Urban centrality

What good do shops deliver (4) Chocolate

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

A chocolate shop just in front of the Madeleine church in Paris

Here I use chocolate as well as a direct, factual reference as in a metaphorical way… opening a shop (as any other business) is a display of faith on an idea, in this case a quite public one. Whoever has a blog will easily understand: you have an idea that you prepare, polish and then make public. Then, for reasons you never quite understand, some ideas you thought were not as bright get most of the traffic (or at least that is what wordpress stats say…) while others, brighter at first sight, lag behind. In a blog, the effects of this are usually limited, but in a shop they can mean a difference between earning or loosing substantial money. Sure, mere footfall does not translate into money, but it is usually a precondition to make a product known, and, eventually, to sell something…

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

A bakery on Rossio Station, Lisbon

The external presence of a shop is essential. A clean, tidy, well-lit showcase is a minimum requirement, but you also need it to be located in a busy place, which implies a cost. To optimize this cost, you have to make attractive as well the premises as the product. Somehow, you have more chances to configure your shop than your product, especially if you are not the maker. Anyway, you have to be different from competitors.

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l'Olympia

A body care shop in Paris, near the Passage de l’Olympia

Sure, shopkeepers want to get clients to see their business; what we get as a collateral effect is a care in the display of some things that configure public space, an aesthetic quality that is sometimes noteworthy. You can sure direct the debate towards consumerism, but it would be missing relevant elements in this situation.

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet...

An old hat shop in Rossio Square, Lisbon. Sometimes keeping what you have is the best bet…

What good do shops deliver (3) eyes on the street

Looking to the shop from the street...

Looking to the shop from the street…

Feeling safe in public space is somehow related to the perception of not being alone and to the fact that what happens is seen (or can be seen) by those living on or using the street. This has been enunciated by Jane Jacobs and re-used often as “eyes on the street”, with some consequences for retail:

  • Those (shop) eyes are there just during opening hours; they include those of shopkeepers as well as those of those browsing the showcases or the ones buying. The two latest categories will only flock if the space is perceived as safe, so here we have a vicious/virtuous circle…
  • When shops are closed, the only eyes on the street are those of homes (if they exist). If showcases are well lit at night, you can however get a better safety feeling, something that shopkeepers are fully aware of as this increases the perception of the street as secure day-long.
  • The design of showcases influences the number of eyes on the street; the open ones work better.
... or from the shop on the other side...

… or from the shop on the other side… (this is main street Segovia, Spain)

Maps 2014 (40) As I move


Chances are that what I’m going to disclose is already known by some of the makers of the electronic contraptions I carry ; so here is a map of the routes I use often (blue numbers are distances in meters).

I live in A, work in B and once a week I eat at C. some weeks I go to cinema at D. 1 and 2 are pedestrian daily routes, which are alternative depending on the day (and the hour); the distance between A and B is so reduced that the presence of an expressway in the middle makes these two the shortest pedestrian routes. 3 is mainly a bus route, an explanation for the 90º angle (by foot it could be shorter, but it would take too long). And 4 is a weekend route, to go to the cinema through the urban core (the return trip is often by underground or bus, or, when it is late at night, by cab). The remaining points are supermarkets, cinemas, restaurants and other interest points.

The city I live in is rather good for a pedestrian; but this doesn’t mean that walking routes are necessarily shorter than by other means. On the other side, they are highly predictable when it comes to time: I usually walk at 4 km/h (compared to the average 24 km/h for cars, which is subject to strong variations during daytime). By walking you always have alternatives (but for the case of obstacles such as expressways or rail lines), and as slopes are gentle I can predict my travel times. And yes, sometimes (with not such regular patterns, once or twice a week at most) I move in my car…

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

Paris (20) Noisy Mont d’Est-RER



Paris (as a municipality)  is a small footprint city when compared to other capitals. A central matter for the current French planning scene is how to ensure a coherent urban project with  an administrative fragmentation, in which Paris has 2,2 million residents and an additional 8 million residents live in hundreds of municipalities seldom over 50.000.

Public transportation is essential. Noisy- Mont d’Est is a RER (a kind of metropolitan rail network) station created during the 1980s to serve what was to be the center of one of the new towns whose inception can be traced back to the Gaullist 1960s. As a child I saw the station, the neighborhood and the lake being built… and over time I have seen what was to become a city core fail somehow, despite a strong public cash injection. In part the station contributed, as it had a clear functional project linking rail and bus, but an architecture that relied on scarcely lit underground spaces that contributed to a climate of insecurity (one of the factors fueling the “seismic” result of last Sunday European elections).

