Urbanization in Tahiti: Papeete's Domino Effect

In Papeete, the urban center of French Polynesia, problems of sustainability arise in complex ways relating both to human culture and to the natural environment. Transformation in both realms is ultimately rooted in the history of colonization in the region and the resulting creation of the Papeete as a center of commerce and transport.

In the present these problems are being addressed in part with the Urban Social Cohesion Contract (CUCS), developed by the city government but based on a French model of the same name. The contract aims to reduce crime and to ameliorate access to employment, housing, education, and healthcare. The study conducted by the government found 21 areas of difficulty relating to problems of social cohesion and lack of infrastructure. The contract aims to focus on specific problems at different levels--neighborhood, community, city, and region. The main programs put in place have been successful at neighborhood and community levels, but the divisions between populations create a gap that has yet to be bridged to form a cohesive social unit for the city and its underdeveloped neighborhoods.[1]

None of the problems outlined in CUCS is exclusive to Papeete, but the way they arose in the city is a relates in specific ways to European contact and colonization. Papeete appears in many ways to be a Western a city, with roads and buildings constructed on European and American models, and it is a city that would not have come into existence without the influence of Westerners. Papeete developed from the point of European contact and continued to develop until it plateaued following the tourist boom and nuclear testing programs of the 1970s. France thus shaped the social and physical infrastructure of Papeete with its economic and foreign policies.

Miriam Kahn, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, argues that this relationship between a foreign power and its colony is unique: “Unlike other colonial relationships rooted in economic exploitation, this one, instead, is motivated by economic investment and national pride.” Instead of stripping Tahiti of its resources and leaving it barren, France aimed to cultivate the island both for its resources and its culture. The downside of this process has been class stratification, with primarily French and demi (i.e. mixed-race) families controlling the top of an economic system that Kahn describes as “self-perpetuating.” These elites maintain power in Papeete by controlling the economic and education system, limiting social mobility.[2]

A large part of this self-perpetuating cycle is the population of the city and the access that population has to jobs, housing, and the other items discussed in CUCS. For Papeete, the numbers paint an interesting picture: the city holds 26,017 residents, while the number of jobs stands at 31,000, just shy of half the jobs in all of French Polynesia. The overall population of the city has experienced a fluctuation of less than 5% for the past 36 years, which means jobs are filled by commuters from other islands or residents who live away from the city. More people work in the city than actually live there. This creates potential strain on resources--commuters use a lot of gas in one year, even if they take the ferry--but also a problem of social cohesion. With a population that fluctuates daily, building a central community presents a challenge.[3]

Even with a stable population, housing also poses a problem for Papeete. Trends indicate long-term movement away from the city center and out to neighboring districts. The city center holds 7,700 residences out of 34,000 for the greater Papeete area and surrounding districts such as Faa'a. Papeete also has more vacant residences compared to those areas – 6.15% in 2002 and 7.62% in 2007, compared to 4.23% for the surrounding area. Movement out of the city creates urban sprawl into the valleys, often into already unfavorable or underdeveloped living areas. Within the city, two out of three residences are houses, suggesting a trend toward more private living quarters and a movement away from community living. The number of renters and owners is about evenly divided, with 43% of people renting and 46% owning (and 10% living in free housing).[4]

Figure 1.
Urban sprawl leading from Papeete into the district of Faa'a shows how graffiti and decrepit buildings lead to the collapse of the social structure of the city. Photo Bethany Reynolds, February 2012.

Pockets of poverty in Papeete create the same problems one would expect to find in any city: alcohol abuse, graffiti, prostitution, domestic abuse, underemployment, lack of education, etc. Although ethnic groups from various islands or countries find and develop their own neighborhoods, their culture is affected by the conditions of the city.[5] Traditions may prove hard to maintain when living in less-than-desirable conditions, or when dealing with an unfamiliar infrastructure. The buildings in the city are often a prime example of this. Apartments modeled after western buildings not only stray from traditional open-air structures of Polynesia, but many lack proper ventilation for the weather conditions in the tropics.[6]

