The Marseille Experience

The Marseille Experience

During the last two weeks we stayed in Marseille. We were able to get to know the second city of France and analyze the port-city relation. Although in terms of national importance the hegemony of Paris is undisputed, Marseille has developed along the centuries a strong identity. Nowadays aims to become the symbolical European capital of the Mediterranean Sea, a title to discuss with other port-cities, such as Genova, Valencia and mainly Barcelona. When we talk about this French city we must always have in mind the considerable dimensions of it, is the second city of France by extension and it plays an important role for the regional and national economy.

For the analysis of the city we worked following the same approach like in previous cases. We were able to visit the historic center, were the city has its roots as port-city, the expansion areas and the port territories, both in Marseille and Fos. As we mentioned in the last post, the port was the reason why this city was created, it has clearly influenced the evolution of the urban core and it has played a major role in its history. During our stay we were able to see several cultural institutions in charge of divulging the identity of the city. For example we can find the Museum of the roman docks or the Museum of the history of Marseille, where the evolution of the city is explained, from the Greek roots of Massalia to the XXth century. In its collection we can identify the role the port has played and how in some cases it has conditioned the urban development. Another relevant museum is the recently open MUCEM museum of the European and Mediterranean civilizations. This institution is very relevant for our research since is placed in what it used to be J4 area, a former port territory that was freed up during the Euroméditerranée operation. Finally we can also visit the Musée de la Marine et de l’Économie, where we will find a collection of maritime artifacts and ship models. This museum is placed in the Palais de la Bourse, where the chamber of commerce is based.

Vieux port, the original location of the port before the industrial expansion in the XIXth Century. Nowadays a marina of considerable size and one of the main tourist attractions. Author: José M P Sánchez
Vieux port, the original location of the port before the industrial expansion in the XIXth Century. Nowadays a marina of considerable size and one of the main tourist attractions.
Author: José M P Sánchez


For the development of the research was important to meet with the local stakeholders, in this case we met with Mr. Alexandre Sorrentino (AS), Director of Strategic Foresight and International Relations of Euroméditerranée. We also were able to speak with the persons in charge for the port-city relation of the Grand Port Maritime du Marseille (GPMM), more specifically with Ms. Régine Vinson (RV), Head of the City-Port Department and with Ms. Claire Hallé (CH), responsible for the partnerships and synergies of the same department.

We also tried to speak with the Agam (Agence d´urbanisme de l´agglomération Marseillese) but unfortunately we received no answer to our contacts.

The relation between the city and the port


In the case of Marseille the port still is a strong identity element, both in the urban structure and the collective memory. When we walk around the city we perceive the presence of the port, mainly in the older areas or near the cost. The influence that the maritime activities had in the formation of the city is clear. Many of the neighborhoods we find along the coast, that now are included in Marseille, used to be fisherman villages. In the city center one of the main leisure area is the Vieux-Port were the people meet and we find several restaurants and bars. Although this is clearly one of the main tourist attractions still is one of the main meeting points. At the same time many important landmarks, like the fortresses, are placed in the coast. What once used to be the city´s defense structures are now places to visit and to enjoy the view of the sea and the port.

In general terms the locals acknowledge the port as an important feature for their identity. In many families the previous generations were somehow connected to the port, when it used to employ hundreds of thousands instead of the 40 000 today (still though a considerable figure for the region). However most inhabitants have a bucolic image from the port, as it happens in other port cities. As RV mentioned, currently the majority of the locals do not know exactly how the ports works and the romantic view remains in the collective mind. At the same time the people demands more and better access to the water. Even if the current situation is better than previously, is not easy to cope with a closed area by the water. For this reason, among others, the public image of the port has been affected. If we consider that the jobs in the port decreased and that the majority of the port activities take place out of sight, we might understand that is difficult for the people to relate with the port.

