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Segregation in the cities of the European Mediterranean

Thomas Pfirsch and Giovanni Semi
p. 15-23
This article is a translation of:
La ségrégation dans les villes de l’Europe méditerranéenne [fr]

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  • 1 In addition to the concept of fragmentation, ‘seclusion’ (Wacquant, 2010) has been proposed to de (...)

1Studies of urban segregation have proliferated since the 1990s, spurred by debate on the impact of globalization on the socio-spatial structure of cities. Some studies have found segregation to increase in post-Fordist cities, either taking the form of socio-spatial ‘dualization’ (SASSEN, 1991) or a ‘fragmentation’ affecting all social categories that goes so far as to threaten the very existence of the city as a political community (SANTOS, 1990; MARCUSE and VAN KEMPEN, 1999; SOJA, 2000; BENIT et al., 2007). A few authors have even proposed renouncing the term ‘segregation’, too connected to the historical model of the Fordist11 industrial city. Other recent studies, however, call for ‘recontextualizing’ these global theories (MALOUTAS and FUJITA, 2012), which mainly result from research on large cities in the United States. Their application to other contexts is problematic and once again raises questions on the relevance of regional city models and the circulation of urban theories in the global era (ROBINSON, 2006).

  • 2 It was not until 2012 that the first solid statistical study was published in Italy, enabling acc (...)

2Located on a major global dividing line demarcating North from South, Mediterranean cities have led this debate. Indeed, as early as 1990, the Greek geographer Lila Leontidou posited the existence of a Mediterranean ‘resistance’ to the socio-spatial transformations of the post-Fordist city. She argued that late industrialization, heavy reliance on informal channels in housing acquisition, the importance of familial residential proximity, and weak functional zoning all factor into limiting social segregation in the Mediterranean. Mediterranean cities would thus provide a hybrid model, between ‘North’ and ‘South’ (LEONTIDOU, 1990, 1996). Unfortunately this theory has long lacked empirical validation and has even reinforced long standing myths about Mediterranean cities by reviving their image as cosmopolitan, ‘porous’ cities (BENJAMIN, 1924), models of social conviviality and urbanity. Paradoxically, Lila Leontidou’s book contributed to delaying the development of empirical work on the social geography of cities in the Mediterranean area, and studies on urban segregation in the Mediterranean were extremely rare until the late 2000s. As work on European cities started to develop in the 1990s and 2000s (including E. Préteceille’s work in Paris [2006] and C. Hamnett’s in London [2003]), putting North American ‘dualization’ and fragmentation theories to the test, only a handful of maps and measures of urban segregation were made for the Mediterranean2. With the exception of France, where this is an old and politicized academic topic (Marcel Roncayolo’s first work on Marseille’s social divisions date back to 1952), the social geography of Mediterranean cities remains poorly known and under-studied; segregation is a marginal theme in media coverage and is not a public policy priority (MALOUTAS and FUJITA, 2012).

Using the Mediterranean to probe contemporary urban segregation trends

3This paucity of research, not to mention this inattention to urban segregation as an issue in the Mediterranean, might be surprising. Indeed, there is a striking contrast between the myth of the friendly and cosmopolitan Mediterranean city and the historical reality of extremely fragmented cities that have been the trying ground for new ways for social groups to mix, separate, and/or succeed each other in the urban space. It is in Mediterranean cities that some major historical models of residential segregation appeared: the Jewish getto (ghetto) in medieval Venice, the juxtaposition of ‘native’ and ‘European’ neighborhoods in French colonial cities of the Maghreb, the ‘unity by separation’ of religious minorities and commercial diasporas in Ottoman Mediterranean ports (CHRIST et al., 2015). Nevertheless, this difference between unitary myths and fragmented urban realities is precisely what makes the Mediterranean an interesting field site. The long denial of urban segregation in the Mediterranean is a reminder of how political it is as an issue, tied to representations of society and the city and thus to power relations between more or less dominant discourses of fairness or the common good. Only when the physical separation between social groups is seen as problematic and unfair is it made into a subject of scientific enquiry and methodological and statistical tools are developed to measure, map and understand it. Using the Mediterranean to approach the issue could potentially be particularly fruitful for studying the murky and implicit forms segregation takes in contemporary cities, while most public policy tends to adopt inclusive and egalitarian rhetorics.