Cultural revival movements that began in the 1960s have extended into present day, resulting in dance festivals such as the Heiva and canoe races, as well as the re-emergence of tatau and tapa as art forms. While these certainly indicate an ability to sustain traditional Polynesian culture in a significant way, the major challenge for Papeete is to combine these traditions with their existing infrastructure to create a Polynesian city in place of a Western capital in a French Polynesian country. Alexandrine Celentano, in exploring the cultural differences between Tahitian youth and their elders, documented this concept in action. Tahitian youth seemed excited and invigorated by sport and by artisanal and folkloric traditions, either as professions or pass-times. The difference between the generations lies in the integration of Western cultures (particularly Californian and Hawaiian culture). This integration, Celentano argues, is only possible because the youth of Tahiti are not politically combative against Europe. Tahitian youth are more open to letting Western culture mix with Tahitian culture for new ideas, visible in surf shops and in new techniques for tattooing and woodcarving. Celentano's article mentions that youth in poor neighborhoods in Papeete should be the focal point of these movements, and to some extent CUCS has adopted this strategy.[7] Recognizing that culture degenerates when the city is viewed solely as a place of work, CUCS aims to make Papeete more than just an industrial center. On a neighborhood scale, this work has been successful, but uniting neighborhoods into a community has proved difficult.[8]

Figure 2.
Despite increased integration of Western culture, graffiti in the city still shows distaste for relics of European expansion into Polynesia. Photo Bethany Reynold February 2012.

In addition to a lack of a central cultural community, Papeete also deals with an influx of migrant cultures. In 2002, one out of ten residents came from another island. This creates pockets in the city of very strongly bonded neighborhoods made up of immigrants from the same islands. The city finds it difficult to create a cohesive culture based around a working population.[9] This working population is also defined by social stratification, typically along ethnic lines. An examination of ethnicity in French Polynesia by Laura Schuft shows “that of the working population born outside of French Polynesia, more than three quarters occupied positions in superior sectors [of the workforce].” This stratification is fortified by the fact that many Europeans who work in civil servant positions are only allowed temporary stays of four years, creating a conveyor belt of migrants from Europe. These migrations coupled with inter-island migrations further divide the city.[10]

Another difficulty presented by migration in and out of the city is a generational gap. For many French Polynesians, Papeete is the only place to receive secondary or tertiary education. Even for pre-elementary and elementary schools, about 1/3 of students come from outside the island. That creates a young population: 46% is age 0 – 25; 46.5% is 25 – 60; 7.5% of the population is over 60. This creates problems in both Papeete and on other islands. Papeete again is faced with the challenge of blending cultures from individual islands while trying to deal with a rapid turnover in population. Although many students stay to work in Papeete, many return home to their islands after their education, which limits population growth. For those who stay to work, however, community members back home may view the city as detracting from their population and changing their culture. These views create a tense situation from outside the city. Papeete faces pressure from the rest of French Polynesia to resist urbanization, despite any benefits or opportunities having an urban center may present.[11]

Figure 3.
Historical Maps, compiled by Emmanuelle Thénot.

Pre-contact, Tahiti was divided into districts operated by ari'i families, but everyone had access to the land in different ways--ari'i ideally managed the resources to ensure that the community was cared for properly. The concept of ownership differed vastly from Western ideas about control and possession. The traditional Tahitian concept of the household centers on the idea of shared land, with multiple structures for different activities in daily life--sleeping, cooking, eating, as well as places for trees and plants.[12] Although for many Tahitians these ideas have survived through to the present day, the current trend is toward privatized land ownership in place of communal living. Studies have shown that communal living is more efficient in many ways, but most prefer more Western domiciles.[13] Kahn writes: “Both ancient history and contemporary life are grounded in the relationship between people and land, and all that this relationship encompasses, bestows, and justifies.”[14]

The use of land in present-day Papeete, then, represents a break in this way of thinking and thus a break in this relationship. The idea of honoring the land is largely lost with the build-up of Western-style infrastructure. Kahn argues that “land is still the most valuable Tahitian substance. It provides people with the means to survive and care for their offspring, as well as with a moral and spiritual feeling of identity and connection.”[15] With the continuing urbanization of Papeete, land is subject to commercial pressures instead of functioning as a traditional resource. This shift in point of view leads to a variety of pressures, not only because privatized living uses more resources, but also because the movement away from tradition creates the potential for historical rupture. “As the place upon which ancestral movements and settlements are imprinted,” Kahn writes, “land connects individuals to their family history through their genealogies.”[16] Thus European transformation of land use disconnects Tahitian social structure.

