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White Paper on Sustainability of Spanish Urban Planning
José Fariña Tojo, José Manuel Naredo (directors)
<<< 3 Methodology |4 Urban planning in Spain| 5 Ten-point plan for more sustainable urban planning >>>

4 Urban planning in Spain

4.1 Origin of the current situation and how to improve it

Several viewpoints may help us to explain the current situation of urban planning in Spain. First, we should stress that, strictly speaking, insofar as planning is concerned (and many other issues), there is no Spanish situation as such, owing to the decentralisation of powers. Since the Spanish Constitution 1978, the country has basically been organised into three instances: national, regional and local. Legislative powers are separated into different fields and shared among the central and regional governments. And although local authorities have no legislative powers as such, they do have a large number of governance and management responsibilities.

Urban development and spatial planning are, like housing, entirely within the remit of the regions, and central government cannot legislate on them. Even so, generally speaking, virtually all the regions' planning instruments are derived from those set up under the Land Act 1956. As explained in more detail below, spatial planning almost always acts as a limiting framework for urban planning, based on the figure of the general urban plan, which confers rights and duties on landowners, and therefore specifies property right. These general plans are then developed into other types of plans that depend on, complete and define them. The fact that all powers, including those of legislation, correspond exclusively to the 17 autonomous regions means that any recommendations in this field must be approved by all of them —a very difficult task— or for the recovery of competencies by central government to be agreed, amending the 1978 Constitution accordingly, which is even more unlikely.

However, central government does have minimal legislative powers on environmental matters, although all other legislative competencies lie with the regions and executive powers with the regions and local authorities. This means that the job of coordinating urban planning could be undertaken from this topic field (sustainability), as has been done, for example, with legislation on environmental impact. In other words, basic planning obligations could be established on environment, approved by the Spanish Parliament, which the autonomous regions would develop to adapt in accordance with their own climatic, cultural and territorial circumstances. This approach is particularly important given the impossibility of tackling the issue from the field of urban development and spatial planning itself, as we shall see, unless the regulatory framework established under the 1978 Constitution is amended.

The current decentralisation of powers with regard to urban development should serve to adapt it to Spain's widely differing cultures, climates and territories. The settlement-related, building-related and environmental problems of people who live in Asturias are very different from those of people living in Extremadura, which, in turn, are different from those found in Catalonia, Madrid or the Valencia region. We cannot therefore speak of any across-the-board situation when discussing either problems or answers.

Although Spain's cultural diversity —with four official languages (Castilian Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician)— is well known, we should not ignore the country's climatic and territorial diversity. For example, from a hydrological point of view mainland Spain can be divided into two very different territories: wet Spain, geographically corresponding to the north and north-west, with its temperate climate and abundant rainfall, and dry Spain, with its quite arid Mediterranean climate.

Yet this diversity and these contrasts go beyond water- and climate-related factors, affecting many other aspects of the physical environment, to the extent that diversity is one of the key characteristics of Spain's natural resources. Indeed, the lithological and geomorphological diversity of soils and climates in Spain has given rise to a variety of environments that house a much wider range of species, ecosystems and landscapes than any of the country's European neighbours to the north. This variety of environments and landscapes also goes hand in hand with a highly varied vernacular architecture having adapted and been built into them. This vernacular architecture has now almost disappeared, having been decimated by abandonment, demolition and ruin and discarded by the unification of building typologies that has accompanied a succession of building booms. There are weighty environmental reasons for new planning to respect, restore and renew what still remains of this vernacular architecture, or to reinvent it in the name of the new bioclimatic architecture, to address the wide range of seasonal and temperature differences found in mainland Spain, which is even greater when the Balearic and Canary Islands are taken into account. In the wet, temperate part of Spain recommendations on orientations, habitat layouts, etc., are clear and relatively easy to see. However, the interior of the Iberian Peninsula has a very hard, extreme climate, with very cold winters and very hot summers, which are a testing challenge for any attempts to design for the cold or for heat. Finally, the Mediterranean coastline, many parts of which are suffering from desertification processes, presents a mild climate in winter and a very hot one in summer. We should also mention that less traditional materials such as concrete and steel have a much larger carbon footprint than other vernacular ones, such as stone, timber, tapial or adobe.

