Slowing down

3/2/2023 ☼ learningspeedFrance

I’ve been in the south of France off and on for a while. A few weeks in several towns on the coastal bits of the southwest, three months on the edge of a small village in the Vaucluse massif, 18 months in one or another of two nearly uninhabited hamlets in the Massif Central. I eventually washed ashore here in crime-infested, uncontrollable, trash-strewn Marseille. (It’s actually quite nice.)

Late spring morning near Apt.Late spring morning near Apt.

In early 2021, I met a musician and party organiser stopping overnight in the Massif Central on his way home to Paris. He’d gone down south to buy a car which he would use to move to Marseille in a few weeks. Beaches, shorts weather the year around, good energy,” and less than 4 hours by train from Paris.

My first scouting visit to Marseille was at the end of 2021. A friend let me stay a few days in her apartment in the Cité Radieuse, then I moved to a live/work space in the same building for a month, and to the 1st arrondissement for another month. I walked quite a lot of the city’s central and eastern districts in January and February, the darkest, coldest parts of the year.

Marseille in winter reminded me of LA in winter, and still does. Like LA, it is a west-facing city on open water. It’s brisk but not bitterly cold, the skies are often clear, and the city is lightly peopled but not deserted. This had great appeal after a previous winter in a retrofitted barn where the internal temperature hovered around -3°C for several weeks.

Noon in high summer in Blanchet.Noon in high summer in Blanchet.

Tourists descend upon Marseille particularly in the summer, but they come the rest of the year too. They’re attracted by sun and beaches, calanques, and big cathedrals. Articles in the world press (like this one about how Marseille is now a haven for creatives”) highlight the kinds of places and things which travel writers highlight when they visit cities to write about them for tourists. While i can’t yet articulate what Marseille’s geist is, these fluff articles definitely haven’t grokked it.

For whatever reason, my instinct is that this is not a city for tourists — it’s a city for residents. I’ve already determined that it is especially good for avoiding FOMO and for feeling justified in doing nothing specific for quite long stretches of time. This could be why people are moving here in droves from Paris, London, LA, NYC, etc.

The clearest indicator of all this inbound premium migration is how housing dynamics and economics are changing. In the one year I’ve been paying attention, housing prices in the central core have gone up something like 20%. People who have lived here for several years say that renting requirements are now much more stringent (more multiples of rent as monthly income, more guarantors, credit checks, etc).

The people swarming into Marseille as residents are certainly drawn by Real Reasons (resident reasons: great year-round weather, a sense of being much less frenetic than a Big Important City, excellent QPR) but almost certainly also because of Hype (tourist reasons as interpreted by mass media and influencers). Hype is a demand adjuvant for Real Reasons, but eventually parasitises those Real Reasons.

Late summer afternoon in Champagnac-le-Vieux.Late summer afternoon in Champagnac-le-Vieux.

Speed and sustainability

A city’s Hype/Real Reasons problem is a concrete instance of a general phenomenon.

Long-time Marseille residents find this recent growth crazy. But even new arrivals like me feel that things are happening Way Too Fast. The city is getting much more expensive for housing and other life essentials and incidentals (QPR is getting worse), and also becoming a bit more obsessed with conventional success (the worst bit of a Big Important City). This is the concrete way in which in-migration due to Hype is fucking up the Real Reasons to be in Marseille.

The general phenomenon we can see in this concrete instance? Things that happen Way Too Fast become victims of their own success. Speed of growth is naturally opposed to sustainability of growth. When things happen Way Too Fast, there’s no time to evaluate how things are going. Are we are going in the right direction? Should we make a course correction? Are there unintended side effects that we need to attend to?

Any city experiencing (or trying to stimulate) this kind of fast development should be asking these double-loop learning questions … but so should anyone running any other kind of complex project, whether for a business, a government, a non-profit, or an individual. Not asking these questions means getting very quickly to the wrong place or to getting to the right place at an unacceptable cost that wasn’t apparent at the beginning. And moving too fast makes it hard to ask questions like these.

The first step is to slow down. Slowing down makes it possible to ask important questions that require reflection to answer. Having time to ask and answer these questions may make it possible to avoid killing off the Real Reasons why things started going very quickly in the first place.

Early spring evening at the Cité Radieuse.Early spring evening at the Cité Radieuse.

Is Marseille in a bubble? Maybe.

A few nights ago at dinner, someone who moved here from NYC a few years ago said, Marseille looks like a good idea to move to but then you get here and it’s really hard. People move away again when the lease is up.” 🤞