sustainable development

Starters of change (11) Water


The upper image corresponds to the village of Alange, in the Spanish province of Badajoz. The dam was completed in 1992, with a wall 67 m high (from foundation) and 720 m long, so what until then was just a village over the Matachel river became a space marked by water and a new coastline. This is no doubt a project beyond the means of a small municipality, and was managed by the Guadiana Water Board. This action produces a new landscape that allows the use of water for irrigation (in lower lands there is a wide agrarian plain) and electricity production.

The reservoir has a catchment basin of 2.545 sq km (which is equivalent to 60% of Rhode Island), and its water surface, of some 35 sq km, is marked by some islands which display the geology of the area. The areas that were to be underwater were cleaned of all vegetation, so when the water level changes sometimes the shores look rather arid, in contrast with a much greener area of lands above water.

Water has brought relevant change; a neighborhood was moved as its precedent site was flooded, some new buildings respond to the new landscape, and it is fair to think that the payments to the owners of land taken to be submerged must have somehow influenced the local economy. There sure was an impact due to the flooding of the lower valley agrarian land, usually a fertile one. Over a stretch, the new layout of the road goes between the urban edge and the water, but its physical configuration is not very attractive. Water has become the central element of an area of the Natura 2000 European Nature considered a Relevant Birds Area; birds have become users of the reservoir. But people are becoming less relevant in number; there were 2.031 residents in 1996, and in 2014 this number fell to 1.946.


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.

Maps 2015 (7) Over the horizon consumption

mapas 2015-7

Some maps can only go so far without the associated data ; this is what happens to a web map proposed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which portrays how each country in the world interacts with others in environmental consumption terms (2005 data) ; and someone can go and check how his country is doing. Sure, Afghanistan or Cuba have a quite different pattern from the one of the European countries, but some results seem strange (Spain having a strong influence on… Liberia?). The “global” option shows how the planet influences itself.

Starters of urban change (7) Urban toll in London

Congestion Charge, London’s urban toll system, is among the rare cases in which a politician states his admiration before a measure that has worked better than forecasted (at least that’s what he said to the BBC).

Let us use here what some urban economy teachers say. Imagine an ET hovering over planet earth, and how he could be puzzled to see our behavior on car flows; you pay tolls to use motorways that seldom have any congestion, while in large cities, which can put to test anyone’s patience, moving by car is free. The scarcity of a good (fluidity) does not influence its price.

This first idea deserves some considerations: since the introduction of parameters and (especially in Europe) air quality control measures, moving your car in a central district remains relatively free, but the moment you decide to stop and park, you are in for a step bill. This helps improve air quality, but is felt by some as a social division between haves and have not’s in terms of accessibility to urban cores; I think that this is not necessarily the case, as in a reasonably designed public transportation system fares are always much more affordable than car ownership. Sure, you have all the right to feel better in your car, as you have no need to smell other people’s smells, but you have no need to organize your trip according to parking availability and you can do many useful things (even just thinking) while someone else focuses his/her attention on steering a vehicle. I think it’s rather an issue of what you want to do with commute times that can be very long for some, and feelings, but access times are not necessarily longer for the most (sure, if you make many stops things can change, but you need to factor in the parking hurdle).

It seems the system has worked rather well; tariffs have helped boost public transport, and reduce pollution with positive effects on public health. Citizens, as on almost any other issue, are divided between pros and cons. Traffic levels have gone down 10,2% in 10 years, but travel time remains the same for motorists.

An interesting thing in this measure is that it was approved by a Labor government and presented by some as a left wing interventionist policy, but later has been maintained by Conservatives (even if they scraped the western extension), and new restrictions are being planned for 2020.

But few cities have followed that path: more often than not, the fear of losing votes.

Biblio (116) The evolution of the parisian foodshed from the XIXth to the XXIst century


This is the PHD dissertation of Petros Chatzimpiros (engineer and environmental expert, currently university teacher in Geography), presented in june 2011 before the Paris Est university. The author focuses his research on meat and dairy.

The analytic method is a study of the spatial footprint, water use and nitrogen flows. According to the conclusions, since the beginning of the XIXth century the production surface by resident has been divided by six for similar consumptions of meat and milk, as a result of improvements in production, at the cost of twice the water consumption and a three times more intense use of the soil.

As Pikety has used long series for revenue, here long environmental and economic data series are used.

Maps 2015 (1) The American plain

This first example of 2015 is not really a map, but rather a rendering of an idea that has received an award in a competition for students held by the American Society of Landscape Architects. Its author, Reid Fellenbaum, proposes a strategy for the evolution of the central US plains, threatened by the gradual depletion of the aquifers that water its cereal crops. He summarizes the project as an evolution from the current Jeffersonian grid towards a more fine-grained arrangement in a land which is more fragile than it seems. I’m not talking about feasibility (which would be complex to judge in its entirety), even if it is clear that traditional cultivation techniques probably could provide some useful tricks, but rather about the graphical quality of the presentation, which is quite good.

Besides, this project addresses an issue, the “grain” of the land, on which I will soon write… widely.

Biblio (109) Green infrastructures

Biblio 109

Green infrastructure is one of these ecology-based complex concepts… and an interesting one. The traditional concept of infrastructure (“gray infrastructure”, as it is called these days as green ones have appeared) is that of any kind of contraption that allows you to use the laws of physics or any other science to adapt the current environment to our needs as a species; it is usually based on active elements that somehow require high amounts of ressources and some kind of maintenance. Green infraestructure is presented as an approach in which the man-made intervention is less visible, with an aim to get a good level of environmental services (yes, she is still the client…) by working in a more symbiotic way with ecosystems; understanding how nature works helps achieve a higher efficiency in some aspects with less pollution and environmental damage (not that previous engineers were brutes, but they worked from a different paradigm). The European Environmental Agency booklet conveys that idea in a more ellaborate way.

From Alps to Atlantic (6) Lacq


Some years ago, while in Paris, I had a chance to listen to a speech by Jean Paul Lacaze, a French urban planner among those that had been everywhere in all the relevant places, as he explained a curious story. He talked about the French experience with new towns, and the growing complexity of the criteria to choose a place (to erect a city, an industrial area or whatever) in consistency with the sustainable development paradigm. He spoke about the urban planning project linked to the Lacq gas field, in Pyrénées Atlantiques. The field was discovered in 1951 and is somehow the origin of the present Total oil group; there are some parallels with the current shale gas, as it was a hard to obtain resource (high proportion of hydrogen and sulphur), but a relevant input for the national economy. Lacaze said that while the presentation of the project to the press around 1957, the mayor said something like “we chose the better place, no doubt; Jean Paul and I, we drove for an entire day on my car around the municipality to find it”. That is a far cry from what could be considered good practice now, but it is how Mourenx, a city of 7.000 now (10.000 in 1968) appeared.

The gas field closed in 2013, and the economic base of the city suffered, as in many other mining areas, even if there is a set of industrial projects. The city seems clearly a “ville nouvelle” of the first model, even a hybrid with the previous “grand ensemble” model. It is an architecture of lineal multi-storey blocks on a rather regular street grid in which every chance is taken to introduce a curve (and the terrain gives some room for that).

That day, Jean Paul and the mayor chose a relatively flat area surrounded by two large sets of hills giving a certain visual protection when seen from the close industrial areas. Each neighbourhood has a tower, but individual homes have become more important (after all, that is France). The Plan Local d’Urbanisme is being revised, with moderate growth previsions.