For centuries, the waterways of Paris’ Seine River have been vital transportation routes for commercial ships and vessels. Less than 75 years ago, the banks of the river served as battlegrounds during the final stages of World War II. And within the last few decades, electrical and nuclear power plants have popped up along the Seine to draw cooling water from the river.
In the last few years, the banks of this historic river have seen a recreational revitalization, with new efforts geared toward making the Seine a true destination for Parisians and tourists—and it shows. This summer, thousands of visitors will lounge along the river’s banks to watch the Bastille Day fireworks display. But the crowning achievement of the city’s efforts is yet to come.
By 2024, Paris hopes to make the Seine clean enough to swim in.
After pledging last year to start the cleanup effort, Paris’ mayor, Anne Hidalgo, recently released an official plan to make the city’s dream a reality, with the overall goal of winning the bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.
“I really hope that the economic impact of the Games will allow us to make the water of the Seine clean enough for swimming,” Hidalgo told Le Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly newspaper. “The idea is to make this Olympic bid useful for Parisians. It’s an extraordinary driving force that allows us to accelerate and boost projects in all areas of the city.”
Though swimming in the Seine was once a common activity in Paris—it was even the site of the rowing, swimming and water polo events during the 1900 Summer Olympics—the practice was banned in 1923, and now a €15 fine is imposed on citizens caught breaking the rule. And though the river still played host to city triathlons as recently as 2013, poor water quality and dangerous bacteria have since ended this practice.
Though swimming in the Seine was once a common activity in Paris, the practice was banned in 1923.
But that’s not to say that Parisians don’t take full advantage of the river throughout the summer months. The city has been utilizing its waterfront for recreation through innovative, seasonal projects for years. Since the early 2000s, Paris has brought in approximately 11 million pounds of sand, 50 palm trees and more than 500 beach chairs each summer to create Paris-Plages, a series of artificial pop-up beaches housed along the banks of the Seine and the Bassin de la Villette, the largest man-made lake in Paris. This year’s “beach” season will run from 18 July to 21 August and offer water sporting opportunities, as well as spots for sunbathing.
For Parisians who simply can’t wait until 2024 to swim in the Seine, there’s the Piscine Josephine Baker. The pool, completed in 2006, was built on a permanently moored barge that floats on the Seine, and features retractable glass walls that allow the pool to stay open year-round.
When Paris’ plan comes to fruition in 2024, it will join a league of innovative cities that have already turned their water sources into swimmable oases. Copenhagen’s Harbour Baths, first opened to the public in 2002, sit right along the residential waterfront. (To keep swimmers safe, water quality is monitored and reported on a dedicated site every day.)
The Isar River, which runs through parts of Austria and Germany, including Munich, is another urban river that’s not only swimmable, but surfable, thanks to a particularly choppy part of a small channel of the Isar that provides an ideal surf spot.