This article was written in 2016 and originally published with the title: Post Mass Housing. Revitalization of high density residential urban areas, in the print book Rethinking Density Art, Culture, and Urban Practices, Publication Series of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, vol. 20, edited in 2017 by Anamarija Batista, Szilvia Kovács and Carina Lesky. The title refers to Zaida Muxi et al., Postsuburbia. (Madrid: Comanegra, 2013)
It is the purpose of this article to state a different regard on the concept of density through our own perspective as an office working on creative processes for urban transformation. A significant idea, emerging from various considerations about design and flexibility in relation to social realities, is that collective housing neighbourhoods constitute an opportunity for higher density in terms of variety, diversity, participation and shared spaces. This article argues for an understanding of how this can provide significant benefits for everyday life, considering a case study to draw on new research into urban revitalization.
Density is not enough
There is an idea, quite accepted among planners, that cities cannot continue to spread like in recent decades. Although very few municipalities in Southern Europe have taken seriously the control of urban growth, the crisis has slowed down the continuation of territorial predation. Both professional circles and civil society are strongly demanding a new urban model and the concept of density is called to be a key issue.
Some of the most urgent challenges include supra-regional planning and urban integrated regeneration. In the case of the former, as it represents the framework scale, essential to combat social inequality and environmental degradation but still poorly addressed, with exceptions. In the case of the later, since it must be the new paradigm of urbanism and architecture. From a social, economic and environmental perspective, it is already obvious that we need growth in terms of quality, not quantity. Thus, the 'built density' is not sufficient in order to assess an urban fabric that claims to be part of the city.
There have been two main urban residential zoning types without continuity or contiguity with their surrounding tissues: the vertical neoslumisation in blocks and the horizontal suburbanisation in bourgeois detached houses (as used in Antonio Miranda, Columnas para la resistencia. Madrid, 2012). The disastrous sprawl has been studied as an opportunity to look for alternatives to the disperse city model since it has a margin of possibilities for change. However, some collective housing developments neither reach the density nor the critical mass to generate vitality. Rejecting the validity of universal criteria, below an average of 50 dwellings per hectare it is very difficult to ensure the sustainability of public transport or the quality of local commerce. However, as evidenced by many isolated apartment towers or the super-compact and precarious informal settlements worldwide, a liveable, rich, complex, intense city in which to share a common life requires more than a minimum housing density.
Where to start?
Changes are already taking place. Potential examples could be those emerging practices combining or promoting local agriculture, decentralized energy, citizen empowerment, green infrastructures or social economy. It is only right to remember that many creative proposals in the last years emerged as a bottom-up response to very specific urban problems. To what extent is there a deep impact on the urban environment and on the way the city is transformed?
In this context a concern emerges: internet and digital tools play an essential role in making information accessible and viral but, as a revolutionary historical invention, it is also radically changing the world in terms of digital-analogical and local-global dualities. In relation to this, technology should remain a means to something rather than an end in itself, allowing us to cultivate affection and care. It cannot be forgotten that aggressive capitalism is perfectly compatible with social networking and a trivial level of collaboration (César Rendueles, Sociofobia. El cambio político en la era de la utopía digital. Madrid, 2014).
Recent changes in capitalism, where knowledge is tending to replace natural resources and physical labour as tools for economic growth, are deeply modifying contemporary cities. Indeed, urban areas are adapting their productive, spatial and social structures to new economic demands. One of the clearest manifestations of these mutations lies in the emergence of technological districts, creative clusters, cultural clusters, design districts or even cyber-districts. According to Besson, these projects are built following the same model, that of the of 'Cognitive Urban Systems' (Raphaël Besson, Cognitive Capitalism and Urban Models Mutation. Territoire en Mouvement. 2014). Playing with the effects of density to stimulate the production of innovation, this model is based on the idea that spatial concentration creates links through face to face relationships. Hence, the physical proximity between stakeholders makes possible the creation of a network of suppliers, distributors and customers exchanging knowledge. To this end, the Cognitive Urban Systems offer morphological structures intended to stimulate proximity effects. Do they really seek to combine quality of life, technological innovation, density and social diversity? Within this model, space is no longer a neutral vector, since it promotes the economic and social appropriation of innovations, and it can accelerate the diffusion of such innovations (Loinger, Tabaries and Grondeau, Les modes de localisation des activités économiques de haute technologie dans les espaces urbains métropolitains. Les cas d l'Ile-de-France. Paris, 2006). Nevertheless, most of the existing examples are conducted by big companies and therefore they are meant to satisfy their particular interests over other important issues. Thus, it is yet unclear how these specialized districts could provide valuable ideas to be applied in urban regeneration projects. Much remains to be done in the search for alternatives to improve our cities from a holistic and equitable approach.
