Lands and countries

Maps 2015 (15) Either we lack kids or we have too many schools


The Encuesta de Infraestructuras y Equipamientos Locales is a periodical survey in Spain which lets us know the state of infrastructures and public facilities in municipalities under 50.000 residents. According to the 2013 edition (the most recent available, which does not include some provinces in the map as Madrid or Huelva, at least for this topic), here is the municipal figure for the ratio between the capacity of kindergartens and the number of kids attending class in each settlement. Red squares are less than 40%, orange triangles 40% to 60%, and blue rhombus over 60%. No need to browse the absolut values (often depressing) to see clearly that the core of the Iberian peninsula is getting empty. Note, however, that as Madrid has no data in 2013 the map is misleading, as the region is quite different (just see how many blues nearby)

Just to make my position clear, the title is just that, a title, as the problem is far more complex… and not just a Spanish issue.

Starters of change (11) Water


The upper image corresponds to the village of Alange, in the Spanish province of Badajoz. The dam was completed in 1992, with a wall 67 m high (from foundation) and 720 m long, so what until then was just a village over the Matachel river became a space marked by water and a new coastline. This is no doubt a project beyond the means of a small municipality, and was managed by the Guadiana Water Board. This action produces a new landscape that allows the use of water for irrigation (in lower lands there is a wide agrarian plain) and electricity production.

The reservoir has a catchment basin of 2.545 sq km (which is equivalent to 60% of Rhode Island), and its water surface, of some 35 sq km, is marked by some islands which display the geology of the area. The areas that were to be underwater were cleaned of all vegetation, so when the water level changes sometimes the shores look rather arid, in contrast with a much greener area of lands above water.

Water has brought relevant change; a neighborhood was moved as its precedent site was flooded, some new buildings respond to the new landscape, and it is fair to think that the payments to the owners of land taken to be submerged must have somehow influenced the local economy. There sure was an impact due to the flooding of the lower valley agrarian land, usually a fertile one. Over a stretch, the new layout of the road goes between the urban edge and the water, but its physical configuration is not very attractive. Water has become the central element of an area of the Natura 2000 European Nature considered a Relevant Birds Area; birds have become users of the reservoir. But people are becoming less relevant in number; there were 2.031 residents in 1996, and in 2014 this number fell to 1.946.


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.

Maps 2015 (1) The American plain

This first example of 2015 is not really a map, but rather a rendering of an idea that has received an award in a competition for students held by the American Society of Landscape Architects. Its author, Reid Fellenbaum, proposes a strategy for the evolution of the central US plains, threatened by the gradual depletion of the aquifers that water its cereal crops. He summarizes the project as an evolution from the current Jeffersonian grid towards a more fine-grained arrangement in a land which is more fragile than it seems. I’m not talking about feasibility (which would be complex to judge in its entirety), even if it is clear that traditional cultivation techniques probably could provide some useful tricks, but rather about the graphical quality of the presentation, which is quite good.

Besides, this project addresses an issue, the “grain” of the land, on which I will soon write… widely.

Biblio (109) Green infrastructures

Biblio 109

Green infrastructure is one of these ecology-based complex concepts… and an interesting one. The traditional concept of infrastructure (“gray infrastructure”, as it is called these days as green ones have appeared) is that of any kind of contraption that allows you to use the laws of physics or any other science to adapt the current environment to our needs as a species; it is usually based on active elements that somehow require high amounts of ressources and some kind of maintenance. Green infraestructure is presented as an approach in which the man-made intervention is less visible, with an aim to get a good level of environmental services (yes, she is still the client…) by working in a more symbiotic way with ecosystems; understanding how nature works helps achieve a higher efficiency in some aspects with less pollution and environmental damage (not that previous engineers were brutes, but they worked from a different paradigm). The European Environmental Agency booklet conveys that idea in a more ellaborate way.

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.

Biblio (102) Visions and scenarios for the European territory in 2050



ESPON’s team has prepared a report edited by Andreu Ulied which summarizes the main messages from the ET 2050 ESPON project. This is a new iteration of the attempts to define a territorial vision for the continent set to deliver a more sustainable development and a more efficient way to address crisis through territorial governance. The polycentric vision is, as usual, one of the basic elements. There are interesting ideas in the report, but I’m afraid that their full use can only come if we Europeans find a way to get a better government scheme for the Union.