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Maps 2015 (13) Nolli

The map of Rome drawn by Giambattista Nolli in 1748 is one of those documents that any planner (or at least any architect- planner) would like to have for the cities in which she works. It is the ancestor of many maps used in historic district plans. Sure, nowadays those historic district plans can also include detail regarding the layout of non-monumental buildings, but the debt towards this pioneering map is what it is…Alongside the five weeks in balloon by Jules Verne and the maps of Turgot for Paris and Texeira for Madrid, it is one of those works that predate such things as google maps…

The University of Oregon has a website in which you can get a look at the document; the app allows a comparison with current satellite images. Berkeley allows the access to jpg portions of the map.


Starters of urban change (7) Urban toll in London

Congestion Charge, London’s urban toll system, is among the rare cases in which a politician states his admiration before a measure that has worked better than forecasted (at least that’s what he said to the BBC).

Let us use here what some urban economy teachers say. Imagine an ET hovering over planet earth, and how he could be puzzled to see our behavior on car flows; you pay tolls to use motorways that seldom have any congestion, while in large cities, which can put to test anyone’s patience, moving by car is free. The scarcity of a good (fluidity) does not influence its price.

This first idea deserves some considerations: since the introduction of parameters and (especially in Europe) air quality control measures, moving your car in a central district remains relatively free, but the moment you decide to stop and park, you are in for a step bill. This helps improve air quality, but is felt by some as a social division between haves and have not’s in terms of accessibility to urban cores; I think that this is not necessarily the case, as in a reasonably designed public transportation system fares are always much more affordable than car ownership. Sure, you have all the right to feel better in your car, as you have no need to smell other people’s smells, but you have no need to organize your trip according to parking availability and you can do many useful things (even just thinking) while someone else focuses his/her attention on steering a vehicle. I think it’s rather an issue of what you want to do with commute times that can be very long for some, and feelings, but access times are not necessarily longer for the most (sure, if you make many stops things can change, but you need to factor in the parking hurdle).

It seems the system has worked rather well; tariffs have helped boost public transport, and reduce pollution with positive effects on public health. Citizens, as on almost any other issue, are divided between pros and cons. Traffic levels have gone down 10,2% in 10 years, but travel time remains the same for motorists.

An interesting thing in this measure is that it was approved by a Labor government and presented by some as a left wing interventionist policy, but later has been maintained by Conservatives (even if they scraped the western extension), and new restrictions are being planned for 2020.

But few cities have followed that path: more often than not, the fear of losing votes.

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” (http://pietondeparis.canalblog.com/archives/2013/05/31/27298307.html), 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.

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

What good do shops deliver (1)


Those who follow this blog probably have already noticed that urban retail has already been the subject of several posts. And time seems ripe to focus again on that issue, for several reasons.

As you may have noticed, I’m writing from a country in which the last years have left us with a feeling of going to work each day as if you were losing a war; an economic crisis that has added to an international slowdown the results of our self-inflicted pains has not helped by any means the general mood. This has translated to urban retail to a situation in which nearly all the businesses, from El Corte Inglés, the national quasi-monopolic (by disappearance of all sizeable alternatives) brand of department stores, to the humblest corner shop, have suffered. Some have struggled but somehow survived , but the coincidence of that general demand crisis with two factors will probably devastate the urban retail landscape we knew. The first one is demographics: many small retailers appeared in a given period (1960s, 1970s), and they are reaching a retirement age, with no replacement in sight. The second one is the end of a regulation that limited the rent rise for old leases.

Sure, Chinese retailers have gained momentum, but they are far from being the only reason for the current slowdown.

Let me reassure you: I’m fully able to sing you the virtues of urban retail; what I will try to do in the next posts is to give you concrete examples of those general ideas. As the above image, taken not far from where I live (not necessarily what you would take as a posh district), tries to convey, sometimes retail is just what differentiates a set of housing units from a real neighborhood.

On awards (2) Previous thougths

Uptown, Oakland, a neighborhood selected in 2014 by the American Planning Association through its Great Places in America program

It is probably a good idea to propose some preliminary ideas before getting into the awards issue. I’m going to talk about awards to plans or documents that somehow have been approved by a public administration, or about ideas that have been built; I will even talk about awards to existing urban spaces in which there is no actual new construction. So architectural/urban competitions will not be included; don’t get me wrong, they can be really interesting (there can be interesting issues beyond the famous cases as the 1922 Chicago Tribune or the 1931 Soviet’s Palace competitions), but because I’m right now more interested in what I have described. Under these conditions, whatever receives the award must have been somehow endorsed by a certain amount of agents, resulting so from a (varying) degree of consensus.

An award is nevertheless similar to a competition or even to a school exam; you often see it just in one sense, as a choice between a set of proposals from which you pick the one more fit to the criteria you have set. But often it is also clear that the jury is also put to test (and sometimes fails). The award is a social construction based on a set of conventions, depending on the moment and the vision of the jurors (be it coincident or not with the majority views, even if they are far from reasonable), and even (let me hope that just in a minority of cases…) depending on the personal affinities with given candidates. Even if all the former can be interesting elements, I will not focus on them.

What I will focus on is, in the cases I will portray during the next posts, my vision on the awarded proposals when related to the remaining ones, as seen from a distance (for several reasons I will not talk about awards in my current direct geographical area). Judging their virtues is not always easy (even if sometimes you are tempted to say something is worthless…), but some questions arise that I think are worth sharing.

On awards (1)

Quartier de l’Europe, in Saint-Brieuc (France). The urban regeneration scheme has just received the Robert Auzelle Award

Awards are great as a way to see what is currently seen as interesting or innovative by people on a bussiness. So I propose for the next posts a glimpse on what is the current season of awards regarding urban planning and design, and their links to architecture, sustainable development and other issues.

From Alps to Atlantic (7) Finding your way in a peninsula


La Coruña

I was born on a peninsula, and I like that kind of places. Some people from inland areas are somehow puzzled, as for them a coastal city should have water only in one direction, a far cry from what a peninsula is. These same people have a still harder time when they realize that a peninsular city changes its shape constantly; not that inland cities are different, but here the coastline provides a more apparent limit that makes things clearer.

The best way to find your way on a peninsula is to look for a tall element. A lighthouse, a hill, a chimney… if you have no such elements, you are in trouble, as ships can come from anywhere (thank god, in the Cadiz marshes you have shipyards with large cranes, power towers and a new bridge…).

Some have found a loophole: make city grow so much larger than your peninsula that it will no longer be noticed. But this is somehow cheating…