The development and urban planning of Marseille : top-down vers bottom-up approach

The development and urban planning of Marseille: top-down versus bottom up approach

By Manuel Rodríguez Brito (EnvIM Europe 2015)

Top-down approach in policy making can be defined as the implementation of policies from a central government’s perspective by establishing objective goals to tackle a given situation.
This approach implies a clear causal-effect framework where a particular action or decision (i.e. policy) should lead to a desired ‘rational’ outcome. Bottom-up approach acknowledges that subordinates (local agents, civil servants) in charge of  implementing a centrally planned policy might discretionally adapt it according to local circumstances and/or interests. The bottom-up approach takes into account the local conditions as well as the view and participation of key stakeholders (i.e. civil society) for policy planning and implementation (cf. source 1).
Marseille’s recent and current urban policies and development initiatives are a good example to study the interaction between these two theoretical policy-making and implementation approaches. Is the top-down approach democratically legitimate? Can top-down policies last without conflict? Could a bottom-up approach overcome risks of local cronyism, wellestablished lobby interests or inherent conflicts between local stakeholders? Does bottom-up approach prevent urban development and economic growth? Throughout some case studies in the city of Marseille, this article is intended to shed light on the constraints and opportunities of both approaches for policymaking and implementation.

Picture 1: Euromed 1 (yellow) & Euromed 2 (extension in red). Source:

The city of Marseille is now inserted in the Aix-Marseille-Provence Metropole in the logic of optimizing local and regional resources (including its specific fiscal system) in order to plan a more comprehensive project of economic development. This upgraded status by the central law MAPTAM in 2014 is an attempt towards a bottom-up approach of the governance in the region: increased prerogatives for local entities and greater administrative decentralization enable better-informed policies. There is currently a myriad of policy initiatives looking at the future of the city of Marseille having an impact in all sectors of the economy, environment and society.
The Euroméditerranée (Euromed 1: 1995-2015 & Euromed 2: 2016-2030) initiative falls within this trend as an example of a joint governance initiative between the national government and local entities. It was launched in 1995 within the framework of the Barcelona Process to renew the city from economic, social and cultural perspectives. The area of intervention has increased since 1995 and it now reaches 480 hectares of the city, including the most strategic areas: from the commercial harbor to the Old Port and the TGV station. The final goal of the different urban operations is to increase the attractiveness of the city for private investments while considering sustainable development principles. Euroméditerranée economic benefits are assumed to have a trickle down effect to Marseille citizens while balancing economic growth with environmental protection (M Franck GEILING - Directeur de l'Architecture de Urbanisme et du Développement Durable, EPA Euroméditerranée) . Furthermore, civil society participation and dialogue (i.e. concertation) is intended to be one of the pillars of Euroméditerranée, as the Barcelona Process stresses it out: the involvement of practitioners and civil society is essential for the success and sustainability of this type of actions.

Nonetheless, despite this bottom-up approach and the various instruments for dialogue, Euroméditerranée might lack the ability to bring civil society onboard. The private interests driving the project are significant: 70% of the EUR 7 billion estimated budget for the entire operation is private funding. The board, composed by representatives of public local, regional and national administrations, approves projects that are financed mainly by private funds. It might be logical that investors have a major influence on the board decisions regarding urban planning despite the policy effort for social dialogue. Actually, the twofold objective of projecting the city internationally while guaranteeing the social mix seems difficult to achieve. The urban model implemented by Euroméditerranée could not be achievable without increasing
social inequalities and excluding some part of the population from this project (i.e. high risk of urban gentrification with the presence of multinational corporations in the city center and the increase of real estate prices).
Euroméditerranée is not the only initiative trying to attract private investors and to work for Marseille’s economic competitiveness at international level. This vision is also crucial for the main pole of activity in the city: The Port of Marseille (PoM). The PoM is subdivided into two harbors: 1) Eastern Harbor (400 hectares) for general cargo and passengers and 2) Western Harbor (10.000 hectares, 70km from Marseille city center, at Fos-sur-Mer) for larger vessels, industry and logistics, chemicals and other economic activities.

