Latin America

Barcelona- Bogotá (5)

Floor area (sq m) for residential use in Barcelona and Bogotá, by city block. NO means there are no registered housing surfaces on the block

Floor area (sq m) for residential use in Barcelona and Bogotá, by city block. NO means there are no registered housing surfaces on the block. City Halls are marked by a black circle.

Where do people live? And where do they buy? Answering those questions in a precise way is complex. But it is simpler to know where they could be doing one thing or the other, again using cadastral data on maps at the same scale of both cities. This implies that you will not be sure to find people living in these areas or open retail venues, but that someone is (or should be) paying the tax for these uses in these properties.

These maps are not representing densities, but absolute figures by city block; it is as important to know where the surfaces of these uses are and their magnitude, as knowing where there is no such use.

The firs conclusion is that the intensity of the residential use on central Barcelona is higher than in Bogotá (even taking into account that the city blocks are usually smaller). And it could be a surprise to some, as on many images of the second city you can see some towers, while the image of Barcelona is that of a city of uniform heights. In fact, Bogotá has a larger population, but on a much wider area. What happens is that the average height in Bogotá is less than in Barcelona, and less deep buildings. In Barcelona, 150 years after Cerdá presented his plan to reduce congestion in the city center, and despite having somehow achieved that goal, the new city is still very dense.

Taking a different viewpoint, 2012 Barcelona had 1,6 millions residents (padron, and slightly over 72 million sq m of built residential floor (cadastre); so each barcelonés had on average 45 sq m of housing. Bogotá Distrito Capital had in 2012 slightly over 8,9 million residents (estimates by and a little more than 179 million sq m2 of residential floor (cadastre); each bogotano had on average 20 sq m of housing floor, less than half, which explains the differences in residential density. 

Regarding commerce (as applied by both cadastres, with differences that are not always clear between wholesale and retail), there is a difference and a similitude. The historical core of Barcelona is larger in terms of retail density (concentrating the most affluent populations in the XIXth century grid no doubt helps…), while in Bogotá the area north of plaza Bolivar which concentrates these uses is smaller. The similitude is in the development of the large malls. Despite their sometimes relevant links to public transit systems, they are also car attractors.

According to cadastral data, in Bogotá there are 0,07 sq m of commerce floor for each sq m of residential floor; in Barcelona this rises to 0,188. For each bogotano you have about 1,4 sq m of commerce, and for a barcelonés slightly over 5. 

Commercial floor surface (in sq m) by block. NO means a lack of commercial surface in the block

Commercial floor surface (in sq m) by block. NO means a lack of commercial surface in the block

A: Plaza de las Américas- Mundo Aventura, combining a theme park with a large mall

B: Centro Mayor

C: Centro Comercial Calima

D: L’Illa Diagonal

E: La Maquinista

F: Diagonal Mar (the lot with the highest cadastral floor surface in Barcelona, 107.000 sq m)

Corte ingles pcatalunya

G: El Corte Inglés on Plaza de Cataluña, a Department store linked to the historical core

Barcelona- Bogotá (4)

Agora Bogotá (Daniel Bermudez+ Herreros Arquitectos )

With a FAR below 2 (the average in the area, altought with different building types), the Agora center will be a conventions facility by carrera 40 and the Corporación de Ferias in south Bogota. The project can be seen on . The project will transform an industrial site on the edge between industrial and housing areas.

Where the Diagonal meets the sea: the Forum 2004 area, in which is the Barcelona Conventions Center

Where the Diagonal meets the sea: the Forum 2004 area, in which is the Barcelona Conventions Center

The Forum 2004 in Barcelona has a large concentration of towers, marking its landscape; yet the FAR in the tower area (under 3) is not as high as behind the towers, on the much lower Diagonal Mar mall, which gets to 5 as a mall is a much more compact building.

