8 March 2012

Marseille – An Integrative Model for Inner-City Social Housing?

Unlike other French cities, Marseille’s socio-spatial structure is distinctively different from a prevailing concentric centre-banlieue urban landscape with outwardly growing poverty, crime, and social segregation. Might this specific socio-spatial distribution be a model to diminish social tensions?
In the hometown of Corbusier’s famous first machine for living the geographical situation as the closest harbour for North-African immigration caused high demands in housing supplies. Therefore, and also as a consequence of vast bombings during WW II, numerous grands ensembles (housing estates) and housing blocks had to be erected in the city in the second half of the 20th century. As a result the whole cityscape is interspersed with huge concrete estates and tower blocks.
View on Old Harbour (left) and the Belsunce district. Image by SYNCHRONICITY
For years, especially up to the late 1970s, the city has struggled with frictions and inequalities that frequently have erupted in violent riots, mainly due to the cities heterogeneous population structure. In less then a decade, the city lost around 10% of its population through migration to suburbs and other cities in the Provence as a direct result of uncontrolled violence. For years the control of violence and crime has been a top agenda for Marseille’s ruling politicians. Astonishingly, violent riots in their grand ensembles in the last years were few compared to the rest of the country’s big cities. Reasons for this might be manifold.
Local politics argues that one limiting effect on further street riots might be the fact that the city’s economy is steadily growing since the 1990s and new industries settle down in the Mediterranean harbour city. Furthermore the government is undertaking huge investments in regeneration projects and new developments such as the huge EuroMéditerranée project. The later involves regenerating previously derelict parts of the inner city inducing processes of gentrification and erecting a new seaside district close to the old harbour. Thereby the city is following a well-known script of large-scale urban regeneration: ‘building a city within a city’, establishing a multifunctional new quarter with offices, homes, commerce, recreational and cultural facilities. Thereby they are relying on expressive architectures by well-known architects such as Fuksas, Hadid, Nouvel, and Boeri.
Nevertheless, as with any other comparable urban renewal projects, these efforts might not be reducing inequality. I would argue that social tensions are fewer in Marseille than in any other French city because of its socio-spatial structure. On a recent visit to Marseille I could witness that on the one hand the social housing blocks are spread all over the city, be it in the centre or further out. On the other hand, what is also very distinctive and different from other cities is that these blocks are not surrounded by a ill-defined  semi- or quasi-public space usually in the form of a poorly maintained lawn, but they are interlocked with the surrounding urban fabric. Therefore their ground level creates urban qualities that tower-on-the-lawn-typologies are not able to maintain. Hence, these structures enhance an integration of less-affluent population in the inner city districts not only through their distribution but also through their ground-level integration.  Arguably the Marseille example, might be a model to overcome the prevalent structures of ghettoizing the poor on the city’s fringes and allows for a more heterogeneous socio-spatial distribution that consequently also reduces social tensions. 
Inner-city social housing in the Belsunce district with activated ground level. Image by SYNCHRONICITY