Month: January 2015

Starters of urban change (3) Horses, cars and rooms

A garage door in a small appartment building in Spain

A garage door in a small appartment building in Spain

At the dawn of the XXth century the car appears. Up until then people move around cities walking or by horse. Urban families with horses or other transportation animals, usually expensive, were a minority. The advent of mass car and its expansion through all the social layers implies a new dimensional problem; a horse is quite smaller than a car, and even a horse vehicle can be more flexible in dimension.

A horse box can be some 3×3 m, as the animal is seldom more than 2 m long. If you leave some horses temporarily tied to a post in the street, they occupy even smaller spaces; if you consider carts, things can be a little different. Alongside cars, bikes appear with an even more reduced footprint.

A current car can be some 4 to 5 meter long, with a total width of 2 m considering lateral mirrors. The biggest difference when compared to the horse in urban terms is that the animal usually belonged to a firm or a family with a firm, while automobiles are now in almost each family, and they feel the need to have them near their homes. So going from horses to cars is not so much a public space congestion due to moving elements, as you can see in historical photos from before the car that street where packed with all sort of contraptions; it is rather how to park a much higher number of vehicles in a distributed way through the city.

Around 1990 only the rich had a carriage; most homes had no space for vehicles. The first bylaws requiring a parking space associated with a home are usually from the 1960s-1970s, when cars became really massive in Europe and North America. And here comes architectural typology; in single home areas, with large lots, the garage finds easily its place as an ancillary building, or you park on streets that, due to the low density, have no great problem. The biggest problem comes with vertical homes. Using the block core is a solution, but one that comes at the cost of the demise of that core as a residual space. Burying the garage needs ramps of a certain length, and space is not always there. Adapting older buildings, mainly ones on small lots, is often impossible.

Today there are two visions, in a moment in which (at least in Europe or North America… and well, mostly nowhere…) horses are no longer an alternative. Some call to retain the current quotas defining a mandatory parking provision related to the number of homes, even if sometimes the same administration that enforces that rule later allows developers to sell to different buyers parking lots and apartments, so creating a pressure on on-street parking as some prefer to avoid the high cost of an in-building space. This option leads to a persistence in the creation of a car-centric infrastructure. Meanwhile, some demand the end of such mandatory quotas; this would not be a prohibition of in-building parking, but as it would no longer be a mandatory space, it would be added to the planning-allocated buildable floor area, so developers should choose between apartment space and parking lots, giving a different voluntary quota to different neighborhoods.

In short, a technological evolution that has changed many things in cities, including typologies.

Biblio (115) How much time do French allocate to shopping?


INSEE (the French national statistics office) has just published an interesting report on the time French dedicate to shopping (as well for everyday things as food, as for choice items as clothes). According to the analysis of a series of data between 1974 and 2010, French have reduced their shopping frequency and they spend more time during Saturday, going to longer distances to get the items they purchase.

As of 2010 the average French uses 2 hours 41 minutes per week for shopping; between 1974 and 2010 women have reduced the weekly time for shopping some 28 minutes, while men have increased theirs by 21 minutes. Internet shopping is still reduced in France. 20% think that shopping is a chore, while in 1986 those were only 10%.

These figures may seem far away from urbanism, but they show that for small urban retail, that brings life to cities, times are hard…

Maps 2015 (3) Bogota

I’m clearly used to read maps and deduce such things as differences in building heights from a planar view. But sometimes it is clearly better to see what this means in a 3D view. According to cadastral data, this is how central Bogota (Colombia) looks like in terms of built bulk. The background map is from SOM, and altimetry data is SRTM.
Bogota-1d Bogota-1a Bogota-1b

Starters of urban change (2) Taxes and the « casas a la malicia » in renaissance Madrid

A part of the 1749 map of Madrid

A plate of the 1749 map of Madrid

Madrid becomes the Spanish capital in 1561, and this implies the institution of the the “regalia de aposento”, making mandatory for citizens to provide half their own homes to provide shelter for Royal officials. It seems that municipal authorities agreed with the King this provision in exchange for the benefits of becoming the permanent capital of the country. This fee was established in the middle ages, when the court was moving from city to city, and it was a transitory problem for citizens, but by making Madrid the permanent capital this became a nuisance that influenced architecture.

