§Ricco Patrimonio / Povera Patria
Heritage as a vector of social inclusion in a “changing metropolis”. The case of the renovation of Fort Saint-Nicolas in Marseille, France
by Coline Pélissier and Eléonore Bully

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the issue of preserving public spaces and how best to design, a field studied by urban and social researchers for several years now, has once again been at the forefront of general academic and operational discourse. In this context, as domestic space tends now to be tainted with restrictions, such as lockdowns, the public space is becoming once more a place of opportunity to breathe, contemplate, and gather. Thus, heritage, whether urban, architectural or natural, is being reimagined within the realms of identity, recognition and social gathering.

In order to resituate heritage as a vector of a collective dynamic, we will use the distinction conceived by the philosopher Olivier Mongin between public space in the singular or plural form (Mongin, 2012). In the plural, public spaces correspond to places accessible to all, that offer a “common visibility”, a “common space” where one can admire a landscape, a view or a monument, and which allow for contemplation, mutual recognition, socialization, and even identification with the people who use it or pass through it. The singular meaning, public space, refers to a political space made up of procedures and devices, often institutional, whose aim is to encourage public debate and democracy. This space in the singular can be embodied by tangible places or be purely virtual, deterritorialized. The singular and plural meanings are not antagonistic, but, on the contrary, are part of the same continuum of collective uses.

Heritage, whether international, national or local, can be defined as “a product of the history of a geographic area or a social group” (Vernières, 2015). It is made up of a set of assets, which may be material, a sort of fixed capital constituted of infrastructures and buildings of all kinds, or immaterial, which constitute the means by which cultural and historical legacy is passed on from generation to generation. Be it tangible or intangible, heritage implies a collective use or at least a collective recognition. Its enhancement, conservation and management are of general interest and therefore often involve a public institution, even though their management may be ensured by the private sector or a public-private partnership. 

The issue of heritage buildings in Marseille, their functions and uses, reveals the different facets of a place in transition, characterized by a complex political and social structure. Throughout its journey from liberal merchant city to modern European Capital of Culture, elements of heritage have in turn been neglected, destroyed, preserved and promoted, depending on economic context and opportunities. In the heart of Marseille, the Old Port is framed by two historic fortresses, both built under the impulse of Louis XIV to reinforce the king’s power over Marseille. Situated on the left, Fort d’Entrecasteaux forms now the cradle of an associative project aimed at employing, training and supporting people encountering economic and social difficulties through the renovation of the monument itself. The Fort d’Entrecasteaux also receives visits from school students and is set to open its doors to the general public by 2030. The project of renovation is being carried out by ACTA VISTA, a non-profit organization with the idea being that historical monuments constitute a link between “the individual and the collective” and can be a source of pride and self-confidence for the trainees working on its restoration. Once open to the general public, the fortress is envisaged to become an “inclusive and open” space for all of Marseille’s citizens, project carried out by a new “branch” of ACTA VISTA, La Citadelle.

Using the concept of public spaces in the plural, and therefore tangible, while considering the unique urban context of Marseille and, specifically, the case of Fort d’Entrecasteaux, this paper aims to explore the challenges linked to the management of heritage, as well as its purpose and use. This article moreover examines the tension that may exist between heritage management on the one hand, particularly in relation to property ownership issues, and the questions of access and public uses, on the other.

Heritage as a territorial and economic resource in the strategic and competitive positioning of cities

The complex process of heritage development is specific to each locality and to what a social group chooses to recognize as a collective asset. The value of this collective asset, which for a long time was treated as merely an object of cultural policy or considered for its cultural value (Champy, Choay, 1995), is now increasingly considered as an economic resource within the framework of development policies. In a context of increased competition between cities, and taking into account the growing dynamics of standardization and touristification of historic centers to turn them into “consumer products” for mass tourism (Paquot, 2015), Heritage is increasingly being analyzed, particularly in urban studies, as an asset used by urban governance in a bid for economic development (Vernières, 2011, Harvey, 2011; Castells 1978). Heritage is then seen by local actors as a resource whose management costs can be reduced through a partnership solution with the private sector, especially in a context of institutional impoverishment (Bodiguel, Rouban, 1987).

