Month: September 2012

A new bookstore

A Sunday afternoon, just out from lunch, I got a pleasant surprise: a new big bookstore. I am not that much into sports, and the apparel stores bore me, but on the opposite side bookstores are my kind of retail. Even so, I feel guilty since I bought an e-book (the sq m real estate price is in for something, as my home is full of books).

The new La Central bookstore (from a Barcelona based chain) near Plaza de Callao shows an interesting book selection in an ingeniously renovated building. Can a paper bookstore resist in this wild culture digitalization frenzy? The future is uncertain, but the place has a good feeling, and probably its clients will be not just the average Madrileño, but also metropolitan dwellers looking for a sense or urban centrality and tourists visiting the city.

Biblio 8. Territoires 2040

The french territorial system in 2012. Click for a larger view

Today’s reading proposition is not a book, but a magazine that is based on an ongoing French territorial prospective project. The Délégation interministérielle à l’aménagement du territoire et à l’attractivité régionale (DATAR) is the french government’s agency that since 1963 has dealt with the state policies concerning wide area spatial planning, not limited to infrastructure provision as their work also includes the future location of land uses that will use these infrastructures and the issue of territorial balance between regions, in a country whose geographers have been obsessed for decades with the issues raised by Paris overwhelming dominance of the national dynamics.

Territoires 2040 aims to prepare through the state action the conditions for a stronger, more equitative and more coherent France. To that end a 16 months project has involved 300 experts of many disciplines.

The debate is organized taking into account seven spatial systems:

  • The French metropolitan urban system in the global scene
  • The integrated metropolitan systems
  • French gates to the territorial flows systems
  • The industrial dynamic spaces
  • Mid-sized cities and their influence areas
  • Residential and tourism led spaces
  • Low density spaces

28 scenarios have been imagined as a debate tool, 4 for each of the spatial systems.

There is no final conclusion or closed mode in the magazine’s issues that are online, but it is a powerful instrument to think about territories and their future.

The French metropolitan urban system in the global scene. 4 scenarios

Rail land

The rail systems were around the western world one of the first signs of the change brought by the first industrial revolution. The large passenger stations of the XIXth century were joined by goods stations in a moment in which the railroad was the only way to get a high speed transport of goods between distant points.
This pioneer role can be felt today as an obsolescence. One of the first modern speculative bubbles was the British Railway Mania of the 1840s, which exploded in 1846. Already in that moment companies had to be authorized by an Act of Parliament to gain the right to acquire land. Even if many of the companies were ruined by the end of the bubble, most of them were integrated into larger companies. With local differences, most of the European countries started their rail history with private companies, which with time were nationalized and again privatized. Meanwhile, the rail lines that were conceived to serve the XIXth century urban network have served societies that have been transformed. Many lines have been closed due to their economic failure as demography has changed, but also due to changes in the railway management systems or political decisions concerning the role of rail in the city.
The usual cases of rail evolution concerning urban planning is:

  •   Closure of entire lines that have been considered economically unsustainable. It is usually the case in demographically depressed areas and means that stations as well as track land are liberated. In many cases the entire lines have been reconverted into bike and pedestrian paths.
  • Closure of parts of the line in local areas, usually for straightening the lines, with scarce urban impact.
  •   New urban bypasses, suppressing level tracks in the urban areas. This eliminates the barrier effect of the level tracks, but turns the new station into a distant point, with urban integration problems. In Spain it is the case of cities such as Cuenca.
  • Burial of the urban rail thoroughfares. It is the most expensive solution, but it is usually the best for cities as it allows a stability of the urban centralities. This usually means associated urban operations with mixed uses in the old central stations, and the transfer to out of town sites of classification and goods stations. In Spain, it is the case of Logroño, León (to be executed) or Cordoba
  • Duplicity, with new stations for high speed in out of town sites, maintaining the old central stations for other trains, including metropolitan lines. It is usually a less satisfactory options. This is the case of Tarragona in Spain.

Public brownfields (3). Part Harperbury Hospital

Part Harperbury hospital opened in 1928 converted from a few aircraft hangars, aimed to care for children and adults with learning difficulties and epileptics, and evolved towards mental conditions treatment. The evolution of policies concerning these problems lead from 1973 to a progressive closure of the buildings.