Every home was subject to the mandate, but some had dimensions or arrangements that complicated divisions. As a result, citizens decided often to build homes that could evade partition, and this led to the name of “malice houses”. Anyway, these homes were subject to a monetary fee, so there was first a need to institute a tax raising office, and later to create, in the 1749-1759 period, the first city cadaster.

regalia aposento

You can consult on the internet a full compendium of the legal texts on the issue… from 1738. As often in past texts, it is quite interesting to read the description of the kind of royal officials that had a right to shelter…

A translation of the specific text on the malice homes (page 28 on the electronic text) would be:

“in any home that can be easily divided in two parts, and that is in this city of Madrid, where the Royal court is, the half belongs to its Majesty as a result of the shelter rights… , and those that cannot be divided as they have just one room, an appraisal of their product must be made, and the owner will contribute with a third of it to the shelter rights, leaving to the owner the spaces from a third to a half, that he should give; and those homes are called of difficult partition, of third part, or malice”.

So evading a fee did led for a long time to an architectural production in Madrid that was defined by one level, one-room homes. Sometimes there were rooms on an upper level that was not visible from the street, and in some cases the homes were deemed indivisible due to their internal divisions. As a conclusion, neighbors preferred a bad architecture to a fee on their privacy.

Starters of urban change (1)

What drives change in the urban tissues? What matters in that question is how diverse the answer can be; there are changes from the bottom up (individual answers to problems that seem personal, but whose sum can produce some kind of “emergent intelligence”), as well as defined from the top of the pyramid (actions defined from the public administration which can lead to direct actions or to mandates to individuals to act in a given manner). Here is a quite concise catalogue of the possible situations, a kind of “table of contents” of what will follow:

  • Bottom-up
    • Changes in the dimension of the use unit (households, firms, public facilities…) that mean a change in the physical dimensions of the associated spaces, either through reduction or through extension. For instance, if the number and median size of households rises and urban growth is not possible, what you get are either overcrowded homes or extensions of current homes, either in width or in height.
    • Technological changes that imply a larger choice of locations, be it for homes or for other uses. For instance, cars have allowed urban sprawl.
    • An evolution of social demand that triggers an evolution in the way the functions of spaces in a typology are arranged. If the demand for balconies increases, home façades will change accordingly, transforming the urban landscape.
    • Changes in ownership conditions: a neighborhood in which the residents are mainly owners of their homes can look different from one in which rental is the main condition.
  • Top- down
    • Political or technological factors determine how the land can be used: if city walls become obsolete, either as a result of the evolution of military technology or of the disappearance of the risk of war, cities can demolish them and extend.
    • Fiscal conditions: when some architectural types are subject to higher taxes, this can change the real estate market and the building production.
    • Urban planning: plan define mandatory conditions. Paris, Manhattan or Kyoto have particular urban landscapes as in a given moment the decision was taken to organize streets in a certain way and to define how buildings should look.

What is often said to be “the charm of the city” is the combination of all those elements, with varying degrees of poetry and bureaucratic zeal.

Biblio (114) The formation of urban spatial structures : markets vs design

Biblio-114-the formation of urban spatial structures

This work by Alain Bertaud analyses the links between design (he is an urban planner- architect) and market, providing answers to why it is not advisable to have private streets or why some things work better as public goods. Taking examples from Hartford, CT, to China, he analyses the links between economy and urban planning. Interesting, and open to debate.

