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Europe: Old City / New City


European cities will hardly grow in terms of the area occupied, as in the latest 150 years; therefore, they must be regenerated, rebuilt on themselves, rehabilitated, restored and adapted to new requirements. This should be done without losing the fundamental idea: providing service and life quality to its inhabitants.

The city that manages to survive over time has been transforming and adapting itself to supply services demanded by its inhabitants. The Smart City – or even better, the ‘Efficient City’ – must serve for an urban development based on sustainability. The road to follow should be made in continuous small steps towards a higher efficiency, by means of a technology applied according to our needs and or ability to use it. A more supportive and integrated city should be claimed, less plunged into the mirages of the green and the machine, the trivialization of nature and the waste of technique. The author thinks that maybe it’s time to think about reinventing the city taking advantage of all the changes to come or already here.



Definition:noun. The situation or past events that explain why something happens in the way it does.

The city is, by nature, a creation that cannot be simplified to just one circumstance.

Most of the European cities have their origin on Roman settlements that became meeting points for peasants and craftsmen, to purchase food, tools, clothing and accessories. These hubs were located in strategic places, ports, crossroads or particular geographic locations. Their main goals were always economic and military, in order to control the territory.
The goals mentioned earlier imply that the location of a city is a sensitive issue and requires a lot of ‘common sense’. Those cities that did not undertake the purpose for they were created for suffered decay, depopulation or desertion.

The city that manages to survive over time has been transforming and adapting itself in order to supply the services demanded by its inhabitants, and for that it has to adapt to diverse social and technological changes.

A city has been considered as such when it has a “community of substantial size and population density that shelters a variety of non-agricultural specialists, including a literate elite” (Gideon Sjoberg).


Industrial cityDefinition: noun. The gradual change and development of an idea, situation, or object.

The medieval city. It features a limited size, relative homogeneity of its frame, overlapping of activities and social groups, integration of infrastructures and, finally, a spatial, visual and functional continuity. Obviously, these characteristics match a primitive organization of the production process (hand manufacturing, etc.), limited technical capacities (water and energy supply, etc.) and a rigid social separation that enabled the coexistence, perfectly differentiated, among social classes and groups. The urban planning is still minimal and limited to certain sanitary controls, propriety regulation and protection of defensive needs.

The pre-industrial city. We can place it between the 17th and 19th centuries. The first cities or industrial settlements were located alongside rivers or waterfalls, since water was used as primary energy source. The model corresponds to colonies spread on the territory and slowly deserted due to communications and transport difficulties, but particularly due to the emergence of new energies, like steam and later electricity, which avoided the dependence on location to access energy sources. However, there are exceptions like the textile factory villages in Catalonia (Spain), which have been in operation well until the 20th century.

The trend towards an indefinite growth starts by then, which implies the disappearance of its traditional barriers: the walls. The urban frame begins to differentiate: old town, planned broadening, peripheral growth.

This scenario drives the birth of new industrial cities located near energy sources or way materials, but overall connected by communication networks – by land or sea. The existing cities that need to grow and adapt themselves to the new times pose its development with broadenings in order to widen its capacity to welcome new population.

Therefore, the City becomes a permanent residence for specialized workers and an ongoing source of technical innovations that has developed, up to the present day, a list of key functions:

  • Absorption of the agricultural surplus from the surrounding rural area or «hinterland» ruled by the city
  • A technical and scientific innovation core at the service of primary productive activities like agriculture, farming, etc.; internal services like spinning, textiles, jewellery and craftsmanship; and, finally, from the maintenance and growth of the domination system.
  • Privileged place for exchanges and trade: markets, ports, etc.
  • Site for the religious, political and military powers, often related to primitive theocracies.

The industrial city. The first half of the 20th century, until the II World War, is a transition stage from the ‘primitive’ industrial city we just described to the growth of the large, multiform metropolitan areas or diffused cities that feature the contemporary landscape.

