Richard Edes Harrison’s story is interesting: how a designer became a cartographer not because of specific map-making skills, but rather through his ability to convey a complex information to common people. In a moment (WWII) in which aviation was the technology that transformed the perception of distances, his maps introduced to the US public projections and perspectives that, by going ahead of the traditional Mercator projection, allowed people to better understand the events as they unfolded.
As I have already said some years ago, the central issue for the blog this year will be the grain of the city; i.e., how the detail that you see on the urban space is formed by aggregation of circumstances. The bylaws applied two centuries ago are the fodder of today’s tourism guides, and the old crisis often explain how a neighborhood took its shape (try to explain the XVth district of Paris and its architectural mix without the brutal economic discontinuity of the inter-world-wars period…).
The issue today is the way in which the real estate crisis spread over Spain in the recent years. The real estate sector, central for economic growth since the second half of the 1990s, based its expansion on the construction of new homes, mainly in peripheral zones. In terms of landscape, this means that large sectors of urban outskirts (often still without building, and probably with many years ahead in that situation) were prepared for development by building streets and infrastructure, by contrast to urban cores where existing streets received sometimes a face- lifting, but buildings got not that much of an upgrade in general terms.
The end of what has been called the real-estate bubble has not been homogeneous on the land. This can be analysed in many ways, and this is how I did it. The Ministerio de Fomento, the Spanish Government’s body more related to housing (an attribution of the regions) publishes each quarter data on the evolution of the selling price of the sq m of housing, for a set of 283 municipalities over 25.000 residents, recording differences between homes completed less than 2 years before and the older stock. I did not focus on price itself, but rather on when there has been a “blackout” in data due to a lack of statistic representatively of available data. I’m fully aware that there are other resources, authored by private agents, that have different data, but I chose this one as it is public and everyone can use it, and it also has chances to stay active for some time. A remark for those willing to use the source: for the analyzed period (first quarter 2005- third of 2014) a municipality was added to the list; I used an homogeneous series excluding that one.
This is what I did:
- A map of the data “blackouts” (upper animated image, you can see green turn red): It identifies the last available data for each municipality concerning homes under 2 years. Just two municipalities (Madrid and Barcelona) have had a record of no data blackout in any quarter, and as of the third quarter of 2014 there were only eight municipalities with data: Almeria, Barcelona, Caceres, Madrid, Merida, Las Rozas de Madrid, Madrid, Teruel and Zaragoza. In some cases, as Madrid and Barcelona, metropolitan areas with many points can somehow mask the visibility of still “on the radar” municipalities.
- A chart of the evolution by quarter of the number of cities without statistically representative values for the price of homes overall (no age class distinction), and for those under 2 years old (new homes). It is clear that in 2009 things became complex, and that the first quarter of 2011 became a clear threshold. By comparing the chart to the evolution of free homes (homes sold in a free market without public subvention to purchase) completed and the average price of a sq m of urban land in municipalities over 50.000, there are many parallels. Homes under 2 years old reduce, as there are no longer produced in large amounts.
- A comparison between the charts of the home prices, in national average, in Spain, Colombia, France and the United States, by quarter, from the first 2007 to the second 2014, taking the valuest of 1st quarter 2007 as 100%. It is clear that France has not seen a drop in home values (a reduced residential output), in the US the 10% correction seems over (even if the difference in country size probably would deserve a more detailed analysis, and Colombia has a chart clearly reminding that of Spain five years earlier, something that doesn’t seem good.
- A cross tab vision of the demographic size of municipalities and the number of quarters (regardless of their order) in which they have been “under the radar” for new homes prices. It is clear that size matters, and more populous municipalities (that in Spain are often those with the larger physical areas and have large developments) are those that seem to have best survived the crisis, with wider markets and, against all odds, a better stock of price- stabilizing elements for the housing demand (transportation, distance to jobs, facilities)
All this doesn’t imply automatic answers to questions regarding the future of these municipalities; any plan must face a future that, by definition, is uncertain, and so needs a certain degree of flexibility. But the lesson would rather be (as will be seen in future posts) that long term plans have a sense in urban planning if you grasp the idea that buildings will also be built long term. And therein lied the rump here, as development was drawn without a clear demand for the buildings that had to pay for the streets and pipes and electric lines that were built (leave alone the land itself, often bought at astronomic prices…).
