Urban retail (9) Coruña – a

Urban retail follows similar logics in cities, even if they are not multimillion metro areas. I will talk now about the city I have lived in for 30 years. Coruña, in northwestern Spain, is the second most densely populated municipality in Spain; with sligthly less than 250.000, it is the center of a metro area of about half a million people, has a busy harbor oriented towards oil, and in the next municipality to the west are the world headquarters of Zara, the apparel merchant, whose first shop was here (I happened to pass by as a kid, not suspecting it would become such a world company…)


Just in order to give an impression of how dense the city fabric is, in what many would not identify as Spain, as the landscape is closer to that of Britanny, for instance, two views. The historical city is on a narrow penninsula that creates a safe bay, the reason for the city location.

Zone B on map, isthmus and the old city

Zone B on map, isthmus and the old city (hidden by the high buildings on the beach), as seen from A

Zone C on the map, Ronda de Outeiro

Zone C on the map, Ronda de Outeiro, as seen from A. The high densities of the 1960s and 1970s, continued today

The maps in this post are based on the cadastre databases, as manipulated in an open source GIS. This source offers the advantage of giving areas for the different land uses, to a large degree of detail; they also have two problems: they indicate someone is paying land taxes for the different housing units and other uses inside each building (a relevant feature in a country in which multistorey buildings are a normal feature in cities), but not if the space is being really used for that specific purpose, as the case for vacant shops, and they can have, as in any database of such size, some errors. The maps show densities, so sometimes a white value does not mean the lack of the feature, but the lack of weight as compared to other zones.

Anyway, what those maps show is that even in an extremely dense city there is no mathematic correlation between global density and shops density. The values are somehow biassed by the lack of habit in this particular city to have the ground floor used for housing, as generally it is sold for shops (they are theoretically viable with such a number of potential clients around), but there are clear commercial centralities (which will be shown in tomorrow’s post).

Number of housing units per lot

Number of housing units per lot

The density of housing units is quite high, but specially southwest of the central city, in the Ronda de Outeiro area, and in the growth areas from the 1960s/ 1970s (even today, densities are extremely high by normal spanish standards)

Retail surface by building lot

Retail surface by building lot

The retail surface by building lots map shows that you have a light hue (small surface shops) “banana” in the isthmus, and a set of large “dots” corresponding to peripheral commercial centers and big box retail.

Built up area by lot

Built up area by lot

The built up area by lot map is similar to the housing density map, as most uses in the represented area are residential.

Number of retail establishments by lot

Number of retail establishments by lot

The distribution of the number of retail establishments by lot is similar to the distribution of retail surfaces, with a clrea difference: the large peripheral centers have either a more reduced number of cadastral units (they can be on rent, with the same owner) or there can be a delay in their introduction in the database for the more recent.

Libraries (4). Agora Coruña, a new neighborhood library

The Agora is a recently opened civic center in the Ronda de Outeiro area, in La Coruña. Iit covers one of the densest neighborhoods in what is one of the denser Spanish cities. The project (by Rojo+Fernandez Shaw arquitectos) uses the land slope to create an interesting multilevel architecture, in which the library is on a side wing, suspended over the garage entrance.


The reading room has the qualities of an almost domestic space, being a nice place to grab a book and stay for hours.




Explaining an architectural or urban proposal requires transmitting its aims and the context in which they will be deployed. To that end it is common to use a set of numbers than, in the end, are aimed to compare. It is common to state that a building has a surface of x sq ft, or a new neighborhood will occupy x acres, or even that it will have a certain number of dwellings. These figures have a sense only if they can be compared to other known magnitudes, but this part is often omitted, specifically in technical articles.

In this time in which numbers have a great relevance and their management must take into account their real meaning, it seems relevant to talk millions. A million square meters (10,763 million sq ft) are 100 hectares, and the Spanish press often equates that to a 100 soccer fields; it is also common to see references to sports fields in other countries. But the size of a soccer field can go from 45×90 m (less than half an hectare) to 120×90 m (1,08 hectare). This surface encloses the turf area, not taking into account the athletics racetrack around it common in many stadiums, or the stands. A mid-sized stadium can be easily over 3 hectares, and the ancillary parking spaces can add large dimensions.Image

Madrid’s Retiro Park is slightly over 1 million sq m (1.092.395 sq m without the built up areas), which is almost a third of New York’s Central Park (3.399.322 sq m, including the 56 buildings) (in both cases land registry data). In both cases the perception of the dimension of these spaces is related to the landscape design of the parks, and to the visibility of the buildings around the park.


The Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid occupies a 43.688 sq m lot, in which the gross floor area (including annex retail elements) is 114.105 sq m. The Riazor Stadium at La Coruña occupies a 42.828 sq m lot, with a gross floor area of 40.499 sq m (in both cases, land registry data).


The Alberto J. Armando stadium in Buenos Aires (also known as La Bombonera) occupies a lot of some 23.000 sq m.

Large stadiums for other sports also have different space requirements. The Sydney Cricket Ground occupies some 50.000 sq m, while Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium is in the 31.000 sq m category. The new (2009) Yankee Stadium in New York is in a 314.000 sq m lot, with a gross floor area of 261.312 sq m (data from the environmental assessment).




A million square meters is a large dimension, difficult to see “piled up” in a building. Beyond large stadiums, big box retail venues, and industrial or logistic buildings sometimes reach quite large dimensions with low heights; this is the case of some asian malls and of FloraHolland in Aalsmeer, the largest auction hall for flowers in the Netherlands, with a gross floor area of 990.000 sq m (one of the largest buildings in the world).Image

Reaching the million sq m category in other building typologies is difficult, as regulations and quality requirements usually favor a division of volumes. The Cuatro Torres Business Center in Madrid concentrates the four highest towers in the city, with a combined 486.159 sq m gross floor area on 30.000 sq m (four lots). But there is no need to articulate towers to design a huge surface building. The mixed use (retail and offices) L’Illa Diagonal in Barcelona (Architect Rafael Moneo) sits on a 20.352 sq m lot with a gross floor area of 199.246 m2 (land registry data), with only eight floors above ground.



On a similar height range, but on a larger lot (116.223 sq m), the New Ministries in Madrid have a 184.396 sq m gross floor area (land registry data). The Louvre Museum in Paris has a 200.000 sq m gross floor area (according to its greenhouse gas emission control plan).



New York illustrates high densities: Macy’s East department store sits on a 12.483 sq m lot, with a 194.361 sq m gross floor area, resulting in a floor-area ratio of 15,6, and the Empire State Building sits on a 8.486 sq m lot with a gross floor area of 261.312 sq m (land registry data in both cases), resulting in a floor-area ratio  (FAR) of 30,7. These FAR are possible with land uses with limited demands for natural lighting and ventilation, as in department stores or, in the second case, offices conceived according to what today are dated standards.


The FAR concept itself cannot be compared without knowledge of the context: in Madrid’s four towers the FAR (measured on lot) is similar to that of Macy’s East, but in the first case towers have 50 levels and sit on a common basis, while in the second the building façade is aligned with the lot line with a maximal height of 19 levels.

Inner suburbs

Municipalities adjoining middle size cities are subject to peculiar dynamics: competition on a real estate price basis, and sometime on grounds of less strict codes than the central city are a constant, but in these municipalities position values are higher due to the highway infrastructure improvements related to central city accesses. Furthermore, the existence of virgin land that can channeled to proposals more adapted to market demand with comparatively lower management costs than in central cities is also a factor.

The following four municipalities (two in Spain, one in France and one in the United States) share that condition, being adjacent to central cities of midsize urban areas (each in its country) in different geographical contexts.

I know Oleiros as I have lived in La Coruña for 30 years; I have worked for ten years coordinating the team for the Santa Marta’s Plan General; and I know St Herblain from visits to Nantes, an interesting city. I have never been to Oregon, but Milwaukie seemed a good case in the American context.

Santa Marta de Tormes (population nearly 15.000) shares municipal boundaries with the capital of the province of Salamanca (metropolitan population near 190.000). Urban development during the XXth century has been linked to N-501 road to Madrid, on which is located the original settlement. Growth gained momentum during the 1970’s with large scale developments of detached housing south of the bypass expressway, in fact starting the development of peripheral municipalities. Growth has been fast, with a large share of detached housing surrounding a dense original core which shares most of the drawbacks of 1960-1980 Spanish urban areas: a dismal urban space (recently subject to requalification operations), scarce parks and public facilities, and a housing stock of lesser quality.