Certain activities begin to separate themselves physically, in particular the industry, due to its own technical needs. The hierarchy of the road system begins: big avenues and boulevards, radial axis, rings roads are built, etc. The Industrial Revolution kills off the craftsmanship space overlapped with the home and establishes the industrial space, along with new rules and the technical evolution that take the process to its full potential.


The Industrial Revolution killed off the craftsmanship space overlapped with the home and established the industrial space, along with new rules and the technical evolution


These changes accelerate the industrial evolution, and therefore population movements from rural to urban areas.

The contemporary city. The quick economy recovery after the war enables Europe to start to configure its cities as we know them today. In the 50s, and particularly in the 60s, its main characteristics are established and the city does ultimately set as the economy core, before the rapid loss of relevance for rural production and population. The industrialization expands as the first symptoms of society ‘tertiarization’ appear.

As in previous stages, the ubiquity of technology innovations plays a key role; public transport networks are expanded: subway, tramways, buses, commuter trains, etc. But the real revolution was the gradual wide spreading, in the most developed European countries, of the ownership and enjoyment of the private car –as high-capacity roads are built for them.

Other technology changes empower this trend towards the expansion of the urban space. By one hand, the new productive processes, which require horizontal developments
–vertical production structures are discarded– and wider areas; by the other hand, the widespread use of distant communication systems –telephone, telex, cable, etc. – that allows –even before the computing revolution in the 70s– the gradual space separation between the different segments within companies: diversified production lines, assembly lines, management and decision-taking centres, laboratories and R+D sites, etc.

The main actions on the territory taken during these decades imply:

  1. Industry decentralized to less valued sub-urban spaces, but also with good access.
  2. Residential areas start to decentralize too from the classical urban centres. This takes place due to several reasons:
  • Blue-collar workers cannot afford the high prices of homes in the centre, so they move to the outskirts, often close to new industrial areas.
  • Mid- and high-class homes move to low-density developments with detached or semi-detached houses.

Therefore, the city as engine of the economy and meeting point has to focus constantly on infrastructure improvement, and particularly for the future, in order to provide services according to its production activity or specialization –administration, services, production, power centre, etc. Its main characteristics are indefinite, discontinuous and diffuse growth, which overlap and destroy the surrounding rural space and make up the ‘city-territory’, ‘conurbation’ of ‘great metropolitan area’.

Due to its accelerated development, it has different frames corresponding to different activities and social groups, as well as an inner homogeneity inside each of them. Furthermore, there’s a trend to specialization in each piece of the territory. Trade, an activity traditionally linked and overlapped to homes, starts to distant themselves due to its recent monopolization and re-dimensioning –supermarkets, hypermarkets, specialized mall centres, etc. Consequently, a frame differentiation occurs: old towns separate from broadenings by means of ring roads; broadenings separate from the ‘anarchic’ developments in the ‘outskirts’ by means of outer roads, etc.

A highly hierarchical road system is built: interurban highways, urban highways, central axis or primary collectors, secondary roads, etc. Hospitals, education equipment and green spaces are also hierarchical.

 A 70% of buildings in our cities are 80 years old on average. Their rehabilitation and upgrading should be faced, so they become more energy-efficient


Conclusion.- There is no question on denying the big city, but to claim it. We should not face –theoretically, at least– the dilemma of ‘quality of life’ based on spreading, and urbanization indifferent to the rural world, on a massive use of the car as the only relationship instrument between people, and on leisure consumption. We should claim s more supportive and integrated city, less liable to mirages, which are contradictory and complementary, from green to machine, from the trivialization of nature and the waste of technique.



Definition: noun. The period of time now occurring.

European cities will hardly grow in terms of area occupied, as in the latest 150 years; therefore, they must be regenerated, built on themselves, rehabilitated, restored and adapted to new requirements. This should be done without losing the fundamental idea: providing service and quality of life to its inhabitants.

All these issues carry us to a core question: Which model of city and territory do we want or are able to do? Open wide or concentrated cities? The relevance of tradition, its location and its resources will be crucial.

