Paris has a watery dream of swimming in the Seine – but can the planners take the plunge?

Could the home of croissants and infamously rude locals become the land of outdoor swimming? Image: Wikimedia Commons

It all started on a hot summer’s day in August 2015, when hordes of people defied a 1923 law and plunged into a canal in the northeast of Paris. It was such a welcomed event that, in November, the City Hall officially proposed a plan for three swimming pools to be built along the south side of the Quai de la Loire canal basin, ready for this summer.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo celebrated the plan on Twitter, writing: “City swimming: promise kept! Three pools on the Bassin de la Villette starting next July 15.” It is a bold plan that, ahem, hopefully will swim and not sink.


The Bassin de la Villette is located in the north east of Paris and is the widest part of the long and fascinating canal system that flows down into the Seine. It was inaugurated in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte to supply water to Parisians – they can't just drink wine you know – and was a former port area during the industrialisation of rivers. Now, it's a central cultural and recreational spot, boasting a theatre barge, boat rental, breweries and cinemas, and is a prime spot for summer wine drinking.

The temporary structures will be built into the actual Bassin, which connects the Canal de l'Ourcq with the Canal Saint-Martin. The smallest, a children's pool, will be just 40cm deep, a second will be up to 120cm deep and a third will be reserved for serious swimmers at 2m deep. The pools in total would stretch 90m end to end, and would take up 16m in width.

Liberté, Egalité, Water Qualité

Naturally, the water itself is a worry. The canal has fallen pray to a few rat infestations and, on occasion, you can watch giant rats being dredged up as you sip a fresh rosé on a canalside terrasse – but don't be put off just yet. Jean-Francois Martins, tasked with sports at the City Hall, offered reassurance to prospective Parisian bathers in Le Figaro newspaper, saying: "We've been monitoring the quality of the water in the Bassin de la Villette since 2009."

 

Would you jump in? Image: Pixabay

The canals were emptied and dredged under a year ago, uncovering bizarre objects hidden in their depths - from bottles to scooters to a stray toilet. Despite the occasional sight of a cupboard or some vermin, the canal is actually relatively clean and a calm hub in the bustling city, where people picnic, fish and commandeer model boats during the summer months. It is not uncommon to see overly zealous Erasmus parties dive into the canal on hot weekend evenings and there have been no reports of swimmers haemorrhaging from the mouth, eyes and internal organs after contracting Weil's disease (Google if you dare) just yet. So that’s something.

Managing the water for swimming will require stemming sewer overflow during heavy storms, illegal discharge into the water from quayside boats and barges, and agricultural run-off from farms upstream. It is doable but still a massive undertaking by the city and region of Île-de-France.

Will Paris ne regrette rien?

Is it all worth it? Perhaps. Many Parisians seem to have a thirst for outdoor swimming and will seek a cooling spot to escape the city heat again this summer – the City Hall estimates that around 1,000 people would show up to the pools on any given summer day next year. As a local and keen outdoor swimmer, a guarantee of good water quality would certainly draw me for a daily swim.

The pools will be a kind of summer pop-up, along with the annual Paris Plage which transforms the banks of the basin and Seine quayside into an urban beach every summer. This means that they will be taken down for the winter season as it is pretty unlikely that many people will want to float down a freezing canal.

Paris Plage is already a thrilling reality. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fanatics keen for a outdoor swim in the chillier months can head to the outdoor pool at Butte aux Caille in the 13th arrondissement, which is open year-round and now heated from the warmth given off by a data centre installed in the same building.

As part of Paris' Olympic bid for 2024, the city has also been overhauling the 38 existing swimming facilities; building innovative heating systems as part of a plan to make all the pools eco-responsible by 2024.

Another new, unusual, environmentally friendly pool-heating system can be found at the Aspirant-Dunand pool in the 14th arrondissement. Water from the Paris sewers is being used to warm this pool – which has cut its electricity bill by 50 per cent. A new heat pump system was installed at the pool following tests of similar systems at the pool and several others in the Paris region. The city has 2,400km of sewers under its streets and assistant mayor Célia Blauel said that the water they contained was between 13C and 20C all year round. This heat was taken from the water and used to heat the pool and showers.

In-seine urban planning

Not willing to stop at just a canal, the ambitious City Hall has also announced that they aim to make the river Seine clean enough to swim in by 2024. The city has even suggested staging Olympic events such as the swimming triathlon in the river.