Marseille is particular in this aspect since the relation of its inhabitant with the port might vary depending on the area of the city we study. The majority might have the watered image we described, but we can also find people, mainly in the north part of the city, that have a stronger opposition to the port. There are two main reasons for this difficult relation: (i)the fact that the port developed where several popular beaches were and(ii) that is in this area where we can find the majority industrial activities in port territories. Some of the local elderly people remember the previous state of the coast, before the port expanded its east basin. This clearly has an impact in the way they perceive the port, especially for the ones whose job or pension does not depend on the harbour activities. The second reason is probably the one that might harm the port image in the future the most, since the port location will not change. The recent Port-City charter, that manifests the institutional acceptation of the port in the urban core, says that this area will remain as the industrial core of the east basin. Therefore the focus will have to be putted in other soft strategies to find a way to improve the relation.

antes y despues
Coastline evolution.: beginning of the XIXth Century vs send of the XXth.

Finally we have to understand that the port of Marseille, as mentioned in the previous post, has two main locations, in Marseille and Fos. This two areas have very different characteristics regarding their activities, their scale and the way they relate with the territory and the local populations. We focused in the city area, the east basin, since the main focus of the research is the port-city relation and is also where we can find the most interesting challenges and the new strategies. However, the fact that the port is placed in two different areas and that in Fos, where approx. 95% of the port territory is, the expansion is apparently easier than in the urban tissue of Marseille, has given arguments to the port critics. They mention that the port could expand in Fos and disappear from Marseille. This reasoning clearly does not consider the characteristics of the port activities and the consequences it could have in terms of employment and urban development.


In order to better understand the relation we must first explain that the port of Marseille is different from the cases explained previously. In the European context we can find two main types of national organization regarding some major infrastructure like ports, centralized and decentralized. The ports we have analyzed so far were mainly city owned or the city had the leading role, mainly as shareholder in case it is an independent corporation. We could see this in ports like Rotterdam, Hamburg or Helsinki. This sort of state model is more common in the north/central European countries. In the southern countries we find a centralized model, where a state authority is responsible for the organization and control of the Seaports. This organization is more common in France, Portugal, Italy or Spain. In the current case we see that until very recently all ports remained under state control. This situation changed in 2008 and only the main ports considered of national importance remained under state control, changing their name to Grand Port Maritime, like Le Havre or Marseille. This change also meant the port evolved to more than the managing institutions; they changed to be the effective owners of the port territory. The port authorities gained a certain independence although always under the state control.

The different approaches regarding the national organization has, in many cases, conditioned the institutional relation between city and port authorities. When we spoke with the representative from the GPMM they told us that one of the difficulties they found was that the Municipality still sees often the port as something external to the city, a body that does not belong to them. This issue might possibly limit the city-port synergies that could be developed.

Regarding the institutional relation is also important to understand how the GPMM is managed. The port has two boards: the supervisory board and the development board. Both council are important for the port functioning but is the supervisory board the one that has decision making capacities. As we have said before the state is the main player in the GPMM, it has 5 out of 17 representatives in the main board. Besides the central government also the representatives from other territorial divisions, regional and municipal scales, have a sit in the board. Finally also the unions and several professionals with know-how relevant for the port are represented. Besides the boards there is also a managing team in charge of the operational duties in the port. The complexity of the port happens also in the territorial level in which it has to relate with up to nine groups of municipalities, each one demanding presence in the boards and looking out for its own interests. This universe of stakeholders and different bodies hinders a possible fluid relation with the different municipalities and at the same time adds complexity to the negotiation process and strategic vision. When we speak about major infrastructure a general vision is needed, the coordination between short term and long term strategies is crucial as it is that every player in the different level understands its role in the development process. In January 2016 another institution, the Métropole de d’Aix-Marseille-Provencewill start working to rule the Aix-Marseille metropolis in several topics.This new organization might give the GPMM the opportunity to discuss to on a larger territorial scale. The development of the port will be one of the arguments to study by the new institution, but the port governance will remain with the current management model, led by the state. In the near future we shall see if this new organization can improve the coordination or if it will add confusion to the current situation.