Through the years the abandoned buildings were sacked and vandalized. A part of the buildings is still used as a mental care institution by the National Health Service, but the British Department of Health, as a part of a program that covers all the national Departments, has identified the property as for sale. A position near the M-25, the large outer London beltway, the 94 hectares including farmland (the largest NHS land for sale) and an estimated housing units capacity of 225-400 are interesting elements for eventual buyers, with an estimated disposal date in 2013-2014.

Public brownfields (2). Base Nature François Leotard

Frejus Aeronaval Base, with 135 hectares, near Saint Tropez, was created in 1912 as a nearly-experimental center arround a new weapons system: seaplanes. It was also the barracks for marine troops, and its operational life was linked to the colonial wars. In 1970 there were 800 military and 130 civilian personel, but in the 1980s the base lost gradually its relevance (in 1983 personel was reduced by 30%), being finally closed, transfered to the Frejus Municipality and open to the public in 1995. Its location at the mouth of the Argens, a 1,5 km beach and a relevant biological heritage lead to its conservation without new buildings. Hangars remain for sports uses. There are 900 parking spots, altough the original landing ground is not included (in the google photo there was probably an extraordinary event). The area is used by locals and tourists.

The management of the transfer operation was under singular conditions: François Leotard was simultaneously the Minister of Defense and the Mayor of Frejus, so probably negotiations were simple. The French Court of Audit estimated in 1996 that the 50 millions francs paid by the commune where under the price the Minstry coud have received, and that the agreement was not enough protection for some areas, including the coastal strip, that was not ceded to the Conservatoire du Littoral, the national establishment conserving these areas. The base was named after the former Minister in 2007.

I visited the area as a tourist in 2009, and it is a quite pleasant spot, the old airfield being extensively used for cycling and skating.

The bay of Saint Raphael as seen from the Base

The initial moments of the base

Public brownfields (1)

The issue of public-owned land which no longer receives its official use and whose sale could help a governmental economic initiative is a recurrent government proposal in many countries, albeit under different approaches. This covers old barracks, or rail yards, or even airports that no longer serve their original purpose, but often have been surrounded by the city in ways not originally planned, and so gained a relevant real estate value. Obsolescence becomes the driver for urban planning, combined with the need to raise money hard to get in other parts. This week there has been an announcement that the French government intends to go that way to boost social housing in a moment of economic crisis through a bill for the”mobilisation générale pour la construction de logements” (general mobilization to build housing).

The issues at stake in such operations are, among others:

  • Functional obsolescence of a given public infrastructure in itself does not make the land fit for housing building (think of an obsolete rail yard 10 km from any populated place), or can have such costs as to need a broader project (e.g., contaminated soils have remediation cost that would make any housing operation extremely expensive)
  • Existing public land could have a geometry needing the inclusion in the project of non public land, and this could make the operational management much more complex, either through compulsory purchase or a mixed private – public operation. When land from different government entities or levels must be assembled for the project, the complexity is also present.
  • If building housing is the goal of the project, in some cases it would make more sense to sell the land to build the new social housing in other areas. No doubt, there is an aim to make socially inclusive neighborhoods, but it could be better to create activity spaces that could create an employment basis, just to name a possible outcome. In some countries there are legal limitations to the future use of any public land in transformation projects, putting social housing first,but the results are not always better.
  • Who is the real owner of the public land? in some cases it may have been acquired through an eminent domain clause, meaning that the use (e.g. a rail line) is declared of public utility, forcing the previous owner to sell. In some countries the previous owner can ask to receive the land back when the reason by which the eminent domain clause was applied disappears.

Biblio 7. Urban futures

The future will be urban or will not be… this is what we take for granted usually, despite the tentatives by some to go back to the country…But which is the meaning of an urban future? This enters the field of prospective analysis, quite hype in the 1970s-1980s around the systems theory, but today less visible, altough still extensively used by public and private organisations. Prospective analysis is far from being a forecast, but rather an informed glimpse to the future to try to grasp general ideas as a reflection tool.

The UK’s prospective organisation in the government sphere, Foresight, anlayses all sort of issues. In 2010 it was up to land use futures. The report is well written and interesting, allowing to better know the subject, Great Britain and our own country.

Smart Cities Meeting Point 2012 Tarragona

Just minutes before we went on stage

Just arrived from Smart Cities Meeting Point 2012 in Tarragona, an interesting meeting in which I was honored to give an adress on urban planning’s relation with an interesting issue that will transform the way in which cities are managed, and, in many ways, how we understand their realities.

