From Marseille to Manchester: what can we learn from ‘second cities’?

Young Urbanists Julie Plichon and Nicholas Hugh Goddard consider the characteristics, connections and changes of two ‘second cities’ 


France and the UK are often seen as two centralised countries dominated by their capital cities. While parallels can be drawn between Paris and London, we think the same can be done with Marseille and Manchester, two cities enjoying a renaissance that can increasingly be considered as “second cities”. But what does this term really mean – and how does it play out?


Marseille is in many ways France’s second city – even their football games against the Paris Saint German team express the underlying rivalry between these two cities. Home to 1 million inhabitants, Marseille is France’s primary port and its commercial gateway to Europe; as a result it has a hugely multicultural character. Its spectacular location perched on two bays make it an iconic place in France. Beyond this idyllic imagery, however, the city has suffered from a negative image – whether local Mafiosi, drug trade or dirt. Indeed the city is characterised by dramatic inequalities where pauperised populations are found in “quartiers nords”, those isolated urban ghettos, where the beautiful tramways and tubes that make the “Marseillais” so proud do not go.

The city has worked hard to improve this infamous status. Two years ago Marseille was the European Capital of Culture, enhancing many existing places and creating new landmarks for the city, like the Museum of Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM), new amenities along the Vieux Port and bringing international attention to its geographical and cultural potential. The year of 2013 and the European Capital of Culture status can be seen as the climax of a regeneration strategy initiated in 1995 called “Euroméditérannée” that aimed to position Marseille as a strong link between Europe and the Mediterranean. The project has been given the status of an “Operation of National Importance”, and financed at different public scales: local, national, and European to promote Marseille as the “biggest Southern metropolis in Europe for business”.

La Joliette, Marseille

This regeneration has its dark side though. A less successful version of it can be found along the new business district “La Joliette”. The former docks have been redeveloped, with the help of some American banks (among them: Lehman Brothers) to host commercial offices and luxury housing. But the docks remain empty, and the offices are still “to let”. They have been “to let” for many years now. The political will to bring world-class investment into Marseille contrasts with the empty reality of those docks, and mirrors pretty well what is happening in the city. Perhaps Marseille is just a city that is naturally resistant to gentrification.


The idea that Manchester is in any way “second” to any other locale is an anathema to most Mancunians. Manchester is special, unique and gritty but sophisticated and elegant. The story of Manchester is well known; the first industrial city, the dark satanic mills, Engels’ “Condition of the working class in England”. This manufacturing heritage is important, but equally as important was the nexus of the service industries such as banks, insurers and merchants that co-located in the city to serve much of Lancashire and the North West. This has left both an excellent built legacy, and an institutional legacy which enables it to remain economically competitive to this day.

Manchester Town Hall
Manchester Town Hall

Pragmatism is a key quality of the citizens of greater Manchester. Lets not forget that it was a pretty grim place in the 80s and early 90s, like many cities in the UK. However during this time it still produced the culturally significant Madchester scene, which kicked off the development of the Gay Village and the Northern Quarter, two areas that are now fundamental to the city’s life and vibrancy.

It took a bomb in 1996 for the powers that be to get serious about making the city centre a tolerable environment once again, after the grievous town planning of the 1970s. What could have been a disastrous response was turned into a triumph by the council and it is now held up as a poster child of city centre regeneration. It has not been perfect: ‘The Triangle’ (the old Corn Exchange to most people) has had a troublesome recent history, as has the Fire Station. Victoria Station has only just been improved, having been essentially ignored for years. Other areas, such as Hulme, have been successfully transformed, and Castlefields has been a phenomenal success with warehouse conversions and new builds around the dramatic viaducts and canals that were once the commercial veins of the city.

Scratch beneath the surface though, and Manchester too has its problems. About a quarter of Greater Manchester ranks in the 5% most deprived areas in the country according the Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2015. Spatially, this deprivation is concentrated in the North and East of the city and one of the city’s key challenges is now channeling some of Manchester’s success into these areas.

Harpurhey in northern Manchester was once named the most deprived area in England. Photograph: Gent Hunt
Harpurhey in northern Manchester was once named the most deprived area in England. Photograph: Gent Hunt

These, then, are two proud and compelling cities with very different histories, but that in some ways share a common trajectory. By learning from these places we understand that perhaps cities should not be perceived in terms of being “first” and “second” – but should be taken as individual entities that offer unique qualities. Both cities are beginning to convince their capitals of this fact and should look forward to the commensurate attention, however, it remains to be seen if they will be able to harness this to solve the engrained difficulties that are faced by both.

This post is written as part of Charles Critchell’s “Second Cities: Manchester to Marseille” project which has been supported by the Academy of Urbanism’s Young Urbanists Small Grants Scheme. Charles is presenting the project on Monday 30 November at The Alan Baxter Gallery.


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