Santa Marta’s 2012 General Plan, defined by the Municipal Council, without a reference metropolitan planning framework, is articulated around the following guidelines:

–          Prevention of urban development in the environmentally significant areas (fluvial plains to the north, southern areas)

–          Concentration of residential growth in the central area of the municipality, north of the expressway, filling a present patchwork of disparate elements and giving coherence to future tissue. The proposed density is on average 35 housing units by hectare, combining individual and multifamily housing. It is difficult to predict a time for this development taking into account the present crisis context, but the priority is put on the future urban structure.

–          Provision of a set of boulevards irrigating the new residential areas, including a priority for walking an cycling, and a possible development as public transit corridors. The plan provides a system of large public facilities and parks in the growth areas. Peripheral bypass local roads are aimed at reducing car traffic in new residential areas.

–          New industrial and business areas south of the expressway.

–          Urban infill operations, mainly on industrial estates in central areas

Improvement in the road connections to central Salamanca through a new bridge over the river Tormes.

Urban core of Santa Marta de Tormes and improvements in the relation with the river Tormes : A) project for a new park related to the river, B) opening of visual connexion between Plaza Mayor and the embankment, C) integration of the new City Hall with the river and the island of El Soto.

Growth areas in Santa Marta de Tormes, integrating previously occupied tissues in the grid defined by the N-501 and the new boulevards (B1, B2).

Oleiros (population slightly over 34.000) is separated from the provintial capital of Coruña (metropolitan population 410.000) by the El Burgo estuary. As often in Galicia, there is no single main settlement, but an array of small ones distributed over the municipality. Urban growth during the XXth century was conditioned by improvements in N-VI road to Madrid, and even more by the AC173 road linking the city to the less exposed eastern beaches. An initial surge in holiday housing around beaches developed on a tradition of low density rural sprawl and a network of small paths and hamlets. Over time, these holiday houses became main permanent residences.

The 2009 Oleiros Plan Xeral, a municipal project without a metropolitan planning reference, protects from development the northern coastal strip and some ecologically significant internal spaces. The Plan aims to grow in continuity with the many areas already urbanized, often with a rural origin, and to improve a public facilities system that is already good from a regional perspective. There is also a will to integrate a coastal landscape quality element in the growth strategy; the recent approval of the Galician Coastal Plan, including Oleiros, helps in that sense and gives coherence to works on coastal areas on a metropolitan scale.

Central area of the Oleiros municipality. The City hall is on the right part of the image.

Oleiros, Santa Cristina beach.

St Herblain (population 44.000) shares municipal borders to the east with Nantes (population 590.000 for the whole metropolitan area), the old capital of the Britanny Dukes. In a context in which there was traditionally some settlement dispersion, the urban growth during the XXth century has been linked to the improvements of roads D965 (Nantes- Vannes) and D-17 (more local path on which sits the municipality main settlement). The municipality is also crossed by the Nantes Beltway (peripherique) and the Saint Nazaire Expressway (RD 201).

Today the RD 201 is occupied by business areas, configuring a territorial system in which three residential areas (Centre Bourg, Est and Nord) surround a central industrial and big box retail area. The housing stock shows a large proportion of single family units and some large multifamily social housing developments from the sixties, subject to improvement projects agreed upon by the municipality and the National Urban Renovation Agency.

St Herblain’s Plan Local d’Urbanisme, enacted in 2007, was developed by Nantes Metropole, the metropolitan governance structure, setting coherence with neighboring municipalities as a goal. The proposal follows four essential guidelines:

–          A diversified city: living in the city and in your neighborhood.

–          A moving city: developing and sharing the city

–          City and nature: preserving and improving the living space

–          An attractive city: participating in the metropolitan dynamics

–          The Plan defines a system of green corridors to ensure a continuite from the Chezine valley in the north to the Loire in the south, a requalification for the structural routes between the historical core and the north, specific measures in the south to tackle industrial risks and to promote renewable generation in the area (wind farms, high efficiency heath networks), and growth areas on the fringes of the current tissues as well as in a new northwest neighborhood.

Historical core of St Herblain. The historical layout can be recognized, with clear alterations in the void- built pattern due to the parking lots.

Recent residential tissue in northern St Herblain, with a majority of single family housing units and presence of multifamily units to the south.

Milwaukie (population 20.300) is a city in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area (population 1.556.000), established in 1847 on the Willamette river. The river was the main way to the city until the beginning of the XXth century. The opening of  McLoughlin Bvd in 1932 as the main thoroughfare connecting Portland and the upper Willamette valley, the main agricultural area of the state, and the railroad, allowed an effective integration into the metropolitan area.

