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Le Havre

Le Havre  is a city in the Seine-Maritime department of the Haute-Normandie region in France. It is situated in north-western France, on the right bank of the mouth of the river Seine on the English Channel. Le Havre is the most populous commune in the Haute-Normandie region, although the total population of the greater Le Havre conurbation is smaller than that of Rouen. It is also the second largest subprefecture in France (after Reims). Its port is the second busiest in France (after that of Marseille). Since 1974 it has been the see of the diocese of Le Havre.

Le Havre was originally named Franciscopolis after King Francis I, who founded the city in 1517. A chapel known as Notre-Dame-de-Grâce ("Our Lady of Grace") existed at the site before the city was established, and the denomination lent its name to the port, to be called Le Havre (or Le Hable) de Grâce ("the harbor of grace"). The shortened name Le Havre, as used in modern times, simply translates as "the port" or "the harbor".

While under German occupation, the city was devastated in 1944 during the Battle of Normandy in World War II; 5,000 people were killed and 12,000 homes destroyed, mainly by Allied air attacks. After the war, the center was rebuilt in the modernist style by Auguste Perret. Le Havre was honored with the Legion of Honor award on 18 July 1949. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

Le Havre was once synonymous with urban gloom and greyness. The city's inhabitants have done much to change this; as a result of substantial improvements, Le Havre is now spoken of as the Brasilia of France.

Le Havre's home port code is LH.


The name Le Havre simply means the harbour or the port. Le Havre was founded as a new port by royal command, partly to replace the historic harbors of Harfleur and Honfleur which had become increasingly impractical due to silting-up. The city was founded in 1517, when it was named Franciscopolis after Francis I of France, and subsequently named Le Havre-de-Grâce ("Harbor of Grace") after an existing chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce ("our Lady of grace").

In the 18th century, Le Havre began to grow, as trade from the West Indies was added to that of France and Europe. In 1759 the city was the staging point for a planned French invasion of Britain - thousands of troops, horses and ships being assembled there - only for many of the barges to be destroyed in the Raid on Le Havre and the invasion to be abandoned following the naval defeat at Quiberon.

On 19 November 1793, the city changed its name to Hâvre de Marat and later Hâvre-Marat in honor of the recently deceased Jean-Paul Marat, who was seen as a martyr of the French Revolution. By early 1795, however, Marat's memory had become somewhat tarnished, and on January 13, 1795, the town's name became simply Le Havre.

During the 19th century, it became an industrial centre.

The German-occupied city was devastated during the Battle of Normandy in World War II: 5,000 people were killed and 12,000 homes were totally destroyed, mainly by Allied air attacks. Despite this, Le Havre became the location of one of the biggest Replacement Depots, or "Repple Depples" in the European Theatre of operations in WWII. Thousands of American replacement troops poured through the city before being deployed to combat operations. After the war, the centre was rebuilt in modernist style by Auguste Perret. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. UNESCO declared the city center of Le Havre a World Heritage Site on 15 July 2005, in honoring the "innovative utilization of concrete's potential." The 133-hectare space that represents, according to UNESCO, "an exceptional example of architecture and town planning of the post-war era," is one of the rare contemporary World Heritage Sites in Europe.


The port city of Le Havre suffered catastrophic damage during the Second World War. Like many French coastal towns, the port fell under German-occupation in the early 1940s. Thousands of residents evacuated to refugee camps in the British zoned areas or further afield to neighbouring towns and makeshift shelters during this period. Le Havre continued to operate through the messiness of war. Much of the population opting to evacuate at dusk by foot, bicycle or wagon, only to return during daylight hours after the Allied Forces air bombardments (Dombrowski-Risser 2009, p. 63). Le Havre’s destruction culminated during the Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944. During the 5th and 6th days of September that year, Allied forces began their assault to liberate the city from German occupation. The majority of the 132 bombs to hit the city over the war period were employed in the days of this campaign, often described as the “storm of iron and fire” (Clout 1999, p. 187). The city was finally liberated from German-occupation on 12 September 1944.

Le Havre, France’s second largest port experienced the worst damage of any city in the country. Over 90% of the city was left in rubble; all major public buildings in the administrative centre including the stock exchange, city hall, and post office were destroyed, as well churches, the two hospitals, schools, shops and housing (Arnaud 2009). The port was rendered unusable due to the scattered wrecks blocking the channels and access docks. Major urban fires broke out in the city in the following days, destroying what little remnants left of historical significance. The city’s water mains had been obliterated by the RAF bombings, making the task of putting out the fires next to impossible (Fowle 1992). By the end of the war, a total of 5,000 civilians had been killed, 12,500 buildings destroyed and 80,000 people left homeless (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2005). Much of the earth was heavily mined and shelled; the original road grid erased from physical memory. The majority of the housing stock in the north-eastern suburbs of Aplemont and Graville had been entirely flattened. The task of recovery and reconstruction would require immense planning; both locally and from Paris. It was now up to the planners and policy makers to restore Le Havre with a new identity of historical strength and modern character.