The PoM is actually working on its own business identity and branding to attract more
international operators to establish in the area by offering them different advantages such as the diverse industrial activities and services. Within a context of decreasing refining activities, multiple environmental challenges in the area (high biodiversity concentration) and the energy transition opportunities, the PoM expects to become a reference in terms of innovation for industrial ecology. One of the examples is the PIICTO project (Industrial and Innovation Platform of Caban Tonkin) in the Western Harbor that focuses on identifying the different synergies between the industrial operators on the site to launch projects in circular economy, especially energy. PIICTO can be used as an example on how local actors sharing similar and
complementary challenges have taken the advantage of synergies for circular economy initiatives. This experience led by local operators could become a success story. Nevertheless, the Western Harbor faces two major challenges: potential risks and pollution generated by the industrial activities and the surrounding threatened biodiversity (proximity of the Camargue Natural Regional Park). Water management, circular economy and energy are at the core of the economic development strategies of the PoM but it is widely recognized the difficulties to integrate environmental measures (i.e. biodiversity conservation) into the equation according to the PIICTO representatives (M Frédéric DAGNET – Directeur de projet PIICTO Grand Port Maritime Marseille;  M. Sylvain PICHON – Chargé de mission, PIICTO Grand Port Maritime Marseille). These risks have obliged the PoM to implement ecologic compensatory measures to balance the damages already produced by the industrial activities.

Any decision at this level implies public and social dialogue (concertation). The success will greatly depend on how the implementer will adapt not only to local conditions but also to public opinion and social needs. The dilemma in this case is how to manage multiple conflicting uses and interests in a given territory. It is evident that a top-down approach is needed to regulate industrial activities, but would norms and regulations be enough to find a balance between economic growth, biodiversity strengthening and natural heritage conservation?

Some restrictive (and sometimes unpopular) measures have been applied to preserve biodiversity, to control pollution and to decrease degradation in the case of the Calanques National Park. This area has been transformed from a fully economically profitable zone (i.e. fisheries, heavy industry) to a protected area. Historically, there has been a multiplicity of uses in the Park, some of them persisting even nowadays although the status of National Park has allowed less pressure over certain species, especially fisheries. At the same time, there is an urgent need to find solutions for the soils polluted by the industries operating in the area some decades ago. Top-down policies have been one of the pillars to control anthropogenic pressure over the area (i.e. removing heavy industries and establishing the National Park status). Pressure
over the Mediterranean Sea and, thus, on the Calanques can be divided into 1)   physical impact (waste, extraction of materials, fond degradation); 2) chemical impact (rivers inflows, atmospheric fallout, accidental spills, dredging sediments) and 3) biological impact (overfishing, invading species, pathogens).

The Calanques National Park is a good example of the importance of an adequate governance to manage these impacts and the conflicting uses of one same area (including the coastline: 90% of the park is marine area) in the Mediterranean Sea. A new model for governance has also been explored in coastlines in the Mediterranean Sea in order to organize the territory with multiple actors, uses, and outcomes or to tackle conflicts on the use of the same space (energy vs fishing; biodiversity  conservation vs industrial and economic activities). According to Pôle Mer Méditerranée (M. Gilles Herrouin, Chargé de mission Pôle Mer Méditerrannée), European Directives have had a clear role to develop new ways of  management of the coastline. The Calanques National Park is established as a Local Governance Public Entity (Établissement public à gouvernance locale) and it is 90% financed by public funds (M. Francis Talin, Responsable du Pôle Sensibilisation & médiation culturelle du Parc National des Calanques). As an example of local governance, the Urban Community directly manages the marina, but this might also become a source of potential conflict as private local interests and customary practices can contradict the protection principles of the Park. Unlike the Euroméditerranée, the Park faces budget constraints but less pressure from private actors and its local governance enables better-informed decisions and continuous social dialogue. However, restrictive measures to control the access to the park to increase protection and revenues are neither feasible (the Park is porous) nor popular as it is widely used by Metropole inhabitants for leisure and economic activities. On top of that, there are two major challenges: the management of marine zones and the pollution issue (polluted soils, city sewers, red muds spills). For the time being, the local governance structure of the Park has allowed the operation of a water treatment plant in Cassis at the heart of the onshore area.

calanques national park

Picture 2: Calanques National Park map. Source:

Although the social opposition to this operating plant (technically outside the Park) is rising, this plant still treats sewers coming from 18 surrounding communes. Treated sewage is spilled directly into the protected marine areas (Calanque de Cortiou). Paradoxically, according to the Park representatives, this plant is perceived as the price to be paid for having bathing beaches in Marseille as well as one key element for the Calanques to become a pole for innovation and competitiveness. The question is whether this treatment plant can last within a context of increasing social  opposition and public awareness of potential risks. On top of that, the balance between different actors and uses remains unsolved and appropriate dialogue  mechanisms and governance are being explored.

