Rural areas keep losing demographic weight around the “civilized world”. Here is a vision of the current condition in three French-speaking countries, with a special attention to urban planning issues.
Richard Edes Harrison’s story is interesting: how a designer became a cartographer not because of specific map-making skills, but rather through his ability to convey a complex information to common people. In a moment (WWII) in which aviation was the technology that transformed the perception of distances, his maps introduced to the US public projections and perspectives that, by going ahead of the traditional Mercator projection, allowed people to better understand the events as they unfolded.
Time to widen the scope: in a moment in which the border between urban and rural gets fuzzier in terms of social demands, at least in Europe, some things can start change in both spheres.
European laws (and others, but those in Europe are closer to me) institute citizen’s rights without making differences between those in rural and urban areas; citizenship, despite its etymologic link to cities, applies to everyone. But in fact the burden of transportation and communications implied differences in the aspirations of the residents of rural areas, which often saw the access to some services as almost impossible, and this was commonly accepted. During recent decades residents in rural areas have grasped better chances to access more services, first through cars, then TV, and then the internet; this has meant an evolution in their view of the urban life. It is still different to live in a small hamlet with 250 residents, half of which are over 60, but some things are now felt as rights in the same way in both kinds of territory. And the consumption habits get closer as the rural populations loses overall weight. This is catalyzer of change on a scale that goes beyond urban or metropolitan, either for good or for bad.
Saying that cultivation fields get technician by the aim for more production can only be accepted if you speak in terms of millennia; improving crop yields has always been a goal for farmers, despite the bucolic vision some urbans have. There is a constant buzz now around the “developed countries” concerning smart cities and the future introduction of sensors, but this is also becoming common in many rural areas through improved irrigation systems. The image of circles formed by pivot irrigation are known to most of us, but drip irrigation, albeit less impressive when seen from above, is quite efficient, and the chances to mechanize recollection in some cases change many things.
Sure, urbans are not getting fans of the farm machinery websites, but it is rather the way in which farmers exchange information about their working tools, almost as any urban professional. When farmers look for ways to hack the on-board computers on their combine harvesters, as a recent article on Wired showed, change is in the air. I’m not sure how/whether this will translate to architecture and landscape, but chances are there could be an impact. And this is in fact an essay, reduced but interesting, on what comes along with smart cities; managing irrigation water and its electricity use is a limited goal, but some smart city initiatives don’t go beyond the mere management of a limited set of services…
After publishing the map on inequality in Spain, some comments have led me to think it could be interesting to show a comparative vision:
Spain: Renta personal de los municipios españoles y su distribución, Miriam Hortas Rico & Jorge Onrubia Fernández, FEDEA, 2014. Based on 2007 data
France: Les revenus et le patrimoine des menages, Cédric Houdré & Juliette Ponceau, edition 2014, INSEE. Based on 2011 data
USA: State of Disparity, a Project looking at the economic disparity in CT, WSHU radio (A view from Connecticut, but with a nationwide chapter). Based on data from 2006 to 2010.
Inequality is on the rise, but with different flavors in each country.
Fedea (Fundación de Estudios de Economía Aplicada) is an economic think tank financed by a large set of big Spanish firms. In November 2014 it published “Personal revenue in Spanish municipalities and its distribution” (Miriam Hortas Rico and Jorge Onrubia Fernández). Fedea’s website includes two maps in which you can visualize, by municipality, revenue and inequality as expressed through the Gini index (the closer to 1, the most unequal). The results are based in micro data from the Personal Revenue Tax 2007, for the 1.109 municipalities over 5.000 residents, and the project would extend that series over time.
The use of a gradient of the same hue is not always helping reading the map; the most important thing is, as in any map, the underlying data, but I think there are better ways to visualize that worrying content (it is worth reminding that these are 2007 data, and the current crisis doesn’t seem to have improved the situation). That is what I have tried to do, using the database published on the web. Maps show quintiles.
Municipalities can be a powerful starter of urban change… or of inertia, depending on their ability to create positive dynamics on their territory. This is related to their accounts, and that is interesting in this year in which we will go vote for municipal councils in Spain and France. In the US the local administration system differs from state to state, so the only rational way to compare would be to take any given state in the US and compare to a given European country.
What follows is a (primary) analysis of data from the Virtual Office for the financial coordination with local entities (http://serviciosweb.meh.es/apps/EntidadesLocales/), which aggregates data from over 8.000 Spanish municipalities and Diputaciones and other organs classified as Local Entities. These are data from closed fiscal years with real accounting results, in a series running between 2003 and 2013 (last available year). Data are in thousands of euros for each year (inflation is not accounted for). For those out of Spain, most of urbanism and housing expenditure has been private for decades. Local administrations get resources in that field through taxation and a compulsory free cession that builders must deliver when they execute an operation, consisting in a percentage of building rights and the lots where it sits (the sale of these lots is often most of the “land lots sold” item).
