Things I saw while on break

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

The Danube near Vienna, as seen from Khalenberg Hill

For those that have followed this blog during the last years, here is the proof it has not disappeared. Just a small fraction of that time was a break (most of it was quite the opposite…), but it was worth it.

During that time I have seen and thought about some interesting things, either on travel or through other means. Here are some, which can be viewed as a thematic layout of future posts:

  • Vienna: I had never visited Austria. After a recent trip to Germany I was curious to see the other big Germanic country, not so much (or rather no only) for its past as an old empire that imploded almost overnight in 1918, but more as a country in which I thought an interesting version of modernity was happening. The trip has indeed been interesting. My knowledge of German is schematic, and if I told you I have grasped the soul of the country after just a few days you would (for a good reason) think I’m just bragging; but some things have seemed interesting.
  • The evolution of the idea of sustainable development (or its weakening under some points of view). The quarrels surrounding the ministerial reorganization in France during this summer have made me remember news read during the recent municipal and European elections there. Among the promises made by local candidates of the National Front in many cities were the ones about letting again access the city core by car without restrictions, reversing policies adopted years ago to try to reduce pollution and conserve the old cities qualities. The National Front is a particularity in the French political system, but its rise is fuelled by their ability to grasp subjects that galvanize citizens. They raised that idea in many cities, but not in Paris and Lyon, where things cannot be so simplified. On the other hand, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President, who instituted a Ministry for Durable Development, said in 2011 during a visit to the Agricultural Convention of Paris “the environment, it is becoming a bit too much”. On the other side, the relations between socialists and ecologists in France are far from easy (hence the initial mention to the French politics of this summer). The evolution over time of the UK policies on that matter has also been controversial there. Many in Europe will think that this is just peanuts compared to the American scene, forgetting the fact that there the scene is also mixed, as you just have to compare Republicans in the Congress (denial of climate change) to Schwarzeneger or Bloomberg (climate change policies) to see what I talk about. Are we witnessing the end of sustainable development as a somehow blind faith (believing in something presented as good, even if not understood by many that feel it just brings costs or even nuisance to their way of life) that can be used by politicians and marketers alike, to see a more critical conscience emerge, or else? Therein lies the rump….
  • A new rise in the social demand for rules, not as a defence of some economic interests, but of other matters lied to the idea of common good. These days there have been demonstrations in Barcelona against the growing presence of tourists renting apartments in an informal way in the Barceloneta area; they use what to some is a reduced booze price and a perceived image of Spain as a permissive country to behave in ways that perhaps could be subject to prosecution in their own countries. Sure, hotel owners have used that to talk about unlawful competition (a bit like taxi drivers revolts against Uber), but the neighbours asked here for quite simple things: the right to sleep without noise, or to move around their city without seeing gross scenes. I have read on today’s Washington Post a quite similar news concerning Ocean City, Maryland. The fear of squadrons of youth looking for booze and party, ruining the calm of a neighbourhood by renting homes piecemeal has also surfaced, and is also criticized by those saying that as the city lives from tourism, this must be endured. So Barceloneta (a popular neighbourhood with high density) is on the same wavelength as Ocean City (apparently a richer, lower density area). Some will present this as a case of NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a resistance to accept externalities related to the inherent complexity of cities. But this seems something more, a symptom of a general evolution of the idea of what can be or not accepted in a society.
  • I have also seen interesting physical landscapes

Rules and variations (4)

When Môrice Leroux, a disciple of Tony Garnier, builds between 1927 and 1934 his “gratte-ciel” (literally “sky-scrapers”) he defines rules that are in Sharp contrast to the surrounding areas.

Lyons and Pittsburgh (5) Regions





Take land cover maps, change public transportation for car infrastructure, and but for appeased traffic zones it is sometimes not that easy to recognize the iconic image of Europe.

Bus stops and Port Authority bus routes in Pittsburgh

Bus stops and Port Authority bus routes in Pittsburgh

Appeased traffic areas and parkings (dots) in Lyon

Appeased traffic areas and parkings (dots) in Lyon, same scale as in Pittsburgh transit map

Lyons and Pittsburgh (4) Sizes

Urban core maps of Lyon and Pittsburgh at the same scale. Lot area in sq m for Lyon and sq ft for Pittsburgh (I'am perfectly aware that 10 sq ft are not a sq m, but it is close enough to guide you all, brave subjects of the imperial system... and also us, metrics, with significatly similar magnitudes)