Through these examples it is obvious that top-down and bottom-up approaches have both clear limitations to deal with inherent conflict in urban planning and sustainable development policies. Despite the effort to integrate social dialogue at the Euroméditerranée, the Calanques National Park and Port of Marseille initiatives, the instruments in place might be not sufficient to achieve the expected goals of these ambitious projects.
Therefore, is there any room for another type of public dialogue given this governance structure and financial resources of the mentioned initiatives? Are these projects  doomed to fail due to the lack of appropriate social dialogue instruments?
The initiatives implemented by the Groupement d’Interet Public Marseille Rénovation Urbaine (GIP MRU), with a deeper knowledge of the neighborhoods, prove the importance of public dialogue to successfully implement urban renovation projects. GIP MRU is commissioned to manage the projects co-financed by National Agency for Urban Renovation (ANRU) and other partners. GIP MRU manages EUR 1 billion to renovate 14 priority fragile neighborhoods (14 approved projects and 3 projects in the pipeline) in a city with high social inequalities and fragmentation. The urban fabric in Marseille is characterized by a patchwork of rent-controlled housing (HLM) and an impoverished city center. The main goals of these projects are to increase the attractiveness of some degraded neighborhoods, to avoid ghettos or gentrification, to improve infrastructure, equipment and mobility (M. François Binet, Directeur du GIP Marseille, Mme Sabine Couet, Directrice des affaires générales, M. Antoine Descleves, Chef de projet). However, these measures of  adjustment imply serious refurbishments, demolition and eventually relocation. Social cohesion is at the core of all these projects and implies continuous dialogue between all stakeholders. Among those projects, the Eco-quartier de La Soude – Hauts de Mazargues is an interesting example that goes beyond social dialogue by  integrating as well sustainable development principles into urban planning as part of the project, specially the link with the neighboring Calanques National Park and private sector actors that operate in the neighborhood. The Eco-quartier label is a worthy instrument guiding this kind of urban projects in order to raise awareness and visibility of these ‘success stories’ but it is difficult to assess the real impact and the replicating potential at a larger scale.

vue aérienne soude mazargues
Not only public-led labels (top-down) can raise public awareness on sustainable development. Some isolated initiatives at grassroots level that operate outside the government sphere can also shape the urban fabric in some impoverished neighborhoods and raise awareness about sustainable development and consumerism. The community-led association “La Cantine du Midi” focuses on sustainable food: privilege local (and eventually season) organic products and international products with a low carbon footprint. This local non-profit organization provides ‘home made’ food for members at a reasonable price and obtains additional benefits from catering services, which are reinvested to cover running costs. This ‘business’ model of consumption goes beyond a new way of catering services. It is an alternative way of life and consumption network that challenges the actual model of economic growth in industrialized countries. This association is just an example of many civil society initiatives that are arising and willing to operate outside the system by promoting sustainable principles that public administration is unable (or unwilling) to implement from the top.
One of the main challenges for each intervention for the present and future urban planning of Marseille is civil society active participation. The future of the city is multidimensional and extremely complex. Governance by decree is neither democratic nor popular and has a high political price (i.e. dockers in the harbor) although bottom-up approach can be often perceived more as a barrier rather than an asset for policy making and implementation.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that bottom-up approach is often used for urban planning, topdown policies (i.e. European Directives and Regulations) are not the opposite of the bottom-up ones. Both approaches can be complementary when the legal and policy frameworks are well defined. The bottom line idea is to decide when top-down and bottom-up approaches are more appropriate in each case and to find out which are the driving forces behind policy making and implementation: collective vs private interests, public vs private funding; economic growth vs environment conservation; local vs global.

Maps of Port of Marseille (Source:


Eastern Harbor Map

eastern harbor map


Western Harbor Map

western harbor map

PIICTO - Industrial and Innovation Platform of Caban Tonkin. Detail of INNOVEX project (Source: Source:


GIP Marseille Renovation Urbaine - Projects Map (

GIP marseille rénovation urbaine

La Soude – Hauts de Mazargues - detailed maps (Source:

La soude

parc de la jarre

baou de sormiou



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