Starters of urban change (4) Air conditioning and façades: the problem of Haussmann’s umbrella


When the Baron Haussman wrote his memories, after having lost his large power over Paris, he told that what Napoleon III really wanted at the Halles was, simply, to create a “large umbrella”. I say “simply” as works began with a classical stone architecture that was criticized, and the image that now everyone remembers, of steel and glass pavilions, resulted from an order to reduce expenditure. With a large umbrella merchants could go without individual ones on rainy days. So were made many things during the last two centuries: doing “large umbrellas”, so you could live without one for yourself if you liked it that way, or it was out of reach for you. Public hospitals against private doctors, public schools against church schools,…

Buckminster Fuller proposed in 1960 the erection of a large dome over midtown Manhattan to control climate, a project that was never built and that could have faced relevant problems. In a given moment, direct satellite mobile phones were introduced to talk between anywhere and any place. The first idea was never implemented due to cost, and the second one was implemented but never gained wide traction. Sometimes simpler systems win.

Air conditioning is an example of the kind of urban catalyzers in the ascending sense. We could imagine a dome over the city, controlling climate, and in fact in some areas district heating exists; in northern Europe there are even interconnected district heating systems, which achieve high energy performances. But for the regions of extreme cold in which energy bills are high, or when large landowners can better manage the energy bill through large systems, in most areas in the world in which heat is intense, the “dowry” (not in the marriage sense…) of the middle class has grown. Once you get into a certain income class, you sure buy a car, but you also buy (before or after is a matter of choice) air conditioning.

In countries such as Anglo-Saxons, with a substantial share of individual homes, this is not that relevant in terms of urban landscape. But in places in which apartments are relevant, as in Spain or China, or in dense cities, architecture is impacted. Sure, some buildings have their mechanical elements over the roof, but this is still a reduced share, as housing buildings tend to last quite long.

Often local rules forbid locating condensation units for air conditioning in façades, but this is the most common solution as the installer can do a simpler work, ducts are more affordable, and the machine works better. As each owner calls an installer when he likes, and he uses his own ideas, brand and model, architecture suffers. Sure, some buildings have scarce previous qualities, but other get an appalling treatment. It is worth reminding that urban landscape quality is not just a matter of sublime elements, but also clutter control.

As dismantling these contraptions from façades is complex, I foresee that many will still be there after years without use. I can even imagine that in a hundred years, even if the system itself is no longer used, some areas will promote their “vintage early XXIst century architecture” bragging about their authentic air conditioning devices….

Maps 2015 (6) A mind map


… of some of the last posts and a part of the ones to follow shortly. As I stated before in Starters of urban change (1), my interest its, beyond the appeal of the current state of the cities, in what makes the cities change. Moreover, as I had previously stated, the grain of the city is relevant, so there is also a scale issue. I accept suggestions.

Biblio (117) Four case studies on urban agriculture

Biblio 117

A report by the Urban Development and Resilience Unit of the World Bank, studying cases in Bangalore (India), Accra (Ghana), Nairobi (Kenya) and Lima (Peru). It seems that urban agriculture helps the first wave of migrants to cities, now old, to survive; it is also used by many as a complement to other sources of revenue, including informal jobs. Those urban farmers are usually the owners of the land they cultivate, and the reports sees reason to be optimistic about the development of this kind of agriculture.

Maps 2015 (5) Up & down in Granada


The results of a little escapade on the side of the cadastral data for volumes. If it is built, it must be drawn to ask for taxes… and those bases can be used. Here, around the Granada cathedral, that despite its imposing physical volume is considered by the Cadastre as one level building (albeit one with high ceilings…). On the first image, what can be seen at street level. On the second one, the volumes that are completely hidden (deep red is for buildings that according to data have no underground levels). These images don’t portray what happens in the intermediary situation, i.e., when the floor of a room is under the street level but its ceiling is above it, but for not more than a meter (to be seen soon, as it is interesting in a hilly city as Granada…).


Starters of urban change (4) Wats, fridges and cows

An old urban dairy farm, image taken from the blog “le pieton de Paris” (, with a good article on the issue

The arrival of the fridge as a common home appliance implied, among other consequences, the evolution of the place of the animals in the city. My grandma still had chicken under the kitchen sink in their third ground apartment, as  during the Spanish post-civil war era this was still common (most urban dwellers came from rural areas, as her), and she had no fridge at home and retail was not up to the task of massive meat distribution. To be precise, at a given moment they bought a fridge, but power lines were not reliable enough…

Which leads us to a previous matter: the spread of electric energy. The generalization of electricity in the cities is a matter of little more than the last century, with a gradual growth: first light, and then an incremental growth of the rest of appliances. The urban family revenue had to grow to support buying new appliances, but power generation and transportation networks had to grow in terms of both capacity and reliability.

This expansion of electricity is central to the link between animals and humans in cities in many ways, and in Europe there is a clear example in the production and distribution of dairy products. Since Pasteur it is known that milk is an ideal place for pathogens to thrive, especially when time between milking and drinking grows and temperature is uncontrolled, so up to the generalization of railroads the strategy was to bring the cow as close as possible to the citizen. Cities as Madrid or Paris had at the end of the XIXth century a large amount of “vacheries”, small places in which cows were raised to produce milk for nearby populations, sometimes in ground floors or inner courts in what now are posh areas. Some examples as Louis Bonnier’s time architectures in ceramic tiles show the convergence with the expansion of urban hygiene.

The improvements as well in transportation as in refrigeration both on the offer side (industrial fridges) and the demand side (a fridge for every family) reduced with time the need for cows near families. Along with the end of urban horses due the car, this is a relevant evolution. It is worth thinking how in today’s polluted cities a quality milk production could happen, but anyway this urban story also had implications for rural areas: while the milk production in former times could only be exported as cheese, with power and fridges an industrialization of the milk industry ensued.

It would be interesting to see, in the recent context of avian influenzas, how the way in which humans and fowl evolves in Asian cities with fast GDP, infrastructure and population growth, as a century ago in North America or Europe.

Biblio (116) The evolution of the parisian foodshed from the XIXth to the XXIst century


This is the PHD dissertation of Petros Chatzimpiros (engineer and environmental expert, currently university teacher in Geography), presented in june 2011 before the Paris Est university. The author focuses his research on meat and dairy.

The analytic method is a study of the spatial footprint, water use and nitrogen flows. According to the conclusions, since the beginning of the XIXth century the production surface by resident has been divided by six for similar consumptions of meat and milk, as a result of improvements in production, at the cost of twice the water consumption and a three times more intense use of the soil.

As Pikety has used long series for revenue, here long environmental and economic data series are used.

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…