  • 3 The concept of segregation only developed in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, but at the cost of ch (...)

4Indeed, far from subscribing to theories of urban fragmentation, the most recent and empirically sound publications continue to use the concept of ‘segregation’, in the United States as well as Europe, and demonstrate no overall increase in residential segregation over the past 30 years (CARY and FOL, 2012; MASSEY et al., 2009; MALOUTAS and FUJITA, 2012; OBERTI and PRÉTECEILLE, 2016). Although some cases of extreme segregation have drawn attention and fueled theories of urban fragmentation (the ‘citadels’ of the rich, ‘Roma camps’, etc.), they are still a minority in contemporary cities, which are rife with diffuse processes of partial segregation that are all the harder to see because they occur on a more local scale and concern social and educational settings as much as, if not more than, simple residential locations (OBERTI and PRÉTECEILLE, 2016; see the review in this issue). Policies promoting desegregation and residential mixing, very popular in European cities, can even lead to new forms of spatial segregation and inequality, which are the new frontier in the study of urban divisions (BRIDGE et al., 2012, 2014; BACQUÉ and CHARMES, 2016). All these authors suggest an integrated approach to the concept of segregation, encompassing both the first meaning of the word developed by the Chicago school in the 1920s (the process of the institutionally encouraged physical and social distancing of a minority group, usually based on ‘race’), and the broader meaning of the concept as it has developed in Europe since the late 1960s (the state of any given social group’s residential concentration3). Segregation thus designates any form of physical and/or social exclusion of a group (dominant or not, based on class, ‘race’, family status, etc.), whether the latter is extreme and institutionally promoted or partial and vague.

  • 4 Even on the Italian peninsula, for example, there are strong contrasts between northern cities th (...)

5Such partial and murky segregation dynamics are at work in Mediterranean cities as well. After a long silence, this theme finally prompted a growing body of work over the 2000s that nuanced the myth of the little-segregated Mediterranean city. Conducted in cities in Greece (MALOUTAS, 1997, 2004), Spain (PRÉTECEILLE, 1992), Italy (COUSIN and PRÉTECEILLE, 2008; RADINI, 2008; PFIRSCH, 2011; BARBAGLI and PISATI, 2012), Algeria (SEMMOUD, 1995) and Turkey (ATAÇ, 2015), to cite but a few, these studies have shown that although urban segregation indices are generally lower in the Mediterranean than in North America or Northwest Europe, this is due as much to political and cultural factors (the model of family housing access, for example; MALOUTAS, 1995, 2004; ALLEN et al., 2004; PFIRSCH, 2008) as it is to economic factors related to globalization, since Mediterranean cities are still incomplete metropolises with little power in the global economy. They have also shown the Mediterranean’s great internal diversity in terms of urban segregation, which varies according to the extent of cities’ tertiarization and how metropolitanized they are4. Most of all, this recent work has shown that even when it is rather weak, residential segregation can come with other forms of spatial exclusion: through schools (AUDREN, 2012), practices in public spaces, or types of housing. This is particularly true for migrants, as these various works have the strength of highlighting the role of new variables such as ‘race’ or gender in the segregation of Mediterranean cities in the age of migratory globalization (ARBACI, 2014; DADDAH, 2015). Finally, urban segregation has been studied in relation to collective mobilization around the right to the city and the integration of informal working-class neighborhoods, especially on the Mediterranean’s southern shore (FLORIN and ALITER, 2014).

6This special issue of Méditerranée is in the continuity of this research. It deals with residential segregation, but focuses on the segregative dynamics found in practices occurring in public spaces (see articles by Nick Dines, Matthieu Giroud, Sarah Baudry and Magda Bolzoni). It also emphasizes the discourses and representations that underlie, accompany and sometimes justify urban segregation (see articles by Nick Dines, Bruno Cousin, Francesca Governa and Sabira Kakouch), aware of the fact that in the Mediterranean, perhaps even more than elsewhere, contemporary segregative dynamics are often muddled by the political instrumentalization of unitary myths.

