Is Paris really that dirty? A candid answer from a Paris local

Essays, Slow Paris

Be it visitors, or Parisians, or French people from outside Paris, everyone seems to have gotten the memo that Paris is dirty city, apparently. Some headlines about the sanitation levels in Paris reads as follows,

‘Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe’

‘Trashed Paris’: Is the French capital dirtier than ever?

These are just two of the many that represent Paris’ dismal reputation when it comes to sanitation.

The first time I encountered the suggestion of Paris being anything but beautiful, was via a scene with Carrie Bradshaw in the HBO show Sex and the City. The scene happens in the penultimate season. Btw if you haven’t seen the show yet, and don’t want spoilers, well, it doesn’t count seeing as the show is over 20 years old.

So yes Carrie leaves New York City and moves to Paris for love. She meanders around Paris doing Parisian things, i.e. looking forlorn while wistfully walking through scenic Parisian cityscapes.

In very Carrie-esque style, she wears Manolo Blahnik (a brand of high-heeled shoes in case you didn’t know). Having already been scoffed at by snooty shop-keepers, and brushed off by rude French people, right when the Parisian experience couldn’t get any worse for her, she steps on a steaming pile of dog poop. Carrie looks down at her shoe in horror as the camera zooms in on the mess. She frantically tries to wipe it off with a napkin, then tries to clean it under a water fountain: all this, while being framed against the majestic Parisian landscape. The beauty of Paris turning melancholic and then almost cruel, symbolising the loneliness Carries feels in her relationship.

For some audiences, the scene epitomised Carrie’s conflicted feelings for her boyfriend and a foreign land, while for others, it epitomised the realities and risks of walking around Paris.

Carrie Bradshaw step on a pile of dog poop in Paris
Carrie Bradshaw stepping on a pile of dog poop in Paris! Yikes!

But is Paris really that dirty?

Decades after I watched the show, this scene is still the first thing on my mind when I read anything related to cleanliness in Paris or about Parisians and their dogs.

This was before I learnt of a real phenomenon called ‘Paris Syndrome’, which refers to the psychological shock and disappointment that some people face upon visiting Paris and finding out that the reality of the city is very different from their expectations.

With TV, social media, movies and now Emily in Paris presenting an extremely romanticised idea of what Paris is, it is but normal to have a warped idea of what the city of lights is like. I love Paris, and though it is my favourite place in the whole world, it’s not always rosy to live here. At the same time, it’s not all terrible. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

As someone who has called Paris home for the last couple of years, here’s my candid take on the question of whether Paris is as dirty as its reputation. Read ahead to find out what you can realistically expect when you come to Paris.

Density of people

Paris is a very densely populated city with over 2.2 million inhabitants and millions of tourists visiting every year. In fact, in 2022, Paris received more than 30 million tourists! You can imagine what kind of pressure that would put on any city.

Also, Parisians seem to be forever-grappling under the dust and grime of the never-ending 10001 construction and renovation projects everywhere. But that’s also to be expected in a city as old as Paris. The impending Paris olympics 2024 has exacerbated the problem. The whole city feel like it is under construction right now.

Paris streets with Parisian buildings in the background
Paris 11eme streets in early summer

Pollution and litter can be an issue in certain areas. Also with so many people using public transportation regularly, things can get a bit….ahem….let’s say, funky. But ultimately, I’d say, its not so serious!

But there’s lots to celebrate. In the last couple of years, Paris has also gone on a green wave. Recent renewal project have seen the government planting lots of new trees, and earmarking places where further greenery shall be expanded.

The city has successfully implemented the 15-minute-city model. This puts people and their access to city at the heart of urban planning. The fundamental idea is to have lesser cars, shorter (less than 15 minute) commute via walking or bikes to access green spaces, work or even grocery stores. Paris has also been working on making the city of love more and more bike-friendly.

Dog-poop: Do Parisians not pick up after their dogs?

One of the very first topics I learnt to complain about in français was crotte de chien. It literally translates to dog-poop, and yes, this is a real problem.

Of course, it’s not all dog-owners. As with everything else, it takes a small minority not doing their part and cleaning up after their pets, to give an entire city a bad reputation. Someone should start a podcast asking people why they do not pick up after their pets? I’d love to find out, really!

The city has attempted to tackle the issue by implementing fines for those who do not pick up after their dogs. Paris has also installed more waste bins throughout the city. However, the problem persists, and visitors to Paris should watch their step to avoid ending up like Carrie.

A dog owner entering the park at Le square du Vert-Galant, île de la cité, Paris
A dog owner entering the park at Le square du Vert-Galant

Smelly streets

This here is also a fact: that many streets in Paris smell. Whoever described Parisian streets as ‘urine-soaked,’ was not exaggerating. It doesn’t happen everywhere but if you spot an empty-ish, darkly-lit lane, especially off a bar-filled lively street, you better get your olfactory system ready for the onslaught.

Even installation of public urinals have not been able to combat this issue.

I once saw a home-owner in Montmartre frantically admonishing two women because one of them peed in the apartment entryway. This was drama I wasn’t expecting on my way to brunch on a Sunday morning! The building’s front-door was not visible from the road, making it prime urinating spot for the women. They didn’t account for the residents spotting them, I suppose.

It was only my second week in Paris and I was shook! Unfortunately, it was only a precursor to the things I have seen since (stories for another time).

But as I said before, 700+ toilets and urinals have been installed everywhere in Paris. These are not only free to use but have also been made disabled-friendly. In case you find yourself looking for a toilet while visiting Paris, here is a GPS map of Paris’ toilettes publiques.

Rats in Paris

If you are from a huge city, you are probably already familiar with these city-dwellers. Parisian rats don’t have as big of a reputation as New York rats, but they’re doing their best to climb up on the totem pole. Boulevards, parks and apartments, no public space have been spared by these city-slickers.

But usually, during the day, they lay low. A huge plan to control the rat population in in the French capital was implemented in 2017. This included steps such as limiting rats’ access to garbage or waste food by covering all trash containers and bins, reducing spaces where they can nest, and penalising people for improperly disposing of food. Like all big cities in the world, Paris’ rat problems seem here to stay for now.

I have yet to hear of anyone who has been injured by rats in Paris. You might spot one or two scurrying across the street while walking back home at night.

Montmartre streets in spring with people walking
Montmartre streets in spring

Final verdict: Is Paris a dirty city?

Paris is a dreamy place, but even dreamy places are populated by real humans producing garbage and waste.

But no, Paris is not a dirty city per se.

Could Paris be dirtier than your hometown or city? Yes of course. But if you compare it to any other similarly sized city, while controlling for factors such as density, tourists, or the fact that it is the economical and commercial capital of France, you will find that it might fare just as badly as other busy cities.

Like any big city, it has its share of cleanliness challenges but most of the time, the garbage gets picked up on time, the streets are cleaned and washed at regular intervals, the boulevards and parks are pruned and kept looking beautiful all year round.

Paris metro, though old, and sometimes dirty and smelly, generally works very efficiently. It is very affordable, regular, and everyone uses it. You can get from one end of Paris to the other, fast and for under €2.5. What’s not to love!

Yes, Paris could most definitely be dirtier than where you come from, and there is always scope for improvement. But ultimately, any city is dynamic, and not a static entity incapable of change. With the Olympics game fast approaching, we have see cleanliness and sanitation efforts in Paris been ramped up.

Even with the at-time-questionable sanitation and hygiene, Paris has the best to offer in terms of art, culture, architecture and gastronomy. And for me, these merits of this incredible city far outweighs the negatives.

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