Biblio (58) Delivering Large Scale Housing in the UK

biblio 59-rtpi large scale housing

The Royal Town Planning Institute, in Britain, has just published a report on possible measures to unlock the current context and produce a substantial number of housing units to alleviate the current national deficit. According to the report, in England the debate is entrenched between those thinking that the current system is too liberal and allows builders to do almost all they want, opposed to those claiming that nowadays red tape is stopping advances in that field; both seem to agree, nevertheless, in the feeling that the local authorities are not serious enough about the issue and the planning system is at least partly to blame. The document compares the situation in England to that in Scotland and proposes 15 practical recommendations to concerned agents. RTPI recommends a combination of piecemeal operations in consolidated urban areas with large scale urban extensions. Among other recommendations, it is curious to see a call for a wider public access to data on land ownership and land options, a bigger role for the authorities in land management that would include compulsory purchase (eminent domain for our American readers…), or the need to manage the sale of unused public land (former rail sites, barracks or hospitals) thinking in global terms rather than just in the amount of cash that can be obtained.

It is a rather compact document (just 24 pages), but really interesting. And when read from Spain, even more…

The private realm


Density is just a measure of how many people, or shops, or cars, or whatever you choose to measure is stacked on a given area. Architecture comes in, among other things, when you are able to reach certain levels of density while maintaining a degree of privacy which is compatible with what you expect in a given culture. As much as seeing cementerys says you something about what is the vision of a singular architecture in many european cities (you can sometimes make there what is not allowed in the ordinary city), seeing the courtyards tells you many things about how a culture deals with this privacy issue. This is Paris, the courtyard of a block by the Rue du Commerce (not far to the south from the Eiffel tower).


Madrid Sur

Madrid sur-2 Madrid sur-0

What do all shantytowns would like to be when they grow up? a formal city. The shantytown of Palomeras Bajas, appeared during the large migrations to Madrid (1950s-1960s), was transformed during the 1990s into a middle class new neighborhood in which at least a part of the original population was relocated. The regional Parliament (A) was relocated to the area, facing a mall (B), near a revamped train station (C) and well linked to other new areas through Avenida Pablo Neruda (D).

This was a clearly illegal settlement, not like Puente de Vallecas, that appeared in a moment with almost no planning regulations. Here there was already a legal solution for the problem, but economic growth had to attain a certain level to allow the transfromation of the area with a substantial public investment (and also by private agents).

Madrid sur-1


Dignity Village


Dignity Village is a city-recognized encampment for homeless people in Portland, Oregon. It is a space which shows some similitude with the transit zones for nomads in some European countries as France (even if those zones usually are designed for trailers), or to a more organized and controlled form of the small shantytowns (núcleos chabolistas) in some spanish cities, that really constitute illegal settlements.

There are similar experiences in some other American cities, as this report by the National Coalition for the Homeless shows. They can begin as a more or less spontaneous tent city, which authorities can eventually relocate to a controlled site, with an organization not unlike a camping site. It is a bit like a shantytown as there are no streets, but just precarious buildings.

The most relevant shantytowns by number in the recent history of the US, Hoovervilles (named for the President at the onset of the Great Depression), seem to have left no trace; but in times one was, for instance, occupying a part of Central Park.

The Noisy bidonville

An image taken from www.un.titled.fr (at http://www.un-titled.fr/2011/05/au-dela-du-periph/) showing the Noisy-le-Grand bidonville

An image taken from http://www.un-titled.fr (at http://www.un-titled.fr/2011/05/au-dela-du-periph/) showing the Noisy-le-Grand bidonville. This is in fact an “improved” slum, thanks to the actions of Abbée Pierre, an influential priest that adressed the housing crisis and became an iconic figure of the french culture.

In France a bidonville was a slum made with tin sheets, appearing during the 1950s-1960s usually associated to migrants from the Mediterranean basin, but also with french populations. The upper image is in a municipality some 13 km east of Paris, that I happen to know well. Nowadays this image is gone. Just look for that in the current image, and you will not find it, as it has been removed due to the social housing policies of the country.

Biblio (46) The precarious settlement planning handbook

Biblio 46 manual asentamientos precarios

The title is in itself a paradox, not unfit for G.K. Chesterton, and even more if you read a more clear title; this is a handbook for illegal subdivisions. Urban planning was born to make possible a living environment of quality for the whole of the population. And this is why this book is both an abomination and a much needed publication, depending on who judges.

The handbook appears in Argentina, a country which is not in the worse situation regarding that matter in Latin America; this is perhaps one of the reasons why a team at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urban Planning of the University of Buenos Aires, lead by Viviana Asrilant,  gets to think that facing the problems to solve this situation for decades, such an initiative can be of help. There seems to have been a help by the Ministry for Public Education.

The handbook follows this table of contents, which seems to consider as a given fact the existence of an organized group of settlers:

1-        Who may use the handbook

2-        How to build your neighborhood

3-        How to legalize your neighborhood. Legal way to regularize domains.