From ‘the Mediterranean’ to ‘Southern Europe’: Putting the regional city models through the segregation test

  • 5 Workshop ‘The ‘South of the North?’ Segregation in the cities of Southern Europe,’ held at the Ec (...)

7Although our call for papers addressed both sides of the Mediterranean, the vast majority of the articles received and all of those ultimately chosen relate to the European side, and are limited to four countries in Southern Europe: France, Italy, Greece and Portugal. We deeply regret this. It is partly due to academic networks: many of the articles in this issue result from a workshop held at the Ecole Française de Rome in June 2015 that focused solely on Southern Europe5. In addition, a call for papers for a Francophone journal – even if it is also put out in English – probably has difficulty attracting work on the eastern Mediterranean, which is mainly by English-speakers. But we should also cite the uneven development of statistical systems and urban research institutions on the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean basin, as well as post-colonial political factors that still have a strong influence on Mediterranean urban research. Young nation-states of the southern shore have long concentrated on condemning the ‘racial’ segregation of the colonial era, which contributed to a blind eye long being turned to class divisions and ‘social’ segregation that could challenge narratives of national unity (SEMMOUD, 1995). There is no lack of work on segregation in southern Mediterranean cities, however, and they are willingly described as models of the typical urban ‘fragmentation’ of neo-liberal policies, their peripheries juxtaposing informal working-class neighborhoods, elitist gated communities, tourist enclaves, and refugee camps turned neighborhoods of economic migrants (FLORIN et al., 2014). These studies remain scattered; they still mostly rely on concepts from research on the ‘North’, and furthermore, very few are based on an overall cartographic and statistical analysis at the citywide scale allowing precise measurement of the intensity and forms of spatial segregation.

8In contrast, comparative studies of southern European countries have been on the rise (ALLEN et al., 2004; PETSIMERIS, 2004; ARBACI, 2014), most of them facilitated by European integration (Eurostat data, academic exchanges). Renouncing the myth of the unified Mediterranean city, these comparative studies assert the relevance of a southern European urban model (often limited to Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, and excluding France). These four countries have common points regarding the welfare state (a ‘familialist’ model; ESPING ANDERSEN, 1990), housing policy (weak social housing, heavy reliance on informal and family networks, high rate of ownership), migratory history (former emigration countries that have recently become receiving countries and outposts of the Schengen fortress), and, more recently, problems with tax evasion and public management dysfunction. The sovereign debt crisis, which hit Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal especially hard, has further reinforced this vision of Mediterranean Europe as a hybrid space, constituting a kind of “South of the North” (LEONTIDOU, 2014), or an ‘internal Other’ (see Nick Dines’ article in this issue). This special issue also intends to use urban segregation to re-examine the relevance of this ‘southern European model’ and question the relationship between global trends and local contexts in globalization. Far from referring to an ontological reality, this issue considers the ‘southern European’ or ‘Mediterranean’ models to be analytical tools, frames of reference (HERZFELD, 2005). The articles that follow show the differences between the countries they address, at a time when institutional re-organization of the nation-state (regionalization, the emergence of new metropolitan administrative bodies), as seen in Italy or Spain for example, lead to an intense diversification of urban policies.

Presentation of the articles

9Although the bulk of the articles concern other forms of segregation, three take a classic approach to the issue of residential segregation. They do so at the local level, showing the importance of social disparities in the urban blocks, streets, and even buildings in the cities of Southern Europe. The article by Thomas Maloutas and Stavros Spyrellis studies vertical segregation in Athens (social disparities between different floors of the same building), often presented as a typical feature of Mediterranean cities. It is one of the first solid empirical studies on this theme, which researchers often assert but rarely measure, and it was made possible by analysis of recent quantitative data (the 2011 Greek census is the first allow the floor to be taken into account). It also represents the first attempt to map vertical segregation at the scale of a metropolis, combining social and ethnic segregation. It reveals that vertical segregation is present both in the Athenian center and its suburbs: it is most typical of neighborhoods dominated by the upper-middle classes (wealthy and property-owner classes on higher floors, lower floors housing less secure tenants, often of foreign backgrounds), while the buildings seem to be more homogeneous in the poor (and ethnic) districts of the center. Another strength of this article is that it goes against culturalist explanations of vertical segregation by demonstrating the housing market’s role in its production. In Athens it appears to be linked to the urban factory model of the expansion of the 1950s-1970s, based on the informal construction of small apartment buildings by individuals, where the upper floors with a view were reserved for the building owners and their relatives and the lower floors were rented to pay off building costs or supplement the owner’s family income.