This capitalization of heritage as an asset is even more true for cities that are not at the top of the global urban hierarchy as Marseille (Nasiali, 2016). Heritage assets, as specific resources (François, Hirczak, Senil 2006), allow a strategic differentiation for these cities to develop in economic terms (tourism, financing, economic activity). A compelling piece of empirical evidence for this phenomenon is Fort d’Entrecasteaux in Marseille. In 2017, the introduction to the tender issued by Marseille City Council with a view to finding an actor for the restoration and operation of the site, perfectly underlines this issue of strategic and competitive positioning of cities: «The city center of Marseille has been undergoing a major transformation for the past ten years thanks to urban development and transformation projects carried out in particular on public spaces and buildings. […] These projects are real assets for the attractiveness of Marseille. […] These operations have led to the reappropriation of a certain number of sites and therefore of the city by the people of Marseille and its visitors, generating a positive image of Marseille and thus reinforcing its attractiveness. […] The local authority wishes to reinforce this process of upgrading the city center and its heritage by opening the Entrecasteaux citadel to the public as part of a conversion project» [1].

The function of heritage as a means of identification and recognition for the inhabitants of a locality on the one hand, and its role as a showcase for tourists on the other hand, are not intrinsically antagonistic, but they reveal two issues of urban policies which must be conciliated in terms of investment and management. These two areas of urban planning policy are at the intersection between the logic of territorial construction and the logic of market. For this reason, the different stages of the heritagization of a place – namely selection, justification (discourse phase) and then conservation and display (action phase) should be, first and foremost, guided by the perspective of use by the inhabitants, whether it is a monument or not (Vernière, 2015). Local actors, in this context, are supposed to represent a guarantee for the conservation of a common notion related to the site, in order to make it a real local asset from the point of view of both economic and social development. Due to its multiple and sometimes paradoxical fonctions for the territory, the issues  of ownership and management of heritage are manifold and involve numerous actors.

Issues of ownership and management of heritage: Fort d’Entrecasteaux, from closed place to “public place” under constraints

Public places as they are analyzed by Olivier Mongin (2012) and Thierry Paquot (2015) have for several years been subject to two processes running through urban policies and their objects as a whole: privatization and partnership management. These two processes, when it comes to ‘public places’, can lead to a limitation and conditioning of accessibility and free access to spaces that were previously the responsibility of local or national institutions. This can lead to the creation of new norms of control and regulation (of exchanges, circulation, information), outside the public sphere and its laws. To better understand the specificity of our research object, it is important to recall that the trajectories of historical monuments is in some way different from the ones of ‘public places’, since they were often initially private places, closed and intended for restricted use (military sites, castles, churches, etc.). The public dimension is nevertheless present in the visibility of historic monuments, and in their trajectories, from closed to open places.

Picture 1: Fort d'Entrecasteaux from the top, Marseille. Source: ACTA VISTA

The case of Fort d’Entrecasteaux is particularly revealing of these transitions: its history of transfer between different managements and its oscillation between private and the public reflects the complexity of partnership issues around historic monuments. Here, the historic monument becomes a “public place”, since it was initially a completely closed military installation, inaccessible to the public, and even designed as “against” the inhabitants as it was also built to control the city in 1660 on the orders of Louis XIV, King of France. The fort was used as a military prison, housing for the garrison and a weapons and ammunition store. Later on, during the Second World War it was transformed into a court and military prison by the German Occupation forces. In 2010, the Ministry of Defence ceded Fort d’Entrecasteaux, which corresponds to the upper part of Fort Saint-Nicolas, and the Aurelle barracks to Marseille City Council. 