Structured urban planning ideas and preparations had been in the works for Le Havre long before World War Two. The French Government drew up a law in 1919, specifying that any city with a population greater than 10,000 required a “plan for urban improvement, development and beautification” (UNESCO 2005, p. 4). The port struggled with the depravities of many European cities at the time. After the booming period of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the city’s population growth spiralled out of control with no structured urban planning to speak of. Appalling standards of sanitation and living conditions led the way for cramped and gloomy courtyards, polluted air and flooded basements in the residential neighbourhoods. Planning based on property speculation resulted in low quality construction of buildings and roads (Clout 1999, p. 189). Little development took place between the wars, even with the proposal of sanitation plans provided by private companies. The wartime Vichy government enacted a master plan for redevelopment in 1941 under the CRI agency for reconstruction, led by appointed urban planner Felix Brunau. Following the height of destruction, plans were shelved until 16 November 1944, when the French government formed the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urbanism (MRU) to resurrect damaged cities (Muller 2006). Many of the problems surrounding the erection of temporary housing on private land would be ironed out beneath this administration, at the expense of the state under expropriation.

Auguste Perret (1874–1954), a formative architect-turned-town planner was commissioned to oversee the reconstruction of the city centre and town plan in January 1945 by Raoul Dautry of the MRU (Kuhl, Lowis & Thiel-Siling 2008, p. 61). The city council requested Brunau form part of the planning team, but subsequently left a short time later due to creative conflicts with Perret (UNESCO 2005, p. 5). Traditionally built on the moist soil of marshlands, Perret envisioned the new grid of Le Havre to be elevated by 3.5 metres of concrete (Collins 2004, p. 273). Though this plan was unsuccessful due to costs and shortage of materials, debris was used to raise the level of the town centre. The use of reinforced concrete throughout the city’s buildings came to impose strength of character and dominance of the port. With relatively free access to land and space, Perret and his team of 60 architects and planners had the ability to interpret the spatiality of the city as required.

The triangular axis of the Boulevard Francois I, the Avenue Foch and Rue de Paris led the traveller north, south, east and west of the town centre. The pre-war shopping precinct of Rue de Paris was redesigned with wide footpaths. A surrounding gridiron street system allowed for opened shopping areas, far from the dense and overcrowded crannies of the old (Frampton 1995, p. 145). The Place de l’Hotel de Ville; the central square, was lined with 330 apartments around the edge in varying size and permitted a 1000 person occupancy. State funds also allowed for the build of high rise apartments over six blocks leading into the residential areas. These new apartments possessed the latest innovations including central heating (Clout 1999, p. 199). The Avenue Foch stretched 80 metres wide, a little more than the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The finest apartments were built here facing the northern sunlight. Beyond the concrete formations of the inner township stretched the Saint-Francois neighbourhood, made up of red bricked residences and slate rooflines. Aplemont’s three square kilometre rebuild consisted of detached housing, double story terraces and small apartment blocks. A church, community centre and shops also defined the new features.

Major public buildings designed by Perret himself include the Hotel de Ville, the Bourse du Commerce, and the churches of Saint Michel and Saint Joseph. Saint Joseph’s and its 110 metre tall spire holds significant value for the city as it is a built remembrance for Le Havre residents who lost their lives during the war. The inclusion of 7.7 square kilometres of green spaces with parks, gardens and woodlands added to the port’s urban renewal. This equates to an average of 41 square metres of green space per inhabitant, exceptional for any European city of its time. Le Havre’s historical significance in urban planning and revolutionary architecture culminated in the site’s addition to the World Heritage list under the UNESCO in 2005 (Global Compact Cities Program 2007).


Le Havre is the second largest subprefecture in France, and the administrative center of the district bordering the Sainte-Adresse commune.


Le Havre is situated in the southwest of the Pays de Caux region. The city is bordered by the seashore of the English Channel to the west, the mouth of the Seine to the south, and the coast to the north. Historically, the Seine marked a natural boundary between Haute-Normandie and Basse-Normandie; the city of Honfleur has often been referred to by the Havrais as being "on the other coast." As a port city on an exposed marshy coast, Le Havre has long suffered from poor land links. New road connections have been built since; among the most notable is the Pont de Normandie, which connects the two banks of the Seine and reduces traveling time between Honfleur and Le Havre to less than 15 minutes.


Le Havre is naturally separated into two areas by a cliff.
  • The ville basse, or lower city, comprises the port, the city center, and the peripheral regions. It was constructed on the ancient marshlands which were drained in the 16th century. The soil is composed of alluvium deposited by the river Seine. The city center, reconstructed after World War II, stands on approximately a meter (3.3 ft) of flattened rubble.
  • The ville haute, or upper city, is composed of "sensitive urban areas" or ZUS (Mont-Gaillard, Caucriauville, and Mare-Rouge). The wealthy north-west region of the upper city (Sainte-Adresse and Dollemard) is the highest in altitude (between 90 and 115 meters.)
A road tunnel and funicular railway ease transport between the lower and upper cities.


The population of the Le Havre area was about 191,000 in 1999, which makes it the 12th most populous city in France and the most populous in Haute-Normandie (although the total population of the greater Le Havre conurbation is smaller than that of Rouen's). It has seen a drop in population, particularly from 1975 to 1982; during these years of industrial decline the population fell by 18,000. During the 1980s the population continued to decrease, though less rapidly. Le Havre's city limit had a population of around 249,000 in 1999 (25th in France) and the urban area had a population of 297,000. With 20% of the population less than 20 years old, the city of Le Havre is relatively young, the population is also shrinking. The foreign-born population is estimated at 8,200, 4% of the population. Due to the economic changes that have affected the city, the CSP greatly evolved in the 1980s; between 1982 and 1999, the number of blue-collar workers decreased by a third (11,000). At the same time, the number of office workers and professionals increased by 25%, which partly explains the creation and development of the University of Le Havre.
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