Milwaukie is part of METRO, the metropolitan governance system of Portland, and also of its planning system, based on the Oregon land law, one of the closest in concept to the Spanish law in terms of growth control despite important differences.

The city center has a density that would be defines as reduced nearly anywhere in Europe, with little multifamily housing (of recent construction). Centrality depends on businesses, City Hall dependencies and a retail strip based on the automobile. The rest of the municipality can be describe as a vast array of single family housing with a reduced density from an European perspective (about 10 houses per hectare, which is about four per acre, in the densest areas).

The Metro 2040 Growth Concept is the Plan for metropolitan Portland, defining the guidelines for growth control. The Plan separates urban from urban growth land, and by exclusion there is also an implicit definition of the land not to be urbanized. The effective status of the land in terms of roads and infrastructures has led to Milwaukie being considered entirely urban. The central core is considered a Town Center (third scale centrality), integrating an existing high capacity transit line (rail) and a prevision for future transportation corridors. The Plan also defines two streets as Main Streets (retail concentration areas), and integrates the plans to convert the current rail line to southern Oregon in a high speed line.

The Town Center, as well as the Main Streets, are still projects. The designated  Main Streets are today low density roads in which the transformation has still to be started, with workshops currently being held as a public participation tool.

The historical core of Milwaukie ; on the left the Willamette river. On the image center is the City Hall, and along McLaughlin Bvd (the large street by the shore) the parking lots serving stores and offices are visible. Recent multifamily apartment buildings can be seen on the upper part of the image.

SE 32 Avenue in Milwaukie, one of the main streets proposed by the 2040 Strategy

Cities that share limits with central metropolitan cores show similarities :

–          A strong link with the social and economic dynamics of the whole metropolitan area. The competition with the center and the rest of the cities is played according to the position in the matrix defined by access, price and real qualities the city can offer.

–          The firs growth surges come usually while the city has not developed administrative control or structural planning visions, and this makes indiscriminate sprawl more likely. The Plan becomes a remediation instrument.

–           When cities consolidate their position in the metropolitan area, the Plan plays a more complex role, integrating the sustainable development issues not previously considered. It is not just social or environmental issues that have to be addressed, but also economic ones. The cost of maintaining in good state of repair roads and infrastructures is reduced during boom periods in which there are high fiscal revenues from permits; but they grow with time and often there is no sound and balance economic scheme to cope with that issue. Low density urban tissues can be especially onerous.

A first post

I live in a city, I work on many, and I am interested in the city as a thought subject, in itself or in its links with the land in which it sits. I live in Spain, a country under a heavy crisis somehow linked to having lost the perspective about the nature and the role of cities; for a decade the city has been seen not as a tool for a better life, but as the chessboard for an economic game, confusing means and objectives.
Among the results of this crisis there is a growing awareness of urban issues. Some look for those guilty of the crisis, something I’m interested on as a citizen, but that is not the purpose of these lines. Some want a paradigm shift through a stronger citizen involvement, educating people as to obtain their engagement. Otherwise, it would be naïve to think that the city will no longer concentrate huge economic interests, often legitimate, whose effective social articulation also requires a reflection in a moment in which a growing (and often preposterous) complexity of the planning system makes it loose its legitimacy as a tool to improve our vital environment.
All the approaches enrich the debate. This blog shows a perspective on cities and land, taking into account long term dynamics: relations with the wide land context, urban pattern inertia, and the chances to improve the efficiency of the city as an everyday tool to improve our lives.

The blog will be composed of comparative case studies regarding different social and geographic contexts. The comparative analysis is sometimes based on my own personal travel experience, and in the rest of the cases on available geographic data. There is a risk to be unable to grasp the meanings in some contexts; but there is also a chance to find interesting elements in unexpected places.

As an example, this first post includes a series of images of eight midsize metropolitan areas: my hometown (La Coruña), two more European cities, two Americans, an African and two Asians. I only have been to three of these cities, and the depth of information available is not homogeneous.

A progressive scale approach allows a better understanding of some problems. The use of universally available cartographic resources does not hinder the explanation, but in some cases more elaborate maps will be used.

I am an urban planner because I am an architect, even if there is no compulsory causality. In every case I will play with scales as I find fit, from 5 cm to 1.000 km. Each question requires a scale or a combination of several, and social, economic and environmental issues coexist with an aesthetic and constructive dimension of the city.

This blog is not a collective work; I am to blame for form or content errors. I will be grateful to my readers for their observations leading to error correction.