The Aurelle barracks were divided into two parcels with the aim of building a school and a real estate project, representing an interesting investment for the municipality. The Fort d’Entrecasteaux, on the other hand, required major restoration work and a completely new undertaking in order for it to be opened to the public. On the initiative of the Ministry of Defence, ACTA VISTA, the association mentioned above, which specializes in social integration projects and back-to-work programs through heritage sites renovation, began restoring certain parts of the fort in 2002, rectifying some of the damage it had sustained but not allowing a permanent opening. As the site has been listed as a Historic Monument since 14 January 1969, it had been subject to conservation under the control of the state services responsible for historic monuments. The works planned and authorized are therefore the result of an agreement between a multitude of players [2] and involve numerous constraints such as the adaptation of safety standards to a listed site. In 2017, Marseille City Council launched a tender in order to find an actor who would take on the project needed for opening the site. It specifies: «The challenge is to offer a new place for the people of Marseilles as well as visitors, while ensuring that the value and coherence of this military complex, which is classified as a historic monument, are enhanced. Its reuse must, as far as possible, reveal the values of the monument by altering the existing buildings and vacant areas as little as possible» [3].

This trajectory of Fort d’Entrecasteaux clearly shows the issues of renovation, ownership and management raised by such buildings. The tension therein is clearly highlighted by the general manager of the association in charge of opening Fort d’Entrecasteaux in Marseille: «It is a public place in the sense that it belongs to everyone because it is the property of the community and because it can be seen from almost all of Marseille, but it is still private in the sense that it is not yet accessible to the public today» [4].

Although it has always been “public” in the sense that it is visible from the city center, Fort d’Entrecasteaux is now set to become a truly public place with the aforementioned plan to open up the site and the intention of La Citadelle, a new association created by ACTA VISTA and the Groupe SOS [5], to make it a place that is open and accessible to all. Moreover, the association is making efforts to instigate a public consultation process, regularly calling on neighbors and residents to help imagine a public and common place.

The impact of multi-scalar management and funding on the users

The partnership management of heritage involves multiple actors, whether they are decision-makers, sponsors, and/or managers of monuments. However, the negotiations regarding conservation or financing of monuments, and different operations – in material terms (restoration, renovation…) or immaterial terms (rebranding, event programming…) – generate different benefits for each of the actors. Furthermore, the choices made by owners and/or managers and investors have an impact on the uses that can be developed and on the type of users that can benefit from the site and the services it offers (exhibitions, events, shows, etc.). Sometimes, an operation that may, for example, meet the needs of a private owner and/or manager of a monument may not meet those of the local authority. However, in order to be considered and then recognized as heritage, the monuments must be identified and used as such by the community. These assets may be managed or even owned privately or semi-privately, but they constitute a collective asset whose preservation and opening up is in the general interest. When the management-use pairing works well, the heritage site should constitute «a kind of ecosystem that produces both private satisfaction and social bonding» (Vernières, 2015, p. 9). In a context where Marseille City Council is looking for investment to accede to the world urban hierarchy (Harvey, 2011), the discourse – and the actions – of the city council therefore vacillates between using heritage as a territorial resource and the necessity to preserve the general interest dimension: «The design of the scheme must ensure a balance between public and private uses, but also the economic balance of the project. The challenge of the operational set-up is to guarantee public access to certain areas of the site within the framework of a conversion and management of the monument by a private operator developing its own project. […] Thus, the type of arrangement proposed will make it possible to meet this dual challenge: reuse and development for the public in accordance with the principle of general interest» [6].

In theory, the management and financing issues of the partnership should therefore guarantee both the protection of the monument and its opening to heterogeneous users, and the actors should therefore constantly conciliate the political and economic benefits and the social benefits of their operations. These choices are nevertheless made more difficult by the diversity of interests involved and by the weight of budgetary and financial issues on decisions. These balances are just as true and relevant in the context of private or associative management. The association’s executive director words are particularly relevant in order to illustrate this point: «The constraints linked to financing inevitably have repercussions on the use of the site, since it is necessary to at least partially orient the uses towards economically profitable uses. For example, we have to imagine a place of exhibitions rather than a place for creation only» [7].

