Month: May 2014

Biblio (91) Capital in the XXIst century: Thomas Piketty and the end of the big bubble

Seville in 1590, by Georg Brown. At the Spanish National Library

Seville in 1590, by Georg Brown. At the Spanish National Library

Seville in 1771, by Olavide. At the Spanish National Library

Seville in 1771, by Olavide. At the Spanish National Library

I’m reading this book, that is the subject of so many reviews and will probably be of many more. No download links, but the book is worth the price, even if just to see a structured thought.

I’m currently reading the book, so my final vision could vary. One of the central ideas in the book is that when capital yields are higher than the economy general growth, inequalities usually increase, explaining somehow the current trends in the “western” world. Social mobility would only be possible for the large masses in growing economies, something far from guaranteed.

According to this historical analysis of the dynamics of growth, the time from the XVIIth century to our days is an anomaly, with extremely high growth rates for both the economy and the population, especially after WWII. We could call that (albeit the author does not, so it is a personal opinion as what follows) the large bubble. And he thinks it is dying, due to the inertia of the demography, no longer explosive in most of the world. So some countries would have to cope simultaneously with the end of the “small” bubble (the real estate one during the last decade) and the big one…

From an urban and regional planning perspective this would lead us back to the historical slower growth. Piketty’s book is a “Theory of all”, in which you can inscribe such debates as sustainable development, peak oil, peak car, or the US going back to cities… or even the opposite (the author cares well to remind that the future is never sure). Anyway, it is worth the reading. Or a stroll to the downloads section of the Paris School of Economics.

Maps 2014 (19) Empty Europe

teselas pobladas EURO 2006

Populated celles. They have not been aggregated, so the overall black color corresponds mostly to the adjacent limits.

This is not, as I often do, a map that has been done by someone else, but rather raw data from Eurostat that I have represented. Some months ago I commented on a project concerning a population grid, 1 km wide, covering the whole of Europe, as to give a better vision on some issues, as population, whose rendering following administrative basis was far from good.

So, there I went to the Eurostat specific site (( to download the GEOSTAT 1 km2 population grid, with associated 2006 population data. The density map is somehow known as we know the main cities and axis, but what is less known is the map of the void spots (in fact, Eurostat does not produce a polygon for those 1 sq m cells without residents). As often for European data, there are countries out of the Union (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland) that are represented, while others (Cyprus) are not there).

The available cells (the populated ones, almost 2 million) help get the voids by exclusion; at first glance you can see substantial void areas in Spain, the Alps, the Charpatians, parts of Greece and the Scottish and Scandinavian mountains.

But it is far more interesting to better portray the empty areas.

Green cells have no population. So much more void...

Green cells have no population. So much more void… but there is a need to cultivate and to produce the environmental services needed by the population.

European choices (5) Pollution

Each dot is an EPRTR spot.

Each dot is an E-PRTR spot.

The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) is a register managed by the European Environmental Agency that has data on industrial compounds emitting pollutants beyond the thresholds established in Regulation (EC) No 166/2006. It encompasses a wide array of factories, from urban waste water treatment to surface treatments to slaughterhouses.

As ever with European policies, there can be states with more stringent environmental quality laws, but Europe defines both a common framework and, as relevant as that for spatial planning, common databases that cover the whole of the Union (and often external countries as Norway and Switzerland), so allowing a better knowledge and debate.

European choices (4) Zero energy


Directive 2010/31/EU on the energy performance of buildings requires that by 31 December 2020 all new buildings are nearly zero-energy buildings, and also mandates that condition for buildings owned and occupied by public authorities by 31 December 2018.

According to the Directive, a near zero energy building “means a building that has a very high energy performance, as determined in accordance with Annex I. The nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered to a very significant extent by energy from renewable sources, including energy from renewable sources produced on-site or nearby”. So the precise, quantified definition (a central matter in such a Directive) is left to each state.

According to the COM/2013/0483final report (covering just some of the states), first in a series of triennial reports on the implementation of the Directive, most of the states have made progress, but only Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark and Lithuania have presented a definition with a quantified goal and a percentage of renewable energies. On the other side, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany and the UK have some rules that go beyond. The numerical definitions oscillate from 0 to 220 kWh/sq m/year, so the report asks whether the goal of the Directive is really that.

The Directive mandates an intermediate goal for new buildings in 2015. So far 15 states have met that mandate, but with diverging measures.