4-        Ways to access housing

5-        The organization and the dynamics of groups

6-        Annexes

Apparently (I do not know the argentine law so I cannot judge in detail) there seems to be a serious approach to each item, including warnings against the illegality of some actions.

I do not believe this to be a solution for such problems. As a matter fact, I do not think illegal action and property conflicts to be a good way anywhere; facing the consequences of illegality for yourself or your family can be much worse than what can be thought of. This handbook is probably closer to the ideal of open-source urban planning (or more properly, a planning hacker’s cookbook)  than many European or North American; and this is a relevant question, as an open source manual gives you access to a knowledge, but by no means reduces it complexity or gives you the complete knowledge of a complex matter.

This publication also raises an additional question, even more after two weeks with posts about something as simple at first sight but as complex, as the handbook shows, as a street, its design and its building. Today there is a certain interest worldwide for this kind of settlement, mainly by urban planners and other experts, sometimes with a fascination that seems closer to aesthetics than to a real experience of a life there. And if it is interesting to know how neighborhood improvement projects work in cities that seem to have a certain success, as Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, it could be even more interesting to see what is waiting down the line by looking at how things have been done in countries that are thought to have solved the problem during the last decades. As for each favela or African slum there was probably a Spanish poblado chabolista after the civil war, a Hoovervile in the US during the Depression, a bidonville in France during the 1950s-1960s or other examples in more advanced countries.

How many dwellings are there in the city?

Many things to count (here,  the Tetuan area in Madrid)

Many things to count (here, the Tetuan area in Madrid)

This is one of the most difficult questions. As always, the absolutely accurate answer is impossible as, even when the housing industry is broken and the existing dwellings resist (i.e. Spain today), there is always a building at works somewhere adding some units, or a ruin, or a demolition.

The housing censuses were considered to be precise; but today in many countries (Spain included) they are made with a representative sample, not the entire stock. They are made taking account of the cadastre, a fiscal data which is exhaustive, but that sometime does not show exactly what you are looking for (a housing building with a single owner that rents 100 flats can be fiscally registered as a single property, or a parking slot be registered as a housing property). Sometimes a dwelling is divided in many by its owner, without any registration, and the opposite case (grouping neighboring homes) is also possible.

Even in areas with recent buildings, where the number of dwellings is defined by plans, there can be fluctuations, upside or downside: a dentist can occupy what was to be a home, and there can be someone in fact living in what was to be an office… again, the difference between the normative world and the real facts of life…

As in the rest of the examples of this week, it is always possible to get a figure; what is needed is the knowledge on how this figure was produced, as to be able to relate that to other figures and give it an operational sense. A figure by itself is usually rather unrepresentative.

Non-year round occupied housing (6) Detroit

Detroit NSP3

The story of Detroit and its shrinking dynamics is documented in many articles and books. The city already faced a clear decline prior to the subprime crisis, mainly due to the changes in the automotive industry that undermined its original primacy, but that crisis increased the problem to the extent of leading to the highest foreclosure ratio among the 100 most populated US cities. Over 67.000 properties have been foreclosed, and 65% remain vacant. So it may be of interest to look at hard numbers of a Plan that, overall, leads to an allocation of 30% of all the federal funds received to demolition of an excessive housing capacity with the aim to stabilize a city in a deep crisis. The city must reduce its physical size to cut maintenance costs and be again viable.

In 2010 the US Department of Housing and Urban Development granted to the city of Detroit a third round of funding from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP3, a nationwide initiative facing the subprime crisis) for the purpose of stabilizing neighborhoods by the reduction or elimination of vacant and abandoned residential property in targeted neighborhoods. The allocation amounted to $21,922,710.

The activity report from january to march 2013 states that the  city has currently allocated $2,192,271 to demolition. During the first quarter, potential NSP3 demolition sites were identified that would complement other NSP investments. Developers selected by the City for rehabilitation activity were encouraged to submit lists of blighted properties in the neighborhoods of planned construction for consideration as demolition. There was also conversation about requesting a demolition waiver to exceed the 10% cap. The City is finalizing the details of this change and plan to submit a waiver request to HUD early in the second quarter. The City is also currently exploring an alternative model for demolition and will finalize the service delivery model in the 2ndQTR and commence demolition activity.

The City will utilize approximately $15 million of the NSP3 funds to work with developers to conduct rehabilitation for both rental and homeownership projects.

Non-year round occupied housing (5) Empty homes UK

Empty Homes UK is a British charity that wants to contribute to the reuse of vacant homes, starting with an appraisal of the data about the issue and the proposal of a right to demand the reuse of real estate assets that are not being used (not through squatting, but following and orderly procedure subject to legal guarantee).

The organization estimates there are some 700.000 empty homes in the UK, a vacancy rate around 3% (the analysis of fiscal data can lead to an underestimation of that figure), and 1,7 million families in waiting lists for a decent home. As the home construction rate is quite low now, the renovation of vacant housing units (with an average cost of 10.000 pounds per unit) seems a good way to improve energy efficiency and to tackle climate change.