10The article by Marco Picone on Palermo’s ZEN neighborhood (‘Zona Espansione Nord’) concerns an uncommon form of residential segregation in Southern Europe: a large publicly planned social housing development. In contrast with the image of a Mediterranean Europe devoid of social housing, Italian policies for building large developments in the functionalist architectural style were in fact established in the 1950s, resulting in the ZEN neighborhood in Palermo, Vele in Naples, and the Corviale in Rome, to name some better-known examples. Although occupants have now bought out a significant proportion of social housing facilities, some large housing projects have ended up as neighborhoods concentrating poverty, highly stigmatized and marked by organized crime. In this (minus the ethnicization) they have points in common with French public housing projects on the urban periphery. The originality of Marco Picone’s study is that it goes beyond the monolithic image that is often built from outside of these neighborhoods to stress the internal socio-spatial contrasts within them. Based on a field study, the article highlights the differences between the two sections of the neighborhood. ZEN 1 (dating to the 1950s) is better equipped, opens onto public spaces, and has a higher proportion of property-owners, while ZEN 2 (planned in the 1960s) became overcrowded after the 1986 earthquake and has many illegal residents and very few public facilities. Even within ZEN 2, there are strong contrasts between social housing blocks that are illegally occupied, very degraded, and those inhabited by ‘official’ residents. The article also shows the ambivalence of neighborhood rehabilitation policies, described as neoliberal, which, although they do concretely improve the inhabitants’ everyday life, do not account for these differences and are based on a monolithic image of a neighborhood to be controlled.

11Sabira Kakouch is interested in a form of residential segregation that is both strong and institutionalized: camps for migrant populations. Rather well established in Europe, for the past twenty years the system of moving mobile populations into camps has been expanding at the gateways to the Schengen zone, in southern European countries. In Italy, however, their development has been particularly intense, concerning everything from refugee detention camps to informal camps for agricultural migrant workers (FILHOL, 2016) and Roma camps (VITALE, 2011; SIGONA, 2005). Kakouch’s article deals with campi attrezzati, which Italian authorities designed especially for the Roma. The study traces the development of this policy creating camps on a national scale, showing how it was systematized after 2008 and the state of emergency decreed by the Berlusconi administration. Italian authorities are trying to dismantle informal settlements to gather the Roma in equipped and standardized camps located in the outskirts of major cities. A case study of two camps on the edge of Rome shows their spatial arrangement, dedicated to ‘insertion’ but also to the control of these populations. One of this article’s contributions is to insist on the justifications behind this camp-creation policy, which is paradoxically carried out in the name of an ideology of inclusion based on an imagined conception of Romas’ ‘nomadic culture’. However, most of the articles in this special issue deal with segregation in the practices of public space usage. Some focus on gentrifying neighborhoods that are residentially mixed but subject to dynamics separating residents, as observed through their daily movements (Matthieu Giroud), nocturnal practices (Magda Bolzoni), and the extent of participation in local politics (Sarah Baudry). This approach is aptly expressed by the title of Matthieu Giroud’s article on the Alcantara neighborhood in Lisbon, “Living in the same neighborhood, occupying the same city?” In these case studies, segregation is captured through the segmentation of residents’ everyday movements. Systems of everyday places are analyzed by means of displacement matrices collected during interviews with residents and represented in original diagrams. The article shows that inhabitants’ daily movements differ considerably according to their social class (mid- to high-level white collar workers have more diversified practices of the city), age (retired people are more anchored in the district), gender (“The neighborhood is much more practiced by men than women, whose associations are more discontinuous and strongly linked to school hours”) and - dimensions too rarely emphasized in urban studies - residential trajectory and residential seniority in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, this segmentation of mobility is not always synonymous with segregation: there are also space/times when the neighborhood is shared by all, at noon and at the end of the day. The neighborhood’s traditional squares thus hold out as shared public spaces, and even new recreational areas intended for gentrifiers are still used by long-standing residents, often in unplanned ways (such as fishing off the docks or clandestine peddling).

