Month: November 2014

Biblio (107) Why we need cool town planning (according to The Guardian)

Biblio 107

Here is an article published on November 10 on The Guardian, by Tom Campbell, the author of a recent fiction, “The planner”, about a young planner in London (which confirms that these days people write about just anything…).

The author describes in the article, from an English context, a sad divorce between architecture students that are often mocked for an imagination that is more mad than open-minded and planning students that are absurdly fed with regulations, with no larger vision whatsoever of the larger implications of their work for the society in which they live. The vision conveyed by the British government of planning as a set of bureaucratic limitations to growth is certainly not of help. The article presents two initiatives trying to change this situation: “Building Rights” and “Novus”.

Sure, he writes about Britain. This sad situation doesn’t happen in other countries…

Maps 2014 (42) Urban Decay in the US

This map was produced in 2011 by Derek Watkins, graphic editor for the New York Times, whose portfolio is full of extremely attractive references (including details on the tools used to produce these gorgeous images). This map was generated by looking on Flickr for geotagged images with urban decay tags. It is noteworthy that the number of images in some cities si quite reduced. In fact, this is not a map of a phenomenon, but of its perception by a group of people whose definition is complex (photographers aware of the special aesthetics of ruins prone to share their images on flickr?). Gorgeous map, anyway, and it seems quite related when it comes to results with other data about this subject.

What good do shops deliver (4) Chocolate

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

Here I use chocolate as well as a direct, factual reference as in a metaphorical way… opening a shop (as any other business) is a display of faith on an idea, in this case a quite public one. Whoever has a blog will easily understand: you have an idea that you prepare, polish and then make public. Then, for reasons you never quite understand, some ideas you thought were not as bright get most of the traffic (or at least that is what wordpress stats say…) while others, brighter at first sight, lag behind. In a blog, the effects of this are usually limited, but in a shop they can mean a difference between earning or loosing substantial money. Sure, mere footfall does not translate into money, but it is usually a precondition to make a product known, and, eventually, to sell something…

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

The external presence of a shop is essential. A clean, tidy, well-lit showcase is a minimum requirement, but you also need it to be located in a busy place, which implies a cost. To optimize this cost, you have to make attractive as well the premises as the product. Somehow, you have more chances to configure your shop than your product, especially if you are not the maker. Anyway, you have to be different from competitors.

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l'Olympia

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l’Olympia

Sure, shopkeepers want to get clients to see their business; what we get as a collateral effect is a care in the display of some things that configure public space, an aesthetic quality that is sometimes noteworthy. You can sure direct the debate towards consumerism, but it would be missing relevant elements in this situation.

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet...

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet…

What good do shops deliver (3) eyes on the street

Looking to the shop from the street...

Looking to the shop from the street…

Feeling safe in public space is somehow related to the perception of not being alone and to the fact that what happens is seen (or can be seen) by those living on or using the street. This has been enunciated by Jane Jacobs and re-used often as “eyes on the street”, with some consequences for retail:

  • Those (shop) eyes are there just during opening hours; they include those of shopkeepers as well as those of those browsing the showcases or the ones buying. The two latest categories will only flock if the space is perceived as safe, so here we have a vicious/virtuous circle…
  • When shops are closed, the only eyes on the street are those of homes (if they exist). If showcases are well lit at night, you can however get a better safety feeling, something that shopkeepers are fully aware of as this increases the perception of the street as secure day-long.
  • The design of showcases influences the number of eyes on the street; the open ones work better.
... or from the shop on the other side...

… or from the shop on the other side… (this is main street Segovia, Spain)

Maps 2014 (41) Churyumov-Gerasimenko in Paris

I usually fancy maps that tell stories in which you can feel the scale of things. And this week’s news (with the ode to joy as a background sound and the twelve star banner) is somehow related. Beyond the million km distance, what surprises is the small size of the comet (you could walk all along it in just an hour, provided walking is feasible without gravity…) when related to a big city. The image has been published by the European Space Agency and conveys the idea of the ability of mankind to transform the surface of this planet on a geological scale, even on an interplanetary one (if we can see the comet from here well enough to reach it, chances are Paris can be seen from there…)

What good do shops deliver (2) aesthetics


This is an image of a city square in a rural area of Spain, and it represents the “zero degree” of the urban retail: a street market. I’ve chosen this image, quite far from idyllic. Here we have the same urban role played by those breath-taking image of Italian markets  conveyed through cuisine tv shows, but there is no substantial contribution to the formal landscape; sure this is more than decent, but it is not elegant, as so many other things in life.


