IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2006


Panorama : The Mediterranean Year


The Great Challenges of Mediterranean Cities

Jean-Claude Tourret

General Delegate
Institut de la Méditerranée, Marseille

On November 25th, 2005, the city of Barcelona organised a «Conference of Euro-Mediterranean Cities» within the framework of the tenth anniversary of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. More than forty town-mayors from towns both North and South of the Mediterranean gathered at this conference with the aim of analysing the situation of cities in the partner countries, of measuring the challenges that these cities face and of determining priority areas for action which could be integrated in the new European Neighbourhood Policy.

It is within this framework that the city of Barcelona asked the Marseille Institut de la Méditerranée to carry out a study on the largest cities of the Mediterranean, which conclusions were debated during the Conference, as described below.

These conclusions were collected within a common declaration that was signed by the mayors present at the conference and presented to the representatives of the European Commission that also attended the event. This declaration suggests that the urban dimension should be taken more into account in the new European Neighbourhood Policy, as well as proposing a firm development plan for basic public services. This recommendation is currently being debated within the Commission.

Cities are a permanent aspect of Mediterranean history. It is along the coasts, along the dense and ancient scattering of cities, that commerce has thrived following the maritime routes, eventually forming what we now know as the Mediterranean area. The most ancient cities in the world were founded here. Most of these cities were, in one age or another, large and active centres that shone their light along the length of the Mediterranean and into the Middle East. Eventually, the great commercial currents were abandoned, to the benefit, at first, of Venetian and Ottoman powers, and then of European colonial powers.

These cities currently face multiple challenges. They are, from this point of view, a magnifying mirror of the difficulties encountered by Mediterranean countries within the present trend of globalisation, which is unfavourable to these countries and to which they are finding it hard to adapt.

The attraction of the great towns of the South is imposing a surplus of population that exceeds their capacities of spatial expansion. Moreover, nowhere is the magnitude of the problems arising from urban changes more evident: the increasing need for housing, infrastructure, provision of water and energy, schools, hospitals, as well as the lack of control of food and industrial markets, give rise to speculation, penury and price increases, and are closely tied to the movement of concentrations and spatial redistribution of activities.

It is evident that Mediterranean cities share the majority of management-dysfunctions that concern urban regions around the world; however, in the Mediterranean, these problems are characterised by their magnitude and by the lack of means to address them. Today, «town» is synonymous with «bad lifestyle», «discomfort» and «insecurity» for its inhabitants. Within a situation of high unemployment, the rural exodus amplifies an informal sector that represents a means of survival for millions of citizens. The risks of social destabilisation that result from this situation are significant. Large sections of urban population, victims of social and economic insufficiencies, suffer extreme poverty, as manifested both in the monetary sense and in the lack of quality of life. Moreover, insecurity and violence also represent a menace for those in precarious situations, who may become easy prey for integrist networks.

At the same time, a different aspect of cities which exists together with those described above and which is becoming stronger, is the one of the modern city, open to the world, aspiring to become part of the great European and worldwide chorus and playing the role, within their own country, of cutting-edge of economic dynamism and transformer of society. It is the “competitive” city, which has included itself within a process of integration into the regional and global network, seeking a high specialisation based on the attraction of investment to an easy and pleasant urban environment with a highly qualified workforce. The majority of great cities aspire to continue playing the role of the «regional capital», standing out in the Euro-Mediterranean environment and beyond.

All great cities of the South are therefore territories of transition for social, economic and environmental changes, where great stakes are played for the entry of their own countries into the «world-economy” from which they have hitherto been excluded.

Amongst all these challenges, the first and perhaps foremost challenge is that of demography. In this sense, the urban population of the countries of the South and East of the Mediterranean, estimated today as 165 millions inhabitants, is predicted to grow by about 4 millions per year, representing a mean yearly increase of about 2.5 %. The levels of urbanisation in these countries are expected to increase from 64 % in 2004 to about 75 % in 2025.

This urban explosion is both a recent and a brutal phenomenon. This increase is very different, from the point of view of its steepness, from the growth experienced in Europe during the period of industrialisation when whole populations left their villages, attracted by industrial employment created in and around cities. The strong urban increase of the 1970s was fuelled by a rural exodus, itself fed by the inertia of endogenous demography.

The second challenge, linked to this demographic explosion, is the organisation and well functioning of services for the population.