When we study major ports that affect a large territory, as is the case of the GPMM , we might have to choose to focus the analysis in one of the several concerned cities. In this case the obvious choice was Marseille. The port also has to prioritize the municipalities that are more relevant for its operation. Marseille and Fos are obviously the ones the port has to related more. Regarding the institutional relation between the city and the port in the case of Marseille, we can say that in last 20 years there has been a considerable evolution. All the interviewees agreed that since 1995 the relation has changed but also that there is space for improvement. We can identify two main stepping stones in this process, the Euroméditerranée plan and the City-Port Charter.

Marseille and GPMM East basin before the Euroméditerranée Source: Euroméditerranée presentation
Marseille and GPMM East basin before the Euroméditerranée
Source: Euroméditerranée presentation

Both elements here mentioned will later be described in further detail. It is important to realize that the Euroméditerranée operation is an ongoing process since 1995 that created a framework for the second element, the City-Port Charter. The main characteristic of both is the cooperation between several institutions with different priorities and goals, in some cases almost incompatible from an initial point of view. It is also important to notice that a certain pressure from the state was needed in order to impulse the project that later on would create the context for the charter.


Marseille was at the beginning of the 1990´s a city with many problems. The traditional port related industries had suffered with the several crisis of the second half of the XXth century and the shipyards were struggling with the competition of the eastern rivals. The typical industries of the region no longer were providing the jobs they used to and the unemployment rate was particularly high when compared with other French cities. At the same time the investment in the city was decreasing what gave as result a degraded urban environment. The city gained fame for being unsafe and the population was decreasing. One of the main issues was also the fact that the development model of the city was not updated to cope with the change in the industry. The education rates, regarding professionals with higher studies, was poor when compared with other French cities (still is nowadays). There were no real alternatives to the industry that used to be there. This issue can also be observed in other port-cites, in which the port was the job creator. When the crisis hits these cities the adaptation period is critical and very often the port workers, who have work in the port for generations, are the first victims. For centuries the work in the port did not required any sort of high-education. This meant they were particularly exposed to the shifts in the economic situation. Nowadays the reality has changed and more often the ports need qualified staff, which is sometimes hard to find.

We have to consider that for a country the size of France it can be very problematic to have its second urban agglomeration in a precarious state. It’s the first port of the nation and it should work as counterpart to balance the territorial development outside Paris.

The state, along with the municipality, decided to stablish a plan to reactivate the city. The strategy was focused on the urban redevelopment of specific areas near the city center and the waterfront. The operation was named Euroméditerranée, somehow expressing the subjective goal of redeveloping the city into a symbolic capital of the Euromed region. The project was considered an operation of national interest and a specific urban planning agency was established. The goals were mainly three: (i) to lead an urban renewal operation with an initial public investment and a clear strategy;(ii) to transform the public lead into a real estate and economic development, working with the private investors but under the rules established by the public organization and, finally, (iii) to improve the international image of the city, that had been seriously affected in the previous decades.

The organization, established in 1995, was led by the state but also included the city of Marseille, the Urban Community, the County Council and the Regional Council. Besides the main goals quoted before, one of the other purposes of the plan, as pointed out by AS, was to improve the relation between the city and the port. As mentioned before, the plan includes acting in port territory, therefore the cooperation between the different entities was necessary. The majority of the land the Euroméditerranée considered were industrial or railway brownfields. The exception was the area in the waterfront that belonged to the GPMM and, as it was stated by the RV, it was an active part of the port, therefore the negotiation was needed.

The urban renewal operation has a significant scale, is considered to be one of the main regeneration projects in Europe. Besides waterfront land another areas within the urban core were considered, like the Rue de la Republique, the railway station St Charles and industrial buildings in its surroundings. In the image we can see the main figures of the plan. It is also important to clarify that the goal of the project is not the gentrification of the area. Although some of the new buildings can be considered of high standards with expensive rents, the operation also includes 25% of housing with controlled pricing.