12The article by Magda Bolzoni also analyzes a mixed neighborhood undergoing gentrification - San Salvario in Turin - but concerns its nocturnal practices. Qualitative research led her to uncover the ‘visible division’ of practices in public spaces that has developed since the late 1990s. While residents, and especially migrants, meet in the neighborhood’s outlying streets around the railway station, evening gatherings take place in the center and concern almost exclusively the ‘Italian’ middle classes from elsewhere in the city, who use the bar terraces as markers of a symbolic ownership of the streets. Sarah Baudry’s article concerns another old working-class neighborhood adjacent to the center in the process of gentrification: the Testaccio-Ostiense in Rome. She analyzes segmentation in local political participation in order to question the myth of a Mediterranean urbanity attached to a ‘culture of place’. Baudry examines the role that residents and local civil society play in territorial construction and shows, as has been observed in other gentrified neighborhoods (TISSOT, 2011; SEMI, 2015), that political participation mainly concerns a population that “may have significant levels of cultural capital and/or [have] recently arrived, with strong legitimacy.” Even if the latter are attentive to the other categories present in the neighborhood, they have their own vision of the city: “despite the inclusive discourse, [local associations] may not always promote the aspirations formulated by migrants.”Lastly, the final group of articles addresses discourses and representations that contribute to the production or justification of segregation in southern European cities, whether they come from political bodies (Nick Dines), academic research (Francesca Governa), or residents (Bruno Cousin). Based on urban renewal policies in Naples, Nick Dines shows the impact of representations of public space - or rather, ‘good public space’ - in the implementation of segregative processes: “segregation cannot be understood simply as the material outcome of a set of overlapping processes and measures, but it also needs to be considered as something immanent to the competing ideological discourses about the appropriate nature of the urban public realm.” Dines shows how conceptions of southern European public spaces, based on the ‘myth of the place’, have always functioned as ‘acts of enclosure’, promoting good use of space to better exclude non-conforming users, as seen in the exaltation of northern Italian merchant cities that serve to ostracize southern Italian cities. This is also true on an intra-urban scale: heritage restoration policy for the historic center of Naples, like that for the train station square, was made in the name of reinstating a sense of civility, rejecting the prevailing informal working-class practices as abnormal and introducing ‘separating trajectories’ between good and bad users in public spaces. “Segregation in public space thus fundamentally exists as something desired: political discourses about a regenerated historic center contain within them trajectories of separation, where public space is imagined as a contact zone between civic-minded and culturally conscious citizens and tourists, and where the recalcitrant is either reformed or kept at bay.”Academic research concepts can also have segregative effects, reifying the negative image of an urban neighborhood. This is what Francesca Governa shows in a comparative study of scientific and political discourse on two neighborhoods considered as urban ‘margins’: Belle de Mai in Marseille and Barriera di Milano in Turin. The author denounces the essentializing potential of certain scientific concepts applied to disadvantaged neighborhoods (such as ‘outskirts’ and ‘suburbs’). These concepts actually reinforce the isolation of these neighborhoods because they are systematically considered to be ‘distant’ from the center: “Using various concepts (segregation, etc.), deprived urban areas are conventionally represented in a dualistic framework highlighting their distance (physical, social, economic and so on) from a center.” This distance is, moreover, often interpreted as a discrepancy, in a normative judgment: “this distance is seen as the sign of a lack of something good.” Coming back to the perspective opened by Jennifer Robinson and subaltern studies, the author calls for a ‘weak theory’, produced from below, that considers these neighborhoods as ‘ordinary spaces’.Lastly, Bruno Cousin’s article examines a dimension little explored in the social sciences: “the ordinary representations and justifications of the socio-spatial order by the upper classes that benefit from it.” The article deals with the segregation of upper classes, which is rarely studied despite the fact that segregation is usually the highest in this group, in Southern Europe as elsewhere. The analysis focuses on the comprensori of suburban Milan, recent and sometimes gated neighborhoods mainly inhabited by corporate executives. Supported by in-depth fieldwork, the article shows that although segregation is not problematized in Italian politics and media, it is omnipresent, fully assumed, and justified in the discourse of certain categories of the upper classes. In the well-to-do comprensori of the Milanese suburbs, a securitarian and racialized rhetoric fuels a residential withdrawal that is usually more associated with the middle classes and which contrasts with the comparatively low segregation indices of the Lombard city overall.

