sustainable development

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

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.

Paris (21) Martin Luther King Park

The park as seen from the southeast; the limit is not a high fence, but a lower one with a deep gutter.

The park as seen from the southeast; the limit is not a high fence, but a lower one with a deep gutter.

Batignolles has been marked for over a century by the rail yards leading to the St Lazare Station, one of the main access gates to Paris from the west.

The park and the new neigborhood, according to a project by François Grether and Jacqueline Osty, must face common issues: the original rail tracks are sometimes at the same level as the streets. The choice is then between burying the lines (something that can prevent their use for long periods) or to suppress them (a complex issue as this is upstream from a main station to the south). The bulk of the trains and the electric lines has the buildings on the western part of the park raised on a platform 10 m over the park, which will be integrated into the landscape design. Under the slab rail uses will persist, while over it there will be housing and offices buildings. The park is also cut in two by a public transportation exclusive track, so the park level has a discontinuity, that the aforementioned platform solves…

The housing area around the park is a set of sustainable development technologies and icons, but as always the real sustainability will depend on the consumption habits of the citizens.

A new housing building located over a school

A new housing building located over a school

A new station for the rail line that will cross the park

A new station for the rail line that will cross the park

A part of the new ponds

A part of the new ponds


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 (16) The Seine embankment

By the Musée d'Orsay

By the Musée d’Orsay

A playground

A playground

Between Concorde and Pont Alexandre III

Between Concorde and Pont Alexandre III

The Municipality of Paris has closed to traffic a part of the embankment on the Seine that had been used as a freeway during the second half of the XXth century. This can be ascribed to a drive to limit the use of the car that originates in European rules on air quality and a fight against traffic congestion that was shared by the two main options in the recent municipal election. The Parisian solution has been almost the opposite of what Madrid did facing what seemed an identical problem.

Madrid has chosen to bury the freeway under its former site, creating a new public space project on a much larger scope. Paris has not substituted the eliminated car space, and the asphalt has not been removed; it has become a platform for varying uses, as a tv set in some way. The cost is much lower, and the use more flexible. Doubts can rise on whether this is a more or less ambitious scheme, but it seems more sustainable.

A project as the one in Madrid would have been far too complex, among other reasons due to the cross section, which in Paris maintains the traditional embankment walls (essential in case of flood, a problem tackled in Madrid with a preexisting upstream reservoir), and on the higher level the conventional traffic goes on as usual.

There is also a historical dimension, on how the “urban prosthetics” end up reconfiguring the city. In Paris as well as in Madrid, these fluvial freeways appeared when the city was already present on both sides; but in Paris it was the historical core of the city around the corridor, while in Madrid the Manzanares shores were recent tissues of scarce urban quality, so the freeway was located with a rather savage approach. In Madrid the freeway was the street on which the entrance halls to the apartment buildings opened, and burying the freeway has given for sure a substantial reduction in noise; in Paris, cars still run over the higher parts of the embankments.

This is a matter of choice between closed (and expensive models) that try to deliver substantial transformation (and a compromise, trying to entice the car-loving voters…) and more flexible models that try to address a more complex problem, including historical heritage and flood risk, with chances for incremental change.

Conserving asphalt (as it has been done in the car-less embankment in Paris) doesn’t seem a bad solution. Sure, as the 1968 revolutionaries said, the beach is under the paving stones, but on asphalt things can actually happen.

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.

Maps 2014 (19) Empty Europe

teselas pobladas EURO 2006

Populated celles. They have not been aggregated, so the overall black color corresponds mostly to the adjacent limits.

This is not, as I often do, a map that has been done by someone else, but rather raw data from Eurostat that I have represented. Some months ago I commented on a project concerning a population grid, 1 km wide, covering the whole of Europe, as to give a better vision on some issues, as population, whose rendering following administrative basis was far from good.