Zurich already has a perfectly good outdoor swimming spot. Image: Zurich Film Office 

So, will it work? Proposals to clean up waterways are a regular occurrence in many major European cities. Berlin’s 2014 scheme included a plan to swim in a part of the river Spree, but pollution from storm water run-off and coal mining put that one on the back burners. Over in London, there is the more viable Thamesbath project. It is a partially heated twin pool rather than an open swimming area but would use river water, filtered and cleaned through tanks and aquatic plant beds. It’s reached almost £150,000 on Kickstarter but is likely to cost a fortune, so don’t hold your breath. (Sorry).

Copenhagen's harbour is now swim-friendly. Image: Thomas Rousing / Flickr

But the idea of safe and clean urban swimming for the masses does float, as there are success stories already. Both Copenhagen and Zürich have cleaned up their open waters – a harbour and a lake – making it perfectly safe to jump right in.

Paris doesn’t have many ecological factors in its favour but the city of light has a big watery dream. In spite of the odds, this project may be just about achievable, and we could one day see tourists slip in for a dip in the Seine after a visit to the Eiffel tower.

Don’t forget your swimsuit. 

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How do North Koreans get to work? A guide to transport in the DPRK

Buhung station, on the Pyongyang Metro. Image: Jodie Hill.

Like so much else in North Korea, the country’s transport can be divided into categories: Pyongyang and not Pyongyang.

In the capital, centrally-run transportation is, compared to other extremely poor countries, efficient, cheap and well maintained. Outside Pyongyang, by contrast, the state has withered away – albeit not quite as Marx imagined it would. The near total collapse of state run transport infrastructure has left room for a wide range of enterprising North Koreans to make their living in the transport sector – provided, of course, a chunk of those proceeds makes its way back to the party.

So how do North Koreans get around Pyongyang?  

Here’s a homemade map of the city’s transport section:

A homemade map of the Pyongyang transport sector. Image: Michael Hill.

Some notes on all this. The names for Subway stations are translations of the Korean names, but bear no relation to their location. I filled in the (unnamed) trolley bus and tram stop names myself, with reference local landmarks; in fact, those systems both stop way more than my map implies.

What’s more, the Gwangmyeong/Bright Future station is closed, and has been for years – out of respect for Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Sung who are in a nearby mausoleum, which used to be Kim Il Sung’s Pyongyang pad. The tramline to Gwangmyeong/Bright Future is also not really part of the public transport network, but is just for visitors to the mausoleum.

Getting about

A subway ticket costs just 5 North Korean Won (9,500 won to the dollar at black market rates). If you need to transfer you will have to buy another ticket, there are no travelcards or season tickets. You can check the best way to get where you are going at most stations (possibly all) contain interactive maps.

Pyongyang subway interactive map. Image: Jodie Hill.

Just press the name of the station you wish to travel to from the list along the bottom, and the route from your current station to your destination lights up. This may or may not be overkill for a network with just two lines and 16 stations.

Incidentally, the logo has the word 지 (ji) which is the first syllable of 지하 (jiha) which means underground. The title just means “Information board”, and the question is, ‘Where are you going?’

Some stations are 360ft (110m) deep, double the depth of the deepest station (Hampstead) on the London Underground.

The escalators at Buhung/Revival station escalator. Image: Jodie Hill.

While this bomb shelter might be useful one day, for now it just means Pyongyangites add ten minutes to their planned journey time – which encourages many people to take the tram or trolley bus instead. When you finally get down to the platform you won’t have long to wait – at most 5 minutes during peak times, 10 minutes off peak.

The North Korean government never misses a chance to propagandise: every station has a theme. For example the station name Gaeson means “Triumphant Return”; it’s situated near where Kim Il-Sung gave his first speech as ruler. Inside the murals depict crowds attentively listening to him. The style is not dissimilar to the grandeur of subways in the former Soviet Union, but with much less emphasis on the workers and modernist art and a lot more on the rulers.

The trains themselves were made in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s. There are allegedly some new trains – but they look suspiciously like their older counterparts given a lick of paint and an electronic information board. The old East German stock has been moved onto the national rail network. While these days powercuts are much rarer than in the 1990s (when, for long periods of the day, the subway didn’t operate at all), a torch and something to read might be advised just in case you get stuck.

The central figure is Kim Il-Sung. Image: Jodie Hill.

The ‘showcase’ station is Buhung (“Revival”):

Images: Jodie Hill.

The others are much the same only without the chandeliers and with much dimmer lights.

Above ground

While electricity is hardly plentiful in North Korea, compared to oil it is pretty abundant. Therefore, buses have gradually been phased out: now trolley buses and trams then form the backbone of the transit network in Pyongyang. As regular as the subway, but with a bigger network and not requiring a long escalator ride – or walk, as the escalators often break down – this is the most popular way to travel around Pyongyang.

