Public land

Rail land

The rail systems were around the western world one of the first signs of the change brought by the first industrial revolution. The large passenger stations of the XIXth century were joined by goods stations in a moment in which the railroad was the only way to get a high speed transport of goods between distant points.
This pioneer role can be felt today as an obsolescence. One of the first modern speculative bubbles was the British Railway Mania of the 1840s, which exploded in 1846. Already in that moment companies had to be authorized by an Act of Parliament to gain the right to acquire land. Even if many of the companies were ruined by the end of the bubble, most of them were integrated into larger companies. With local differences, most of the European countries started their rail history with private companies, which with time were nationalized and again privatized. Meanwhile, the rail lines that were conceived to serve the XIXth century urban network have served societies that have been transformed. Many lines have been closed due to their economic failure as demography has changed, but also due to changes in the railway management systems or political decisions concerning the role of rail in the city.
The usual cases of rail evolution concerning urban planning is:

  •   Closure of entire lines that have been considered economically unsustainable. It is usually the case in demographically depressed areas and means that stations as well as track land are liberated. In many cases the entire lines have been reconverted into bike and pedestrian paths.
  • Closure of parts of the line in local areas, usually for straightening the lines, with scarce urban impact.
  •   New urban bypasses, suppressing level tracks in the urban areas. This eliminates the barrier effect of the level tracks, but turns the new station into a distant point, with urban integration problems. In Spain it is the case of cities such as Cuenca.
  • Burial of the urban rail thoroughfares. It is the most expensive solution, but it is usually the best for cities as it allows a stability of the urban centralities. This usually means associated urban operations with mixed uses in the old central stations, and the transfer to out of town sites of classification and goods stations. In Spain, it is the case of Logroño, León (to be executed) or Cordoba
  • Duplicity, with new stations for high speed in out of town sites, maintaining the old central stations for other trains, including metropolitan lines. It is usually a less satisfactory options. This is the case of Tarragona in Spain.

Public brownfields (3). Part Harperbury Hospital

Part Harperbury hospital opened in 1928 converted from a few aircraft hangars, aimed to care for children and adults with learning difficulties and epileptics, and evolved towards mental conditions treatment. The evolution of policies concerning these problems lead from 1973 to a progressive closure of the buildings.

Through the years the abandoned buildings were sacked and vandalized. A part of the buildings is still used as a mental care institution by the National Health Service, but the British Department of Health, as a part of a program that covers all the national Departments, has identified the property as for sale. A position near the M-25, the large outer London beltway, the 94 hectares including farmland (the largest NHS land for sale) and an estimated housing units capacity of 225-400 are interesting elements for eventual buyers, with an estimated disposal date in 2013-2014.

Public brownfields (2). Base Nature François Leotard

Frejus Aeronaval Base, with 135 hectares, near Saint Tropez, was created in 1912 as a nearly-experimental center arround a new weapons system: seaplanes. It was also the barracks for marine troops, and its operational life was linked to the colonial wars. In 1970 there were 800 military and 130 civilian personel, but in the 1980s the base lost gradually its relevance (in 1983 personel was reduced by 30%), being finally closed, transfered to the Frejus Municipality and open to the public in 1995. Its location at the mouth of the Argens, a 1,5 km beach and a relevant biological heritage lead to its conservation without new buildings. Hangars remain for sports uses. There are 900 parking spots, altough the original landing ground is not included (in the google photo there was probably an extraordinary event). The area is used by locals and tourists.

The management of the transfer operation was under singular conditions: François Leotard was simultaneously the Minister of Defense and the Mayor of Frejus, so probably negotiations were simple. The French Court of Audit estimated in 1996 that the 50 millions francs paid by the commune where under the price the Minstry coud have received, and that the agreement was not enough protection for some areas, including the coastal strip, that was not ceded to the Conservatoire du Littoral, the national establishment conserving these areas. The base was named after the former Minister in 2007.

I visited the area as a tourist in 2009, and it is a quite pleasant spot, the old airfield being extensively used for cycling and skating.

The bay of Saint Raphael as seen from the Base

The initial moments of the base

Public brownfields (1)

The issue of public-owned land which no longer receives its official use and whose sale could help a governmental economic initiative is a recurrent government proposal in many countries, albeit under different approaches. This covers old barracks, or rail yards, or even airports that no longer serve their original purpose, but often have been surrounded by the city in ways not originally planned, and so gained a relevant real estate value. Obsolescence becomes the driver for urban planning, combined with the need to raise money hard to get in other parts. This week there has been an announcement that the French government intends to go that way to boost social housing in a moment of economic crisis through a bill for the”mobilisation générale pour la construction de logements” (general mobilization to build housing).

The issues at stake in such operations are, among others:

  • Functional obsolescence of a given public infrastructure in itself does not make the land fit for housing building (think of an obsolete rail yard 10 km from any populated place), or can have such costs as to need a broader project (e.g., contaminated soils have remediation cost that would make any housing operation extremely expensive)
  • Existing public land could have a geometry needing the inclusion in the project of non public land, and this could make the operational management much more complex, either through compulsory purchase or a mixed private – public operation. When land from different government entities or levels must be assembled for the project, the complexity is also present.
  • If building housing is the goal of the project, in some cases it would make more sense to sell the land to build the new social housing in other areas. No doubt, there is an aim to make socially inclusive neighborhoods, but it could be better to create activity spaces that could create an employment basis, just to name a possible outcome. In some countries there are legal limitations to the future use of any public land in transformation projects, putting social housing first,but the results are not always better.
  • Who is the real owner of the public land? in some cases it may have been acquired through an eminent domain clause, meaning that the use (e.g. a rail line) is declared of public utility, forcing the previous owner to sell. In some countries the previous owner can ask to receive the land back when the reason by which the eminent domain clause was applied disappears.