The choice of the case study is motivated by different reasons: on the one hand Nice provide the typical traits of that geographical area and on the other it provides elements of originality in flood management and makes this case study an interesting context where to test our main findings of the national analysis.

  • The first criterion was to have each city in a different basin district of France (6 of them in total) and on a different river. Nice belongs to the “Rhône Méditerrannée and Corse” basin district. The main river found in Nice is le Var. The city provides the typical southern flooding profile (ie. Mediterranean) (see geographical context). It is characterized by flash floods, river floods and marine submersion.
  • Secondly, Nice is the most southern case study in the Starflood project and it is characterized by the same dynamics typical of the Mediterranean cities: high urban density, economy highly dependent on tourism and it is affected by a multiplicity of natural risk: forest fires, landslides, earth quakes, and flooding. A potential prioritisation among major risks in this policy domain has to be taken into account. On this regard, some observers claim that the risk of flooding is considered rather a new one compared to in particular to forest fires. In this last domain an overwhelming policy has been started since the 70s, which now identifies a comprehensive policy at the level of the department. This is not the case for the risk of flooding, which still lacks a comprehensive vision. It is still based at the level of each river flow. The risk of rock and landslide has also been taken into account for a longer time and receive specific attention from local institutions.
  • Thirdly, the history of Nice and of its urban development is strongly connected to its main rivers, the Paillon and the Var, which will be at the centre of our attention. These two rivers represent two different époques in the development of the city: the old city of Nice – built on the riversides of Paillon – and the city of tomorrow – the one which will rise along the river Var. Flooding represents a structuring problematic in both cases but, as we will see, with two different answers in terms of governance approach and solutions.

France Political MapFigure 1: map of France with location of Nice

Paillon is an urban watercourse flowing in the heart of Nice. The medieval city has developed along this river course. The progressive urbanization of its riversides has marked the successive evolution of the city. The down-stream side has undergone successive transformations in order to meet the touristic vocation of the city since the middle of the XIX century. In order to satisfy these needs and to palliate the lack of space, the successive administrations since the XIX were in favour of covering it (partially) to create more space for administrative, cultural institutions and lately for projects of sustainable development. Even though the Paillon is considered a small river, its abrupt flooding causes important damages and is the object of specific attention. As it is not a state-owned river, it is managed locally by an inter-municipal associations created ad hoc to deal with its flooding. A specific program, called “Contrat de riviere”, has been elaborated for this purpose and is actually under way. This tool defines a specific governance framework relying on the combination of risk and water management.

Nonetheless in order to meet the competition with other European cities, Nice needs space to develop and the city centre, with its dense urbanization, is already saturated. The Var Valley, located in the western part of the city, represents the only available space for the future development of the city. After a chaotic development in the Var area, in 2009 a national operation has been started. This combines and integrates economic development and environmental sustainability –including the risk of flooding – in a unique project called Operation of National Interest Eco-Vallée. This is based on a local doctrine of flood risk management which will be at the center of our attention: this doctrine represents a real challenge in the way of combining ‘opposing’ goals (urban and economic expansion versus environmental sustainability) and in the legal basis provided to do so. For this reason this case appears highly interesting as it informs on how urbanization and flood risk management is tackled in a unique project and, on a more general basis, how the national legislation on flooding is challenged in the framework of this kind of projects.

The fourth criterion is connected to the previous one and is linked to the specific governance configurations on the two rivers. The Paillon is governed by a local coalition mainly involved in river restoration and water quality. It is so that in this context flooding is dealt with in the framework of river sustainable development and mitigation while protection is not put forwards as a priority.

The Var provides a rather different and complex governance configuration. All institutional levels are represented and their coordination constitutes a central challenge. The State, together with its deconcentrated services, is directly involved. Local authorities, like the Département, play an important part, as they are the main owner or managers of dikes. Last but not least, the inter-municipal organization, Nice Métropole, is very involved in flood management policies. Compared to the Paillon situation, in the Var Valley water organizations are not very influent: in the past they did play role but have recently been integrated to the Département of Alpes Maritimes. Nice represents a case marked by the dominance and implication of numerous urban planning and development authorities.

Research questions

  • The Paillon and the Var provide two types of approaches to flooding and governance frameworks. In the two cases, flooding is associated to different problems, in one case, water quality and sustainability and in the other case, mainly urban development. How can we explain such a difference? To what extent are these configurations and flood management systems separated?
  • While the trend is towards an increased disengagement of the state, in this case the State intervenes with a national operation: a national project – Operation of National Interest Var Plain – which aims to integrate flood management and development. What’s the reason for such a different approach? To what extent was a “national” operation justified?
  • What are the limits of the Eco-valley model? In other words, to what extent are risk management and urban development compatible?
  • Furthermore Nice has also a particular approach regarding flood management, with the implementation of a local doctrine (based on the Rhône Doctrine). To what extent is this political-economic operation legally sustainable?
  • Last but not least, the balance between risk prevention and environmental (water) issues remains a challenge that public policies have to tackle. The Var delta ecosystem with all its environmental aspects may be in contradiction with the flood risk management. To what extent is the objective of “Back to the Mediterranean face of the River” achievable?