As a result of that analysis, three charts show matters that are somehow linked to urban planning and related matters.
Income: local governments got to an all-time high for income in 2009; as of 2013 they were slightly under the 2006 level. The tax on urban real estate (data before 2009 make no difference between urban and non-urban) changes from 15% of total income in 2003 to 25% in 2013, while lot sales were reduced from 3,4% to 0,34% (in 2006 they reached 6%). The privative use of public domains went from 1,5% to 3,1%, as it is clearly apparent in the public space with sidewalk café and restaurant terraces, at least in part as a response to tobacco laws. The tax on urban land value increases has only grown from 2,9% to 3,6%, with quite reduced oscillations.
Investment: the investment on new infrastructure and general use goods was almost 7% in 2003, and it has gone down to 2,2% in 2013. When it comes to maintain these infrastructure and goods we have gone from 3,4 to 1,6% over the same period, and new/maintenance costs for operational services have followed a similar pattern.
Detailed investment: the real investment (not taking into account personnel costs and other elements) of the Spanish municipalities has followed a more complex curve. Up to 2010 this real investment was over 25% of the total expenditure, but since then they have lost weight (9,4% in 2013). Urbanism and housing were around a third of real investment up to 2010, and since they have increased to reach 44% in 2013, even if the absolute figure is half that of 2003. To give an order of magnitude, education (in which local administrations have a limited role) went down from 4% to 3% over that period, and its absolute value was reduced to a third of the 2003 figure.
Overall, the evolution of income and expenditure has been somewhat balanced (added figures for the whole period show more income than expenditure), but there have been relevant changes in relative weights. Land lots sold, whose expansion was related to the real estate bubble, have reduced substantially, while real estate taxes have increased. Investment in new infrastructure have reduced nearing those concerning infrastructure maintenance. Real investment in housing and urbanism has increased its weight in the overall real investment. But as in absolute terms this investment has been strongly reduced, today it is limited to solve previous deficits
Here is a set of interesting references on long-term real estate prices in France, for the 1936-2015 period in the whole country and 1200-2015 for Paris. This vision in long-term series reminds me the long series on revenue on which Pikety supports his ideas.
Series from 1200 in Paris are evidently based on various methodologies, with a lesser statistic representatively. They show an erratic journey, but reality can sometimes be so.
Here is a map by Mason Inman that is far from clear at first sight, but which is appealing from an aesthetic point of view. When you zoom in things become clearer: extracting oil can happen through horizontal pipes, so these are the most visible elements in the map. Each well has data associated. The way the land is exploited is surprising, it almost seems an agrarian structure.
The transmission of property through heritage can contribute to the urban shape and/or to social structure. Some individual home areas can get densified over time as the need to divide the original lot arises through heritage by a group of brothers, for instance; this is quite more complex with current planning systems in which the subdivision of existing lots can be limited. When inheritance implies an apartment, its subdivision can depend on many elements and be more complex, as creating a new kitchen or bathroom requires a connection to the building’s services that is more difficult to solve in an independent way. This logic (division) makes sense in a growing demography, and also in peripheral areas (it is more difficult in central cities).
What happens when populations decrease, as they do in some European countries? Sure, we have shrinking cities, and then we have Detroit in America. Even if the city loses population, there are chances that the demand for built space will still exist, as it could be driven by other non- residential demands. Many things can happen:
- You can inherit your parent’s property and live there; this has been a common fact in history, and it is worth reminding that demographic growth has been slow over long periods of time, which explains the stability of the urban fabric in many cities up to the industrial age.
- Heritage can become an idle property; as you get no clients, you just have a home that no one uses. This has always existed, but now it could become more common.
- Even in a shrinking city, brothers or other relatives happen, so you could get in a trap as no agreement could be reached between those benefited by the inheritance; in the end, property could again end up idle.
Overall, inheriting in a shrinking city reinforces the use value of a property against its financial value; and you can only sleep in one bed per night (at least under normal circumstances), so if the inherited property is not adjacent to your home you would probably find complex to use both everyday. Conversely, inheriting in a shrinking city can increase the financial value of a property, but you will be able to use it only if you have other properties (you would probably prefer to have at least one sheltered bed every night…) or if you can subdivide the inherited property.
This catalyzer of urban change is real, but incremental. But for a disaster, inheritances are random, both in space and in time, even if you can suppose that a new neighborhood will have replaced its original population in 30-40 years due to old age.
So, I choose a large book by Microsoft, and I throw it to you, and it’s done… Well, it’s not just that. Authors say that science has evolved until now as a result of three paradigms:
- 1- Experimentation
- 2- Theory (since the XVIIth century)
- 3- Calculation and simulation (since the second half of the XXth century)
The massive use of big data would deliver that fourth paradigm. As the book is from 2009, we can now see it with some perspective.