Barcelona- Bogotá (3)

Gaudí on Paseo de Gracia, on a block with a 5,5 FAR

Gaudí on Paseo de Gracia in Barcelona, on a block with a 5,5 FAR

The FAR (floor-area ratio) divides the surface of the built floors in a lot by the lot area.It is not easy to know the density of a zone at first sight, as it depends as much on what is built as on what area you use to measure it. So, a tower can have a density measured over its lot which is lower than that of a more conventional block of lesser height. Even on a block, courtyards can have variable dimensions, so it is not easy to grasp that number from the outside. And this is without taking into account the film “La estrategia del caracol” (the  strategy of the snail), by Sergio Cabrera (1993) and his vision of the “shrinking densities” in Bogotá…

Density by block in central Bogotá and central Barcelona

Density by block in central Bogotá and central Barcelona

Residential towers near Diagonal Mar in Barcelona, FAR 1,7 on cadastral parcel

Residential towers near Diagonal Mar in Barcelona, FAR 1,7 on cadastral parcel

Plaza de Bolivar, Bogotá. An area with a FAR around 3 m2/m2. Image by Richard Lozin in Panoramio

Biblio (29) Vedado, Havana

And now for a singular plan by many standards. El Vedado is a municipality in metropolitan Havana whose urban layout can be seen as an exemple of the innovative projects of the European urban planning tradition in the XIXth century; and I am fully aware of the fact that Havana is not an European city, but when the plan was aproved about 1860 (nearly about the same time of Cerda’s plan in Barcelona or Castro’s plan in Madrid) it was still a part of Spain, and the planning system is clearly different from the classical colonial grid. El Vedado is indeed a grid, but a different one, which as almost any other plan has been subject to modifications, maintaining despite that many values. I’ve never been to Havana, but the place seems to appear as often as an icon as the Barcelona ensanche appears in Spain, for instance.
It is not a scoop that Cuba has an unfrequent economic system; it is curious that, at least at first sight, the plan assumes a language about investors and development that seems not so different from what we would see overseas.
It is also surprising to see that this plan is organized and explained as a new urbanism document (even when the aproving organ is a people’s commitee). And it has received an honorable mention at the Driehaus Award of the Form Based Codes Institute, a US based organization.
All these are just special conditions. I repeat, I have never visited Cuba and so I have to judge by second hand sources, but the plan seems interesting in many aspects; across the Atlantic it would probably be subject to controversy due to the new towers along the waterfront, but across the Florida straits this woul probably be seen with no suspicion. The historical and analitical parts are well writen (and seem a good intro to the recent history of central Havana), and the bylaws seem coherent. There is a subjacent smell of the New Urbanism transect, and the hands of some Barcelona consultants is also aparent.

The document can be consulted at

Madrid-Buenos Aires (5)

Two urban projects with a story, which shows how complex it is for a city to go from ideas to action.


Secundino Zuazo and Herman Jansen win in 1929 the competition to extend the Castellana, the main north-south axis in Madrid. During the years up to the 1936-1939 civil war the project is not developed, and later the area is developed through partial approaches that no longer have the integral vision, form AZCA (already defined in the 1946 Plan Bidagor) to the leaning towers of Plaza de Castilla. There is a good article by Carlos Sambricio on the Zuazo- Jansen project.

Grain elevators in Puerto Madero

Grain elevators in Puerto Madero

Le Corbusier's project

Le Corbusier’s project

Le Corbusier's night view of Buenos Aires from the Rio de la Plata

Le Corbusier’s night view of Buenos Aires from the Rio de la Plata

Le Corbusier visits Buenos Aires in 1929 and draws the first sketches for an approximation of the city to the Rio de la Plata, transforming Puerto Madero, a string of docks in the central area, in a space marked by its “Cartesian” skyscrapers (reading Le Corbusier’s travels is like remembering Napoleon’s campaigns…). The project is detailed in Paris in 1937-1938, and is even subject to an aborted attempt to develop it by the city government in 1947-1949. The work with a group of Argentine architects (described in « La Red Austral, obras y proyectos de Le Corbusier y sus discípulos en Argentina », by Liernur and Pschepiurca) was essential to the project, even if it was finally not built. Under the presidency of Carlos Menem during the 1990s the idea is reactivated; Puerto Madero has become a new space of centrality, but it is legitimate to think that Le Corbusier would rant, as in New York, agains the small size (in plan ) of the towers. There is an interesting article by Juan Manuel Borthagaray, and the Corporación has a website.