Main figures of the Euroméditerranée Source: Euroméditerranée presentation

Finally another important aspect is the financing of the project. The Support of the state is crucial in order make it viable, being in charge of 50% of the initial investment. The acquisition of the land is also made by a state agency, the établissement public foncier (EPF). The Euroméditerranée organization is in charge of managing the process between the land acquisition and the private development. The goal of the company, formed by several public partners, is not to make profit but to manage the operation and reinvest the gains in the city. The economic has proven successful since it has developed cautiously without creating an excess of plots for new buildings, or jeopardizing the operation during the crisis years. At the same time the new projects, whether they are for office or housing, are only allowed to proceed if they can assure the occupancy. This is also important since its avoids the creation of empty construction and the existence of negative degradation spirals.


When we asked the interviewees about the first phase of the negotiations both agreed that there were some initial difficulties. AS explained that there was a general misunderstanding about the scope of the Euroméditerranée. Many people and institutions thought that the goal was to push the port out of the city in order to get the access to the water and build several private marinas. This idea was also taken by the unions that fully rejected the plan even with protest, since it was seen as a threat to the port activities and, therefore, their jobs. RV and CH explained that for them was also not easy to explain the project to the port community since they also perceived the project as menace to their business. In an initial stage, as pointed by AS, the port was reticent to collaborate.

The new project demanded a serious reflection about the role of the port in the city. This necessary change in the general mindset happened along the negotiation process, particularly when the state directly pressured for an understanding. The agreement, in the early 2000´s, was only possible when the port administration and the port community were aware of the possible positive outcome. The deal was that the port territories would remain under their control, the industrial part of the port would remain active and that the other involved actors acknowledged the important role of the port in the urban economy. Another important factor was the fact that a solution was founded, which would allow the coexistence of certain port activities and urban ones. The port on his side should do two main things: first it should leave the space for the creation of the new boulevard du Littoral; second it should give the J4 quay for the development of the MUCEM and Villa Méditerranée. In exchange for the J4 area the port had to make a landfill and change the coast line nearby, between the J3 and J2.

City-Port Charter

The agreements aforementioned improved the cooperation and led to interesting mixed use projects and the City-Port Charter. This document, signed in 2013, was mainly the crystallization of the negotiation process described. One of the most positive aspects of this document is the fact is an official agreement, signed by eight stakeholders: the State (Bouches du Rhône prefecture) GPMM, Euroméditerranée, the PACA region, the county, the metropolitan area, The city of Marseille and the chamber of commerce. For this reason the compromise is clearer and stronger than other initiatives. In this new statement the importance of the port in the urban and regional economy was acknowledge and a commitment was made to respect its presence in the urban core, its East basin.

The City-Port Charter meant also the reorganization of the East basin until the year 2025 towards a new more compatible urban port. The port territory in Marseille was divided in three main areas: North, Center and South. In the North part, from the fishing dock until L´Estaque, the waterfront would be rearranged into a pole of leisure and tourism. The existing marinas would be maximized and some leisure facilities created. In the central area the industrial activities of the port would be respected and it would remain as closed area with no public access. The shipyards activities would be expanded with the reopening of the dry-dock 10, closed during recent years. The south part of the port would be dedicated to develop projects that allow compatible uses with the city. This change should allow a greater porosity and better access to the sea, although only visually. Example of this strategy are the Terrase du Port or Silo d´Arenc. Simultaneously the passenger and ferry activities within port territories would be reorganized. The terminals for the ships coming from countries outside the Schengen area would be placed in the central part and the ones coming from the EU would be relocated in the south part, where they could allow an easier access towards the sea.

South part of the East Basin, where the relation between the port and the city will change the most Source: Euroméditerranée presentation



Representative projects of the new era

In the south part of the east basin, where the port and the Euroméditerranée meet is where we see some of the most innovative buildings of the plan, that represent the new stage of the relation between the actors.

