Le Havre: Atlas of Research


“Urban growth and urban decline are situated next to each other and interact, so that urban growth and decline melt together – creating a dynamic, urban patchwork.”  Rocky Piro & Robin Ganser, 2013

The post is the first in a series of extracts taken from an atlas of work put together by our post graduate cohort 2013/14.  It is a documentation of their collective research about Le Havre, a city with UNESCO World Heritage status, in a highly dynamic and complex area of France. Le Havre with its surrounding region, on the English Channel and the estuary of the Seine, is not only a beautiful and historically significant area, but also a place of national and European interest. The Port of Le Havre and the River Seine link Rouen, Paris, and thereby France and the European Union, with the world, through trade and shipping, giving it great strategic importance. This atlas builds on the knowledge and generous help of the Agence d’Urbanisme de la Région du Havre et de l’Estuaire de la Seine (AURH), the Communauté de l’agglomération havraise (CODAH) and Le Havre Port among others, and is as a complement to their extensive research about the city.


Water shaped the history of Le Havre and the area around it. Water surrounds the city and penetrates its core, the waves of the English Channel beats against its shoreline, water comes up from the ground, it falls from the sky and it rushes over the riverbed of the Seine, out into the ocean.

This multitude of water has been a blessing and a challenge for Le Havre. It was the reason the city was founded at all, the reason it grew and became wealthy, the reason why impressionist artists came again and again to try to capture the changing light over waves and clouds; but also the reason the city was destroyed in such a terrible way during the Second World War. Regardless of the character of the historic events, water has always, and continues to, define the city.


The course of the river Seine from Rouen to Le Havre and the English Channel

The river Seine collects water from an area of 78,600 km ² in the Paris basin, and through a river system of 23 000 km of watercourses it brings 14 billion cubic meters of water down to the sea every year. On its way it flows through Paris, connecting the capital city with the city of Le Havre and the English Channel, that in turn connects both cities with the world through trade and shipping.

The Estuary

An estuary is defined as an area of a river that is under the influence of the tide of an ocean. For the Seine, it is the last 160 km, from the Poses dam upstream to the eastern part of the Baie de Seine downstream. It also includes the flood banks and wetlands along the river. The Seine estuary can be divided into three zones with different characteristics: the upper estuary, the middle estuary, and the lower estuary.

The hydrological functioning of the Seine estuary is influenced by several factors: the flow of the Seine with alternating low water (during summer) and flood (during winter); the tide from the sea; lateral inflows from tributaries, groundwater and runoff; and meteorological parameters (rainfall, wind and atmospheric pressure). This all leads to the estuary being a rich, complex and dynamic environment, with appearance and functions that vary not only throughout the year, but also during a day. The tide has the biggest influence on the water levels. During spring tide, the average tidal range is greater than 7m in the mouth and reaches 3.5m in Rouen. During neap tide it is lower: at the mouth 3m and 2m in Rouen. The tidal wave is stopped artificially by the Poses dam. This and other human interventions have altered the hydrodynamics of the Seine drastically.


Estuary of the Seine map, 1750

The Evolution of the Seine   

The Seine was considered an economic asset for Paris and the other cities along its course. Up until the middle of the 19th century Seine was still more or less undeveloped, making navigation on the river very difficult and dangerous. The river bed was broad, shallow and unstable, and especially the estuary behaved in a very unpredictable way, taking the form of an everchanging landscape of channels and sandbanks. A ship going up the river had to fight not only the mobile islands and banks but also currents, a strong tide and heavy mist.


Estuary Evolution, graphic: RebeckaGullstrand

Specially trained pilots worked as navigators on the Seine, guiding ships on their way to Rouen. The river was so unpredictable that a pilot that had been away from work for more than 4 days was not allowed to pilot a ship without first talking to a colleague with knowledge of the latest changes in the river. As the ships grew bigger, the problems increased and with the establishment of railways in the middle of the 19th century the ship trade up the river was threatened, putting strain on the port in Rouen in particular.


Dredging of The Seine 1903

Beginning in 1848 the Seine was slowly changed, making ship journeys both faster and safer. Embankments were gradually built to stabilize the navigation channel. This was combined with dredging to help increase and maintain the water depth; draining of marshlands; filling of shallow water; the creation of dams. This changed the appearance of the waterway enormously, reducing the total area of the estuary from 4360 ha in 1750 to 170 ha in 2005, and the number of islands from 117 to 19 during the same period. Today the estuary is strongly influenced and shaped by human activities, and maintenance in the form of dredging, dike building and so on is still necessary to maintain the navigation channel. Big volumes of sediments are being removed every year, up to a million cubic meters of mud, silt and sand annually.


From the west, La Manche washes the shores of Normandy, from the northeast the fertile fields roll towards the Le Havre. There is no surprise then that this exciting combination has embossed the unique agricultural heritage into the Norman landscape and into the souls of local communities. One can almost taste the exceptional cheeses with the centuries of a tradition and wash it down with the apple cider!  In the Upper Normandy, the fields of cereals, flax and potatoes run endlessly to the horizon whereas the landscape of Lower Normandy is scarred by bocage hedgerows. Somewhere the bocages bow above the pastures, somewhere above the ancient orchards or fields of crunchy vegetables.


Engraving: Ales Seitl

Organic Farming

A food product of organic agriculture results from a type of production free of synthetic chemicals. Organic farming is based on respect for natural balance, prefers cultural practices preserving the environment and ensures the agricultural, economic and social sustainability of farming. Since 1 January 2009, the new European regulation on organic production, and how it is labelled, came into force. This regulation is known as RCE 889/2008.

Conversion from conventional agriculture to the status of organic farming takes at least 2 years when the entire operation of a farm must be transformed in order to gain certificate (conversion of land and animals simultaneously). All rules must be respected during this period but the products cannot be sold in the biological circuit. An annual inspection is required by an accredited independent organization of the state. An annual notification of biological activity is required to Agence Bio.

food stats

Organic farms in Normandy are on rise.   Since 1995 their number has grown 7 times with the increase of 12% between 2010 and 2013.  The orientation of organic farms still reflects the traditional production of Normandy: cattle (milk and meat) and grains, vegetable and fruit (including cider apples), followed by other diverse products – sheep (almost exclusively for meat), laying hens, fragrant plants, aromatic and medicinal herbs, broilers, goats, pigs and bees.

market gardens

Image: Ales Seitl

Traditional Markets

There are still some traditional food markets in Le Havre, offering local and seasonal products, such as vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy products and seafood. They act as a direct link between the producers and the customers, between the countryside and the city.  In the ‘upper town’ some stall markets regularly rotate within the neighbourhoods. They are not permanent but are mostly on a ‘once a week’ basis.  In the lower town, more frequent markets are concentrated in and around the UNESCO centre. Permanent markets are located in Les Halles Centrales and in the fish market.



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