Author: metrhispanic

Architect and urban planner in Madrid, interested in cities, land and everything surrounding these concepts, including people ... and the images, numbers, and meanings associated. Arquitecto y urbanista en Madrid, interesado en las ciudades, el territorio y todo lo que rodea a esos conceptos, incluyendo a la gente... y a las imágenes y números asociados. Architecte et urbaniste a Madrid, avec un intérêt pour les villes, les territoires et tout autour des ces concepts, y compris les gens… et pour les images et chiffres associés.

Starters of change (10) Contraptions

Somewhere in western Spain: the fruit trees on the foreground have clearly visible drip irrigation

Somewhere in western Spain: the fruit trees on the foreground have clearly visible drip irrigation

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…

Biblio (122) Personal income and its distribution in Spain, France and the USA

Biblio122-desigualdad

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

Inequalities among European states, according to the INSEE publication

Inequalities among European states, according to the INSEE publication

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.

Maps 2015 (10) Inequality of personal revenue in Spain

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 original Fedea map on income distribution

The original Fedea map on income distribution (access the link, you can zoom and get detailed data for each municipality in the original website)

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.

Personal revenue. It is clear that Southern and Western Spain are worse off.

Personal revenue, average by municipality. It is clear that Southern and Western Spain are worse off.

Gini index by municipality. The mediterranean coast seems more unequal; suburbs seem more equal (this is just a first order analysis looking at the map)

Gini index by municipality. The mediterranean coast seems more unequal; suburbs seem more equal (this is just a first order analysis looking at the map)

Part of the total revenue corresponding to the higher 1%. In most municipalities they only get 10%, but there are many red spots.

Part of the total revenue corresponding to the higher 1%. In most municipalities they only get 10%, but there are many red spots.

Starters of urban change (9) Municipalities

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 in Spanish local entities, selected items

Income in Spanish local entities, selected items

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 in Spanish local entities, selected items

Investment in Spanish local entities, selected items

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.

Investment in Spanish local entities, selected items

Investment in Spanish local entities, selected items

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

Biblio (121) Long series for real estate prices in France

biblio121-series longues prix immo- Paris depuis 1200

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.

Maps 2015 (9) Fracking in the North Dakota Oil Boom

mapas 2015-9- Fracking dakota

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.

Starters of urban change (8) Inheriting

A part of the Texeira Map (1656) in Madrid, in what now is a much denser area.

A part of the Texeira Map (1656) in Madrid, in what now is a much denser area.

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.

Biblio (120) The fourth paradigm of science

Biblio 120

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.

Paradoxes and a place in the chain, but which one?

Guadalest reservoir, Alicante, Spain

Guadalest reservoir, Alicante, Spain

I’m currently working on a planning project in a low density rural region which has historically had relevant environmental values, but also a relevant human intervention on the land. During the last century a large number of reservoirs were erected, and in recent years one of the largest in the continent has been completed. On the other side, I follow often French news, so I have seen the controversy around the Sivens reservoir project, in a low density area north of Toulouse.

European societies (those inside the EU) give a complex treatment to the environment. On one side, in the initial moments of the Union a series of directives were enacted according to the experience and philosophy of the founding countries (essentially northern ones); these laws were reinforced and formalized, and codified through European protection of specific zones, and European court rulings. On the other side citizens see the protection of the environment as a good thing; this stems from a direct experience with pollution problems and the loss of spaces and landscapes that were socially perceived as relevant. This citizen perception is by no means scientifically sound, but it is the result of the evolution over time under a favorable view, and especially in the southern countries in which the entry in the Union was seen as an improvement. As a result of the current economic crisis in the southern states some are challenging that status quo, opposing environmental protection and economic development (It is curious how easy is to rant that Brussels is to blame, as it is to say that bureaucrats in Madrid, Paris or Washington are in other scales).

The system creates paradox. On one side the scientific and administrative description of ecosystems tends to portray them as a static balance (the administrative description is the one on the land protection rules); knowing it is loving it, so due to a simple psychological rule, some are prone to think these descriptions are more accurate than current dynamics. This is an attitude I can understand as a result of the general decay of the environmental state of the Union and the fear of the unknown, and is surely at least one of the reasons the demonstrators challenge the Sivens reservoir. On the other side, dams show that sure you destroy previous ecosystems, but new water areas and irrigation of farmland changes the ecological flows and sometimes can favor the location or expansion of some species. I’m not an ecology scientist, but I see dams erected against the opposition of environmental defense group that, as time (and generations of environmental activists) changes, become areas that the same groups defend as biodiversity areas. The question I raise, and to which I have no answer due to the limits of my knowledge, is whether the current situation is better or worse in terms of ecosystems quality. I’m almost sure we’re worse off than in the pre-industrial era, but I’m not so sure when we look at two given moments in the last 50 years.

As a professional, when I have to deal with these matters I follow the advice of the environmental experts I work with. But sometimes I also see doubt in them; sure in areas that have had substantial population for centuries man has conditioned nature, and the pressure on the environment has increased substantially during the last century as a result of technological evolution. I have no doubt on the fact that many of the traditional uses of the land in rural areas produced less impact on the environment than modern approaches. But farmers are no longer the same, and they are now much more urban in approach due to the demands of the society (just remind farmers are economic agents) and their aspirations in such an urban-centric world.

Just an example: in Spain there are spaces that are currently steppes as a result of the cattle expansion policies of the Mesta during the middle ages. What is best for the sustainable development of the land, to conserve a landscape which results from the action of a wood cartel from the XIIIth century or to go back to its precedent forest state?. On the other side, one of the largest current forests in Europe, the Landes de Gascogne, were simply not there just two centuries ago, so the same question is pertinent. When we look at an urban historical core we always think on what to do with a continent as the content is largely changed, and this can also be an approach for territories.

We can think about the need to change our consumerism- driven dynamics, something I can only agree with. But I’m far from sure this alone will be enough, so we should perhaps start seeing ecosystems under a more dynamic perspective. My fear is that there we lack the basic tools, as:

  • In most of the analytic disciplines, at least in the ones concerning land use regulation, the static vision is dominant; this is logical, as a result of how difficult it would be to predict interactions in such complex systems, but it produces the aforementioned paradoxes.
  • The precautionary principle is challenged by some, but even those cannot deny it has a rational foundation. The problem is how to integrate it as an operational tool.
  • The dilemma between thought and action is exemplified by such matters as climate change, and we are far from commonly accepted solutions, i.e., those that could become a part of our common culture, beyond the scientific debate.

So the question on our role (as humans) in the ecological chain is central, not just to guarantee our survival as a species (any species would like to survive), but also to know the limits of our intervention on the environment. I’m not implying that planning should allow everything everywhere, but that the debate must be more open.