Main projects in the Euroméditerranée waterfront area Source: Euroméditerranée presentation


One of the first project of this group to be built was the Silo d´Arenc, placed in the north end of the first phase of the Euroméditerranée. This industrial building was reconverted into a concert hall with 2000 places and office area (4000 m2). In the ground floor the port activities continue to work, mainly allowing the cross traffic in the area. The ownership remains from the GPMM, although the majority of the investment, 30 mill€ out of 42, was made by the City of Marseille. The inside of the Silo has been rented to a partner for 50 years and since its opening in 2011 it has become one of the main concert venues in the city.

Silo d´Arenc Source:
Silo d´Arenc


The warehouse area formerly known as the J4 was one of the places where major modifications happened. This waterfront location placed in the south corner of the Euroméditerranée next to the Fort Saint-Jean was given to the city in exchange of a compensation in order to develop a new cultural pole and to give to the fortress a more noble context. In this area we can now find the MUCEM (museum of the European and Mediterranean civilizations) and the Ville Méditerranée, an International Centre for Dialogue and Discussion in the Mediterranean. Besides the new cultural facilities and rehabilitation of the fortress, the city has also gained an access to the sea. This is a very relevant aspect since from the vieux-port until L´ Estaque in the north the access to the water for the citizens is block by the port infrastructure.

MUCEM Source: Euroméditerranée presentation
Source: Euroméditerranée presentation

Terrasses du Port

Near the square of La Joliette a new mall has been developed. The particular feature of this building is the fact that allows the coexistence of the port activities under the commercial area, without compromising either of them. It opened in May 2014 with 52 000 m2 of commercial areas, 13 000 of terraces and 3000 parking places. The ground floor, excluding the entrance of the mall, is dedicated to the ferry terminal and existing port traffic, as well as the area for the passenger boarding near the quay. The project has been developed with a long term contract with the firm Hammerson. A call for proposal took place and the firm foruminvest won the bid who later would sell the project to current developer.

Terrasses du Port Source:
Terrasses du Port


The last building in the waterfront to be developed is the J1, a warehouse near the Place de la Joliette. This construction has already hosted temporary exhibition during the year 2013 when the city was the European capital of Culture. Since then the future of it is not clear. According to AS the decision about this building should have been reached some years ago, but so far the port has not agreed with the proposals that arrived, from possible partners such as the municipality. In the past it  was considered to relocated the port headquarters. Nowadays the GPMM is working to launch a new call for proposals for the building, following a similar scheme like in the previous cases. Regarding the physical configuration it should allow the coexistence of both port and urban uses, although the priority would be given to activities related with the maritime economy.

J1 Warehouse Source:
J1 Warehouse

 Second Act

The Euroméditerranée perimeter was expanded in the year 2007 towards the north. There are several differences when compared with the first part of the plan. In this new stage the port territories are not directly affected, therefore the negotiation between the institutions is less intensive. Another key difference is the fact that for this part they will have to cope with existing industries and there are local inhabitants that actually live within the perimeter. In the first phase the majority of the operation took place in brownfield, as we have already seen, with no need of affecting local population. This added difficulties will require a new approach. AS explained that they will work more in a small scale and the dialogue with the locals will be more active in order to allow a better transition and to accommodate the local interests. Also the financing of the project will be different. If in the first the state has been responsible for 50% of the funds, in this second stage this share will be reduced to approximately 20%. The program to develop will also be more focus in housing than in the first phase, during which the priority has been office area, public space and leisure and cultural facilities. Some housing project have also been built but it was not the main concern.

