On Full Spain, or “In Praise of Dense Populations”

Photomontage by the author. In Praise of Densely Populated Urban Space.

In 1865, legislation which already governed rail transport in Great Britain was extended to impose a 2-mile-per-hour speed limit on automobiles in populated areas. Cars also had to have a person walking in front of them waving a red flag.

I mention this not because I think some of our own lawmakers might see the restoration of that law as an imaginative, albeit tongue-in-cheek, way of limiting emissions, but as an example of the strange things that can happen when obsolescent structures and laws are retained in times of changing paradigms.

In urban planning, changes of any kind always seem unlikely. Existing legal systems are protective, and their agents tend to be reluctant to experiment. Nevertheless, steps are now beginning to be taken to review the existing model and include new variables. The world’s biggest investment fund, Black Rock, for example, is pondering the long-term value of fixed assets and infrastructures in a scenario marked by climate change, while insurance companies, as determined as ever to avoid bankruptcy, are taking risks associated with fires and flooding very seriously indeed. It looks as if in the end it will be the economy that enforces sustainability in urban development.

And talking of sustainable planning, I’d like to address the issue of empty (or “emptied”) Spain, a recurrent preoccupation that has been a subject of debate for some time now and a notion which, for me, represents the opposite of “full” Spain.

The question is, why do populations concentrate more intensely in some places than in others? Could the reason be ease of access to housing? Some facts: the average cost of housing in central Madrid is 5,000 €/m2; a 50 m2 apartment could well cost you 250,000 €; the same property would cost around 90,000 € on the outskirts of the city, and even less in a medium-sized provincial capital. And from there, depending on the town or city, the price plummets.

There’s also the curious fact that in many cases it’s the least populated provinces which have higher-than-average life expectancy figures (there must be something about Soria’s water, or its cold temperatures in winter, that make it comparable to Japan in this regard). Subjective factors also contribute to the tendency of city-dwellers to flock to the country on days off.

If the reason for such concentrations is not to be found in the cost of acquiring accommodation or in the expectation of a longer, more stress-free life, it must therefore lie in access to services and economies of scale – hence my praise of dense populations. However appealing it might be do otherwise, we cannot and should not relinquish high demographic density, because it allows us to optimise our use of the resources needed to uphold our standards of living. It limits the size of transport and distribution networks, facilitates waste collection and processing, enables convergence between points of generation and consumption, and limits the risks to the natural environment associated with irresponsible land use. I’m sure none of these advantages will be lost on you as contributing factors to sustainable urban planning.

We need to avoid extreme standpoints – both those leading to absurd technological systems that end up granting LEED Platinum certification to all the skyscrapers in Las Vegas and those which, in an excess of romanticism, impede any rational evaluation of population density. With luck, and with foresight, we can leave all that obsolete flag-waving behind us.

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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