Many people claim that among others, prehistoric villages are paradigms of sustainable human settlements. But if you read "The Clan of the Cave Bear" with a bit of a scientific eye, in addition to the emotional and poetic vision this wonderful novel by Jean M. Auel undoubtedly has (it is a recommendation...), we come to the realization that the concept of sustainability, which matches the one we usually have, is wrong. This is because that prehistoric model is based on an unsustainable principle: not generating closed systems on the ecosystems it acts upon.
Thus, the alleged direct relationship between nature and sustainability does not exist, nor between what is artificial and unsustainable; we discover that what is important in sustainability are not only the parties involved, but the interrelation that exists between them.
So, what is sustainability?
The definition of more consolidated consensus is established in Chapter 2 of the text known as the Brundtland Report: "Sustainable development is that which caters for current needs without compromising the capacity of future generations for satisfying theirs".
Therefore, on the basis of the concept of sustainability there is the idea of transferring from generation to generation artificial, human and natural capital, so that each generation can live off interest derived from the legacy received and not from the main capital itself.
The local character of the concept is also evident, that which is certain that only the application of knowledge to each time, place and subject will establish appropriate measures to truly sustainable development actions: that is, there are no "universally valid" procedures; in each case they must find their own mechanisms, solutions and methods.
And, as an essential part of the concept, its relationship with the environment. If it is assumed that the interaction between the "natural and artificial environment" defines the sustainability of a space in time, besides a new attitude towards the vital tasks of the people, nature's health must be considered essential to the welfare and survival of humanity.
Thus, as noted by Ruano, sustainability will only be feasible if, among other things, is able to create awareness among people about the negative implications of certain lifestyles. And for this consciousness to come out, both individually and collectively, humans must begin to really believe that the health of the Earth is a common and shared task, that this planet is our only home and that if we want to stop environmental degradation, we must seriously consider our urban lifestyles. Therefore, for this radical change to occur, we all need to start feeling part of both the solution and the problem.
Today, sustainable development cannot be understood without interaction between economic, environmental and social means. The involvement is the real key to the sustainable development of human communities, but do you really consider them essential and trust them? This is probably a good time to reflect on this question, if you haven't already...
Contemporary urban planning, heir to the modern movement emerged in the last century, has forgotten the city as an integral and integrating product, leading to urban models with a clear dominance of the private car that determines the rest of uses and functions and that relegate the public space to a background.
In this context, public space acts solely as support to the mobility function, leading to the concept of "transit city" by Navazo in which travel between origin and destination becomes the main purpose and where the mobility function is not affected by other urban functions. Public space dedicated to other functions (other than mobility) reduces to specific areas, small and isolated from other urban elements that make up the city.
However, the people living in cities are becoming more aware that the model city in which they live does not allow them to live in community, participate in public life. It is vital to start thinking about an urgent rescue of the city as a set of different functions. Coordination is needed to create a dynamic urban organization and the place where this is developed is the public space.
Public space should accommodate uses other than transit: it is necessary a change towards the "home city" (Navazo). In this city it is necessary to combine activities of living with activities of movement. It is therefore vital to create a convivial public space. We must retrieve and recuperate the “urban” functions, promoting the diversity of people on the street and community participation as well as increasing ownership and sense of belonging to a place. Without this public space, it would be appropriate to talk about urbanization but not about the city. The importance of this concept is vital to understand that the characteristics of a public space are the indicator of the quality level within a city.
Achieving this transformation requires the transition from the existing congestion- degradation to a more conservation-transformation attitude. Thus it becomes necessary to open streets and / or squares, to transform roads monopolized by urban road traffic, to improve landscaping, street furniture, lighting, cultural facilities, leisure and commercial facilities (fairs, exhibitions, parties...) This will lead to the improvement of urban functions, the promotion of economic, social redistribution, environmental improvement and cultural integration. And the only element capable of articulating this metamorphosis is the public space.
Making public space, creating city!
Someone once said that when he visits a city he always pays particular attention to its buildings, because by looking at them it is easy to learn about many aspects of the city's history, especially its prosperous times.
Carrying out this exercise of curiosity in Ronda is complicated, not because it is a problem to admire its beautiful constructions (of course), but rather due to the effort required to identify the many examples of characteristic architecture of almost every age the city has gone through. But it is worth doing, and if done, a style may be identified that may have gone more unnoticed than others, but that remains as latent proof of one of the city's periods of splendour.
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century brought moderate economic prosperity to Ronda that was linked to the arrival of the railway. The Puente Nuevo, or New Bridge, has enabled that transition to "new city," in which modern urban planning will begin to develop in an urban space where a brand-new bourgeoisie will settle as a consequence of the economic resurgence, eager to be seen and felt. This will give way to the construction of singular buildings based on a very particular style that, together with new urban plans, will succeed in changing the appearance of the streets of the city and bring an aspect of modernity to Ronda: Modernism.