This is maybe the time to think about reinventing the city, taking advantage of all changes, impending or already here.

However, we must take into account that the current scenario –global and where uniformity prevails– there are maybe scenarios where this concept is not present, or should not be, generally at least. One of these scenarios would be urban planning and architecture, since they represent the way to understand the society from its deployment on the territory, as a consequence of its constraints: orography, climate, location and economy. I dare to state that there are not global solutions for all cities.

At this point, we should remember Professor Jeremy Rifkin, economist and sociologist, who poses the third industrial revolution. This would take place, as the previous ones, by an energy change. He envisions a scenario where buildings will become micropower stations, where each one of them will be standalone and will generate its own energy; the emergence of hydrogen as alternate energy and energy storage complementary systems in buildings –batteries or containers– in order to compensate the intermittent flow of renewable energies; change of energy use in transport and particularly in cars.

–electric. The grid will be the management instrument of energy, so big utilities will evolve from producers and suppliers to energy managers in the grid.

Professor Rifkin must be right since recently the company TESLA has introduced a battery that storages solar energy. This battery is due to be sold in two versions: for homes and companies. Let’s remember that this company is also an electric car manufacturer.

In parallel, alternate actions should be taken in the future to solve the existing shortfalls in the cities, like building coverings exploited as public green spaces. A 70% of buildings in our cities are 80 years old on average. Their rehabilitation and upgrading should be faced, so they become more energy-efficient.

Obviously, we cannot know which of these assumptions will be accomplished, but it is certain that current issues, apparently definite, will fall into a crisis. (Examples: ownership of cars or difference between travel time and distance).


New technologies should enable, more than ever, a city at the citizen’s service


The use of private means of transportation, i.e. cars, is becoming less operative, both from the point of view of time and cost. Currently, means of transportation enable the territory to be ‘shrunk’, or it takes us just about one hour to cross the city by subway. Less than one hundred years ago, a whole day was necessary to cover the same distance.

This makes us to differentiate two types of technologies:

  •  Effective. “Successful in producing a desired or intended result”

It produces the intended result and works well for some purposes. The Concorde, an awesome, latest generation airplane, had an effective operation but its consumption was huge; it disappeared because it wasn’t profitable.

  • Efficient. “(Of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense”

It performs or accomplishes its role at best. Today’s airplanes are slower but much more efficient too; an example where only the necessary energy has to be used. Subway allows us to cross the city quickly and cheaply.

The architect Renzo Piano designed a building for his office, located in front of the Mediterranean in the city of Genoa, with a windows system that opened according to the breeze, and graduated the air intake. He had to cancel the system, because not all people have the same needs.

Energy self-efficiency in the cities is another key point for urban transformation. Let’s take as an example the incineration plant for municipal waste at the Barcelona Forum, which produces the necessary power for the whole public lighting of the city.

These examples enable us to know how to apply technology on an effective or efficient way.


Contemporary Barcelona




Mobile devices, social networks, virtual reality, live and global information … Slowly, Internet has gained a standing role. New ways to produce, inform and communicate are in progress; ultimately, new ways to interact. And this is just the beginning: Internet is only 20 years old. Today, we cannot think of a society with no networks.

The emergence of new technologies to control and develop city infrastructures, i.e., transportation, services, communications and energy, will be even more crucial for the urban model change que lies ahead in our cities. The new ‘growth’ axis is information. Thanks to new technologies, we must take advantage of these circumstances, more than ever before, to put the city at the service of the citizen.

The Smart City –or even better, the ‘Efficient City’– must serve for an urban development based on sustainability, in order to properly respond to the basic needs of its inhabitants. A territory or city considered as ‘smart’ shows up in key issues today, like transportation, energy, waste, health, education and communication. Let’s take into account that the Smart City concept is a way forward; it’s not just about cabling the city and changing signs. The way forward should be made of small steps towards a higher efficiency, by means of the technology we need and are able to use.


by Andrés Calderón

Architect, AC arquitectura slp