Puerto Madero as built

Puerto Madero as built

Madrid, Buenos Aires (2)

plazas oriente-mayoFinding two spaces that can be compared directly in two different and distant cities is far from easy. This is quite clear for the sites of political power; I don’t know how the spaces around the 50 state capitols in the USA are, but I am sure that even when many of the buildings seem almost identical on photos, their urban position is different (wikipedia even says that 7 of them even have no dome…).

In Buenos Aires and Madrid, lets take two relevant spaces: Plaza de Mayo in the Argentine capital, Plaza de Oriente in the Iberian city.

The Plaza de Oriente is a space designed during the short reign of José I Bonaparte, creating an urban space subordinated to the Palacio Real, by Sabatini, a magnificent building. The architectures and the layout of the square are uniforme, but they do not reach the qualities of the palace. The Teatro Real is also a historical building with values, but again not reaching the level of the palace. Besides, the trees give a good visual barrrier, broken by calle Bailén to favor the Palacio Real, giving good views towards the surrounding areas. The differences of level are good for that.

plaza oriente

The Plaza de mayo is an evolution of the Plaza Mayor designed in 1580 by Juan de Garay, founder of  Buenos Aires, as a 100×100 m rectangle. What now is the Casa Rosada (the residence of the President of the Republic) was already the center of power in these first colonial times. The square evolved over time, becoming a park in the XIXth century. The Casa Rosada appeared as transformation of the original fort on Avenida Ribadavia, and the Casa de Correos appeared at its side in 1853. In 1886 architect Tamburini reunites both buildings in an eclectic compound, and since then there have been many alterations. The Metropolitan Cathedral, to the west, has a magnificent neoclasic façade with a large pediment, solving its integration in the square with a lateral smaller open space as to appear as an independent classical temple; the project dates from 1745, having been finished in 1836. Its current presence in the square is nearly as relevant as that of the Casa Rosada

Libraries (5). Biblioteca España- Medellín

Biblioteca España is located in one of the informal areas of Medellín, the Colombian city that is unfortunately known for drug traficking. Giancarlo Mazzanti’s architectural project configures three volumes as black rocks; but the most interesting element is the idea to locate such a cultural venue in an area in which culture is far from being perceived as a political priority… The city of Medellín tries to improve the quality of life of its citizens through this kind of actions, adressing reality and not just an ideal image.

Biblio (17). The urban future of Latin America

Latin America is, for Spaniards, a close area in many aspects; what Québec is for the French, or Australia for the British, Argentina is for the Galicians, and in the Canary Islands they say that Venezuela is the eight island. To be honest, the colony was a dramatic experience for some populations. But it is equally true that sharing a language and some cultural basis, added to the great distance between the countries and the different degree of freedom or economic development between them has always led to people moving from one country to another, in a defining element of this transatlantic relationship. During the Franco dictature in Spain, books edited in Buenos Aires or Mexico City where a relevant cultural influx, and when Spain transitioned to democracy later it created an example for countries that later followed a similar path. Accent variations has never hampered a comunication in which we have to thank the Americans for having kept a language that is purer than what sometimes can be heard in Spain… and the economic, artistic and scientific relations are also relevant.

This biblio post is not about the work of a thid party, but about the results of my work with José María Ezquiaga for the Corporación Andina de Fomento, one of the big development banks in the region. The text is inscribed into a work that has been produced for the Heads of State and Government Sumit just held in Cádiz (Spain). The central thesis of this work is the central role of infrastructures in development, taking into acount three elements:

  • Infrastructure in the inclusive city
  • Infrastructure and added value in food commerce
  • Investmet indicators and implementation priorities

Our work has focused on the first part. Today’s Latin America is subject to:

  • A social landscape in which poverty and social segregation are dominant, despite the economic rise of some countries.
  • A trend towards urban growth forms that are oposed to a sustainable development; as often, the increase in income leads to more car ownership, and housing policies favor low land costs, even when the building lots are not suited to the purpose
  • Urban infrastructure deficits that touch not only illegal slums, but also the “legal” city.