A renovation program has moved the station outside, limiting the underground spaces to the platforms themselves, leaving the buses on open air. I’m not sure to see the centrality of the area improve that much (despite the fact that employment exists), but many people can use the bus with a different feeling.

Centrality is in such places a more complex issue: those new towns have obtained over time a set of roles, including universities and corporate headquarters. But two factors have played against these projects up to date. On one side, a configuration in which, despite a presence of public transportation, car has remained central. On the other side, the asymmetry between a public power that is to make its strategies explicit through planning and a private sector not bound to this, which has, especially in the first years of the new towns, having no constraining laws, created big box retail in peripheral locations that prevented other retail operators from locating in planned centralities. And an urban core without a strong retail base is a complex thing to get…



Back of the envelope calculations (2) 32 households


In 2012 each Spaniard spent on average 1.585 euros in food and non-alcoholic beverages, according to INE’s statistics on household expenditure. The average expenditure by household was 4.060 euros. So each week there was an average expenditure of 78 euros. These figures are a national average, taking into account central Madrid and the last rural hamlet, so computing a wide array of costs and expenditure capacity.
According to data from the realtor idealista.com, there is in Madrid a certain amount of retail spaces to be let at about 5€/sq m, usually in peripheral areas with low- middle-income families.
Taking as a criteria that the rent would be equivalent to 5% of sales, a 100 sq m space with a 5€/sq m monthly rent should sell 10.000 € each month; i.e., it should have 32 households spending their whole food budget each week if you want to be in the food segment.
Those figures must be fine-tuned taking into account location, client conditions, retail strategy or shop format. But they are clearly indicating why retail concentrates, and why it would not be realistic to expect large shop numbers in low density urban areas (but for big-box retail). So density matters a lot.

The full picture: density helps

The full picture: density helps

Industrial traditions (5) Alternative Guggenheim

A- Macroplaza (Government center, arts and history Museums), B- Canal de Santa Lucía, C- Parque Fundidora

A- Macroplaza (Government center, arts and history Museums), B- Canal de Santa Lucía, C- Parque Fundidora

Monterrey has long had the image of the industrial powerhouse of Mexico. From the 1980’s there has been a tentative to build a more positive image, beyond smoke columns. First it was the Macroplaza (some 500 m of gardens connecting the main power centers and the classical museums, not unlike some US squares in a typology quite different from European Squares), and the the Parque Fundidora, an old steel mills site which has been turned into a park. Since the mid 1990s there has been a series of works to revive the canal de Santa Lucía, an ancient small river that has been turned in a navigable channel and linear corridor connecting both spaces; the Rio Santa Catarina, which is the main water course in the city, has been transformed in a linear park, but seems less well cared for . According to many sources, these possitive investment in public spaces have not been in parallel with much needed improvements in basic urban facilities in most of the urban tissue, as it has been the case in other cities also confronting a productive transportation (cities located in richer countries, no doubt).

Rules and variations (5)

plaza2 plaza

A grand square, some 12.000 sq m (3 acres), built some centuries ago by a powerful monarch: where, it is pointless here, why, it is obvious, but how, therein lies the rub.

The king was mighty and powerful, projecting that power beyond the seas; but even this power was not enough to impose his absolute will on the people living in the city where his court was. So he did what kings did at that time: he imposed a regular geometry for the square, but this regularity was not extended to the surroundings. This transition from regularity to clutter is solved through a regular layout of windows in the elevation, and through ground floor arcades.

Zoom to right now, as this square has become, as many its European sister spaces, a tourism magnet. And that regularity trick somehow still works. Shops and watering holes for visitors now mostly occupy ground floor, and upper levels are mainly homes. This is an attractive space, in part due to its contrast to the neighbouring areas, despite a somehow harsh surface.

Ground floor. 1: arcades, 2: shops, 3: restaurants and cafes, 4: storage, 5: public offices

Ground floor. 1: arcades, 2: shops, 3: restaurants and cafes, 4: storage, 5: public offices

One of the high levels. 1: appartments, 2: offices, 3:   teaching, 4: public adminitration

One of the high levels. 1: appartments, 2: offices, 3: teaching, 4: public adminitration

Some of the building use data in the diagrams are not exactly what exists nowadays in the square, but the overall situation is that one.

Biblio (81) Syracuse urban freeway


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.

Tokyo: the size of the core


Tokyo presents itself as the biggest metro area in the world, with over 35 million residents. But as nearly any metropolitan area, it has a core. And that core says some things about how the city is, even more if you compare it to cities you know.

Tokyo’s core is marked by the bay, which is becoming more difficult to see as it is being filled for new urban uses, by the mouths of several rivers, the presence of the Imperial Palace and a motorway system that is much more apparent and ramified than in European or even American cities.