Maps 2015 (2) The blackout of the bubble

As I have already said some years ago, the central issue for the blog this year will be the grain of the city; i.e., how the detail that you see on the urban space is formed by aggregation of circumstances. The bylaws applied two centuries ago are the fodder of today’s tourism guides, and the old crisis often explain how a neighborhood took its shape (try to explain the XVth district of Paris and its architectural mix without the brutal economic discontinuity of the inter-world-wars period…).

The issue today is the way in which the real estate crisis spread over Spain in the recent years. The real estate sector, central for economic growth since the second half of the 1990s, based its expansion on the construction of new homes, mainly in peripheral zones. In terms of landscape, this means that large sectors of urban outskirts (often still without building, and probably with many years ahead in that situation) were prepared for development by building streets and infrastructure, by contrast to urban cores where existing streets received sometimes a face- lifting, but buildings got not that much of an upgrade in general terms.

The end of what has been called the real-estate bubble has not been homogeneous on the land. This can be analysed in many ways, and this is how I did it. The Ministerio de Fomento, the Spanish Government’s body more related to housing (an attribution of the regions) publishes each quarter data on the evolution of the selling price of the sq m of housing, for a set of 283 municipalities over 25.000 residents, recording differences between homes completed less than 2 years before and the older stock. I did not focus on price itself, but rather on when there has been a “blackout” in data due to a lack of statistic representatively of available data. I’m fully aware that there are other resources, authored by private agents, that have different data, but I chose this one as it is public and everyone can use it, and it also has chances to stay active for some time. A remark for those willing to use the source: for the analyzed period (first quarter 2005- third of 2014) a municipality was added to the list; I used an homogeneous series excluding that one.

This is what I did:

Data "blackouts" in new homes price statistics in Spain. To see again the animated image, uptdate the page.

Data “blackouts” in new homes price statistics in Spain. To see again the animated image, uptdate the page.

  • A map of the data “blackouts” (upper animated image, you can see green turn red): It identifies the last available data for each municipality concerning homes under 2 years. Just two municipalities (Madrid and Barcelona) have had a record of no data blackout in any quarter, and as of the third quarter of 2014 there were only eight municipalities with data: Almeria, Barcelona, Caceres, Madrid, Merida, Las Rozas de Madrid, Madrid, Teruel and Zaragoza. In some cases, as Madrid and Barcelona, metropolitan areas with many points can somehow mask the visibility of still “on the radar” municipalities.


  • A chart of the evolution by quarter of the number of cities without statistically representative values for the price of homes overall (no age class distinction), and for those under 2 years old (new homes). It is clear that in 2009 things became complex, and that the first quarter of 2011 became a clear threshold. By comparing the chart to the evolution of free homes (homes sold in a free market without public subvention to purchase) completed and the average price of a sq m of urban land in municipalities over 50.000, there are many parallels. Homes under 2 years old reduce, as there are no longer produced in large amounts.


  • A comparison between the charts of the home prices, in national average, in Spain, Colombia, France and the United States, by quarter, from the first 2007 to the second 2014, taking the valuest of 1st quarter 2007 as 100%. It is clear that France has not seen a drop in home values (a reduced residential output), in the US the 10% correction seems over (even if the difference in country size probably would deserve a more detailed analysis, and Colombia has a chart clearly reminding that of Spain five years earlier, something that doesn’t seem good.


  • A cross tab vision of the demographic size of municipalities and the number of quarters (regardless of their order) in which they have been “under the radar” for new homes prices. It is clear that size matters, and more populous municipalities (that in Spain are often those with the larger physical areas and have large developments) are those that seem to have best survived the crisis, with wider markets and, against all odds, a better stock of price- stabilizing elements for the housing demand (transportation, distance to jobs, facilities)

All this doesn’t imply automatic answers to questions regarding the future of these municipalities; any plan must face a future that, by definition, is uncertain, and so needs a certain degree of flexibility. But the lesson would rather be (as will be seen in future posts) that long term plans have a sense in urban planning if you grasp the idea that buildings will also be built long term. And therein lied the rump here, as development was drawn without a clear demand for the buildings that had to pay for the streets and pipes and electric lines that were built (leave alone the land itself, often bought at astronomic prices…).