Furthermore, it is worrying how we often talk about regenerating without making clear where and what to regenerate. Vulnerable neighbourhoods over those providing maximum economic return on interventions should have the priority. In this respect, it is particularly worth considering some variants of obsolete housing typologies often repeated during the second half of the twentieth century. Mass housing neighbourhoods consisting of housing blocks are all part of the inherited city, from which we must redefine habitability and seek new ways of living.
The challenge: quality against quantity
Urban regeneration is an ecological and social imperative and the obsolescence of mass housing stock is one of its critical issues. Although most of inhabitants in urban areas dream of their own house in the country, urban sprawl will not provide answers to this demand. Instead, increasing the density in existing fabrics (systole and integration) should be given a preference over new constructions in the periphery (diastole and segregation). Minimization or even dismantlement (n'UNDO collective, El desmantelamiento como intervención urbana en la ciudad formal e informal. Madrid, 2014) are suitable options especially when the population is decreasing like in shrinking cities.
However, up until this point, the concept of urban density seems to have been addressed superficially. As of June, 2013, José Fariña describes on his blog, urban planners work with numbers and theoretical concepts such as housing units per hectare, buildable area, land use, traffic intensity or floor area ratio and others that make it difficult to relate to the direct experiences of the inhabitants. What density is suitable for producing a rich urban life? In countries like Spain, provinces and municipalities have been setting their own standard limits on built density, all of them very different and hardly justified, even if sometimes they were useful to control overdevelopment. In addition to this, taking into account the transformational power of social interaction concerning more intangible situations, the perceived density might be quite different from any calculated density. This is why some experts (Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme, Densités vécues et formes urbaines. Paris, 2003) refer to the lived or subjective density, highly dependent on socio-cultural referents, which allows for the emergence of a new concept of density, linked to diversity and founded on the infrastructure needed for everyday life.
Urban Revitalization of Mass Housing Competition
The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) launched an international competition for young professionals worldwide. This event was organized in the frame of the Global Housing Strategy to promote a paradigm shift in the provision of adequate shelter for all, especially as the Post 2015 Development Agenda is being set to support the achievement of social, economic and environmental sustainability of cities. The members of Improvistos had previously participated in 2012 in an academic workshop on the Orba Neighbourhood, organized by the architecture schools of Madrid and Valencia. The result, tutored by professor Álvaro Soto, was the seed for a master thesis project by María Tula García Méndez. Improvistos, as a professional office, continued the research and was awarded the first prize among 752 competing teams from different countries in the Competition held in 2014 by UN-Habitat. The International Jury of experts highly valued our project Recooperation as 'it draws up an open and integrated development proposal from an innovative vision in design and a participatory approach'.
Recooperation intends to be a multi-scalar, holistic proposal for the urban revitalization of the Orba Neighbourhood, in the South of the Metropolitan Area of Valencia, Spain. The starting point is to assess the key situation of this place, which was the part of the city expanding to the south. The Master Plan of 1946 for the Metropolitan Area established three industrial axes: the textile and chemical industry in the north, the ceramic industries in the west and the wood and furniture industries in the south. The latter has played an important role on the creation of the Orba neighbourhood.
It is worth considering that the traditional orchards, the riparian forests and the Natural Park of L'Albufera are disconnected due to the new built areas. Thus, the restoration of the continuity of natural ecosystems, converting this area into a landscape-connector node, constitutes the framework for the upgrading. The recovery of ditches, the implementation of new ecological corridors and green 'buffer' spaces between the densely anthropised and the protected areas must return the minimum connections to the fragmented territory.
The neighbourhood, isolated from the centre of the Alfafar Municipality, is a mono-functional residential area that was built in the 60s, consisting of linear blocks with just two types of housing units. Since the furniture and wood industry and the building sector no longer offer job opportunities, this area has very few economic activities. However, the inhabitants are socially active and in the past decades neighbour associations have achieved basic services and lacking facilities. Today, some of them claim for low rents and debt cancellation for evicted people, improvements in accessibility, the refurbishment of a building used by cultural and social organizations, the regulation and promotion of urban gardens (now illegal), support for collaborative economic initiatives, attention to people at risk of exclusion, to quote a few. Above all, many local agents seek for a comprehensive plan for the district with greater citizen participation to decide priority strategies in coordination with the whole municipality.