So, there I went to the Eurostat specific site (( to download the GEOSTAT 1 km2 population grid, with associated 2006 population data. The density map is somehow known as we know the main cities and axis, but what is less known is the map of the void spots (in fact, Eurostat does not produce a polygon for those 1 sq m cells without residents). As often for European data, there are countries out of the Union (Switzerland, Norway, Iceland) that are represented, while others (Cyprus) are not there).

The available cells (the populated ones, almost 2 million) help get the voids by exclusion; at first glance you can see substantial void areas in Spain, the Alps, the Charpatians, parts of Greece and the Scottish and Scandinavian mountains.

But it is far more interesting to better portray the empty areas.

Green cells have no population. So much more void...

Green cells have no population. So much more void… but there is a need to cultivate and to produce the environmental services needed by the population.

European choices (5) Pollution

Each dot is an EPRTR spot.

Each dot is an E-PRTR spot.

The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) is a register managed by the European Environmental Agency that has data on industrial compounds emitting pollutants beyond the thresholds established in Regulation (EC) No 166/2006. It encompasses a wide array of factories, from urban waste water treatment to surface treatments to slaughterhouses.

As ever with European policies, there can be states with more stringent environmental quality laws, but Europe defines both a common framework and, as relevant as that for spatial planning, common databases that cover the whole of the Union (and often external countries as Norway and Switzerland), so allowing a better knowledge and debate.

European choices (4) Zero energy


Directive 2010/31/EU on the energy performance of buildings requires that by 31 December 2020 all new buildings are nearly zero-energy buildings, and also mandates that condition for buildings owned and occupied by public authorities by 31 December 2018.

According to the Directive, a near zero energy building “means a building that has a very high energy performance, as determined in accordance with Annex I. The nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered to a very significant extent by energy from renewable sources, including energy from renewable sources produced on-site or nearby”. So the precise, quantified definition (a central matter in such a Directive) is left to each state.

According to the COM/2013/0483final report (covering just some of the states), first in a series of triennial reports on the implementation of the Directive, most of the states have made progress, but only Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark and Lithuania have presented a definition with a quantified goal and a percentage of renewable energies. On the other side, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Germany and the UK have some rules that go beyond. The numerical definitions oscillate from 0 to 220 kWh/sq m/year, so the report asks whether the goal of the Directive is really that.

The Directive mandates an intermediate goal for new buildings in 2015. So far 15 states have met that mandate, but with diverging measures.

So we have here a policy about climate change (controversial for some) but also about energy independence (will Poles or Baltics be more eager to implement that Directive than, say, Irish, after the Ukraine crisis?). And it is also an urban planning policy, as the buildings add up the energy demand of cities, and renewables are regulated in city planning.

Biblio (90) Pathfinders


UK’s National Audits Office published in 2007 a report on the Housing Market Renewal programme. This programme appeared in 2002 trying to cope with the problem of areas with a low housing demand combined with a sizeable vacant homes stock, in the previous industrial heartland of the North and Midlands. The Governement helped create nine sub-regional alliances, dubbed “pathfinders”, grouping all administrative levels implied and stakeholders. Each alliance was given a wide liberty to adapt to the specific problems of its constituency.

The rationale for the programme is in part an idea also used in Detroit: demolition as a regeneration vector. A housing stock unfit to demand makes urban regeneration more difficult; demolishing and building a smaller number of better units, in coordination with refurbishment of existing homes, was the intended engine for renewed cities.

Overall the grand total of the budget was to be 1,2 billion pounds for the 2002-2008 period, with an additional billion for 2008-2011. As of march 2007 the programme had used 870 million to refurbish 40.000 units, demolish 10.000 and build some 1.000 new units. The initial prevision was 90.000 demolitions between 2002 and 2018, a figure incrementally reduced over time.

According to the report, in 2007 there were positive signs of improvements in the real estate market and the urban quality of the concerned areas. However, impacts on social cohesion were also apparent, as well as doubts about the ability of such a kind of programme to tackle the real underlying causes for urban decay.

The programme was discontinued in 2011. According to a recent article on The Guardian, it seems it was far from a success.