Biblio (113) The rise and fall of Manhattan’s densities

biblio 113- Manhattan densities

This working paper by Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson- Hall, researchers at the Marron Institute at NYU, studies the evolution of population densities in the built-up areas of Manhattan from 1800 to 2010. They combine census data for population with a series of maps, and conclude that time is ripe for a densification programme that could accommodate a larger population with bottom-up actions, without need to use large public- financed schemes. The proposal is essentially a change in the planning regulations that would allow higher densities in peripheral boroughs, as was done before in Manhattan. This would hardly be seen as a contentious issue where I live, as the habit of living in denser neighbourhoods is more common, but would mean a change for many in the land of the single- family home; even if skyscrapers are not a rarity, high rise housing has different cultural implications, as you would loose many freedoms you have being the lord and king of your lot.

There are two interesting videos which show the base data that helped reach those conclusions

A programme for 2015: the grain of cities

A place I happen to know well, as seen from Landsat

A place I happen to know well, as seen from Landsat

The physical base, first scale "grain" element

The physical base, first scale “grain” element

Defining a programme helps make easier what Is complex. The UN have declared 2015 as the international year for light and light related technologies, and international year of soils. At first glance, these seem better starting points than in 2016 (international year for pulses and camelids), but you never know… Nevertheless I think it’s better to choose a subject more focused on the built environment. And specifically, to focus on an issue that is overarching to most of the interesting works I read recently, and that so seems central: the grain of the city.

Beware, I’m not talking about grain in the crop sense, but about the different qualities that scales can render when talking about the city or the broader land in which it sits. Mandelbrot did translate a close idea it into the fractal theory, as the presence of visual qualities (although he was a mathematician, he seems to have favoured visual representations of abstract concepts, as structures in data in this case) that seem similar at different scales.

The grain of buildings, as described by cadastral data

The grain of buildings, as described by cadastral data

The grain of the city can be physical (an historical area can be much more detailed in so many senses) or immaterial and related to flows and socioeconomic links; the most interesting spaces are those where both detail qualities converge.

The grain raises two issues:

  • The ability of our representation instruments to represent the city or the land and convey a given complexity
  • The presence (or absence) of complexities on the land, be it in one sense or the other.

This will be the base for the blog during this year, alongside more circumstantial issues. As ever, I’m open to your suggestions.

Architectural grain

Architectural grain

... and the grain of things set to become something else...

… and the grain of things set to become something else…

The last of three great nights


If you ever come to Spain around these days, this is how serious things are done here:

  • The night from 24th to 25th December: a family dinner and a Christmas meal. Usually no party out of home, but more and more people are receiving presents around this night.
  • The night from 31 december to January 1st: family or party out dinner, new year’s meal with your family. Midnight is the central moment. No gifts.
  • The night from january 5th to january 6th: according to tradition, the Kings (the Maggi from the bible) bring the gifts. No special dinner, gifts are unwrapped on January the 6th morning, and a family meal is usually associated. Even if some call for the end of monarchy in Spain, when it comes to gifts the Kings are still overwhelming (even if Santa, known here as “Papa Noel” as a derivation of its French name, is gaining ground…). The moment Angela Merkel knows some Spaniards receive two gifts, our sovereign debt spread will surely skyrocket…

Here you can see some images from yerterday’s afternoon in La Coruña, in Galicia (northwest Spain). People flocked to the streets, taking kids to see the King’s parade, or looking for a last chance to buy a present. Looking for a vantage point over the King’s parade we climbed to the Fundación Abanca and found an exhibition about the works of Isaac Díaz Pardo, quite interesting and beyond what I already knew due to the Sargadelos china; a rewarding intellectual gift.






An unexpected image of yours sincerely with bottles portraying a wedding