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.

Puente de Vallecas (Madrid)

puente vallecas

Puente de Vallecas appears as a settlement at the end of the XIXth century, by profiting of the “border effect”: already in the municipality of Vallecas, some things were still posible, which was no longer the case in a Madrid municipality that was building its ordered extension, and that finished at the Abroñigal Creek. The area used the present Avenida de la Albufera as a backbone, as it was the road to Valencia. 100 years later the creek has been replaced by the M-30 freeway, and what was a bridge over the creek is today the viaduct of the freeway over the avenue that still organizes the area.

Puente de Vallecas was informal when related to the ordered XIXth century Madrid extension, but it was not that illegal as planning laws were rather non-existent at the time. But the area was built to precarious standards: narrow streets, with no overall logical grid, always looking for the highest possible number of lots. It became a destination for rural populations, that, although in small number, began arriving to Madrid not being able to afford a home in the city.

A century later, and even if there have been some more regular housing projects, and infrastructure actions, and all the streets are paved and have their water, sewage, and all other urban services in full work, the informal origin can still be seen. The recently arrived dwellers from around Madrid were substituted by Andalusians or Castilians, which were eventually substituted, for the last decade, by Latin Americans, North Africans or, merely, Madrileans that can no longer establish a new family in the urban core. There is more crime than in other areas of Madrid, but it is still Europe and the security level is not that different from that of the urban core. And the per capita revenue is lesser than average. The (comparatively low) real estate price has led to a higher than usual concentration of public housing, and the market-oriented housing has sometimes to force dimensions to install a standard project (especially garages) in micro-lots. Besides, the area is densifying. But all the transitions between dwellers have been rather gradual, with relatively few forced relocations. And the diversity is increasing, making it much less marginal as it has become, in metropolitan terms, almost central by location.

Calle Doctor Salgado

Doctor Salgado street shows how complex it is to change such a tissue with just changes on the lot line. Going from slightly under 6 m to a bit more than 15 takes decades. The street will connect, when fully open (there is still a block that, well, blocks…), the Doña Carlota market (A) to Avenida de la Albufera.


Avenida de la Albufera, with slightly less than 23 m of width, is the central axis of the area. Its retail base is suffering with the economic crisis



The block which will have to be open. Notice that the building on the left has been waiting for the new street for decades.

--Salgado-a4 --Salgado-a3


A social housing development of the postwar period

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.

Urban sprawl (3) Spanish south


The Spanish south has been historically marked by a predominance of large land estates (latifundium) with all the associated social problems. There are few independent farmers, but rather laborers that depend on the landowner initiative to be able to get a job.

In this context, when the region became subject as the rest of Spain to a large transfer of population from rural zones to cities, particular forms of sprawl have appeared. In this case, it is, paradoxically, a form of “concentrated” sprawl: the dynamic is one of sale of large properties divided in lots, without going through the planning procedures. These areas are easily recognizable for the lack of sidewalks (even if their layout is sometimes elaborate) and of many basic services. Their growth was especially intense during the 1970s and 1980s, and they are definitely a gridlock to any plan. Any action attempting to destroy the illegally built homes is often opposed by the judiciary mentioning the constitutional right to housing.

There are tentative to integrate these tissues into the formal city, but it is hard to convince people that already live there that they have to pay for the services they do not have, but need to be fully legalized.