why cement continues to dominate urban planning in the middle of 2022

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Almost like Sideshow Mel in the umpteenth Springfield revolution, many twitterers have come up against the (also nth) reform of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. The reason, once again: granite. Why do we strive in such a hot city to cement all the squares?


Puerta del Sol has been the last, but by no means the only, Madrid enclave that with its new reforms has yielded to granite and concrete as the main protagonists. Criticisms that have already been made to the Plaza de Callao, the Plaza de Ópera or the Plaza de Santo Domingo, where the pedestrian has gained space but in which, for much of the year, the heat expels anyone who wants to spend time in them .

As you can imagine, everything has a deeper and more complex explanation. When it comes to reforming a square (especially if they have a historical character such as Puerta del Sol), various factors come into play that greatly limit the work of architects.

Puerta del Sol was going to have trees

Yes, the team of Linazasoro and Sánchez, winners of the Puerta del Sol reorganization project It is not made up of architects who love the smell of Madrid charred by the sun. They were also aware of the problem and the complaints that have been raised over the years.

The initial project had trees (little, it is true), a space near the Carrera de San Jerónimo, next to the current exit of Renfe. However, it was met with staunch opposition from the Local Heritage Commissionwhose approval is needed because the square is considered an Asset of Cultural Interest.

The Commission argued that the trees would cover the facade of the Royal Post Office, which was not allowed as they were “monumental facades”. But, in addition, the winning project already specifies that “we also do not understand that the square should be used for purely recreational purposes, filling it with more or less ‘fashionable’ episodes, but that we should think of the plurality of uses but without introduce all those new objects that return to fill the space or distort it”.

In other words, the main objective (in line with the opinion of the Local Heritage Commission) has been to rearrange the square to keep it as a crossroads and not so much a seasonal “hang out” place. But the aesthetics or the history of the place is not the only drawback: the Puerta del Sol has holes.

the hollow cities

It is estimated that some 50,000 people pass through Puerta del Sol every day. And one of the main reasons lies in the heart of it. Beneath the ground are hidden the facilities of lines 1, 2 and 3 of the Metro and C-4 and C-3 (with its C-3a branch), to which must be added since last summer the pedestrian tunnel that connects Gran Vía and Sol stations.

The result is a square that is 90% hollow. Plant trees on the ground it is technically unfeasible, due to the weight that they suppose, the earth and the water accumulated when it rains. It is a real problem that is also found in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid or in the Plaza de Santo Domingo, where the subsoil is made up of car parks.

The problem, as you can imagine, is not just Madrid. In Barcelona they also know what the “hard squares”spaces where “granite or concrete prevail, with little presence of vegetation and with little street furniture“. An example is the Plaça dels Països Catalans, next to the Sants station. A space that is also configured on multiple train tracks.

In Seville, some of them, such as the Plaza de Armas and Santa Justa, have received harsh criticism for dehumanizing. Once again, they are spaces highly traveled by pedestrians… and by the trains and other means of transport that take them there.

How do we fix it?

In addition to the hollow spaces under the ground, many authors point directly to the austerity in urban spending of the 1980s to justify this type of “hard squares” that proliferated in this decade. Without living spaces, they have become places exclusively for transit, without trees, garden areas, or benches.

In these cases, there two possible ways. The first is to maintain the traditional uses of each square and assume that these spaces are places for vehicular traffic. The goal is to reach a new destination. The second option, friendlier to the citizen, is to ensure that new works opt for friendlier places, prioritizing pedestrian crossings but allowing them to rest or meet in them.

There are constructions that, of course, do seem to take this into account. In the new reform of the Plaza de España and the Bailén-Ferraz axis, this has been taken into account and 1,000 new trees have been planted in what is an enormous green corridor. The large park in which the M-30 was converted is also part of these examples.

Another example of how to create a kind square with the citizen is Americo Vespucci in Hamburg. This new enclave in the German city has been defined as a space “with large steps and sturdy wooden furniture to sit on, groups of communicatively arranged benches and chairs and walkable grass”.

Willian Justen De Vasconcellos V4t6eg2vmwe Unsplash

But in squares already built, there is no other option but to use imagination. One of the recurrent examples to transform a square and make it more practical for the citizen is the Metropol Parasol of Seville. Although its detractors are many for breaking with the aesthetics of the city, the truth is that it fulfills its function of providing shade in one of the warmest cities in Spain. And, in addition, it offers unparalleled views of the city from the top of the mushrooms.

Another interesting (and less invasive) project is the so-called lens space, which gave the Brooklyn neighborhood in New York a new place to stay with the conversion of a square into a meeting place. Large benches that turned on themselves managed to shade whoever sat on them for most of the day. Its large planters also lightened the space and made it a friendlier place.

Curious has also been the remodeling of the urban center of Banyoles (Catalonia). The pedestrianization of its squares has recovered a space that was deteriorating and, in addition to maintaining the trees, the previously covered ditches that ran through the historic center have been opened to generate greater relaxation for passers-by.

The examples are many and for all tastes. Why do they keep hard and hot places at a time when we tend to make it easier to get around on foot? Sometimes for historical reasons and sometimes for technical reasons. But what we have seen is that not everything happens by treeing the squares. The solutions are many and original.

Photos | Madrid Projects and William Justen de Vasconcellos

Almost like Sideshow Mel in the umpteenth Springfield revolution, many twitterers have come up against the (also nth) reform of…

Almost like Sideshow Mel in the umpteenth Springfield revolution, many twitterers have come up against the (also nth) reform of…

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