Regional Planning

Starters of change (10) Contraptions

Somewhere in western Spain: the fruit trees on the foreground have clearly visible drip irrigation

Somewhere in western Spain: the fruit trees on the foreground have clearly visible drip irrigation

Time to widen the scope: in a moment in which the border between urban and rural gets fuzzier in terms of social demands, at least in Europe, some things can start change in both spheres.

European laws (and others, but those in Europe are closer to me) institute citizen’s rights without making differences between those in rural and urban areas; citizenship, despite its etymologic link to cities, applies to everyone. But in fact the burden of transportation and communications implied differences in the aspirations of the residents of rural areas, which often saw the access to some services as almost impossible, and this was commonly accepted. During recent decades residents in rural areas have grasped better chances to access more services, first through cars, then TV, and then the internet; this has meant an evolution in their view of the urban life. It is still different to live in a small hamlet with 250 residents, half of which are over 60, but some things are now felt as rights in the same way in both kinds of territory. And the consumption habits get closer as the rural populations loses overall weight.  This is catalyzer of change on a scale that goes beyond urban or metropolitan, either for good or for bad.

Saying that cultivation fields get technician by the aim for more production can only be accepted if you speak in terms of millennia; improving crop yields has always been a goal for farmers, despite the bucolic vision some urbans have. There is a constant buzz now around the “developed countries” concerning smart cities and the future introduction of sensors, but this is also becoming common in many rural areas through improved irrigation systems. The image of circles formed by pivot irrigation are known to most of us, but drip irrigation, albeit less impressive when seen from above, is quite efficient, and the chances to mechanize recollection in some cases change many things.

Sure, urbans are not getting fans of the farm machinery websites, but it is rather the way in which farmers exchange information about their working tools, almost as any urban professional. When farmers look for ways to hack the on-board computers on their combine harvesters, as a recent article on Wired showed, change is in the air. I’m not sure how/whether this will translate to architecture and landscape, but chances are there could be an impact. And this is in fact an essay, reduced but interesting, on what comes along with smart cities; managing irrigation water and its electricity use is a limited goal, but some smart city initiatives don’t go beyond the mere management of a limited set of services…

Paradoxes and a place in the chain, but which one?

Guadalest reservoir, Alicante, Spain

Guadalest reservoir, Alicante, Spain

I’m currently working on a planning project in a low density rural region which has historically had relevant environmental values, but also a relevant human intervention on the land. During the last century a large number of reservoirs were erected, and in recent years one of the largest in the continent has been completed. On the other side, I follow often French news, so I have seen the controversy around the Sivens reservoir project, in a low density area north of Toulouse.

European societies (those inside the EU) give a complex treatment to the environment. On one side, in the initial moments of the Union a series of directives were enacted according to the experience and philosophy of the founding countries (essentially northern ones); these laws were reinforced and formalized, and codified through European protection of specific zones, and European court rulings. On the other side citizens see the protection of the environment as a good thing; this stems from a direct experience with pollution problems and the loss of spaces and landscapes that were socially perceived as relevant. This citizen perception is by no means scientifically sound, but it is the result of the evolution over time under a favorable view, and especially in the southern countries in which the entry in the Union was seen as an improvement. As a result of the current economic crisis in the southern states some are challenging that status quo, opposing environmental protection and economic development (It is curious how easy is to rant that Brussels is to blame, as it is to say that bureaucrats in Madrid, Paris or Washington are in other scales).

The system creates paradox. On one side the scientific and administrative description of ecosystems tends to portray them as a static balance (the administrative description is the one on the land protection rules); knowing it is loving it, so due to a simple psychological rule, some are prone to think these descriptions are more accurate than current dynamics. This is an attitude I can understand as a result of the general decay of the environmental state of the Union and the fear of the unknown, and is surely at least one of the reasons the demonstrators challenge the Sivens reservoir. On the other side, dams show that sure you destroy previous ecosystems, but new water areas and irrigation of farmland changes the ecological flows and sometimes can favor the location or expansion of some species. I’m not an ecology scientist, but I see dams erected against the opposition of environmental defense group that, as time (and generations of environmental activists) changes, become areas that the same groups defend as biodiversity areas. The question I raise, and to which I have no answer due to the limits of my knowledge, is whether the current situation is better or worse in terms of ecosystems quality. I’m almost sure we’re worse off than in the pre-industrial era, but I’m not so sure when we look at two given moments in the last 50 years.

As a professional, when I have to deal with these matters I follow the advice of the environmental experts I work with. But sometimes I also see doubt in them; sure in areas that have had substantial population for centuries man has conditioned nature, and the pressure on the environment has increased substantially during the last century as a result of technological evolution. I have no doubt on the fact that many of the traditional uses of the land in rural areas produced less impact on the environment than modern approaches. But farmers are no longer the same, and they are now much more urban in approach due to the demands of the society (just remind farmers are economic agents) and their aspirations in such an urban-centric world.

Just an example: in Spain there are spaces that are currently steppes as a result of the cattle expansion policies of the Mesta during the middle ages. What is best for the sustainable development of the land, to conserve a landscape which results from the action of a wood cartel from the XIIIth century or to go back to its precedent forest state?. On the other side, one of the largest current forests in Europe, the Landes de Gascogne, were simply not there just two centuries ago, so the same question is pertinent. When we look at an urban historical core we always think on what to do with a continent as the content is largely changed, and this can also be an approach for territories.