Access to drinking water and to hygiene currently represents, as discussed above, a priority. Water resources are nearly insufficient everywhere, and in some places they reach dramatic proportions; physical infrastructure is seldom at the level required. The management of this sector is often faulty and financial resources are often lacking. A report of United Nations (UNSD Millennium Indicators OMS-Unicef – 2003) estimates that 30 million people do not have permanent access to drinking water in this region. The majority of these people are in suburban and rural areas of Turkey, Algeria, Morocco and Syria.

The urban infrastructures for distribution of drinking water and for sanitation are very insufficient and do not follow the increase of population in the majority of cities.

Sanitation poses a problem everywhere and is at least as grave and urgent as access to drinking water. The level of collection and of domestic water-treatment especially is very low and, in some cases, even inexistent. As seen above, many large cities do not have a water-purification station.  Nearly 90 % of urban waste in the towns that were studied is discarded without treatment into the Mediterranean, which therefore receives 60,000 tonnes of detergents, 100 tonnes of mercury and 12 000 tonnes of phenols per year.

To this situation one must add the little control in the issue of industrial waste. Companies often found in urban or suburban environments are mostly insensitive to environmental constraints and little affected by legislation which, although abundant, is seldom implemented. These companies sometimes discard their polluting effluents into the sanitation network, but often also into subterranean outlets, into rainwater streams or directly into the environment, particularly into natural watercourses.

As urban waste is concerned the enormous urbanisation combined with the strong industrialisation have placed most of the cities studied in a situation of urgency: insufficient collection, piling-up of waste from savage or uncontrolled urban discharges and lack of treatment, particularly of special waste. It is estimated that at present there are nearly 40 million tonnes of urban waste generated in towns of the Euro-Mediterranean, representing about 0.7 kg per person per day. This volume increases by about 3 to 4 % per year due to the combined effect of urban demography and evolution of lifestyles.

In all the cities that were studied, it was also evident that public transports were insufficient due to the extent of agglomeration, that infrastructures were mediocre, that the inhabitants enjoyed only limited resources and that there were clear gaps in public funding. Recently, however, certain projects have seen the light in the aim for recovery of the public domain of public transport: the Cairo underground (a third line has been opened), the light metro of Tunis, the tramway of Istanbul and the project for the underground in Algiers. However, these projects risk not being completed due to their high cost. A project for an underground has been under debate in Casablanca for over twenty years.

Finally, the third challenge is the fact that social housing does not spare any of the cities in the South and East of the Mediterranean. The urban environment has become totally de-structured in favour of the multiplication of the urban periphery consisting of shack-towns and precarious housing.

The proportion of non-regulated housing is about 40 to 60 % of new accommodation. These illegal constructions resemble the shack-towns that have arisen for many years around urban centres and where whole families, away from their native villages, are packed into improvised shelters. The reasons for this situation are nearly always the same, relating to the difficulties encountered by the states to manage the use of grounds, to control speculation in the housing market and to produce sufficient social housing.

Challenges of the same magnitude can be seen in the transition of the “productive city”. The large cities of the Mediterranean represent a great proportion of the national wealth of their country.  Immersed in the process of globalisation, the majority of towns frame their actions within strategic plans that aim to reconcile the attractiveness of the territory towards foreign investment, particularly in the services sector, with the constraints of an equilibrated spatial development. One of the most visible signs is the multiplication of the so-called “projects of urban regeneration” which tries to reconcile social and economic constraints within a single region.

It is therefore necessary to note that these projects have hitherto tended to increase the spatial segregation between a centre that is rapidly modernising and a suburban space that accumulates environmental problems, sanitary risks and problems of access to transport and housing.

There are answers to all of these problems. The solutions to these issues have in many cases been identified a long time ago. But the practical application of solutions gives rise to questions of political priorities in accordance with urban development in the Mediterranean. Behind this question lies the issue of governance at different levels of intervention and of their coordination within a particular territory. However, today, the cities of the Mediterranean are at a transition stage in which two streams of logic meet: the traditional logic rooted in the state-organisation inherited from the past and which expresses itself through a rising administration, and a more modern logic which foundations lay in the separation of powers, transparency and respect for the law. This duality characterises the current situation of political systems and of the functioning of states, to the extent that the system of governance, as well as political structures, always require a double-interpretation.

In conclusion, the problem of governance is at the crossroads of the reforms that must be carried out to further develop the country; furthermore, beyond the mere technical aspects, overcoming the challenges discussed above depends very much on the evolution of the institutional and political framework.