What makes a fine city? Is such a question too subjective amidst hugely diverse populations, each of whom enjoy, value and engage with each other and a place in a multitude of ways. And yet maybe a fine city is a justifiable claim if it actively creates and nurtures that diversity, both human and natural. A city able to meet the needs of and, inspire the individual within a group. Whether they are working, studying, residing or visiting, they can collectively navigate and immerse themselves in city life.
And, if that is the case then Montpellier is up there on a fascinating world-class list of fine cities.
Diversity, a cure all assertion for the modern world. How does it grow? How does it manifest itself? What hinders it? The infrastructure of a place goes a long way in providing a stimulating and welcoming city, the layers of nature, circulation networks and economic governance, amongst other strata of significance, choreograph urban living. Enmeshed in the infrastructural tangibility is the cultural, behavioural and very human layer that floods into every aspect of the choices made and directions taken.
A jerky list of writers, city planners and urban initiatives dabble their fingers into my thinking, ones I admire and some I question. From Richard Florida’s, Who’s Your City, to London’s urban skills and food growing project Skip Garden by Global Generation to cities with trams, there are historic, cultural and political reasons some places tick better than others.
And Montpellier ticks. Steadily and confidently, working on many human levels that bound into every Medieval city crevice. Fine is not seeking perfection. There are inherited flaws, genetic dispositions and unwelcome doses of malaise, that a fine city manages, on a daily or long-term basis. But a fine city can adapt and forge ahead shielding and supporting the city masses.
A recent visit shy of three weeks allowed me a tiny glimpse of Montpellier’s finesse. Its landscape and scale are a steady place to initiate an investigation, although sublimely unaware of the gravitas of such factors, they assuredly set the pace and character of each city. Montpellier is blessed with the year-round comfortable warmth of the southern French sun, with predictable rain showers to quench life. A city of approximately 270,000 people, it sits a skip and a hop away from the Mediterranean Sea. Linguistically, culturally and economically tied to the eastern regions of Spain and Italy and, the olive oil region of France (as opposed to northern buttery France), this region of l’Occitane holds open a welcome door to all.
And that open door brings in optimism and activity.
The myriad of ways that human navigate and move around a city such as Montpellier is impressive and defining. Many city planners herd systems of circulation together under the banner of transport, but it is essentially movement and therefore profoundly human and cultural. My architect dad, Terry Farrell, reimagined the hectic Euston Road that orbits central London, in his vision that saw the obvious through the bureaucratic hullabaloo. Rather like the story The Emperor and His New Clothes, Farrell points out what others fear to mention and, on the Euston Road it was the domination by cars that were the elephant in the room. Traffic was encouraged to dwarf the presence of pedestrians as it sped past the pavements barriered not to protect pedestrians but to let cars continue at speed. The barriers came down, the pavements were widened, a new pedestrian crossing was created and, street signage was reduced. The moral of the Euston Road story is the simple and creative ways that humans can reassert themselves in cities, an urge powered by our propensity and ability to move en masse, in many forms, safely around a city.
And, his observations resonate with Montpellier’s fractal patterns of hybrid motion. Montpellier has electric trams, teems of bicycles (with very few defined lanes, just respect and good hearing), personal electric scooters (on road, wide pavements and passageways), buses, trains, pedestrians, cars, car parks under the main city square, carless central city areas, mini electric delivery vans and an array of electric single wheelers. And it works. Everyone is respectful of each other and their space along the public routes. The periphery roads of commuting cars are not quite so fine, but if Macron’s plans continue there will be fewer diesel and petrol use by 2040.
Access to food in the city puts me in mind of a piece of writing by Richard Wilks that recognises that we frequently eat in, an in-between space, a middling reality. Consuming food sometimes slowly crafted and, sometimes speedily made by machines. Global cities are a blended place of foods of moderate speeds. In Montpellier there are central and in the outskirts’ supermarkets (with the usual large portion of their inferior industrial food, albeit with more local fresh foods), but there are also thriving food markets and abundant independent cafes and food shops. And these places are for all, not just for the usual gentrified urban echelons. What Montpellier has done with typical French style and nonchalance is flip over the Medieval city day to day infrastructure into a twenty-first century model of start-up size spaces that purr with pleasure beside the corporate bemouths of Carrefour supermarket or Macdonald’s.
With a mix of year-round tourists, from France and beyond, plentiful students and European entrepreneurs it is a prosperous city of many quarters. The ancient centre is complemented by modern apartment living further out, with plenty of parks, gardens and activity. The city is made spotless by small armies of mini electric street and rubbish cleaning vehicles and lots of recycling places, no doubt made achievable with the guarantee of copious numbers of tax payers, and under the mayoral effort of Phillipe Saurel, clearly a priority.
Montpellier exudes finesse, it celebrates and kindles its togetherness and diversity. One example of diversity, unity and strength is a Remembrance Service choral concert attended by hundreds on November 11th. Hosted by Montpellier in a humble French church, the presence and talented performance of the Heidelberg choir of Germany, 100 years on from the ending of WWI, saw a gathering that embodied the richness of togetherness in diversity.
To my mind Montpellier models a city to learn from.
Farrell, T. (2009), Shaping London, John Wiley & Sons, USA
Florida, R. (2008), Who’s Your City, Basic Books, USA
Wilks, R. (2006), Fast Food/Slow Food: The Cultural Economy of the Global Food System, Rowman Altamira, USA