One day is not enough to see the city;
It’s shifting and it’s changing in a Marseille way
It’s a place that’s just the rugged side of pretty!
Take plenty of time here to absorb Marseille
One word is not enough to define it
Gaze upon its wonders as you sail around the bay
Then attempt to just encompass and refine it;
Calling it a ‘melting pot’ doesn’t help Marseille
It’s more subtle and complex and vital:
Music, history, languages: different ways to say
What the story is if Marseille is the title.
It’s a city where life is always lived beyond the full;
It’s the other side of boring and a world away from dull!
Ian McMillan, Poet-in-Residence
Multi-level cooperation to develop city Plan
Select priorities to maximise potential
Tackling challenges via effective partnerships
Using culture and heritage as an economic driver
Widen your sphere of influence
As a trading port Marseille has always absorbed a myriad of goods, people and influences, especially from Eastern and South East Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. As the city grew, long-established villages that had grown around steep inland hillsides outside of the original city walls, each with their own distinct identities, were increasingly absorbed into its boundaries. The city’s economic fortunes fluctuated until the 18th Century, when a successive combination of improved defences, French colonial expansion and the opening up of trade to the Indian Ocean via the new Suez Canal, propelled immense growth and prosperity. Much of the city’s distinct urban fabric and cultural assets, such as the beautiful Haussmann boulevards, derive from this period. Liberalism and non-conformity, as demonstrated by the city’s key role in the French Revolution, run deeply through the city’s psyche.
Marseille’s role as a major world port, combined with political and economic instability elsewhere, saw major inward migration, notably from Italy (from where over one third of Marseillais can trace their roots), and a Jewish diaspora which is now the 3rd largest Jewish community in Europe. In the 1960s another economic boom and the influx of over a million ‘pieds-noirs’ from former French colonies in North Africa created another population boom and a further dimension to the city’s multicultural dynamic. Today over 20% of the population was born outside of ‘metropolitan France’, mostly Maghreb countries, and almost 20% are of an Islamic faith, with almost 40% of under-18s of Maghrebian origin. Its long role as a cultural melting pot gives Marseille an open-mindedness and clear differentiation from the rest of France.
However, the port and its key strategic location in Europe meant that in the Second World War Marseille was badly bombed and then ransacked by occupying forces. Post-war reparations saw an immense amount of social housing having to be built quickly wherever there was space to accommodate those left homeless or left in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The city’s economic and population boom in the 1950s and 60s saw huge estates of ‘grand ensembles’ – massive residential blocks and towers with individual blocks of up to 2000 individual units – built to accommodate these new residents, increasingly on the less-developed outskirts of the city, far from the city centre.
In the 1980s a combination of increased trading competition from the Far East, social upheaval and frequent major strikes, and the growth in cargo-ships beyond the port’s capacity, led to serious decline of the fortunes of the port and the city. Unemployment rates climbed to 20%, and the population fell to under 800,000, with those who could afford to leave doing so. The poorest in society and newer immigrants suffered most, with many isolated in the mass social housing on the outskirts of the city, cut off from the few economic opportunities there were. Crime and violent social unrest mushroomed, and the city’s reputation plummeted.
1995 was a turning point for Marseille. A change of political leadership led to the establishment of ‘Euroméditerranée’, an urban renewal programme for 480ha of derelict inner city port areas – at the time the largest urban renewal project in Europe. This was the first time that local, regional and national governments had agreed to work together within a single structure, and the benefits of this were quickly apparent. By the mid-2000s unemployment rates had dropped to 14% and the people had started to move back to the city. GDP has grown to €25,997 per capita, which, whilst still slightly lower than OECD and national averages, is a significant improvement. Major structural change has seen the service sector, notably professional services, replace industry and manufacturing as the predominant economic generator.
Having said that, the port is still the 5th largest in Europe, adding €3.5 billion to the regional economy and supporting 43,500 jobs; its strategic importance is underlined by the fact that it is the largest gateway for petroleum in the Mediterranean. In addition, the city has recognised the latent potential of its universities, and is actively working to exploit the second-largest concentration of research scientists in France. This is helping to drive public-private R&D and growth in new and innovative sectors (eg. digital media, ‘green’ technologies, etc). As a result, Marseille has created more businesses (7,200) in the last decade than any other city in France.
More recently, a 10-year Plan agreed by a new local, regional and national agency partnership for the entire Marseille area, ‘Marseille Rénovation Urbaine’ (MUR), will provide a focus for over €1 billion of investment in 14 priority areas, including the worst-performing of the peripheral post-war residential areas. Most impressively, the Plan is protected by law and cannot be changed without 100% consensus, making it much more robust to political short-termism.
The city’s status of European Capital of Culture in 2013 has been highly significant, providing an immovable target by which to deliver major cultural, transportation and social investment. More importantly, the experience of winning and then hosting Capital of Culture has returned a sense of pride amongst all Marseillais; its subsequent widely-acclaimed success, with visitor numbers much higher than anticipated as host, has augmented the belief that Marseille can and is changing for the better. The parallels with the experiences of Barcelona with the 1992 Olympics are striking.
But severe socio-economic challenges remain in Marseille. Even though unemployment rates have dropped to around 15%, they are still a third higher than the national average. Unemployment in the under-25s is a particular issue, with rates up to 40% in some neighbourhoods, and particularly high rates in youths of Maghrebian origin. The correlation between the poorly-performing neighbourhoods and those with high proportions of immigrant residents is high. An estimated quarter of Marseille’s population live below the official poverty line. The most challenging statistic for the municipality is that 50% of the city’s residents earn insufficient income to have to pay tax. Connectivity between areas of economic need, notably the outlying ‘grand ensembles’, and areas of economic opportunity needs to be improved, as does poor post-war urban structure, building design and stock condition. Strong social cohesion, supported by intercommunity forums like Marseille Espérance, has led to relatively limited social and inter-ethnic unrest, particularly in comparison to other major French cities, but there is still a significant problem with gangs, organised crime and drugs.
However, the transformation the city has achieved over the past 10-15 years, given the scale of issues it faces, is hugely impressive. The new city motto of ‘Ma ville accélère’ (‘my city fast-tracked’) encapsulates the desire for positive change for all layers of society) – something which appeals to the strong affinity the citizens have with their city and embodies the intention to make sure that economic and social benefit is for all layers of Marseille’s society. The combination of rejuvenation of existing areas and industrial heritage assets such as Vieux Port, Le Silo, La Vieille Charité and La Joliette, plus new projects such as MUCEM and FRAC PACA, have boosted its attractiveness for both visitors and potential new residents. Planned projects as ‘EuroMed 2 Eco-Cité’, a new exemplar environmental neighbourhood on a 30ha brownfield site, demonstrate the city’s determination to create new quality benchmarks and socio-economic opportunities.
Proactively positioning itself as a leading Mediterranean city has opened the door to opportunities and boosted the city’s sphere of influence beyond Europe. The city recognises it still has an issue with image, both within France and outside, but it now has the belief to tackle this proactively.