Learning from Europe 2014: Istanbul, Malmo, Marseillie

The Learning from Europe seminar at BDP brought together the finalists of the European City of the Year Award to give a more in-depth presentation of the challenges and changes facing their cities. What was most striking comparing the three cities was perhaps the level of ambition, or simply the enormity of the tasks being taken on – all in very different ways. Indeed it is difficult to compare the explosive population growth of Istanbul with the rising sea levels faced by Malmö, or the eclectic topography and culture of Marseille. Except for the fact that each city, as Kevin Murray (AoU) put it in his closing remarks as chair for the evening, resembles a great tanker trying to turn itself in a different direction. Appropriately all three cities are also coastal cities.



Arzu Kocabas (Head of Conservation and Renewal at the City and Regional Planning Department) gave an overview of Istanbul’s history: In the last two decades of the twentieth century Istanbul’s population grew from about 2 million to 10 million. Since then it has risen to 15 million. The first wave of this growth was contained by shanty towns built, quite literally, overnight. These areas of ‘Gecekondu’ housing were subsequently developed into apartment blocks and then officially legalised. This process created a large area of low quality housing in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe. The dangers and disadvantages are multiplied by the fact that Istanbul is expected to experience a major earthquake sometime in the next decade.

An emerging response to the Gecekondu phenomenon is being made possible by 2 major changes: 1, the development of a mortgage system for the first time in Istanbul’s history, and 2, large scale, state led development. In the early days the result of this twin development was often a large discrepancy between high end, sometimes gated, private housing, and social housing with limited facilities. However more recent public schemes, such as the Metrokent development in North Western Istanbul, set much higher standards. There has therefore been a process of ‘upgrading’ Istanbul’s suburbs. Approximately 1 million dwellings have been knocked down and rebuilt, equivalent to the total UK slum clearance in the postwar period.

Arzu went on to say that one of the dangers is the huge pressure to rely on top-down processes, creating very dense high rise areas with few facilities. At the same time a ‘bottom-up’ process does exist, involving NGOs for example.

After this historical overview, Cafer Bozkurt (director of Cafer Bozkurt Architecture & Co.) went on to present one specific project in Istanbul’s epic redevelopment: the building of a new transport hub on the site of what was the old Theodosian harbour. In the second half of the 20th century, this harbour was gradually filled in and covered over with highways. The bold move of the new development was to move all the heavy traffic underground, replacing it with an east-west metro and a new tramline. Not only has this tackled the transport issues of the area, it has given people access to the coast in a new way. The transport hub is also joined to a cultural centre and archaeological park, as well as shops and offices.



With a population of about 300 thousand, Malmö would appear to operate at a very different scale to Istanbul. But this Nordic city also faces big challenges. For Malmö, sustainability is the key issue. But as Christer Larsson (Malmö’s Head of Planning) put it, in the context of a major city, sustainability has to be seen as a matter encompassing environmental, economic and social issues.

On the environmental front, the challenge is climate change and rising sea levels. Malmö has already been recognised with a UN Habitat scroll of honour in 2009 for its Climatesmart dirstrict in the western harbour, which uses 100% locally generated, renewable energy. To tackle rising sea levels Malmö’s planners are proposing the creation of a series of small islands as opposed to a barrier, thus creating new spaces around the city.

The city’s climate strategy aims to make Malmö climate neutral by 2030. This entails not just the use of green energy and green infrastructure but also adapting people’s behaviour. This is where the social aspect of sustainability comes in. Hence Christer stressed the importance of political leadership, noting how all the leaders in the city’s urban departments have been through a process of political training. The plans developed by Christer and his team are therefore deeply linked to a commitment to welfare policies.

Christer gave the example of one of their flagship designs, an experiment with live-work units designed to house small enterprises on the ground floor with living space above. The design of these units has sought to involve Malmö’s young population, of which 33% are under 25.



The eventual winner of the Academy’s European City of the Year Award, Marseille had already been crowned European Capital of Culture in 2013. Over the year, 1.6 million people attended events put on by the city to celebrate this achievement. What stood out from the review of Marseille’s history presented by Laurent Maric (Deputy Director of Sustainability) was above all its diversity.

From its origins, Marseille was distinguished from the rest of the country by its strong links with the Mediterranean, founded as it was by Greek merchants in the early 17th Century. However since the city expanded beyond its old walls in the 20th century, the most important factor has been decolonisation in the 1960s. Immigration from former colonies spurred an explosion of urban growth, which went hand in hand with postwar modernisation.

To add to this cultural diversity, Marseille is also home to a rich natural heritage, including the Calanques natural park which extends into the urban metropolitan centre – a highly unusual situation for a major metropolis. Marseille is also twice the size of Paris; the city stretches round the coast to embrace two different seafronts.

However physical geography has also heightened some of the challenges Marseillle faces. Due to its mountain topography, it is only possible to enter the city from two points. This has led to an ongoing reinforcement of the north-south division in terms of wealth and quality of life and services, with the poorer north gaining a reputation for drug crime and urban decay, while the southern front glitters with culture and picturesque sea views.

Laurent outlined some of the major plans to deal with this situation, which include: 1, ‘Opération Grand Centre Ville’, a combination of massive renovation of ageing apartments and shop fronts, plus social and legal measures including the provision of youth services, sports centres and student accommodation. 2, ‘Opération Euromediterranée’, which focuses on the redevelopment of the harbour following the example of London in the 1990s, bringing some of the major metropolitan functions further inland. And 3, a €1 billion project to redevelop 14 of Marseille’s largest northern tower blocks.



A final question from Nicholas Falk (AoU) offered a suitable point to conclude on: Can you manufacture leadership or is it just chance. For these three cities tackling enormous challenges, leadership is key. All three gave somewhat different answers, reflecting the urban fabric of their cities as well as the projects and strategies touched on above:

Christer Larsson (Malmö) spoke of the need to set high goals aimed at the long term, as well as the need to attract the very best people to civil servant roles – both are factors in ensuring that investments last beyond the term of elections.

Laurent Maric (Marseille) described how his team are trying to couple voluntary structures with governmental ones. Marseille has a huge number of voluntary organisations – covering sports, culture, women’s rights etc – which together create a rampart against upheaval.

Finally Arzu Kocabas (Istanbul) spoke about lessons learned in light of the recent Gezi Park protests: architects and town planners in Turkey don’t necessarily emerge from their standard education as community planners; a 2003 conference on regeneration she was involved in organising introduced Kocabas to some of the terms being discussed here for the first time. Gezi was therefore a wake up call, and an experience that hopefully helped teach some of these lessons.


More information on the winners of the 2014 Urbanism Awards