We can think about the need to change our consumerism- driven dynamics, something I can only agree with. But I’m far from sure this alone will be enough, so we should perhaps start seeing ecosystems under a more dynamic perspective. My fear is that there we lack the basic tools, as:

  • In most of the analytic disciplines, at least in the ones concerning land use regulation, the static vision is dominant; this is logical, as a result of how difficult it would be to predict interactions in such complex systems, but it produces the aforementioned paradoxes.
  • The precautionary principle is challenged by some, but even those cannot deny it has a rational foundation. The problem is how to integrate it as an operational tool.
  • The dilemma between thought and action is exemplified by such matters as climate change, and we are far from commonly accepted solutions, i.e., those that could become a part of our common culture, beyond the scientific debate.

So the question on our role (as humans) in the ecological chain is central, not just to guarantee our survival as a species (any species would like to survive), but also to know the limits of our intervention on the environment. I’m not implying that planning should allow everything everywhere, but that the debate must be more open.

Biblio (102) Visions and scenarios for the European territory in 2050



ESPON’s team has prepared a report edited by Andreu Ulied which summarizes the main messages from the ET 2050 ESPON project. This is a new iteration of the attempts to define a territorial vision for the continent set to deliver a more sustainable development and a more efficient way to address crisis through territorial governance. The polycentric vision is, as usual, one of the basic elements. There are interesting ideas in the report, but I’m afraid that their full use can only come if we Europeans find a way to get a better government scheme for the Union.

Biblio (95) Rebuild by Design

Rebuild by Design is an initiative of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Even if sometimes from Europe such a ministry seems unlikely for the US, it has existed for decades, with influential policies, although not always on the good sense… as everywhere. HUD is looking for a way to tackle the urban resilience challenge posed by climate change, taking into account the Sandy lessons. These lessons can benefit other rebuilding efforts or risk prevention schemes. The initiative has formalized as a competition whose results were published in April, with 10 winners proposing alternatives for damaged coastal cities. There are big names from the architectural world, as OMA, but the projects are not just drawings, as they benefit from public participation; according to the available information, what is really chosen is not a team of architects, but local coalitions that have built consensus and will receive grants to develop proposals that have been formalized by specialists.

Maps 2014 (21) Paris 2020

paris 2020 webThis is an online version of a 40 sq m digital model of greater Paris currently being exhibited at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, one of the main watering holes for visiting architects in Paris. Worth a look to understand the ambitious urban projects associated to a new metropolitan rail network and other things architectural and urban happening right now in the French capital.


Biblio (93) National Urban Development Policy, Chile

biblio 93- politica urbana chile

This year the new Chilean national policy on urban development has been enacted. As it has been approved under the now former president Sebastian Piñera, its effective application remains to be seen, but it is anyway an interesting document to understand the country.

As in many Latin American countries, since the 1980s there has been a relevant economic growth with effects for all the population, even if Chile still has clear inequalities. Current urban problems come largely from urban management decisions taken in a rush to solve urgent issues, without enough reflection, something that can hardly be confined to that country. There are positive signs in terms of sustainable development, as the growing share of multilevel housing and the contention of sprawl. But environmental protection and heritage conservation are in trouble, and housing remains, despite all the clear improvements, a challenge, with a deficit of about half a million dwellings in a country of some 17 million residents. Let’s not forget that in 2015 the goal of 100% sewage waters treatment could be achieved, not a small feat for any country.

You can choose the Spanish language version or the English language version

Paris (15) Visits, 2014


For years I visited Paris with some frequency. I had not come back since 2010, but for a lightning visit in which I only saw an airport and an office. A new visit this month has given me some time for architectural and urban visits. France as a whole, and Paris, have always captured my attention, and these days at least partially in contrast with the negative moment in Spain.

The Pantheon is at works, and from some places It seems like the upper portion of an Ariane rocket on the launching pad. As usual, tourists flock the place, and some things change: some signs point to a defeat on the battle for urban density, despite the government communication, but on the other side there are projects that seem to express a willingness to stand by that flag.

March 25 European Elections will come; I saw on French tv two debates on these elections that focused on the balance of power and ideas in terms of European parties, and not of states, a welcome rarity these days. Does it mean that France is getting a clearer perspective? We’ll have to wait for the ballots…

Anyway, among the interesting things I have seen many are related to mobility, a noteworthy thing as this is an important issue in terms of sustainable development. Some solutions seem at first sight the same, but Parisian options often seem simpler, less expensive, and who knows, perhaps more effective… the answer will come with time.

Biblio (91) Capital in the XXIst century: Thomas Piketty and the end of the big bubble

Seville in 1590, by Georg Brown. At the Spanish National Library

Seville in 1590, by Georg Brown. At the Spanish National Library

Seville in 1771, by Olavide. At the Spanish National Library

Seville in 1771, by Olavide. At the Spanish National Library

I’m reading this book, that is the subject of so many reviews and will probably be of many more. No download links, but the book is worth the price, even if just to see a structured thought.

I’m currently reading the book, so my final vision could vary. One of the central ideas in the book is that when capital yields are higher than the economy general growth, inequalities usually increase, explaining somehow the current trends in the “western” world. Social mobility would only be possible for the large masses in growing economies, something far from guaranteed.

According to this historical analysis of the dynamics of growth, the time from the XVIIth century to our days is an anomaly, with extremely high growth rates for both the economy and the population, especially after WWII. We could call that (albeit the author does not, so it is a personal opinion as what follows) the large bubble. And he thinks it is dying, due to the inertia of the demography, no longer explosive in most of the world. So some countries would have to cope simultaneously with the end of the “small” bubble (the real estate one during the last decade) and the big one…

From an urban and regional planning perspective this would lead us back to the historical slower growth. Piketty’s book is a “Theory of all”, in which you can inscribe such debates as sustainable development, peak oil, peak car, or the US going back to cities… or even the opposite (the author cares well to remind that the future is never sure). Anyway, it is worth the reading. Or a stroll to the downloads section of the Paris School of Economics.