Urban core maps of Lyon and Pittsburgh at the same scale. Lot area in sq m for Lyon and sq ft for Pittsburgh (I’m perfectly aware that 10 sq ft are not a sq m, but it is close enough to guide you all, brave subjects of the imperial system… and also us, metrics, with significatly similar magnitudes)

That’s the kind of comment that usually rises a few (malevolent) smiles: size matters. When talking about lot area (relevant as it defines the size of the buildings in plan, and so the urban image), these two cities that have so much in common in “social size” (population at different scales, albeit on rather different physical footprints), show a thing or two. Lyon’s parcels are rather fine when compared with central Pittsburgh, a more recent city in which corporate headquarters and such american features as open air parking (sure, less pervasive than in Houston) change the city. Therefore, a clear difference in “resolution” exists, besides the evident difference in architecture.

Building footprints on the urban cores of Lyon and Pittsburgh

Building footprints on the urban cores of Lyon and Pittsburgh

Add buildings, and despite the fact that the cartographic layers seem to have different criteria (we use what we find…), there are relevant similitudes but a clear differnce: the concept of courtyard, much more present (or so it seems) in Lyon.

Same scale maps of neighboorhoods near the urban cores: Montchat in Lyon and Mt Washington in Pittsburgh.

Same scale maps of neighboorhoods near the urban cores: Montchat in Lyon and Mt Washington in Pittsburgh.

Enter the neighborhoods near the core, but clearly out of it, and things change: the power of the American low density suburb appears. There are also individual homes in Lyon, but there are also appartments, that change the issue. Monotony against clutter? two kinds of clutter? add the buildings, and the European image becomes more complex. I would like to think it is also more sustainable…


Lyons and Pittsburgh (3) Floods

Pittsburgh flood commission map, 1909 (accessed through

Pittsburgh flood commission map, 1909 (accessed through

How a city can be caught between a river and a wet place…

Lyon floods, 1849. The original image can be seen at

Lyon floods, 1849. The original image can be seen at


Bikes (3) Night biking in urban France


And now, for a special study, by a Psychosociologist (Mrs Catherine Espinasse), on night biking at Lyon, Paris and Poitiers. It is worth noticing that bike use in France is way smaller than in the Netherlands or Denmark. The interest of this text is to grasp the motivations to use a bicycle under special conditions that initially seem less adequate. It results from 60 open interviews with urban bikers (30 in Paris, 20 at Lyon and 10 at Poitiers).

The author identifies several biker categories:

  • Unconditional users, using their bicycle everywhere and as an almost exclusive transportation mode.
  • Hedonists, using their bike only when climate is good, but prone to use it by night for leisure
  • Prudent bikers (mainly women) that feel vulnerable and do not use it at night.
  • Sport pretentious bikers (mainly men)
  • Rationalists, which have become unconditional users.

For bikers in Lyon and Paris the bicycle seems a way to solve the lack of night mass transit, and also to rediscover city lights. At Poitiers, night biking seems associated to young users going to clubs and parties. Overall, biking seems not so much a “soft mode” but an “active mode”, as well physically as on citizen involvement terms.

Do you think night biking is possible where you live?

Water (4) Lyon Confluence


confluence1The French city of Lyon has many reasons to catch your attention: its setting between two rivers that pretend not wanting to join their waters, so creating a long peninsula that has become the urban center, its hills giving you good views even of the Alps, some 100 kms away, and an ordered urban planning. You can also mention food, while you are…


The historical core is on the Fourviere area, on the Saone banks, and has expanded to the east. Th 1764 plan by Jean Antoine Morand shows a vision of the consolidation of the city on the river crossing. The junction of the Rhone and the Saone, whose position has changed over the centuries due to the fluvial dynamics and canalization works, has been until recent dates a haphazard suburb with industrial and rail uses.

Fonds Coste

In 2003 the City of Lyon launches the urban renewal operation, aiming to configure a space with a high quality of life, affordable housing, mixed uses and cultural activities, and the seat of the Rhône-Alpes Regional Government.

The area in 1972

The area in 1972


The project area covers 150 hectares, 70 of which correspond to lots and 35 to public spaces. The area is to reach a 16.000 population with 25.000 jobs, including high energy efficiency buildings and a reduced water use. Any part of the operation is less than 400 m from water and a public transit stop. The flood risk is reduced by minimizing the soil paving (less on-street parking, grass planted public spaces) and through a design that includes canals.

lyon-confluence-aerea Confluence-1a

Public spaces and buildings have been designed with water and built heritage in mind.

You can get more information at