urban landscape

Maps 2015 (2) The blackout of the bubble

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:

Data "blackouts" in new homes price statistics in Spain. To see again the animated image, uptdate the page.

Data “blackouts” in new homes price statistics in Spain. To see again the animated image, uptdate the page.

  • 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…).

Biblio (113) The rise and fall of Manhattan’s densities

biblio 113- Manhattan densities

This working paper by Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson- Hall, researchers at the Marron Institute at NYU, studies the evolution of population densities in the built-up areas of Manhattan from 1800 to 2010. They combine census data for population with a series of maps, and conclude that time is ripe for a densification programme that could accommodate a larger population with bottom-up actions, without need to use large public- financed schemes. The proposal is essentially a change in the planning regulations that would allow higher densities in peripheral boroughs, as was done before in Manhattan. This would hardly be seen as a contentious issue where I live, as the habit of living in denser neighbourhoods is more common, but would mean a change for many in the land of the single- family home; even if skyscrapers are not a rarity, high rise housing has different cultural implications, as you would loose many freedoms you have being the lord and king of your lot.

There are two interesting videos which show the base data that helped reach those conclusions



A programme for 2015: the grain of cities

A place I happen to know well, as seen from Landsat

A place I happen to know well, as seen from Landsat

The physical base, first scale "grain" element

The physical base, first scale “grain” element

Defining a programme helps make easier what Is complex. The UN have declared 2015 as the international year for light and light related technologies, and international year of soils. At first glance, these seem better starting points than in 2016 (international year for pulses and camelids), but you never know… Nevertheless I think it’s better to choose a subject more focused on the built environment. And specifically, to focus on an issue that is overarching to most of the interesting works I read recently, and that so seems central: the grain of the city.

Beware, I’m not talking about grain in the crop sense, but about the different qualities that scales can render when talking about the city or the broader land in which it sits. Mandelbrot did translate a close idea it into the fractal theory, as the presence of visual qualities (although he was a mathematician, he seems to have favoured visual representations of abstract concepts, as structures in data in this case) that seem similar at different scales.

The grain of buildings, as described by cadastral data

The grain of buildings, as described by cadastral data

The grain of the city can be physical (an historical area can be much more detailed in so many senses) or immaterial and related to flows and socioeconomic links; the most interesting spaces are those where both detail qualities converge.

The grain raises two issues:

  • The ability of our representation instruments to represent the city or the land and convey a given complexity
  • The presence (or absence) of complexities on the land, be it in one sense or the other.

This will be the base for the blog during this year, alongside more circumstantial issues. As ever, I’m open to your suggestions.

Architectural grain

Architectural grain

... and the grain of things set to become something else...

… and the grain of things set to become something else…

Biblio (111) A visual history of the future

Biblio 111- A visual history of the future

Foresight, the British government long-term research organisation that provides evidence for public policies, has begun a program on the future of cities. In this context they have produced a volume related to the evolution for more than a century of the images concerning the future of cities, using many sources going from plain urban planning literature to cinema. Sure, A clockwork orange is by no means an urban planning text, but there is a message on how the urban space can be used…

An interesting compilation of images that illustrate the evolution of the visions about the future of cities, mainly in the western world (including Japan, see figure 38 in the document), going from hippies (figure 42) to academics (figure 56), and from art (figure 51) to dismay (figure 39).

foresight-urban futures- image 51

This is the closest thing I’ve seen to the mountain in “Encounters of the third kind”, and here it would materialize in Berlin. Sure, chances for this to happen are from slim to none, but it is a powerful image.

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)

What good do shops deliver (2) aesthetics


This is an image of a city square in a rural area of Spain, and it represents the “zero degree” of the urban retail: a street market. I’ve chosen this image, quite far from idyllic. Here we have the same urban role played by those breath-taking image of Italian markets  conveyed through cuisine tv shows, but there is no substantial contribution to the formal landscape; sure this is more than decent, but it is not elegant, as so many other things in life.