European partitions came about as soon as colonization began. Historic maps of the city demonstrate this process well. A map of the area in 1823 shows scattered structures near water. In 1842, the area was chosen to become a place of French Administration because of its ideal location and existing political structure.[17] According to the Musee de Tahiti, “Papeete was designed by military engineers and evolved according to the needs of the moment.”[18] Almost 40 years after its designation as the center of French administration, Papeete as a city is beginning to take shape as people are concentrated in higher numbers in a small area. This set the trend for the present-day city, which functions as the political center of French Polynesia and has the largest ethnically European community of all of French Polynesia.[19]

By 1940 clearly defined grid-pattern roads are in place.[20] Between 1936 and 1946, the population in Papeete increased by 46.8%, while the surrounding districts only increased by 22.3%. This suggests that sprawl had not yet become a problem.[21] In the following ten years, however, the outside districts doubled in population, primarily from internal migration out of Papeete proper. The population of the city itself declined to just over a quarter of the territorial total.[22] In a 1962 report about population in Tahiti, the author argues that the urbanization pattern in Papeete is similar to that of Hawaii, in terms of “the growth of cities and then of suburbs, their reliance on in-migration, the existence of important urban-rural demographic differences, and the development of urban neighborhoods with distinctive functions and populations.”[23] This comparison to the United States provides insight to the amount of Westernization that had already taken place by the beginning of the 1960s--a fact that could imply a movement toward the same problems facing U.S. and European cities following their own urban development.

By 1967, when the first nuclear testing had been started and the push for a tourist industry had taken off, not only had the city grown but the industrial port had been built.[24] At the same time the implementation of nuclear testing programs spurred cultural revival movements that have lasted through present day and are used with CUCS to motivate youth.[25] As growth continued into 1978, clearly defined urban sprawl takes over the valleys leading into the city. Underdeveloped and unauthorized roads create transportation issues, a break from the clear-cut European grid roads. By 2002, the sprawl continued to grow west and south of the city center in disorganized and unplanned routes, while the economic center of the city--the port--developed and expanded further.[26] While the efforts to promote social cohesion and cultural integration in the CUCS plan hold promise, trends for the future development of Papeete are at the same time restricted by the demographic and economic structure of modern French Polynesia.

Bethany Reynolds, Boston University


[1] City of Papeete, Le Contrat Urbain de Cohésion Sociale de l'agglomération de Papeete (2007). Web. 10 Jan. 2012. http://www.cucs.pf/

[2] Miriam Kahn, “Tahiti Intertwined: Ancestral Land, Tourist Postcard, and Nuclear Test Site,” American Anthropologist 102.1 (2000): 7-26. Jstor. 24 Jan. 2012.

[3] Emanuelle Thénot, “Émergence et développement de l’espace urbain de l’agglomération de Papeete,” (City of Papeete, Tahiti, n.d.).

[4] Thénot. “Émergence et développement”; Emanuelle Thénot, Urbanist for Papeete, Personal Interview, 2 Feb. 2012.

[5] City of Papeete, Le Contrat Urbain de Cohésion Sociale

[6] Emanuelle Thénot, Urbanist for Papeete, Personal Interview. 2 Feb. 2012.

[7] Alexandrine Brami Celentano, “La jeunesse a Tahiti: renouveau identitaie et reveil culturel,” Ethnologie francaise 32.4 (2002):647-661. JStor. 30 Jan. 2012.

[8] Jean-Baptiste Raynal, Territorial Development for Papeete, Personal Interview. 2 Feb. 2012.

[9] Thénot. “Émergence et développement.”

[10] Laura Schuft, “Ethnic Representations and Social Integration of Post-Colonial French Migrants in Tahiti, French Polynesia,” Pacific Studies 31.2 (2008): 25-52. JStor. 30 Jan. 2012.

[11] Thénot, “Émergence et développement”; Thénot, Personal Interview, 2 Feb. 2012.

[12] Kahn, “Tahiti Intertwined,” 10.

[13] Thénot, Personal Interview, 2 Feb. 2012.

[14] Kahn, “Tahiti Intertwined,.” 10.

[15] Kahn, “Tahiti Intertwined,”10.

[16] Kahn, “Tahiti Intertwined,”” 10.

[17] Thénot, “Émergence et développement.”

[18] Interpretative Materials, Musée de Tahiti. 30 Jan. 2012.

[19] Thénot, Personal Interview, 2 Feb. 2012.

[20] Thénot, “Émergence et développement.”

[21] Robert C. Schmitt, “Urbanization in French Polynesia.” Land Economics 38.1 (1962): 71-75. JStor. January 23, 2011.

[22] Thénot, “Émergence et développement.”

[23] Schmitt, “Urbanization in French Polynesia.”

[24] Thénot, “Émergence et développement.”

[25] Celentano, “La jeunesse a Tahiti,.” 650.

[26] Thénot, “Émergence et développement.”

How to cite this page:
Bethany Reynolds. “Urbanization in Tahiti: Papeete's Domino Effect,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]