The action proposals to adress these problems are guided by the idea of the central role of urban and metropolitan planning as guidelines for infrastructure and public facilities provision:

  • Clear and transparent rules regarding land ownership and land use regulations
  • Preservation of land crucial for environmental functions
  • Take into account climate change. As Sandy has sadly shown in New York City, climate change can be serious trouble even in a mighty “first world” city, even in one that seems to have a serious climate change policy
  • Balance the needs for sustainable renovation in existing urban areas and the need for urban extensions
  • Coordinate land use and transportation planning
  • Coordinate interurban and urban infrastructure planning tools
  • Energy and water economy
  • Sustainable waste policies
  • Effective rule enforcement
  • Quality public space; only when you feel safe walking in the city you can begin  talking about sustainable mobility
  • Quality of life

These issues can seem rather standard, valid from Tokyo to Casablanca, but it is the local implementation that can make a difference. The local approach is even more relevant, as from Manaus to Lima or from Tierra de Fuego to Tijuana the social, climatic and geographical difference is wide. And to us practitioners used to work in Europe or North America, there is a need to take into acount that the need to update the sources used in planning must extend here to the creation of such sources in many cases. The lack of certainties that climate change brings adds to that situation, but as always in urban planning, this must be combined with the urgency to act…

Libraries (2). Biblioteca Virgilio Barco, Bogotá

Rogelio Salmona (1927-2007) was a renowned Colombian architect that I had the chance to work with in a project for the Madrid municipal housing agency. As a young professional he worked with Le Corbusier in Paris, and later developped in his works an interesting approach which took into acount local traditions and innovative geometries, becoming one of the leading architects in his country. This library, built during the final 1990s, shows many elements of his architecture: a high quality masonry work, a good relation with public space, and a well designed structure.

Biblio 14- The quality of life in Latin American cities

The Interamerican Development Bank sponsored study on the quality of life in Latin American cities starts with a look at the lists of the cities with the best quality of life in the world. The rankings usally refer more to the quality of life for a reduced elite of highly mobile top notch executives than to a more day-to-day quality of life for most of the population. Altough there are other methodologies closer to the permanent resident’s needs, as the Urban Audit System of Eurostat, they also have some problems:

  • A variable combination of qualitative and quantitative data sources, whose interconexion is usually complex.
  • The inclusion of a large number of topics, which often lack priorization.

The book attempts a new method to combine objective and subjective information in a more coherent way, focusing on the most relevant dimensions of quality of life. Two basic criteria are used: the market price of housing (sale or rental) and the indidivual’s life satisfaction. These two approaches are used in a complementary manner to answer such questions as:

  • Urban problems with greatest impact on people’s opinion of city management
  • Improvement (or regresion) dynamics in areas that matter to the people
  • Gaps between perception of problems and objective indicators, and their distribution on the urban area
  • How to priorize investments in the cities, taking into acount well-being.
  • When can or should property taxes be used to finance the provision of certain services (or the solution of certain urban problems).

Using housing prices and indiviual’s life satisfaction as indicators means that the ranking of cities loses relevance, as these elements are much more interesting in an intra-city approach, comparing diferent areas (e.g., housing prices usually reflect somehow differences in the access to quality infrastructure or the safety level of neighborhoods). Besides, the point of rankings comparing diferent cities for the above-mentioned higly mobile top notch exective is clear, as they have a real chance to move from one city to another in a relatively short time lapse, but this is not what hapens to most city dwellers (even if these rankings are often relevant to foster evolution in urban management). There are tangential approaches to subjective satisfaction/ happiness studies, a rising field of research, albeit probably one subject to debate. The urban security issue, quite relevant in most of Latin America, and the quality of housing, are also debated.

The case studies focus on Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Medellin, San José, Lima, and Montevideo. As Latin America is the only region in the developing world where the majority of the population lives in urban areas (77%), the study is quite pertinent to the region, but many methodological aspects could possibly be translated to other geographical regions, as quality of life is a central issue for a good urban planning.