This image corresponds to a street in London, on Mayfair, close to Oxford Street. It is a street without retail; everything is housing (or retail), even if the setback from the sidewalk changes the way in which the buildings relate to the street quite elegantly. The difference with a social housing estate is in the architecture and its dwellers, not in the way in which the building uses are organised; and in the fact that here Bond Street is just a stroll away, albeit it is not necessarily a place in which to get value on groceries…

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.

comercio mérida

And this third image is a street in central Mérida (Spain), a city of almost 60.000. it is not main street, but is urban landscape is marked by retail.


This fourth image is a set of shops behind Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna. Elegant shops in a central setting in which the architecture of the building is far from bad…

You can have beautiful streets with or without retail, or they can be uninteresting on their own; you can have attractive or boring shops. But what commerce brings to citizens using the streets on a daily basis is a material expression of the evolution of the city. And to those coming from out of town retail means a clue on what sort of aesthetics mobilizes local buyers; the extent to which retail implies visual clutter is also noticed by visitors (it can be positive, but not that often). The lack of retail (including bars and restaurants) in a street has its landscape depend just on  building architecture, much more static.

From Alps to Atlantic (7) Finding your way in a peninsula


La Coruña

I was born on a peninsula, and I like that kind of places. Some people from inland areas are somehow puzzled, as for them a coastal city should have water only in one direction, a far cry from what a peninsula is. These same people have a still harder time when they realize that a peninsular city changes its shape constantly; not that inland cities are different, but here the coastline provides a more apparent limit that makes things clearer.

The best way to find your way on a peninsula is to look for a tall element. A lighthouse, a hill, a chimney… if you have no such elements, you are in trouble, as ships can come from anywhere (thank god, in the Cadiz marshes you have shipyards with large cranes, power towers and a new bridge…).

Some have found a loophole: make city grow so much larger than your peninsula that it will no longer be noticed. But this is somehow cheating…


From Alps to Atlantic (4) Nice

nice-table orientation
An august morning in Nice (some years ago) has many things to see; as in many other cities, but here, from the castle, you feel you can see more:
– Planes. Lots of them (one of the busiest airport in France), which you can see take off and land, as the runways seem an aircraft carrier; you feel you can almos touch them, as here the approach is curved (I never saw something like that, at least in Spain), and this makes traffic all the most spectacular. The aeronautical servitudes map seems an Enric Miralles’s architecture.
Servitudes aeronautiques NICE
– The beach is quite active; cobblestones, so less hospitable that sand beaches.
playa niza
– The Promenade des Anglais is quite used. Compared to other more modern sea walks, its beach sidewalk is utterly simple (its prestige comes more from the buildings on the land sidewalk), but seems to work well; it is wide, the most important thing, and at least it is not cluttered with nonsense stuff.
– Seen from a distance the hills could be almost anywhere in the northern Mediterranean coast. The percentage of eyesores on the landscape is lesser than in Spain or Italy, but they also happen to exist.
– On the harbour there are many yachts the size of a navy corvette (although not as many as in Monte Carlo). In fact, that area seems among the least active of this landscape, but it attracts the eye in a quite ordered wharf, which still shows the Italian origin of the city.


From Alps to Atlantic (3) Mestre


Can you just talk about Elephant and Castle and not about London? Or Jersey and not Manhattan? I’ll try to write about Mestre (where I took not a single picture) without mentioning the one reference across the lagoon (339 snaps in 4 days).

I can talk about Mestre in many ways (not to my pride somehow): a place where you get from an airport to jump into a train each morning and come back to sleep each night. Or a harbour where I never saw a ship. Or a place where each night I thougt “here, at least you have not to pull a luggage through low light and somehow derelict, narrow streets”. But the simplest would be to say that Mestre is just a sample of the 95% of the European territory in which we live despite the fact it is not that thrilling, even if it is much more practical than the really emotional 5% that makes us go through Mestre in the first place.

And the “best” is that once you’re out, you read and conclude that, had you known that city under different conditions, it could even have been intresting. But you can’t be the gate to Venice and remain unharmed…