These issues are still pertinent in a very concrete way in the negotiations between the Marseille City Council and the management association. Following the signing of the long lease agreement (40 years), numerous exchanges took place between the two stakeholders in order to determine the exact demarcation of free and paying spaces. The Council’s discourse and position towards preserving and/or opening the fort changed with the political line of the mayor’s office. According to the association’s managing director, the project was mainly driven by technical services with the previous office (1995-2020). It was only after the election of a new mayor on the left of the political spectrum, claiming to represent a social and inclusive vision of Marseille, that the elected representatives took up the project and were particularly interested in the issue of financial accessibility. Similar questions exist around the economic model linked to rental of the venue. Indeed, the economic model of the fort is partly based on being able to occasionally hire out some of its spaces for private events. Several events have been hosted in this way, in particular an event on the subject of emancipation, which was attended mainly by communication and media professionals. This event took place in parallel with the daily life of the back-to-work programs on the construction site, thus bringing together trainees and prestigious guests in the same space. As one of the employees remarked: “In fact, the fort is not really for us” [8]. These first empirical insights question the contrast that could exist between the audience attending private events and the free-access visitors.

In spite of these questions and issues, the project implemented by ACTA VISTA and La Citadelle, that is to say integration and professional training through the renovation of heritage and opening up the site to the general public, attempts to reintroduce the initial value of heritage, which tends to be stifled by neo-liberal urban and development policies: a value as a basis for recognition, socialization, and identification with a place that one passes through or lives in. This project therefore constitutes a practice to be considered in order to put the social and cultural dimension of heritage back at the heart of urban policies.

Distributing the social and cultural value of heritage: recreating commonality despite constraints

Regardless of their legal status, the ‘public’ character of the place lies in its value as a space shared collectively by a group of users who are more or less heterogeneous depending on the nature of the place, the services they offer and the uses it allows (Frankignoulle and Bodson, 1996; Augustin, 2002; Rémy, 1998). Nevertheless, as we have seen, the issues of management or private or partnership ownership of ‘public places’ raise questions about the regulation and limitation of spaces that should by definition be accessible without excluding conditions. 

The institution, as the guarantor of the general interest and a coordinating force, must enable, through innovative practices and tactical arbitration, particularly between cultural policy, economic policy and social policy, to preserve access to and collective use of the assets whose ownership or management has been delegated to it. In Marseille, the approach to enhancement through social inclusion taken by the association ACTA VISTA, in response to the call for projects launched by the City Council for Fort d’Entrecasteaux, is a relevant example of a practice that seeks to combine the opening up and exploitation of a monument with social inclusion and a recognition of the people who live in the area where it is located. The tender states that: «The restitution of their heritage to the people of Marseille and the respect of the principle of general interest presupposes that the project foresees an opening of the monument to the public. Fort Saint-Nicolas is a common legacy and a piece of the national heritage that belongs to everyone. This principle is fundamental at a time when the involvement of private investors is becoming inevitable in the conservation process» [9].

The twin objective of the associative project of this Marseille-based organization, both the implementation of an integration project during the renovation of the Fort, and the opening to the general public, is “inclusion”. The objective of ACTA VISTA is moreover stated as such: “to become a pioneer in the field of active inclusion”, first of all in the sense as defined by the European Commission, i.e. to allow the participation of an individual in different fields of society. This ambition, laid down at European level, is taken up by the association with the will to offer a “complete” pathway to employees as part of integration, making it possible to remove several social obstacles at once (language, housing, health, work, etc.).

Picture 2: Fort d'Entrecasteaux scaffolding, Marseille. Source: ACTA VISTA

Beyond professional integration, the action of inclusion aims to give a sense of “belonging” to a group. This ambition of building citizenship questions different politics of belonging and adhesion to the work sphere as well as the particular medium of historical monuments. Although national culture and legal status do not overlap in modern nation-states, it is indeed such a correspondence that ACTA VISTA tends to aim to achieve with the aid of historical monuments: on the one hand work, accessible only to holders of an identity card or a residence permit, on the other hand the historical monument, a stake in national culture. The association stands that entrusting these people with what society values, gives them the place they deserve in society. Historical monuments are doubly interesting in terms of social inclusion, on the one hand because they are thought of as a vector of inclusion through what they convey of national history, and on the other hand as a vector of commonality through the local area in which they are located.

