrive in May or June this year.

Pierre Hedin believes that there is a strong chance that the court will rule in favor of preserving the gardens. “We will defend the fact that there cannot be any construction because of the illegality of the urban planning rules regarding the goal of preserving green spaces,” he says. “We already have a court decision telling us that we are right. This is the strongest argument from a legal point of view, and the most effective to convince the judge.”

Back in the gardens of Aubervilliers, meanwhile, life continues. An elderly retired couple, named Lilah and Hamid, crouched by the roots of a newly planted bush. They bought a parcel in the gardens only two months ago, when excavators were still ravaging the western side of the gardens. “I am of Syrian origin, and my dad used to have a farm of four hectares, with olive trees, wine trees, all kinds of fruits and vegetables,” Lilah says. “The gardens remind me of my childhood.”

While they are aware of the legal battle, they say they trust it will work out. “We come here and enjoy working for three or four hours,” says Hamid. The aroma of freshly dug soil intensifies with every dig they make with their handheld shovels. “It keeps me busy, it’s good,” he said. “And we can breathe pure air.”

Article and photo by Johan NESS GERHARDSEN

Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s