“The Parisian little belt” railway

With 14 miles of railway and 123 acres of greenery, it is a unique biodiversity in the French capital. Parisians cross it daily without even realising; it is barely noticed at the end of a road or next to a park, its rails overgrown with weeds. This is a rare urban space where nature has taken over.

Built between 1852 and 1869, the railway had its heyday during the Industrial Revolution carrying passengers and freight. It allowed one to travel around Paris in just an hour and a half, connecting the main train stations and refuelled the military munitions of Thiers. Then the Parisian metro arrived and it was soon forgotten. It has been in a partial state of abandonment since 1934 when public trains stopped serving the line and the final blow to the line came in 1993 when freight transportation was stopped. Since then only few special trains have travelled on these rails, with the exception of a small part in the West of Paris which is used as part of the overground RER C train line.

Today, despite access being officially prohibited, ‘the little Belt’ has become a hideaway for unusual Parisian lovers, graffiti artists and self-styled ‘cataphiles’ who like to take clandestine visits to underground Paris.

However, the approach of the municipal elections has woken up the ‘Parisian Little Belt’, the abandoned railway line in the middle of Paris where wild grass has taken the place of trains. A debate has begun about this railway which many believe has a rich potential; it was even open to the public on Saturday 28th September on the back of an election campaign.

The UMP candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet has called for this ‘magical place’ to be turned into a ‘cycle route’. She lamented: “it’s been 12 years the city has been promising something here. But as of yet, nothing has been done’.

The socialist Anne Hidalgo, in charge of town planning in Paris has made the ‘Little Belt’ her top priority since winter 2012. She wants to make it ‘a space for relaxing, walking and breathing’; her project is being heavily debated, since two-thirds of the line are in open air, while the rest is tunnelled.

The environmentalist candidate, Christopher Najdovski stresses the importance of keeping the ‘wild side’ of this ‘unique breathing space in the heart of Paris, which is really lacking in green open spaces’ – with just 3.9 m² of green space per inhabitant, a stark contrast with UNESCO’s recommended 10m2.