Any analysis of today’s reality of European or Spanish cities and their current urban trends will entail placing them in a context of crisis that globally implies, among other structural issues to be taken into account: climate change –with unforeseeable characteristics and demanding modifications to be made to energy and consumption models- or the enormous concerns for the collapse of world economy and the crisis of financial systems and their direct or indirect impact on urban ways of life. This very complex moment forces us to be more conscious of our limits and announces the end of an era of apparent safety and the beginning of another that ranges between the unforeseen and the uncertain.
The current crisis is particularly serious in Spain due to the economic model of preceding years, strongly based on building construction and exploitation of resources, in particular the resource of land. In this context of required change it is necessary to try to focus on a fixed reference point or frame where the basic axis for urban interventions can be set. The current scenario is a complex one, there are few certainties and time and processes are key characters. However, this crisis, like any other crisis, is not only useful for correcting trends but mainly for detecting opportunities. A time of large changes and few certainties is probably when the greatest demand for creativity, innovation and prospecting for opportunities for the future should occur, as well as when time should be taken for thinking before acting, making the most of a moment of lesser economic acceleration.
An adequate reference frame places urbanism as a paradigm of urban sustainability. Since recent years, a broad theory has been developed, with larger or lesser success, based on different principles for urban actions, many of which are focused on sustainable town-planning. Among these we find mainly the peremptory defence of land as a resource in the face of the pressure the city or metropolis exerts on the land in the broad sense. Arguments such as that of raising the density on built urban land, or the defence of the compact city versus the wide-spread city, the increase of complexity of urban uses versus the distribution of mono-functional areas (usually residential areas) and the resulting decrease of mobility or the defence of public transport versus private mobility; these are broadly developed concepts that are all going in the same direction. In general, these arguments are of a global nature and pursue the control of the land, the use of materials or the efficiency of energy processes or consumption.
But these arguments place us in scenarios of growth and development even though they may present themselves as sustainable development. After the past years of construction elation, it may be that the work to be done or the trends with the largest capacity for innovation are not only those belonging to the field of large-scale urban-planning and its developments. It is possible that other more experimental trends acting at a more humble scale may now have a greater projection and capacity for innovation. We could refer to these trends as micro-urbanism.
But, how can we move from macro- to micro-urbanism? How can we reach quality objectives with few resources? After the large strategic operations, copied here and there by all governments and demanding an enormous amount of resources, a reality appears bringing us back to a much more humble condition. This new reality requires greater doses of imagination and much lower budgets.
The strategies directly pursuing the improvement of the citizens’ quality of life are key players in the integration of macro- and micro-urbanism. In the current perspective, the objective of improving quality of life and habitability depends on many factors. Certain strategies would need to be directed towards the improvement of urban design and conditions, while others will probably represent, within the crisis context presented earlier on, important modifications in the ways or styles of living.
With regards to the former strategies and within a domestic scale, we would find those improving the urban quality of existing neighbourhoods, for example by increasing the variety of the public space, prioritizing pedestrian areas, introducing bicycle carriages, developing different outdoors sports, increasing the number or size of green areas and the biodiversity, refurbishing neighbourhoods and buildings, integrating or renovating open spaces on the basis of a broad flexibility of use, etc. These actions aim to re-think or recycle the existing city and to overcome the social perception of excessive abstraction and opacity in the town-planning. Many of these actions, in particular at this scale, will also have to be flexible for dealing with the unstable conditions of the physical and social environment. In some ways, the success will also depend on their capacity to integrate the unforeseen or even to integrate conflicts.
The social and technological context enables and demands progressive experimentation with different ways of acting and different urban designs that enable setting up open processes. Many are the examples of innovative urban actions; they happen spontaneously in public spaces, places or spaces that frequently act as catalysers for social relationships and where heterodoxy sometimes wins.
We are moving from a post-industrial society to a society organised as a network. A current hot issue is how to enable a participative urbanism, open and flexible for any user, by taking advantage of the possibilities offered by technology. How to enable city, suburb or neighbours digital associations.
Talking about quality of life nowadays is becoming more and more connected with collaborative social behaviours that truly imply important changes in the lifestyle. Furthermore, they could, thanks to the technical development, become powerful tools for making citizens share the responsibility of key decisions about their own habitat. This way, work could be done on environmental education from an assumption of active social participation, with the objective of producing a real shared conscience of eco-community. Thinking globally and acting locally could have a great impact based on these education and interaction initiatives.
In brief, along these lines that are perhaps still under-explored in the urban network context, a number of opportunities and expectations of improvement of the urban quality of life are opening up. Using them in an active and non-cosmetic way can produce powerful tools to be used in opaque situations to unveil the transparency of processes, to introduce the flexibility in rigid situation, to stimulate real inter-dependence and social cooperation as opposed to an individualistic ethic.
Text by Flora Pescador for Urbact.