The ticket price is again just 5 won (about 0.4p). The trolley bus vehicles were mostly manufactured domestically, while the trams are second hand from communist era Prague. Power cuts are much more frequent on the trolley buses and trams than on the subway: passengers on an affected service are expected to push.

The rail network is rarely used for commuting. Even for those way out in the plush satellite town of Ryeongsong (at the far north of the map, and home of Kim Jong-Un and many other top party cadres), those not high enough ranked for a car take the trolleybus rather than the train to commute to work.

Venturing out of the capital, the official transport network shows signs of near collapse. As far as I am aware, the only other city with a tram network is Chongjin, but it’s hardly extensive – a one line system, eight miles long. It suffers from much more regular power cuts than its Pyongyang counterpart, and relies on hand me down trains from the capital. Many cities have a trolley bus service on paper – but most have no service at all or, at best, a skeleton peak hours service only.

The national rail network is worse. Before you can even get a ticket you must apply for permission – a process that can take days – though nowadays this can be circumvented with a bribe. Tickets are cheap, usually just a few hundred won (a few pence), but with frequent power cuts, journeys take even longer than the 12mph average speed suggests they will. While Kim Jong-Un’s travel habits are unknown, both his father and grandfather liked to travel by private train, and this would lead delays of 24 hours for people travelling in the same area. Freight takes priority over passenger rail, and virtually the entire network is single track and with no sophisticated signalling equipment, meaning trains often have to wait for a long time to let others pass.

A map of the network. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

As a result of these problems lot of passenger traffic has moved onto the roads. Enterprising Koreans who have obtained licenses, as well as state operated enterprises (particularly people associated with the police), have bought second hand buses from China and now use them for inter-city transport.

Reports vary about whether travel permits are required for bus travel, and about how hard they are to obtain. Prices fluctuate due to changes in the oil price and vary wildly by region. A journey from Nampo to Pyongyang (about 30 miles) costs $5. A journey of similar length between two cities in the north east costs around $15, while in the north west just $2.

Journeys are not comfortable. North Korean roads are often unpaved, always potholed, and the buses were not in great condition even when they left China. Nevertheless they link the emerging market economy together.  

North Korea road map:

A map of the network. Blue routes are all paved, others mostly unpaved or paved a very long time ago. Image: Voland77/Wikimedia Commons.

For shorter journeys, taxis are now an option in most medium sized cities and even in some rural areas. There are at least four taxi companies operating these days in Pyongyang.

North Korean won won’t get you very far though: taxi drivers want dollars (two of them), to take you anywhere plus another 50 cents for every kilometer you travel, about three times the cost as in North East China. The only network outside Pyongyang I know in detail is one run by a state-owned enterprise in Chongjin, which recently imported dozens of almost new taxis from China. Payment is accepted in North Korean won, Chinese RMB and US dollars; a 10 minute journey costs 1 dollar.

Taxis are beyond the means of most North Koreans, though. The backbone of North Korea’s transport infrastructure is formed by bikes.


Bicycles were illegal in Pyongyang until 1992, and this ban was strictly enforced – but since it was lifted, bike use has really taken off. In smaller towns they often serve as a status symbol as much as transport, much as cars do for many in the west. The wealthiest now ride electric assisted bikes imported from China, though the Ford of North Korea is the Pyongjin bike company, which has cornered 70% of the market according to the leading North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov.

It is still technically illegal for a woman to ride a bike, but this ban is not strictly enforced. (I know of one woman who used to ride her technically illegal bike to her technically illegal small business, a bicycle repair shop.) Legally, every bike needs a license plate, and each rider needs take a test and get a license – but this too is mostly unenforced.

It is illegal to ride on North Korea’s mostly empty roads. This ban is not enforced in most cities, but is in Pyongyang, where the government has started creating cycle paths on the pavements as well as a bike hire scheme. If you can’t afford a bike yourself, a ‘bicycle carrier’ will give you a lift for about five US cents per kilometre – although, like a land based Ryanair, you have to pay more for bags. Both customers and workers in this sector tend to be very poor.

North Korea’s transport mirrors the North Korean economy. Pyongyang just about manages to present itself as a communist city. Outside the capital, though, secret policeman, state-operated enterprises and sole traders make a living – and sometimes a fortune – keeping the country moving among the remains of a communist economy which never delivered.

With thanks to Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange and Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours for helpful conversations.  

Michael Hill wants you to be his third twitter follower so you can see more versions of the Pyongyang transport map.