13This is naturally a very incomplete picture of urban segregation in Southern Europe, and reveals the limitations of this nascent field of study. Three of these limitations are striking. First, all the articles in this special issue deal with metropolises, while the bulk of the Mediterranean urban structure is composed of small and medium-sized cities and towns. In Southern Europe as elsewhere, theories of contemporary segregation are still largely produced from the command centers of globalization, a phenomenon that can in fact be very intense in smaller cities distinguished by lower social diversity and population turnover (LAPEYRONNIE, 2008). The second limitation concerns this issue’s lack of genuinely comparative approaches, as its contributions examine southern European cities rather than truly comparing them. Although such comparisons are complicated by the diversity of national statistical systems, ethnic and socio-professional classifications, and the administrative divisions that determine the scales of available census data, recent work has shown that they are possible (COUSIN and PRÉTECEILLE, 2008). The last limitation revealed by this special issue is also methodological. With the exception of the article by Thomas Maloutas and Stavros Spyrellis on Athens, all contributions take localized and qualitative approaches focused on particular neighborhoods or spaces of a city that are typical cases of segregation (social housing developments, Rom camps, gentrifying neighborhoods, elite citadels). These approaches are certainly essential for comprehending the processes of segregation, but they have the disadvantage of leaving the segregative dynamics of more ‘ordinary’ neighborhoods in the shadows. More significantly, they cannot lead to a measurement of segregation or give a metropolitan-scale view, when segregation may go up in certain neighborhoods or for a given social category while decreasing in other spaces or social groups. By associating localized qualitative approaches with metropolitan-scale statistical analyses, future work will truly be able to make generalizations and answer the questions this issue raises about southern European urban segregation.

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1 In addition to the concept of fragmentation, ‘seclusion’ (Wacquant, 2010) has been proposed to designate all forms of spatial regrouping/enclaving of social groups under the ‘‘punitive’ and securitarian turn of neoliberal democracies (from migrant camps to the gated community), in the city as in rural areas.

2 It was not until 2012 that the first solid statistical study was published in Italy, enabling accurate mapping and measurement of residential segregation in large cities and the peninsula (Barbagli and Pisati, 2012)

3 The concept of segregation only developed in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, but at the cost of changing its meaning (Brun, 1994). In Europe the term is not used to indicate the intentional exclusion of a stigmatized group, but simply the residential concentration of a social group. Segregation is in a way reduced to the “social division of urban space” (Roncayolo, 1972).

4 Even on the Italian peninsula, for example, there are strong contrasts between northern cities that have retained an industrial base with little segregation (Turin, Florence), and Rome, which is the hyper-tertiarized capital with a global reach and high segregation indices (Barbagli and Pisati, 2012). Similarly, although Athens is characterized by very low residential segregation indices, Madrid appears much more segregated than many northern European cities (Préteceille, 1992)

5 Workshop ‘The ‘South of the North?’ Segregation in the cities of Southern Europe,’ held at the Ecole française de Rome 8-9 June 2015, with the support of the following research centers: Geographie-Cités (Universités Paris 1 and 7), Calhiste (Université de Valenciennes), and Cultura, Politica e Società (Università degli Studi di Torino).

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Bibliographical reference

Thomas Pfirsch and Giovanni Semi, Segregation in the cities of the European MediterraneanMéditerranée, 127 | 2016, 15-23.

Electronic reference

Thomas Pfirsch and Giovanni Semi, Segregation in the cities of the European MediterraneanMéditerranée [Online], 127 | 2016, Online since 01 November 2016, connection on 05 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Thomas Pfirsch

Université de Valenciennes, Calhiste (EA 4343)

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Giovanni Semi

Università di Torino

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