Taking into account the high unemployment rate, the ageing population, the obsolescence of housing blocks in terms of typological diversity and energetic performance, as well as the decaying wood industry, a new transformation process is proposed through a series of interventions in the cycle of wood, water, energy and productive activities. Available resources are introduced into a cycle-dynamics to make them operate more efficiently. For this purpose, urban interventions include renewable energy devices, rainwater collection on rooftops, restoration of soil permeability, traditional irrigation systems, water filtration in a forest of poplars, walkable street network, cycle paths, a new traffic scheme and a range of productive activities to be boosted in unused spaces.
The new wood production cycle is based on the inhabitant's know-how, taking into account that many unemployed neighbours come from this sector. Forestry, transformation, processing, training, design, entrepreneurship, merchandising, installation and eventually exportation are considered potential activities to address the obsolescence of the neighbourhood in terms of space, energy, accessibility and use. This takes shape in the upgrading of the housing units with a wide range of new structural elements, enclosures and furniture made in local wood. Low cost, modifiable, replicable housing solutions improve the hierarchy of use and explore unexpected combinations to suit different lifestyles. These factors are key for a participatory approach within an overall sustainable strategy. For every 20 housing units sharing 1 access, these self-promoted changes include new intermediate shared spaces and different transitional zones within the block. Moreover, the implementation of an exchange system for space, services and goods relying on the community allows the residents to offer what is not used and obtain what is needed, reusing resources and reconfigurating relationships. This is intended to increase flexibility and diversity while strengthening the community identity.
Participatory diagnosis in the Orba neighbourhood
After the competition, our office decided to review our work and start a new phase in continuation with local initiatives. The project awarded by the UN has been useful in identifying challenges for the neighbourhood but the real continuation is beyond the scope of the original proposal. A multidisciplinary technical team, committed to the reality of the neighbourhood, was set up to find the appropriate institutional channels. As part of this team, we continued to work in consulting, analysis and critical formulation of proposals. The combination of experts and the closeness to the economic and social agents led to draft a new project aiming to be the first step in a collaborative and inclusive process.
Urbanism based on land speculation has seriously spoiled the periphery of cities like Valencia. We are confusing the right to adequate housing and (the right?) to buy a house. It must stop. Thus, it is necessary to explore alternative methods and develop process tools for social transformation of the habitat. Some platforms, inspired by the free culture movements, work in promoting the local and global commons articulating collaborative processes. These emerging practices are an ideal breeding ground for an open critical thinking about the city and the territory. The challenge ahead is that these experiences do not transform into tactical-precarious urbanism, as Ramón Marrades noted in a eldiario.es article on December 12, 2014, and a cheap distraction activating vacant lots while the productive structure of our cities is defined by the elites. In order to overcome the top-down vs bottom-up dilemma, these actions (much more than well-intentioned patches or anecdotes) should be part of a broader negotiated strategy.
In the Orba neighbourhood, it became imperative for us to step back so that the various agents could take a step forward. This is a position in favour of participation and negotiation to start the process and it also meant a change in attitude, assuming a proactive role to facilitate the point of departure. We put all our efforts to meet the people of the neighbourhood, talk to them on the street and visit their homes, as well as to establish a more direct communication with the civic associations. Workshops and meetings were organized, and more and more people were interested in the project. At one point, the local Urbanism Department requested a budget for a rigorous Participatory Diagnosis. Improvistos submitted a proposal, collectively elaborated with some of the stakeholders, as the first phase of a strategic plan including the entire municipality that was being developed. Some specific objectives were contemplated:
- Carrying out the activities for trust building among stakeholders
- Creating the channels for communication, negotiation and implementation of initiatives
- Conducting a study considering quantitative and qualitative aspects
Furthermore, the implementation of mechanisms for concertation with both public institutions and civic agents was planned. The City Council decided to select this proposal and incorporate it to the '2020-Plan' in order to apply for European funds but, after the municipal elections in May 2015, the process stopped. A meeting with representatives of the main political parties was convened to bring together all the information. The steps taken so far by the Council of Alfafar were discussed and the participants tried to lay the basis for the continuation of the project but, to date, no further steps have been taken.