A didactic bilboard on water conservation by the convention venue


Lisbon (3) Portas do Sol

The area as seen in bing maps

A recent bar, associated to a 150 spaces authomatic parking (getting there walking or by eletrico is the option I would take to better enjoy the city) and a new public space on the eastern flank of the Alfama hill. Furniture elements are nearly the only ones visible from the rua Sao Tomé.

The eastern shore of the Tagus on the foreground

Lisbon (2)

The Baixa and the Straw Sea as seen from Park Eduardo VII. On the right, the upper part of the Santa Justa elevator

The center of Lisbon defines its urban image by a combination of the following elements :

–          The “straw sea”, formed by the wide Tagus estuary, a water surface which has a 23 km width at its widest point, crossed by two large bridges; the view of the center from the 25 de avril bridge is spectacular. As a metropolitan void this space has a special landscape value.

–          A low area with a limited slope between the Restauradores and Comercio squares: Baixa, with a grid layout from the XVIIIth century resulting from the city reconstruction directed by the Marquis of Pombal after de 1755 earthquake and tsunami.

–          Two hills encircling the Baixa: Chiado to the west and Alfama to the east

–          Steep slopes as elements which condition mobility, but also bring wonderful visual opportunities, used during the city history by architects

–          A relevant unity in the building elements, with the logic variations due to age and the social and economic conditions of each neighborhood.

–          The constant use of a limited number of singular elements in the public space, and especially the calçada portuguesa, a traditional paving system for sidewalks with small irregular limestone and basalt elements.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Tagus shore has been subject to refurbishment works for the last years, concerning the maritime stations and central quays, and specifically those around the Comercio square; work is still under way to the west, in order to the public spaces on the river shore.

The Baixa is a retail and business centrality area, which today has a more representative role as financial and large corporation headquarters have often moved to more peripheral areas. But it is a living center, which is served by many rail and underground stations and the ferry terminals that connect the central city to the rest of metropolitan cities on the southern shore of the Tagus estuary. It is still the area in which most of the government is, and the Comercio square permeates a certain vision of the relation between political power and public space that can be compared to other examples in Paris or Saint-Petersburg. A relevant part of the streets are pedestrian only, with their spaces occupied by cafés and restaurants. The Rua Augusta, linking Rossio (Pedro IV) and Comercio squares through the Arch of Rua Augusta, is the main pedestrian axis of the area. There is also a retail activity on side streets, more intense in areas near the Chiado. The architecture shows the traces of a uniform building ordinance, visible in the unified geometries.

Chiado and Alfama Hills are two different faces of the city. The first is a space with a certain cultural prestige, linked to the literary reunions in the Café A Brasileira, and has regained a retail function after the 1988 fire. It is linked to the Baixa by a network of narrow and steep streets, that can be avoided by taking the Santa Justa elevator, an iron construction from the end of the XIXth century (whose author was Portuguese architect Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard), managed today by the public transportation system, or by taking the elevators of the retail centre that has substituted the department store where the 1988 fire initiated. As in Alfama, you can also take the eletrico, cable cars that in some steep slope streets are specially adapted. Alfama is, on the other side, a more popular hill, with living conditions that seem less favored. Large belvederes exist, and among them the San Jorge Castle is the most relevant.

The belvederes on the hills are relevant to the nearby residents (flat public spaces are rather scarce on the hills) and for tourists. Even while the conservation conditions of the buildings can sometimes be bad, the visible landscape from those spaces is always interesting. It is not as striking as Porto, which is closer to Piranesi’s drawings, but the combination of the hills and the large water body is very attractive.

Recent buildings in historic areas are usually well integrated in their settings. The old buildings often show ceramic tile façades with bright colors, but also maintenance deficits. This seems more relevant in less favored areas as Alfama.

The coherence of buildings is joined by a feeling of unity due to the quasi-universal presence of the calçada portuguesa on sidewalks. From 1842 its original configuration has evolved, mainly on designs. On one side it can seem uncomfortable, and even slippery due to the bright surface of the small stone elements polished by pedestrian shoes; but it is an element of unity, perhaps more resistant than what seems at first sight, and it is also surprising to see that it is also used in new urban extension areas in many cities in Portugal, which may indicate more reduced handcraft costs than in other parts of Europe. At night the system is quite visible, as the public lighting is reflected.

In this context, the tourism offer is diverse, as well on the cultural and landscape elements as on those concerning restaurants and leisure. The recent introduction of new access elements, as tuk tuk and the improvements in restaurants and hotels, are surely to blame for the good tourism results during the first half of 2012.