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Planning in Turbulent Times

We’re living in confused, if not tumultuous, times. In addition to the natural evolution logically to be expected in generational changes, we’re also experiencing the changes of paradigm that the technological revolution has recurrently been generating ever since we started applying algorithms to our everyday activities. And for some time now, a kind of existential madness has been spreading like fire through contemporary Western societies.

In the days when I was a newly enrolled student at the ETSAM (Madrid Polytechnic School of Architecture), we thought that the unification of what up until then had been a divided Germany would bring about a promisingly serene future in an equally united Europe. Nobody would have imagined that just a few decades later we’d all be talking about something called “Brexit”, a word which at first seemed to me to be a joke but which today monopolises the agendas of Europe’s leaders. International instability in the Middle East and the power struggle between the USA, China and Russia have become a staple in current affairs. It’s not even necessary to look that far. I’m writing this just a few days before a general election in Spain – I don’t know the result yet – which can do little to change the political landscape unless there’s a major shift in voting patterns. And hardly a day goes by without someone fomenting the idea in the social media that torching a city is the best thing that could happen to us.

So why am I telling you all this, you will rightly be asking yourself. After all, this is an architecture blog, not a political blog. I’m simply drawing attention to a problem of regulatory inertia in our profession. I want to underline the fact that the need to address pending legislative changes cannot be ignored indefinitely, especially in the fields of urban planning and architecture.

EU Directive 2018/844, introduced in the wake of the Paris Agreement, states that a sustainable, competitive, decarbonised energy system must be established by 2050. That system is to include Spain’s building stock – 25,000,000 dwellings of which 60% date from before the approval of energy code NBE-CT 79. But how will that be possible? How are we to develop buildings with almost zero net energy consumption, or with positive energy consumption? By extending budgets drawn up in 2017? By postponing regulatory reform until the government is no longer an acting government?

I suppose there’s no easy answer. Personally, I’d prefer not to delegate the search for solutions to the government, but for all the actors involved to assume their corresponding responsibility depending on each one’s capacity. (Actually, Spain’s technical building code, the CTE, is a code of minimum requirements; if we were really good at our job, it would be almost unnecessary). As professionals, we probably could and should lend a hand through pedagogy and good praxis. And while I’m on the subject, I’d further suggest that chartered architects’ associations could constitute real instruments of support in this regard.

One indirect result of the crazy situation of international chaos I mentioned earlier is that the next United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP25) is going to be held in Madrid. I hope our institutions rise to the occasion.

2050 seems a long way off, I know. Who knows, whoever’s in office as British Prime Minister then might still be requesting more time to leave the EU. But don’t take that for granted. Time flies and it’s likely that the measures agreed in the Paris Agreement will even have to be brought forward. Problems have a nasty habit of not waiting for us to think up solutions.

Our job is to plan in turbulent times.

Cover image: “Planning in Turbulent Times”: photomontage by the author.
Text translated by Andrew V. Taylor
Arquitecto desde el año 2000. Miembro de la Asociación de Arquitectos (aA), ha sido vocal de la Junta de Gobierno del COAM y asambleísta en el CSCAE.

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