We firmly believe that the commitment to improve public spaces, stimulating economic activity, social inclusion, environmental sustainability and the dialogue with neighbours and stakeholders may be the key to create a framework for coordinated action. We hope that Policy makers and politicians will seize this opportunity to take advantage of this resource and promote innovation in new strategic ways of revitalization. This would be in line with European and other international initiatives in the design, financing and implementation of urban projects.
Further research: flexibility strategies and exchange system
Improvistos is conducting a research project on how the implementation of ideas from Recooperation would reshape the Orba neighbourhood and might also be exported to other cases. The general approach consists in a technical mediation relaying on three pillars: participation (process tools), organization (management systems), and space (design for flexibility). Combined, they articulate a methodological tool that we mobilize in collaboration with actors from civil society, the public, and the private sector to help us foster practices of holistic urban regeneration. We have named this method Rehabitar, after the Rehabitar project by Habitar Research Group, from the Polytechnic University of Catalunya.
Focusing on the housing scale, the research develops in spatial terms as to how the community-based sharing system and the application of certain spatial interventions could transform the existing houses so that they become more adaptable for the diversity of its inhabitants. As stated above, the informal practices taking place and the existing resident’s relationships support a larger concept of density based on exchanges and intensities of use. Flexibility in housing is needed to deal with a notion of time and variability, which may be addressed through spatial redistributions, temporary divisions, additions, changes of use, discontinuous homes, rotary spaces, semi-domestic or shared spaces. The different strategies can be divided in three types:
Taking the Orba neighbourhood as a case study, the H-typology buildings have a central staircase and four apartments per floor around it. Built in 1969 in the context of rural migrations in Spain, they are among many other similar buildings in other major city's peripheries. In most cases a lift was later attached to the staircase, enclosing even more a poorly illuminated and ventilated inner courtyard. A structure of load-bearing walls made of concrete block and a sloping roof characterize this particular case. All the houses (except for the slightly smaller in the ground floor) are identical, with three bedrooms, two of them interior. Many houses are empty, while many are occupied by a single elderly person. Large families, couples, recomposed families also find their home here. While there is a great diversity of household compositions, housing units present no variety at all. The question remains as to how we can increase diversity of housing typologies and bring different uses into the building while respecting the load-bearing walls, the wet areas and the recently incorporated elevator.
Co-housing strategies are normally implemented in new-built projects, previously gathering agreement from the future users. The reverse process (introducing layers of shared spaces in existing buildings) could be a tool to adapt the inherited city to new demands. In Orba, a tree-structured system of shared spaces is proposed around a new staircase for the 20-apartment building. Through the community-based exchange system, households are able to exchange space, time and goods, offering what they don't use and obtaining in return what they need. It is about connecting all the identified existing resources and making them work together.
Taking the example of an elderly person living alone and seeking help once or twice a week, the solution could be next door: their unemployed neighbours helping out in exchange for an extra room where they can set up a small business. With a smaller home, this person could meet their neighbours or friends in shared spaces, and temporarily rent another room in the building for their relatives whenever they come to visit. The accessibility of the building is tackled as well, eliminating all physical barriers and new open spaces on the rooftop and terrace improve the quality of the houses. This constitutes a real alternative that allows people to stay in their homes, as opposed to having to move out to an expensive and impersonal nursing home where they lack a social network.
Connected by the new wooden light staircase, a new range of shared spaces appears:
Common spaces: Access spaces such as the doorways, staircase, elevator, landings or terrace. Design can help them become also meeting points. These spaces become more domestic by their new connection role.
Shared spaces: Equipped spaces for the community life and open to every neighbour. These are rooftop gardens, common kitchen, laundry room, common living room, etc.
Community-managed spaces for private use: Spaces managed by the community but with the possibility of being used privately by one or more members such as satellite rooms as an extension of a private house, storage rooms, sleeping rooms, workshops, co-working spaces, commercial or professional spaces, etc.
Intermediate spaces: Semi-exterior spaces relating indoor space to outdoor space and creating a gradation in the limits such as greenhouses, balconies, terraces, façade extensions, etc.
Public spaces: The spaces that relate to the street and to the neighbourhood such as the public banks or the bicycle parking spaces.
Rooftop house: Prefabricated wooden cabins in the newly accessible rooftop are meant for temporary inhabitants -students or workers on the new wood cycle- and rented by the community. They can be upgraded with a plugged-in toilet and/or kitchen. Their surface is minimal but their daily activities can expand on all the community-shared spaces.