This sociological dynamic at work is visible at another of the association’s sites, Château de Chambord, where the trainees are working on the renovation of the surrounding wall. The extremely prestigious dimension of this monument is clearly a source of pride for some of them. J., an integrational training worker, said «I never thought I would be able to work on something as prestigious as this castle. I grew up in the region and the Château de Chambord is really something very special. And we know that many people have worked before us and that this castle will always remain here and other people will come to visit it!» [10].

Contrarily, other trainees, especially those from countries other than France, see it above all as “a job”, as one of them explains, «I have a family to feed, it’s a good opportunity to find a job afterwards because they help me here» [11], putting the heritage dimension completely aside. This demonstrates the need to later study the social impact and reception of this program as closely as possible to the field.

Picture 3: Fort d'Entrecasteaux, learning by doing, Marseille. Source: ACTA VISTA

The fieldwork presented in this paper on Fort d’Entrecasteaux highlights crucial issues with regard to heritage, and particularly for historic monuments. Their management is usually multi-scale and involves many actors whose intentions may differ wildly and vacillate between economic and political views. Their use is determined by the decisions made by national and local political actors, but financing and management go far beyond these boundaries. In a context of increasing competition between cities, especially in changing metropolises which have historically important social and economic issues, as Marseille does, examining the tensions that can exist between private or partnership-based management of historic monuments and their public use is critical. 

The case of Fort d’Entrecasteaux shows that depending on the political and strategic line adopted by a municipality, some compromises can be found between heritage as a collective and public place allowing social recognition, and heritage as an economic asset. However, even in the context of this compromise, the question of the coexistence of different types of users and uses in the same place has to be addressed, as they are emblematic of an ongoing transformation of urban areas driven by key social phenomena such as standardization, touristification and gentrification.


[1] Extract from the call for projects launched by the city of Marseille Call for projects for the reconversion of the Entrecasteaux citadel, version modified on 5 May 2017. 

[2] The works envisaged and authorised are subject to the authority of the Prefect of the Region and the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC). These authorities subordinate the Local Town Planning Scheme and the regulations of the Areas for the Enhancement of Architecture and Heritage to this classification.

[3] Extract from the call for projects launched by the city of Marseille, mentioned above.

[4] Extract from an interview with Pâquerette Demotes-Mainard, Managing Director of ACTA VISTA and La Citadelle – 07/10/2021 – Fort d’Entrecasteaux, Marseille, France. 

[5] SOS GROUP is Europe’s biggest social and societal enterprise, dedicated to common good. 

[6] Extract from the call for projects launched by the city of Marseille, mentioned above.

[7] Extract from an interview with Pâquerette Demotes-Mainard,mentioned above. 

[8] Extract from an interview with A., trainee at the Fort d’Entrecasteaux, 10/06/2021, Fort d’Entrecasteaux, Marseille, France. 

[9] Extract from the call for projects launched by the city of Marseille, mentioned above.

[10] Extract from an interview with J., trainee at Château de Chambord, 14/05/2021, Blois, France.

[11] Extract from an interview with B., trainee at Château de Chambord, 14/05/2021, Blois, France.

[11] Extract from an interview with B., trainee at Château de Chambord, 14/05/2021, Blois, France.


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Coline Pélissier is a Phd fellow in sociology at the University of Paris 8 Vincennes – Saint Denis in the “Practices and Theories of Meaning” Doctoral School. the Centre for Sociological and Political Research in Paris. After a Master’s degree in public policy at SciencesPo Paris and a Master’s degree in gender studies at Université Paris 8, she works in Marseille for an association of back-to-work programs through heritage renovation. This research field is the basis of her Phd, focusing on social inclusion, at the intersection of social policies and sense of belonging.

Eléonore Bully is completing a Phd fellow at the University Paris Est Gustave Eiffel in the “Cities, Transport and Territories” Doctoral School, in partnership with the University of Palermo. After a Msc in Urban Planning, she dedicated her PhD to the study of urban policy making in european mediterranean cities and specifically in Palermo, Sicily. Her Phd thesis focuses on the links woven since 2015 between localist and neo-municipalist movements and new migration patterns in Southern Europe.  She also co-wrote two chapters of the Babels research unit’s last book, and published twice on Metropolitics.