Sister Cities (1) Almost the sea…

When you enter many European cities by road you can find billboards announcing their foreign sister cities. The reasons for these agreements can be extremely different; here I have chosen mainly geographic similitudes between Iberian cities and foreign counterparts. This does not mean that these cities have any formal agreement as sister cities to this day; I just think there are interesting landscape similarities.

Seville, Nantes and Houston are historical river ports; they are at a similar distance to their river mouths, in which there are relevant deep-water ports (Cadiz not far away, Saint Nazaire, Galveston), polarizing the territorial system of their regions. The route from Seville to the sea in roman times was probably similar to the present day itinerary from Houston to Galveston, as the present marshes were then a bay, and the shape of the Loire has also changed over time.

In the three cases, along the estuary there is a succession of significant ecological areas and more anthropic activities (docks, industry, industrial crops…). Hydraulic works are relevant (river bed rectification in the Guadalquivir and the Guadaira, channels as that of La Martiniere or the Houston Ship Channel), and a combination of flat land and relevant roads that has led to build long bridges. Despite some hills as those of the Aljarafe in Seville or the timid hills north of the Loire, these are mainly flat lands, nearly ideal for a limitless metropolitan expansion.

In social terms, Seville is not a rich city; if it was to be an American city, it would rather be New Orleans than Houston, despite the presence of high tech industries like aerospace. Nantes is one of the most dynamic cities in France. Both Seville and Nantes are under a million residents (metro area), while Houston is nealy six millions.



Trentemoult, a small traditional village on the Loire river, just off Nantes, is a clear reminder that sometimes ratios and figures will tell you just a part of the story. This is one of the densest settlements you will see for such a small village, just if you do not look at so many other traditional fisher villages.
Image by lordnicklas on panoramio


The Nantes area was until recently just a myriad of fluvial islands. Trentemoult was on the western tip of one of them, with access just by boat. So it comes naturally that the site was scarce and the best possible use could only be attained through density, not going for height but by minimizing open spaces.


But in the end, what you get is, on such a small place with so many people, that the homes become so small as to be about the size of the also small streets. So, in the end, narrow streets end taking a disproportionate amount of space.


Cars can not be used in many of these narrow streets, and you seldom have open views; but this has not turned it into a decaying area. It has a certain charm, it is part of the metropolitan mythology as the set for the 1991 motion picture “La Reine Blanche”, and seems rather reasonably maintained by inhabitants


Urban retail (3) Passages

Pommeraye-B A series of covered passages are developed in Paris during the first half of the XIXth century, creating in fact and by legal conditions a series of private spaces that cut through the center of the city blocks, setting up long glass walls for shops that are covered with glass structures. The idea is developed also in other cities as Brussels, and find one of the best exemples in tems of dimensions in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.

The success of these spaces is clear, and in 1843 the Passage Pommeraye opens in Nantes. It has horizontal parts linked with stairs, as it links two streets with diverging levels (rue Santeuil and rue de la Fosse), with four levels overall, an unusual setupPommeraye-A

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.