Montpellier, regional capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, has recently overtaken Bordeaux to become the eighth largest city in France, with a population of 244,500 (400,000 including the surrounding conurbation).
It likes to think of itself as a young, cosmopolitan, high-tech and avant-garde city where 36.6 per cent of the population are under 25 with 23 per cent born outside France.
For several decades now, Montpellier has been engaged on a programme of “intelligent” town planning, which has transformed the city as a place to live and work, and drawn international attention.
Central to planning policy is a commitment to striking buildings by some of the giants of modern architecture. Ricardo Bofill’s Antigone district led the way in the early 1980s, to be followed by the Corum conference centre and concert hall.
The most recent addition is the Arena, an exhibition hall and sports stadium, which opened in September.
Later this year the city will add to its portfolio with a new town hall by Jean Nouvel and La Panacée, a “city” in which artists can live, work and hold exhibitions.
One of the biggest forthcoming projects is the redevelopment of the site of the former military base Ecole d’Application et l’Infanterie (EAI), a kilometre from the historic centre. Although its closure last year was an economic loss for the city, it now provides an opportunity and six multi-disciplinary teams have been asked
to come up with ideas on how to use it.
Education has always played an important role in the city’s economic and social fabric. The city has three high-ranking universities and six grandes écoles (elite centres of further education), and is recognised as the fourth most important centre for research in the country.
More than one in four inhabitants (70,000) is a student. Particularly important is medicine. Montpellier has the oldest medical school still functioning (founded in the 14th century) and, because of this tradition, it has become an important centre for pharmaceutical industries.
Its other big prestige sector is technology. IBM has operated a plant here since the 1960s, where it is pioneering internet-based computing, and Montpellier forms part of a “High-Tech Triangle” of co-operation agreeements with Cambridge and Heidelberg. The IT and multimedia sectors between them employ 25,000 people.
Currently the city is laying down plans for its next four decades. Hélène Mandroux, the city’s first female mayor, said: “From this year, we are launching a participatory urban plan with the aim of laying out the broad lines of strategy for the evolution of the city over the next 40 years.”
A doctor herself, she is a member of the Socialist Party and took over the reins of the city in 2004 from the influential Georges Frêche, who was largely responsible
for the city’s rapid expansion.
She said: “Montpellier will change and grow. But it’s not just growth we are looking for, but harmonious human development. We have to be ready to welcome newcomers by providing the best possible conditions and raise living standards and meet their expectations as far as we can.”