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A romantic idea? Reimagining the Pont des Arts built with timber from a Partner Forest

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

Among urban boardwalks, few are more iconic than the Pont des Arts in Paris. With the wooden deck scheduled to be refurbished later this year, and France’s current focus on climate change and tropical deforestation, it is a good time to ask: Could The City of Light use its "world stage" to showcase the social and ecological benefits of a long-lasting, beautiful conservation timber from an African tropical forest?

If sourced directly from an exemplary social forest enterprise, each plank would tell the story of community stewardship, and could be sponsored by lovers of Paris, the bridge, or the rainforest. High standard certification, such as by the Forest Stewardship Council, would assure the City that the benefits would be well-documented, scalable, and widely understood. When the time came to replace this wood (35–50 years on), each old plank could be upcycled into an even more valuable object — furniture or artwork — for perpetual use. The Pont des Arts, already an international symbol of imagination, love and fidelity, could become a symbol of solidarity with global forests appropriate to the city of the Paris Agreement.

Refurbishing the wooden deck of the Pont des Arts could be an opportunity to support conservation timber from an African tropical forest. Photo: Stefan K. | Unsplash, Clara Hage | Le Parisien

The Partner Forest Program was based on this very concept and has promoted the idea of a Partner Forest for the Pont des Arts — une Forêt des Arts — for a long time. And it is not alone in this vision. The idea is now in the water, floated by people and teams closely attuned to Paris’ leadership on sustainability initiatives, particularly on sustainable wood and the conservation of tropical forests.

In early 2020, advocates for sustainable wood and community forestry worldwide were watching when France announced a plan to showcase timber for a low-carbon, sustainable built environment during the 2024 Olympics. Any Olympic construction project more than eight storeys must be built from timber, and at least 30% of timber used in construction of the Olympic Village must originate from mainland France.

Meanwhile, with the important goal of protecting tropical forests, tropical wood was excluded from the initiative. Thus, while the commitments to low-carbon construction and French forests were commended, they also raised questions about the meaning of sustainability in a globally connected and unequal world. What would be gained by categorically excluding forests of the Global South from such an opportunity for global showcase? Sustainably managed tropical forests are in dire need of financial support that enables forest stewardship and deflects deforestation, a process being driven by city-based demands for agricultural commodities. In West and Central Africa, for instance, communities are resisting the conversion of forests into palm oil plantations by international corporations.

The dream of cities built in solidarity with tropical forests is spreading around the world. Click for details of each project.

The Olympic ban on tropical woods thus became an important context for the Paris Initiative for the Conservation of Central African Forests, a conference hosted by the City of Paris in September 2021. A wide range of participants from Africa, Europe, America, and Asia, discussed the major issues related to the conservation of forests in many ways shaped by French colonial history: how best to protect biodiversity, transform the economy, adapt consumption, inhabit the forest, and endorse new practices. City representatives acknowledged their special role in helping to protect the forests that maintain planetary health and provision them with vital supplies. Conservation timber factored deeply in the exchange between local leaders from Central Africa and Paris.

Evidence that these important conversations were more than heard emerged recently in news that the Paris Olympics have opened the door for providers of sustainable tropical timber to bid on contracts. Optimism about this positive turn of events is tempered, however, by the knowledge that the tendering process is likely to be very onerous for many exemplary community forestry enterprises.

The Paris Initiative for Central African Forests gathered perspectives on conservation and sustainable forestry.

This is the raison d’être of the Partner Forest program. Its mandate is to help cities procure conservation timber for specific urban projects with strong sustainability values and streamline this procurement process. In the past, value has typically been defined in terms of “efficiency” of cost and time. We know full well that to redefine value to include social and ecological imperatives is not an easy task, but it is one that can be accomplished with vision, determination, and transparency applied to how cities do business.

Equally important is that Partner Forests engage the broader public in new forms of north-south and urban-rural connection. A Forêt des Arts would create a space for a new relationship between Parisians’ and tropical forests, and in a way fitting for a bridge that is already a monument to daring ideas. In 1801, when Napoleon Bonaparte issued a decree for its construction, he went against the opinion of two famous architects to demand that it be built with iron – a novel idea at the time, inspired by bridges in England. Bonaparte handed over the project to an engineer, Louis-Alexandre de Cessart, whose bridge immediately won the hearts of Parisians. Florists and ice cream vendors rapidly set up shop on the bridge to satisfy the promenaders.

That original bridge survived two world wars and many boat collisions before it became so fragile that it had to be dismantled. It was replaced in the early 1980s with a new bridge, reflecting updated construction paradigms, with seven arches instead of nine and built of steel. Since that time, the world has changed again. The bridge was last refurbished in 2002, when the city went with European white oak, introduced as an eco-friendly improvement over the existing tropical hardwood that had been traced to an over-extractive forestry enterprise in the Congo Basin. White oak, however, has limitations as a material for high-traffic outdoor uses, and the planks have become badly worn and decayed.

What has not changed is the place of the Pont des Arts in the cultural imagination. It may be a romantic idea, but not a hopeless one, that the power of that place could be used in the name of global forests and their stewards, to capture the hearts and minds of Parisians and the world all over again.

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