In the second act one of the most interesting aspects will be the development of the Mediterranean eco-city project. This plan will build housing units using what AS defined as “Low cost easy tech project”, so that high sustainable standards are reached without forcing big changes in the Mediterranean lifestyle. Another key project will be the Parc des Aygalade, which will take the place of the current Gare du Canet, a railway terminal for cargo. This infrastructure, necessary for the logistic operations related with the port, will be redeveloped combining it with the existing one in Mourepiane in port territory, to be later finally Terminal de Transport Combiné de Mourepiane . This change will not just replace one terminal but combine the two existing ones and improve the logistic chain, stimulating the rail traffic. For the port though, as mentioned by RV and SC, it might create problems with neighbors since it will intensify the industrial activity of the area. As we have seen the communities placed near the industrial port are probably the most critical towards the port location. New efforts will be necessary for the relation with this part of the city.

Euroméditerranée act 2 Source:
Euroméditerranée act 2

Coexistence strategies

In order to have a healthier relation with the inhabitants, the GPMM has developed a series of workshops where they try to explain the current development projects and listen to the complains of the locals. This has been one of the main coexistence actions the port has developed. The GPMM is aware that they have, as most ports, a relative negative image among the population. The communication strategies are improving slowly, however, the port community needs to understand that, if before there was no need to explain what they were doing, the situation has changed and now, in order to be accepted by the public, a certain transparency is required.

During the last years there used to be an open doors day, but apparently this initiative has ceased because of the economic impact it had. In other terms the cooperation with schools and universities continues, organizing visits and participating in workshops, for example from the architecture faculty.

In the present moment there is a small information center about the port in Fos, but we were not able to find it. In the future we might see a proper Port-center, what could give a significant boost to the public perception of the port.

The issue of public relation with the locals is also very relevant for the Euroméditerranée organization. AS explained us that initially the operation was better known outside Marseille than in the city itself. As we mentioned, during the first years of the project many thought it was a private operation that would end up gentrifying the area. This view changed mainly when the people started to see results, in 2013. Since then the public acceptance has increased.

Personal Opinion

The case of Marseille shows several strategies that have brought positive results for both the port and the city. Probably the most relevant issue for the ongoing investigation is the fact that the interaction in institutional terms has given a great leap towards the future. If twenty years ago the relation was harsh or inexistent, now we see that there is a serious commitment for a positive synergy. The existence of a document specifically focus in the relation between city and port and signed by all the stakeholders is a good example and could be followed by other cities. The Euroméditerranée operation meant a new beginning for this issue and presented the opportunity to reflect about it. Is very positive that the initial reluctance was overcome and an agreement was achieved.

The urban regeneration plan has proved to be very effective and with positive outcomes. Although the first phase still is ongoing at the moment, we see that the city has gained several important new places where it can relate with the sea. The projects before mentioned are good examples of alternative approaches to the necessary mix of functions in port-cities. The implementation of these new facilities are the result of the aforementioned negotiation process.

In this article we have focused in the urban interventions, but there are also several other initiatives by the GPMM regarding the relation with the territory and the environment worth knowing. For example the project Climeport, the geothermic central or the GIREL program. All these initiatives can be seen in the Guide of good practice from the AIVP.

Regarding the communication and the use of soft values, is where we think greater improvements could be done. If the port is aware of its relative negative image, it should consider developing a more effective strategy towards better explaining itself. Although is clear that the port is an important part of the identity of the city, it could be positive if it invested in a closer public image. The goal is not to have people walking around the containers but to pursue a larger identification of the inhabitants with the port and port community. The soft values, as we have mentioned in other posts, are an important asset for the port-city synergies and in the case of Marseille they could be better explored. The possible new port-center in the J1 warehouse could improve the relation. It has an appropriate location, in the city center but inside the harbour, and the context helps to understand the current and past importance of the port.

We look forward to know how the first stage of the Euroméditerranée will end and how will the second act develop. Marseille was identified by the French geographer C. Ducruet as a Maritime city, along with Lisbon and Izmir, according to the role they have in national structure and the importance of their port in the international logistic chains. These cities share several characteristics; we shall see if they can share solutions.