Courtyard house: On the ground floor, two houses merge into one around the central open space, achieving more privacy and a private courtyard.
Independent house: A new staircase on the façade provides access from the street to a house on the first floor.
Finally, flexibility is also sought in a constructive approach. Throughout the project, an underlying idea involves considering housing as an existing structure in which we can separate the structural from the infrastructural, the fix from the mobile, the permanent from the adaptable (Ignacio Paricio and Xavier Sust, La vivienda contemporánea. Barcelona, 2000 and also on John Habraken, Supports: an Alternative to Mass Housing. UK, 1972). A range of proposed architectural interventions (cut, connect, cover, furnish, plant, acclimate) differ in terms of materials involved, technical requirements or timing. These interventions are developed separately into the detail scale, making it possible to carry them out (jointly or not) by any of the inhabitants and in any of the spaces of the neighbourhood.
Process vs object and instrumental commitment in design
As stated in the introduction of this article, our recent experience as an office is leading to a different and increasingly more complex understanding of density. In this regard, we have discussed various examples and specified some project proposals that strongly relate the concept of density to diversity and everyday life. However, the incipient bottom-up initiatives that are taking place need a brave institutional support in order to be networked within a common strategy in which inclusive decision-making processes must play a central role. We believe that there is an opportunity to understand through architecture and design that innovations must come to react to changing life circumstances in the city and in the housing sector. Some additional considerations, indirectly related to the concept of density, may allow us to reflect on the changes to come.
Ultimately, we are exploring how a house can be understood as a process, adapting, growing or shrinking and offering alternatives from the existing structure (Eva Morales, Rubén Alonso and Esperanza Moreno, La vivienda como proceso. Estrategias de flexibilidad, May 2012). In this sense, the design of structural elements, partitions, enclosures and wooden furniture respecting the load-bearing walls may increase flexibility. Yet, flexibility does not necessary mean shifting walls (Christian Schittich, High-Density Housing: Concepts, Planning, Construction. Munich, 2004), but neutral, self-adaptable rooms that could have different uses. In fact, successive solutions and transformations, beyond the mere supply of living space, will arise from collective processes for which open design tools are needed. Taking as reference the few experiences of collaborative housing in Spain (some websites on Spanish Cohousing: http://entrepatios.org/, http://www.laborda.coop/, http://blog.jubilares.es/tag/cohousing/), more frequent in other European countries, it is possible to redefine the relationship between the private, the common and the public space to promote adaptation to real needs and new ways of living. Architecture and the city itself is not a finished product to be sold but a process adapted to the user's wishes.
It is vital to take care of the identity of neighbourhoods and communities and allow the permanence of its inhabitants against gentrification or obsolescence processes. Now is the moment to work both on building refurbishment and domestic space-sharing simultaneously, boosting the intensity of relationships between object, context and concept from an instrumental commitment. This results in considering the residents not as passive consumers but as active users. On this matter, architecture should raise issues holistically and with a geometric and spatial approach, aware of its value against the utilitarian functionalism or the spectacular and vacuous gesture to which we are accustomed. New strategies centred on the inhabitants are aiming to support the imbrication between human and sustainable development and explore possibilities on the basis of participation, ecology and creativity. Other related articles: Taller sobre densidad en Budapest, Sin noticias de Alcosa, un proceso piloto en Alfafar, Reunión en Alfafar, Propuesta de revitalización urbana en el barrio orba y The neighborhood that could become a global example of revival.
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Fig. 01: Improvistos, Shared spaces, 2015, hand drawing.
Fig. 02: Improvistos, Periphery, 2014, hand drawing.
Fig. 03: Improvistos, South of Valencia, 2014, digital plan.
Fig. 04: Improvistos, Landscape-connector node, 2014, digital plan.
Fig. 05: Improvistos, Cycles, 2014, digital plan.
Fig. 06: Improvistos, Cycle-dynamics, 2014, hand drawing.
Fig. 07: Improvistos, Rehabitar, 2014, hand drawing and digital design.
Fig. 08: Improvistos, Flexibility strategies, 2015, hand drawing.
Fig. 09: Improvistos, Exchange system, 2015, hand drawing.
Fig. 10: Improvistos, Shared spaces, 2015, hand drawing.
Fig. 11: Improvistos, Rooftop house, 2014, hand drawing.
Fig. 12: Improvistos, Furniture-balcony house, 2014, hand drawing.
Fig. 13: Improvistos, Interventions, 2014, hand drawing.