Month: June 2013

Dignity Village


Dignity Village is a city-recognized encampment for homeless people in Portland, Oregon. It is a space which shows some similitude with the transit zones for nomads in some European countries as France (even if those zones usually are designed for trailers), or to a more organized and controlled form of the small shantytowns (núcleos chabolistas) in some spanish cities, that really constitute illegal settlements.

There are similar experiences in some other American cities, as this report by the National Coalition for the Homeless shows. They can begin as a more or less spontaneous tent city, which authorities can eventually relocate to a controlled site, with an organization not unlike a camping site. It is a bit like a shantytown as there are no streets, but just precarious buildings.

The most relevant shantytowns by number in the recent history of the US, Hoovervilles (named for the President at the onset of the Great Depression), seem to have left no trace; but in times one was, for instance, occupying a part of Central Park.

The Noisy bidonville

An image taken from (at showing the Noisy-le-Grand bidonville

An image taken from (at showing the Noisy-le-Grand bidonville. This is in fact an “improved” slum, thanks to the actions of Abbée Pierre, an influential priest that adressed the housing crisis and became an iconic figure of the french culture.

In France a bidonville was a slum made with tin sheets, appearing during the 1950s-1960s usually associated to migrants from the Mediterranean basin, but also with french populations. The upper image is in a municipality some 13 km east of Paris, that I happen to know well. Nowadays this image is gone. Just look for that in the current image, and you will not find it, as it has been removed due to the social housing policies of the country.

Puente de Vallecas (Madrid)

puente vallecas

Puente de Vallecas appears as a settlement at the end of the XIXth century, by profiting of the “border effect”: already in the municipality of Vallecas, some things were still posible, which was no longer the case in a Madrid municipality that was building its ordered extension, and that finished at the Abroñigal Creek. The area used the present Avenida de la Albufera as a backbone, as it was the road to Valencia. 100 years later the creek has been replaced by the M-30 freeway, and what was a bridge over the creek is today the viaduct of the freeway over the avenue that still organizes the area.

Puente de Vallecas was informal when related to the ordered XIXth century Madrid extension, but it was not that illegal as planning laws were rather non-existent at the time. But the area was built to precarious standards: narrow streets, with no overall logical grid, always looking for the highest possible number of lots. It became a destination for rural populations, that, although in small number, began arriving to Madrid not being able to afford a home in the city.

A century later, and even if there have been some more regular housing projects, and infrastructure actions, and all the streets are paved and have their water, sewage, and all other urban services in full work, the informal origin can still be seen. The recently arrived dwellers from around Madrid were substituted by Andalusians or Castilians, which were eventually substituted, for the last decade, by Latin Americans, North Africans or, merely, Madrileans that can no longer establish a new family in the urban core. There is more crime than in other areas of Madrid, but it is still Europe and the security level is not that different from that of the urban core. And the per capita revenue is lesser than average. The (comparatively low) real estate price has led to a higher than usual concentration of public housing, and the market-oriented housing has sometimes to force dimensions to install a standard project (especially garages) in micro-lots. Besides, the area is densifying. But all the transitions between dwellers have been rather gradual, with relatively few forced relocations. And the diversity is increasing, making it much less marginal as it has become, in metropolitan terms, almost central by location.

Calle Doctor Salgado

Doctor Salgado street shows how complex it is to change such a tissue with just changes on the lot line. Going from slightly under 6 m to a bit more than 15 takes decades. The street will connect, when fully open (there is still a block that, well, blocks…), the Doña Carlota market (A) to Avenida de la Albufera.


Avenida de la Albufera, with slightly less than 23 m of width, is the central axis of the area. Its retail base is suffering with the economic crisis



The block which will have to be open. Notice that the building on the left has been waiting for the new street for decades.

--Salgado-a4 --Salgado-a3


A social housing development of the postwar period

Biblio (46) The precarious settlement planning handbook

Biblio 46 manual asentamientos precarios

The title is in itself a paradox, not unfit for G.K. Chesterton, and even more if you read a more clear title; this is a handbook for illegal subdivisions. Urban planning was born to make possible a living environment of quality for the whole of the population. And this is why this book is both an abomination and a much needed publication, depending on who judges.

The handbook appears in Argentina, a country which is not in the worse situation regarding that matter in Latin America; this is perhaps one of the reasons why a team at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning of the University of Buenos Aires, lead by Viviana Asrilant,  gets to think that facing the problems to solve this situation for decades, such an initiative can be of help. There seems to have been a help by the Ministry for Public Education.

The handbook follows this table of contents, which seems to consider as a given fact the existence of an organized group of settlers:

1-        Who may use the handbook

2-        How to build your neighborhood

3-        How to legalize your neighborhood. Legal way to regularize domains.

4-        Ways to access housing

5-        The organization and the dynamics of groups

6-        Annexes

Apparently (I do not know the argentine law so I cannot judge in detail) there seems to be a serious approach to each item, including warnings against the illegality of some actions.

I do not believe this to be a solution for such problems. As a matter fact, I do not think illegal action and property conflicts to be a good way anywhere; facing the consequences of illegality for yourself or your family can be much worse than what can be thought of. This handbook is probably closer to the ideal of open-source urban planning (or more properly, a planning hacker’s cookbook)  than many European or North American; and this is a relevant question, as an open source manual gives you access to a knowledge, but by no means reduces it complexity or gives you the complete knowledge of a complex matter.

