The potentials of denser cities explained by “Bilbao Miracle” architect Juan Alayo

The world’s cities are expanding outwards and reducing their density. But according to Spanish architect, the cities we need are completely different.

Andrea Bertuzzi: Are the cities we are building going in the right direction?
Juan Alaya: To assess if cities are developing “in the right direction” we could ask three basic questions: What are cities for? How well do they perform? And at what cost? Although cities fulfil many functions, the essential one, in my view, is to provide citizens with good access to opportunities (education, health, employment, shopping, leisure, culture…). To achieve this, we need housing density and a good mix with other uses. But most urban areas in the world are extending out, with low density housing developments, far from other uses. Urbanising plenty of land, but not creating “city” environments. So how do these new areas perform? Not well. With less accessibility people have to travel further to do basic things. This means that families have to spend more money and time in mobility and, as studies show, societies are less economically productive with lower densities. What about costs? Lower density requires more resources, more energy (for mobility and buildings) and much more infrastructure per capita. To the point that many cities do not have the budget to maintain the infrastructure they have been building recently. So the answer has to be no. New urban areas cost more and perform worse.

Is the way cities are being designed today a direct consequence of population growth?
No, I do not think that is the case. Looking back, many Spanish cities, and others in Europe, planned for massive growth during the 19th century. Just look at Barcelona with one of the best examples of City Expansion. The newly planned areas were massive when compared with existing footprints and could accommodate orders of magnitude more population. They were not built at once, it took many decades, but they were planned as “city environments”, with housing density and other uses mixed in. Today, most urban growth is not really “planned” in the sense the “Eixample” in Barcelona was planned. Most countries have developed planning laws or frameworks with criteria that do not allow to replicate what most people consider to be the best parts of their cities; then Cities identify “areas for development” and developers produce “housing stock” (or occasionally other uses) in line with the planning regulations. Unfortunately, I feel we have lost sight of what it means to build cities with “intention”, cities that will be really lively.

Barcellona, per Alayo “uno dei migliori esempi di espansione di una città”.

Can you explain then why you think the winning cities are the denser ones? What are the detailed aspects in favour of this approach from the point of view of economy, the environment and the lives of citizens?
Studies show that density increases total factor productivity; denser cities make more efficient use of the expensive public infrastructure (which low density cities can hardly afford to maintain); they require less energy to function and less materials to build, and residents need to spend a lot less time and money in moving around to do the things they want or need. We are social beings that typically thrive interacting with others. Density makes that a lot easier and more frequent. Having said this, I am not sure I would talk about “winning cities”. In spite of the mainstream narratives today defending this postulate (the compact city, the 15 minutes city, the circular city…), it is difficult to find in the narratives actual parameters, or specifics. Denser cities? Yes, but how much? Mixed used? Yes, but in what proportions? In the meantime, if one analyses the planning criteria in most cities, the ideal of the dense compact city is simply forbidden. We need to translate “good wishes” into real parameters.

In cities like Milan, house prices in the centre reach 10,000 euro per square metre. Expanding into the suburbs was also an economic necessity...
Many cities in Europe have a central area with higher densities that also have a significant number of services and non-residential activities. Housing in these areas is expensive, but people do not pay more for the density itself, they pay more for the attractiveness of having all those services and opportunities to hand (as estate agents say: location, location, location). And they also pay more because these areas are scarce. In Italy, less than 5% of the population live in square kilometres with more than 15,000 residents in them, which, for me, is at the lower end of proper urban density. But more than 50% live in areas with densities below 2,500 people/km2 (typical suburban density). The question then is, if people are willing to pay to live in areas that provide good access to services, why did we not extend our cities following a similar pattern of density and mix of uses? Why did we choose to extend our cities at low-density with a physical segregation of land uses? Using a lot more land and with a lot more infrastructure per capita? Not because it was cheaper. Probably because it was easier than to build cities as the integrated and complex artifacts that they are.

How do you move in a dense city? How does the transport system change?
If we look at a range of densities within cities, or city areas, we will find that, at the higher end of the spectrum, the main “urban” mode of transport is walking, whilst at the low-density end, the car is king. In Barcelona nearly 50% of all trips are on foot, whilst in places like Houston, more than 90% are by car. If we looked at public transport, we would also find a positive correlation with density. Denser cities make public transport more attractive and viable, whilst low-density areas cannot be served efficiently by public transport. The main reason behind these statistics is that the vast majority of trips (more than 80%) start or terminate at home. So, if “home” has no facilities or services within a few hundred meters, we will have to travel further and then walking is not an option. What is important to note is that mobility is a consequence of urban form. If a city really wants to tackle mobility problems, the root cause will most likely be the urban form they have generated”. 

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a symbol of the city’s urban regeneration.

Why are we talking about “Bilbao miracle”?
I would suggest three reasons as to why Bilbao’s transformation has generated so much praise and admiration. First, because there is substance behind the story; it is one of the most impressive examples of urban regeneration in the world, with an enormous amount of investment and a very noticeable change for the better. Then, because it is very photogenic (just recall any photographs of the Guggenheim), making it very attractive for publications, with frequent articles in glossy magazines and weekend paper supplements. And finally, because the whole narrative of Bilbao’s transformation encapsulates a story that most people relate to: a beaten-down city, put on its knees by the industrial crisis, terrorism and torrential floods, that gets back on its feet through a remarkable transformation, with the spectacular Guggenheim Museum bringing people from all over the world. It is the phoenix coming back from its ashes, the underdog winning unexpectedly… stories that touch the heart. And let’s not forget that, before the transformation, under all that grime and pollution, Bilbao was already a wonderfully compact and livable city, with good density, plenty of amenities, and excellent shops and restaurants. The regeneration helped to bring that out into the open”.

Can you explain how the regeneration of this city came about? Is it a replicable model?
I think there are five keys to the process:
• The crisis as a starting point. Bilbao suffered several mayor crisis almost simultaneously and, luckily, they generated a will to change. Crisis are often called opportunities, but most are wasted because they do not generate that conviction to change.
• A shared Strategic Plan. A good plan is essential for such a process, but without enduring and ample consensus, social and political, it would not have come to fruition.
• Sustained and substantial investment. Over a period of 20 to 25 years the metropolitan area saw public infrastructure investment of around 30% of its GDP, from all levels of government. Cities rarely have access to this amount of capital, they need support from higher level administrations. • New tools to manage urban transformation. Exceptional interventions require ad-hoc instruments, like Bilbao RIA 2000, the urban regeneration company that generated and managed projects worth around 1.3 billion Euros with innovative funding mechanisms.
• And finally, good luck: the Guggenheim Museum. The thinking behind the initiative was sound, with a serious business case, but the impact was beyond anybody´s imagination Is it replicable? Most of the process, yes, but the Guggenheim “luck” is probably unique.

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