This image corresponds to a street in London, on Mayfair, close to Oxford Street. It is a street without retail; everything is housing (or retail), even if the setback from the sidewalk changes the way in which the buildings relate to the street quite elegantly. The difference with a social housing estate is in the architecture and its dwellers, not in the way in which the building uses are organised; and in the fact that here Bond Street is just a stroll away, albeit it is not necessarily a place in which to get value on groceries…

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.

comercio mérida

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.


This fourth image is a set of shops behind Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna. Elegant shops in a central setting in which the architecture of the building is far from bad…

You can have beautiful streets with or without retail, or they can be uninteresting on their own; you can have attractive or boring shops. But what commerce brings to citizens using the streets on a daily basis is a material expression of the evolution of the city. And to those coming from out of town retail means a clue on what sort of aesthetics mobilizes local buyers; the extent to which retail implies visual clutter is also noticed by visitors (it can be positive, but not that often). The lack of retail (including bars and restaurants) in a street has its landscape depend just on  building architecture, much more static.

What good do shops deliver (1)


Those who follow this blog probably have already noticed that urban retail has already been the subject of several posts. And time seems ripe to focus again on that issue, for several reasons.

As you may have noticed, I’m writing from a country in which the last years have left us with a feeling of going to work each day as if you were losing a war; an economic crisis that has added to an international slowdown the results of our self-inflicted pains has not helped by any means the general mood. This has translated to urban retail to a situation in which nearly all the businesses, from El Corte Inglés, the national quasi-monopolic (by disappearance of all sizeable alternatives) brand of department stores, to the humblest corner shop, have suffered. Some have struggled but somehow survived , but the coincidence of that general demand crisis with two factors will probably devastate the urban retail landscape we knew. The first one is demographics: many small retailers appeared in a given period (1960s, 1970s), and they are reaching a retirement age, with no replacement in sight. The second one is the end of a regulation that limited the rent rise for old leases.

Sure, Chinese retailers have gained momentum, but they are far from being the only reason for the current slowdown.

Let me reassure you: I’m fully able to sing you the virtues of urban retail; what I will try to do in the next posts is to give you concrete examples of those general ideas. As the above image, taken not far from where I live (not necessarily what you would take as a posh district), tries to convey, sometimes retail is just what differentiates a set of housing units from a real neighborhood.

Biblio (105) A typology of French rural areas

Just a map, by the French Commisariat General for the Equality between territories (I know, it sounds like taken from an Ayn Rand’s rant against the State as concept). The municipalities of the country are divided in three groups:

  • Rural areas near cities, coasts and urbanized valleys. The best connected areas, somehow linked to the dynamics in big urban areas. 26% of the French population.
  • Old rural areas with weak population densities. For those familiar with historical French geography, the “empty diagonal” is still there… 84% of the French are there, enduring a weak economy.
  • Agrarian and industrial rural areas, with 9% of the french population. Mostly on the northern half on the country, and waiting for Paris to grow to take them…

So, in the end, 56% of French living in urban units over 10.000.

Maps 2014 (40) As I move


Chances are that what I’m going to disclose is already known by some of the makers of the electronic contraptions I carry ; so here is a map of the routes I use often (blue numbers are distances in meters).

I live in A, work in B and once a week I eat at C. some weeks I go to cinema at D. 1 and 2 are pedestrian daily routes, which are alternative depending on the day (and the hour); the distance between A and B is so reduced that the presence of an expressway in the middle makes these two the shortest pedestrian routes. 3 is mainly a bus route, an explanation for the 90º angle (by foot it could be shorter, but it would take too long). And 4 is a weekend route, to go to the cinema through the urban core (the return trip is often by underground or bus, or, when it is late at night, by cab). The remaining points are supermarkets, cinemas, restaurants and other interest points.

The city I live in is rather good for a pedestrian; but this doesn’t mean that walking routes are necessarily shorter than by other means. On the other side, they are highly predictable when it comes to time: I usually walk at 4 km/h (compared to the average 24 km/h for cars, which is subject to strong variations during daytime). By walking you always have alternatives (but for the case of obstacles such as expressways or rail lines), and as slopes are gentle I can predict my travel times. And yes, sometimes (with not such regular patterns, once or twice a week at most) I move in my car…