The river Lez ends in the Mediterranean sea, some 8 miles south of Montpellier. The coast of the region is marked by many lakes, lagoons and sand bars, not unilke the US eastern coast, and not unlike it there is also a sort of intracoastal waterway. It is always curious to see how there is an attempt to win the challenge against the sea, opening new spaces, in this case in what is now Palavas- Les- Flots, a tourism station. The extent to which this kind of development can withstand the test of climate change is to be tested in the coming years if science is correct, as today it has been anounced that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere continues to rise (affecting every coast, not just this one).
Which role should an urban center play? This is a common matter for thought around the world, as centrality is a hard to understand and even harder to replicate quality.
To focus the issue, it is worth asking which role should play urban centers in southern european countries related to the mediterranean tradition, as most of Spain or Southern France. Even if Madrid is not strictly speaking a mediterranean city, it shares many conditions with Montpellier: a tradition of intense use of the public space favored by climate, a clear historical core, and a role as the capital of a wider space, including a metropolitan area. These are two centers that began being all that was urban in their surroundings, and urban growth has implied a loss of roles to the benefit of peripheral areas. These areas concentrate relevant heritage, but also the oldest housing stock, with problems of building quality, conservation, social decay and even health.
The symbolic value is relevant for the city as a whole, but it can harm the residents: any representative building has a chance to become the location for a representative organism of municipal, regional or national relevance, rather than a school, a health center or any other facility needed by neighbors. This can also happen with retail (it can be so much more lucrative to cater to tourists than to residents). What is often unclear is what is wanted of these urban cores to become: areas with a vibrant population that can be compared to other less central areas, despite the servitudes of heritage conservation, or representative spaces that can become an acropolist to the gods (money, administration, television, tourism…) but without residents, or else… And maybe they should be, even if it is far from simple, all of this, but with residents.
How large is a city? It is increasingly difficult to answer, as it is increasingly difficult to know what a city is. Anyway, if you take municipal limits, Montpellier is a city with a population slightly over 255.000 on a bit less than 57 sq km (compared to 605 sq km in Madrid, which has 12 times more population). It is common to see in France such a small municipal scale (over 36.000 municipalities when compared to some 8.000 in Spain, for countries with similar surface). So, in some matters, the correct comparison is not between municipalities, but between management logics for each space and each policy. In urban planning terms, if Montpellier has its own Plan Local d’Urbanisme, the SCOT covers the 31 municipalities of a Metro area that has administrative powers, and more interesting comparison items appear. Nevertheless, when you compare the city with Madrid, it is striking to see that both cities have addressed the issue of their urban cores at about the same time (PMC in Madrid, Grand Coeur in Montpellier).
To start talking about a city by focusing on a historical architecture has always the risk of being a bit rigid… The Promenade du Peyrou is an urban design from the XVIIth century, based on a statue of Luis XIV, a triumph arch and an aqueduct (more recent) on the highest hill of the city, allowing a view over the rooftops. It is a promenade and not a park or garden, not being closed at night. The configuration in terraces linked by stone stairs allows good views.
In 1710 a bylaw forbids buildings that could harm the views from the promenade. The urban landscape appears as a value that can be protected by the legislative. In 1715 a statue of the king Louis XIV is erected on the belvedere, increasing the symbolic role of the layout. Recently there has been a debate on the suppression of that interdiction (which by its legal status would require a decree by the National Parliament) in a partial way for areas out of the sight cones towards the south (sea) and north (Pic Saint- Loup), with the example of the Saint Anne Church (XIXth century).
Montpellier is the capital of the French region of Languedoc- Roussillon. As Castellón or Valencia in Spain, it is near the sea, but it is not a harbor. The city concentrates many interesting elements: a proposal to revitalize its historical core (a space with some outstanding urban designs as the Promenade du Peyrou), a regional plan for its metropolitan area, and some noteworthy architecture.