This publication also raises an additional question, even more after two weeks with posts about something as simple at first sight but as complex, as the handbook shows, as a street, its design and its building. Today there is a certain interest worldwide for this kind of settlement, mainly by urban planners and other experts, sometimes with a fascination that seems closer to aesthetics than to a real experience of a life there. And if it is interesting to know how neighborhood improvement projects work in cities that seem to have a certain success, as Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, it could be even more interesting to see what is waiting down the line by looking at how things have been done in countries that are thought to have solved the problem during the last decades. As for each favela or African slum there was probably a Spanish poblado chabolista after the civil war, a Hoovervile in the US during the Depression, a bidonville in France during the 1950s-1960s or other examples in more advanced countries.

Felipe II square in Madrid

Felipe II


In the beginning, there was a bullfighting ring, with a wide, alas short, avenue focused on it (a bullfighting ring placed in a city block in the middle of a grid gives you scarce chances for monumentality).  But the ring disappeared, being substituted by some housing and a large sports venue (D on map).

Department stores came (There are two large El Corte Inglés centers on A and B on map) and cars also came. During the 1970s there were still cars circulating, as on any usual avenue. Someone had the idea to make an underground parking, and towards the end of the 1980s, to pedestrianise that avenue, that, in the end, led to nowhere. There was even a sculpture by Dalí…

With an underground parking the square could only have trees on the sides; this is not really something strange in the Castillian culture, but in fact the Madrid summer made it a hard space to live, in a location so close to a huge retail centrality which is very well connected (public transportation hub on C on the map). Some 10 years ago there were already talks about the need to civilize that space, and finally a few years ago Patxi Mangado’s project was finished. The paved surfaces were changed, and some trees were planted on the western part, using elevated platforms on the parking slab.

You can certainly have trees over an underground parking; but it is rather complex, and the long term evolution of this kind of central spaces on cities is more compromised than it may seem.

The Dali sculpture in the eastern part of the square looking towards the west.

The Dali sculpture in the eastern part of the square looking towards the west.

The northern edge of the square, by El Corte Inglés.

The northern edge of the square, by El Corte Inglés.

A tree which is on "real ground". The tree pit grid is quite limited.

A tree which is on “real ground”. The tree pit grid is quite limited.

The square as seen from the west looking east.

The square as seen from the west looking east.

The trees on the western part of the square. The "plugs" on the sloped granite are a "solution" against damage by skaters.

The trees on the western part of the square. The “plugs” on the sloped granite are a “solution” against damage by skaters.

The trees over the parking slab

The trees over the parking slab

The western square as seen from the Dali sculpture. 50 m wide is really wide for pedestrians...

The western square as seen from the Dali sculpture. 50 m wide is really wide for pedestrians…

Calle Sánchez Barcaiztegui

sanchez barcaiztegui 1

Calle Sánchez Barcaiztegui, in Madrid, is some 600 m long, but the section I’m going to write about is just some 200 m. A supermarket, some shops, a load of cars, and trees whose dimensions seem quite reduce for the bulk of the buildings. Are these trees coherent with that street? (this is a question, and not a rhetorical one, as these trees should theoretically grow).

barcaiz-5 Barcaiz-3 Barcaiz-2 Barcaiz-1

Lerma. The square


Lerma is a small city (pop. 2.886) in northern Castille. It plays a role as a central hub for a series of smaller rural municipalities. It once had a powerful duke (just see his palace) and it has a clear classical grand square (plaza mayor) in a castillian way: sober. The Duke’s Palace is overwhelming in volume (it is today a Parador, i.e., part of a state-run luxury hotels chain), while the rest of the square is much humbler in architectural terms. The square is paved with coblestones. In any big city I would rather have no cars parked on this square; but in such a small city I’m affraid they contribute to give some life to that urban core. They are surely not the best aesthetic element, but life comes from people coming and going, even if it is just to have a lamb treat.


The square, looking at the Duke’s Palace


A view from the gates of the Duke’s Palace


A zoom of the prior image. Notice the electronic signpost on the left, and the separative recycling bins on the floor

Calle Serrano (Madrid)

Serrano: 1,3 km of centrality, 31 m wide

Serrano: 1,3 km of centrality, 31 m wide

Serrano is one of the thoroughfares of the barrio de Salamanca, the Madrid extension of the XIXth century which is today one of the most powerful central areas of the city in economic terms and as an icon. It is a street in which choice, selected goods (apparel, shoes, luxury) shops flock, as well as high end office space. Its location near the Castellana, but with a width substantially better for retail and other activities, and the presence of an also sizeable retail base in adjacent streets, from the luxury of Ortega y Gasset to more stratified price ranges, lead to a concentration that can be compared to that of a large edge-city mall. One of the most interesting sections, even if asymmetric (no buildings to the west) is that of Plaza Colón, which concentrates some of the most exclusive shops (ant the images of this post).

Serrano has been refurbished with works ending in 2010; on street parking has been eliminated (creating a large underground parking), a bike path has been incorporated to the sidewalk, and the design of the floor surfaces, tree pits, benches and other elements is specific.

serrano-2 Serrano-1
serrano-4 Serrano-3