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.
This map was produced in 2011 by Derek Watkins, graphic editor for the New York Times, whose portfolio is full of extremely attractive references (including details on the tools used to produce these gorgeous images). This map was generated by looking on Flickr for geotagged images with urban decay tags. It is noteworthy that the number of images in some cities si quite reduced. In fact, this is not a map of a phenomenon, but of its perception by a group of people whose definition is complex (photographers aware of the special aesthetics of ruins prone to share their images on flickr?). Gorgeous map, anyway, and it seems quite related when it comes to results with other data about this subject.
We Europeans tend to think that the US have no history. Incidentally, this happens to be true from an European viewpoint, as their written records are quite recent (a different perspective would give a more complex vision). Recent history shows some curious features. The Genealogical Map of Pennsylvania, compiled in 1933 by the State Government and already in its tenth edition in 1985, shows the complex journey of the subdivision of the state during the XIXth century, and even the XVIIIth century purchases. New York and Pennsylvania where part of the same country, but even so Erie county was ceded by NY to PA to ensure an access to the great lakes…. The map is useful not by locating the main family names, but the administrative divisions that allow you to go to the proper county office. In most of Europe the reference would be the parishes, as they were long the ones having the baptism registration books…
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…
The article published on the Atlantic Cities magazine (which I read thanks to its reference at salvolomas) shows the antagonic interests at play when it comes to the future of an urban freeway. The balance between impacts and benefits of an infrastructure project, again a central issue in the planning of urban space.
New Orleans organised in 1984 its Louisiana World Exposition, Seville its World Exposition in 1992, and Marseilles has used its 2013 declaration as European Cultural Capital (in a joint declaration that also included Kosice, in Slovakia) to promote its urban regeneration projects.
Large international events (world fairs, Olympic games, or cultural capitals) are coming under scrutiny not just for their cost or their financial balance, but also taking into account their legacy. Legacy encompasses the investments that are made for a short period of time that can later find a use adapted to the real permanent needs of the citizens. Expect such debates to raise by summer this year as the Brazil World Cup becomes the season’s issue. From this point of view, the large events balance is varied, often just because socio-economic dynamics in these cities cannot absorb some uses.
1984 Exposition in New Orelans did not attain a financial balance. Its legacy includes the rehabilitation of the harbour front and some port buildings.
Expo 92 in Seville did not either get to an economic balanced result. A relevant surface of gardens was built, which created a problem of maintenance costs for the city, and a high speed train station was built to operate just for a few months. The urban conversion of the site and the theme parc that was created have only found a limited successs. But the large hydraulic works on the Guadalquivir river are still there.
Marseille’s project includes a relevant transformation of the seafront, with relevant projects as the European and Mediterranean Civilisations Museum of Norman Foster’s works on the Old Port. It is still to early to judge the results.
A mid-sized city can be such as a result of growth until reaching that status, or it can be the result of a certain downgrading from higher ranks. I am fully aware that some of the things I’m going to say could be unpleasant, but this is a long-term vision, and history is made every day, so nothing is unavoidable.
I’ve chosen four cities that, as in the first case, are seaports, but with quite different roles. They have been high places in the European colonial adventure (that could receive other names in different places). Seville as the main port in the first times of the Spanish empire, Marseilles as the French gate to the African and Asian empires, New Orleans as the gate to the Mississippi Valley, and Havana as the capital of the last jewel of the Spanish empire. These are by no means small cites, and they are rather relevant in their states, as to make many think that I’m not fair saying they are mid-sized cities; but they are no longer cities with a continental reach. They have sure gained population, but have lost rank.
Yet they are very interesting places. How does a city evolve when the technological- economical-social (you name the issue) wave that propelled it to its highest position disappears? The rise of these cities is linked to their network of relations in colonial worlds, and their evolution is related to the fact that new models appear that are more successful. There is a scent of Detroit here…