Garrido Oliver states that the development of Modernism in Ronda is simply the result of the city's immersion into this artistic movement that is occurring nationwide in two ways: "Catalan" Modernism, with Gaudí as a representative, and "International" Modernism, with influences from French and Belgian Art Nouveau and Viennese Secessionism. Ronda features a Modernism influenced by both trends, especially the latter, but with its own defining characteristics: rather than imitating forms and distinctive elements of the artistic movement, it will draw inspiration from them and adapt them to make them compatible with other contemporary styles also established in the city. The result will be a Modernist style of a very particular "harmonious eclecticism."
Garrido Oliver names two architects as the creators of the most representative Modernist buildings in Ronda: Pedro Alonso Gutiérrez and Santiago Sanguinetti. Gutiérrez introduced this trend into the city by projecting façades with clear "internationalist" lines, but without abandoning eclecticism. Sanguinetti, meanwhile, maintained the "eclectic" modernist style, but besides designing new and original façades, he introduced a new way of thinking about architecture (from a structural and functional point of view), situating therein its great significance.
Many significant works in this style can still be found throughout the city: Carrera Espinel Street, number 19 and number 21; Sevilla Street, number 9, and Socorro Square, number 13 (by Sanguinetti), and Virgen de los Remedios Street, 19 and Tenorio Street, number 2 (by Alonso Gutiérrez).
Now, learning about this part of Ronda’s history through its architecture is very easy: all it takes is a map, getting some perspective and looking a little higher than usual. It is also recommended...
It could be argued that there are "vacant lots" in all cities, those apparently forgotten places where the memory of what once was prevails over the current memory. They have been caused by the existence of unresolved tensions that have prevented their occupation or have pushed them into ruin. They are places that persist in a spontaneous evolution of dismantling; areas where we can say that the city is no longer present. With their disappearance, the city has left behind "foreign territories" and has set extensive unoccupied spaces lacking purpose or activity, but perfect for experiences: in no other case is it possible to test programmes capable of stimulating human activity in the centre of the consolidated city.
But what are the consequences of the progressive deletion of urban fabric, and of the new relationship between buildings, streets and blocks? How do we build experience from negativity, absence, estrangement and imprecision? How can architecture project itself in the city at the same time and place in which it denies itself?
There is no standard for what each of these vacuums can become. These unresolved spaces in cities create a confusing, but potentially liberating situation, since it is precisely here, where traditional urban planning has not worked, where it becomes almost necessary to express new orders, relationships and types of urban spaces. Their resolution involves a general unavoidable reflection: it is about defending the intervention as a transformation of reality, promoting its growth rather than its dissolution.
So far, models of urban renewal have used elements like squares, parks or monuments to try to structure the inherited city on these vacuums, attempting to give character to pieces of the urban continuum according to given and overlapping clichés. But the goal should not be to camouflage the unresolved situation by aligning it to one more of the manual spaces, but rather to make good use of the specifics of each context in order to accept the result of the tension between the specific (the vacuum) and the general (the city). Thus, in the face of falsely articulated solutions, crude sums of frozen parts, one would commit to the city as an open work as far as its shape and intervention strategy, the city whose parts are not arranged picturesquely, but enable the perception, with different accents, of the dimension of urbanity.
Therefore, current and renewed planning would not be geared towards a utilitarian allocation of uses, but rather to the allocation of activity areas, planning through strategies that qualitatively anticipate an as yet unknown urban behaviour. It would intervene in these areas through their reconceptualization and redistribution, deleting obsolete remains, organizing new plots, physically reincorporating surviving buildings into the landscape and causing a programmatic reactivation.
Beyond colonising, setting limits, order and form, the commitment of any project on these "intermediate" plots of land should also involve the knowledge of their social, historical and cultural issues... of the features of their surroundings and communities. In other words, the intervention of architecture should be addressed through attention to continuity; not the continuity of the immediate city, but on the contrary, by paying attention to the flows of the rhythms that the passage of time and the loss of limits have established.
So, let’s listen...
The current characteristic features of the urban peripheries resulting from rushed urban planning, featuring disproportionate streets and huge tower blocks, mean that, despite (or because of) the wide roads and green areas present in these new areas of urban expansion, there are no meeting places that enables us to reflect, individually or collectively, on whether being rushed and "autism" are part of our nature.
In the face of this perspective of barely "human" scales that completely disconnects building from city, city from inhabitants and inhabitants from inhabitants, we should consider the possibility of creating other places to coexist. And since, in this context, urban planning fails in its architectural attempt to recover the street as an element of coexistence, perhaps the building itself is what should provide solutions.
This approach brings to mind those tenements of not so long ago; those multi-family housing where each dwelling, far from being limited by their four walls, would extend to the common corridors and courtyards; those buildings where personal relationships began in the family unit and extended out to embrace other residents; where people could dwell and live. Surely these could be the starting point for current proposals: the aims back then would prevail (ventilation, temperature regulation and health standards), as well as the transformation of merely functional areas of the building into spaces for leisure and coexistence, and where the concept of community would be reinforced.