So we have here a policy about climate change (controversial for some) but also about energy independence (will Poles or Baltics be more eager to implement that Directive than, say, Irish, after the Ukraine crisis?). And it is also an urban planning policy, as the buildings add up the energy demand of cities, and renewables are regulated in city planning.

Biblio (90) Pathfinders


UK’s National Audits Office published in 2007 a report on the Housing Market Renewal programme. This programme appeared in 2002 trying to cope with the problem of areas with a low housing demand combined with a sizeable vacant homes stock, in the previous industrial heartland of the North and Midlands. The Governement helped create nine sub-regional alliances, dubbed “pathfinders”, grouping all administrative levels implied and stakeholders. Each alliance was given a wide liberty to adapt to the specific problems of its constituency.

The rationale for the programme is in part an idea also used in Detroit: demolition as a regeneration vector. A housing stock unfit to demand makes urban regeneration more difficult; demolishing and building a smaller number of better units, in coordination with refurbishment of existing homes, was the intended engine for renewed cities.

Overall the grand total of the budget was to be 1,2 billion pounds for the 2002-2008 period, with an additional billion for 2008-2011. As of march 2007 the programme had used 870 million to refurbish 40.000 units, demolish 10.000 and build some 1.000 new units. The initial prevision was 90.000 demolitions between 2002 and 2018, a figure incrementally reduced over time.

According to the report, in 2007 there were positive signs of improvements in the real estate market and the urban quality of the concerned areas. However, impacts on social cohesion were also apparent, as well as doubts about the ability of such a kind of programme to tackle the real underlying causes for urban decay.

The programme was discontinued in 2011. According to a recent article on The Guardian, it seems it was far from a success.

European Choices (3) Urban planning, Danes and paella


In February 2009 the Auken report, by a Danish member of the European Parliament, became news in Spain. The reasons are the complains of citizens of other EU member states that had bought homes in Spain to find out they were affected by the urban planning laws of the Valencia region, with fast management procedures that they understood as opposed to their property rights.

The report analyses the fast urban growth of the country, its effects on the environment and other issues. Urban planning is central, but not as such (it is a matter of the States), rather as something that impacts the rights of the citizens.

An interesting reading on the limits that the Union sets to the power of the States. Since this report, there have been legal changes in Valencia, and there are already blueprints of a new law that would group what now is a too extensive legal corpus.

The report was seen as a good thing by many in Spain: those same problems also concerned Spanish citizens. Here the Union gave a broader view to adopt a decision on the effects of a temporary and state-specific issue (the real estate bubble). Only a minority (or at least this is what I have perceived) saw that as an encroachment on the sovereignty of the State.

European choices (2) Birds

Natura2000 en Europa

Natura 2000 in Europe

Natura 2000 is an ecological network, including zones designated according to the Birds Directive and the Habitat Directive. It must ensure the continuity of species and habitat types in Europe as a guarantee of biodiversity. Each state of the European Union proposes, for each of the biogeographic and marine regions it encompasses, a list of spaces complying with criteria set in the annex III to Habitat Directive. After a long administrative procedure, these are declared Special Areas of Conservation. States also propose Special Protection Areas for birds.

Summarizing, states draw the line and Europe integrates the area in its network. The EU does not impose a zone, but once the area is approved as part of Natura2000, it is protected by European law. Therefore, when problems arise, the last word comes to the Court of Justice of the European Union, in Luxembourg.

The zone must be drawn according to scientific criteria, but the line can also be subject to political opportunity criteria; few of the large European cities have Natura2000 zones in their metro areas, and land use changes for infrastructure or urban growth can challenge that protection. The State must follow a complex path to change these decisions, and in case of trouble it is in a rather different position when facing the Luxembourg Court if compared to a national Court.

There is an interesting 2006 booklet on how the Luxembourg Court decided on Natura2000 related cases. A selection of cases of interest:

– C-335/90. Santoña marshes. Spain. Wastewater, aquaculture, roads, embankments.

– C-44/95. Lappel Bank. UK. Exclusion of an area from a Special Conservation Area for birds due to economic considerations.

– C-374/98. Basses Corbieres. France. Classification as SPA, quarries, compensatory measures

A state can receive a similar answer from its national supreme court, but the fact that Luxembourg speaks raises more buzz in the press.