However, despite the excitement generated by the idea, there are still misgivings. Is this model of coexistence really what society wants, or is the more "individualistic" model, which has been widely accepted, more attractive? To be honest, nowadays, being or not being conscious of living in a community is not an issue that is part of daily life, possibly because there is no evidence of other alternatives to compare and choose from: simply, it is what there is. So, the mere possibility of choise, that such proposals introduce, makes them substantial, hence the interest.
Returning to the idea (already substantial and interesting), in the design of a residential building that would aim for the proposed objective, the interrelationship between the different common areas, between different levels and between all the aforementioned elements together, would have priority; the permeability of the building facing the environment (landscape, climate, society...) would also be crucial. This interconnection would only strive for communication and integration between the building's residents, and between them and the city.
The result would be "experience buildings".
We may have internalized the presence of the car in our daily activity so much that we are losing the ability to consider if that is really designing and dominating our cities and our lives, if it should be like this, if there are other alternatives...
We propose to make a small parenthesis in our routines and spend a few minutes to think about this by means five simple questions.
Who does the city belong to, to the car or to the people?
In its origin, the human being moved walking, so that for most of our history the cities were located and designed from this form of mobility.
However, from the industrial revolution, with the concomitant migration from the countryside to the city and, particularly, the consequent urban growth, this system had to adapt to new requirements: the displacements were longer and they needed to be faster than walking modes allowed, so that results new means of transportation. Of all the means of transport available, it was the car (for ease and speed) that assumed the main role of mobility in the city, so cities having to adapt to these new elements, alien to the city until then.
But vehicles required more space than pedestrians, so the city is forced to allocate most of the public space to the car, leaving people in the background. This is happening at the beginning of the 20th century and will continue to develop until today.
Fulfilled a century of this model it is evident that the mobility based on the car is untenable: there is no space for all vehicles, the pollution they generate exceeds the acceptable limits, the urban space is not dedicated to people, the lifestyle of these ones is less healthy... These facts answer the first question and confirm that modern cities are not designed for human beings, but for automobiles.
Is it necessary to rethink the city as we now conceive it?
Jane Jacobs, a great reference of the urbanism of the last century, said in her book "Death and life of the big cities" (written in 1961 but a hot topic at present) that "the streets and their sidewalks are the main public places of a city, its more vital organs, they are a means of communication and contact, an authentic social institution".
Maybe this affirmation is what is causing that more and more cities are beginning to consider that dedicating their public spaces to the automobile was a mistake, since this decision has led to unsustainable urban models that generate high levels of pollution, impede adequate transport solutions and deny the enjoyment of the city by citizens. Thus, something so accepted by all as the dedication of public space to the circulation and parking of the vehicle is put into question in the face of the need to return that space to people and decongest the city to make it more human and habitable.
Jan Gehl, urban planner in charge of the pedestrianisation of Broadway, affirms that "the car in the city has its days numbered". From this perspective, shared by many experts, perhaps this second question has a single answer: the city as we now conceive it must change to recover the city for citizenship. In other words, to pedestrianize the city is only a matter of time.
Can the city work without cars?
Today it may not be entirely possible for the city to operate without cars, but the implementation of proposals aimed at reducing the use of cars should allow progressively reach a scenario in which living in the city without the private vehicle is not a punishment, but a matter of logic social, economic, functional and environmental.
Pedestrianisation does not mean that there are no car parks for neighbors, that buses cannot circulate, that there can be no distribution through trucks or that it cannot be reached to a place by taxi or cycling. Pedestrianisation means simply giving priority to people in front of cars: improve the quality of life of citizens and create more friendly and welcoming spaces: make cities more “walkable”.
How are the cities pedestrianized?
Pedestrianisation implies a change in the planning of the cities and, especially, a change in the citizen mentality, in the conception that we all have about how the city works.
For the first of the changes it is necessary to make daring, thoughtful and effective decisions. Heiner Monheim proposes a series of recommendations for a pedestrianisation which avoids negative effects, ranging from the positioning and distribution of the points of attraction to the size of the pedestrian zone, through the appropriate structure of the pedestrianised area, through the zoning of this one, by the design of the streets and by the correct connection of the pedestrianised areas with the public transport and the offer of "deterrent" car parks.
For the second of the points, it is essential a change of mentality in people, which is undoubtedly the hardest process. Therefore, it is vital to begin educating in this regard, starting with adequate and sufficient explanations about the unsustainability of the current model and the need to pedestrianisation measures, and continuing with the consciousness of the citizenship on the subject.
In all cases, it is imperative a correct planning, a comprehensive vision of the action at the area level (not the street level) and, even, taking part in comprehensive transformation policies of pedestrian areas at economic and social level.
So, is the progress of the cities a return to the past?
The proposals for pedestrianisation cannot be understood as a return to the past if one takes into account that cities as large and with so many vehicles have never existed before, so to make those cities more socially and environmentally friendly is a current solution to a current problem.
Rolf Monheim, a scholar of the study of the German pedestrian zones said in this respect: "a city without representative pedestrian areas now seem desperately outdated".
It seems that pedestrianization is a sign of prosperity...