There are even more convincing environmental reasons for managing the land stock as a scarce resource, in order to adapt uses to each territory's vocations, ecosystems and landscapes, to conserve them and even improve them. These reasons also apply to managing the large number of buildings and existing infrastructure as scarce resources, with a view to promoting the efficient use of them. To facilitate all this, as mentioned in the first chapter, it would be necessary to set up a minimal protocol to serve as the basis for reorienting urban and spatial planning in favour of sustainability and habitability.

Finally, although this White Paper focuses on urban development and spatial planning, we should underline that this situation cannot be expected to change in favour of sustainability and habitability unless overall national policy is reoriented firmly in its favour. If we consider the very limited options available under the current legal framework for central government to coordinate urban and spatial planning policies, it seems clear that changing the urban model in the direction indicated cannot occur without a solid national agreement to promote it, with the support of all government departments and all sectors. As mentioned in the introduction, a transition strategy would have to be set up in favour of sustainability and habitability, together with a minimal protocol, the drafting of which falls outside the more limited scope of this paper, which focuses on urban planning alone. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the instruments that such a strategy would have to turn to include tax and budgetary policies, which would have to make taxation and public funding conditional upon compliance with the minimal protocol by the authorities involved, thereby working around the central government's hands being tied when it comes to legislating on urban and spatial planning.

4.2 Characteristics

In the previous section we have outlined the basic features of planning in Spain, the most important of which is the fact that the autonomous regions are responsible for housing, urban development and spatial planning. As a result, central government is unable to intervene, act or legislate on these matters.

However, as we have seen, the differences between the different regions' planning systems are not that great, owing to the very strong tradition that has been in place since the Land Act 1956, and a culture of urban planning that even predates it (going back to the Local Government Act 1926) and gives it a very definite character. We may therefore speak of common elements when referring in each specific case to differential questions. Some of these common characteristics are:

A hierarchical planning system

Under the 1956 Act plans cascaded downwards from the National Plan (which was never implemented or even approved) to the urbanization project, which was the final level of planning used to define specific works with building plans. Each planning figure had to respect the one immediately above it, such that each plan on a lower level was strictly tied to whatever the one above it said. The only figure to fall outsider this arrangement was the Special Plan. This model continues to be repeated to some extent throughout Spain's autonomous regions, with the difference that the benchmark figure is no longer the National Plan but rather the Territorial Plan, which covers the whole of each region. However, very few regions have actually approved a plan of this type (and in most cases they have not even attempted to draft one).

Planning determines the content of property rights

This premise was developed over time from the Land Act 1956 until its maximum refinement via the Land Act 1992, which, despite almost two thirds of its content having been repealed by the Constitutional Court, has remained in effect for many years now. This is important, because the landowning-rights statute does fall within the remit of the national government, and the current Land Act refers only to this statute on land ownership and valuation arrangements. This is another of the few areas over which central government still enjoys certain room for manoeuvre. In any case, this doctrine attributing to planning the ability to determine the content of property rights (with this content remaining blank where it fails to do so and therefore not giving rise to any compensation if it is nil) has also unanimously been adopted by all the autonomous regions.

Traditionally the successive Land Acts have divided Spanish territory into three types: urban land, developable land (urban reserve under the 1956 Act) and non-developable land (rustic land under the 1956 Act). The regions have also classified their own territories under these or similar names. Under the national Land Act 1998 urban land was that which is already in a condition to be built upon, either because it is equipped with all the relevant urban services and utilities (water, electricity, sewerage, road access, etc.) or because those services and utilities will be installed at the same time. Non-developable land was that which meets objective condition (specifically indicated in the Act) to be protected from urban development. And developable land was anything else. It should be noted that before the latest changes the objective conditions did not include those of achieving greater sustainability or making a coherent, compact structure. As under the previous legislation residual land was rustic or non-developable, the 1998 Act determined that all Spanish territory was susceptible to being developed except those parts of it that were specifically mentioned in the Act.

This situation was further strengthened with the coming into effect of Royal Legislative Decree 4/2000, of 23 June, on Urgent Measures for the Deregulation of the Property and Transport Sector, which eliminate the possibility of a plan classifying as non-developable land «any other land considered unsuitable for urban development» by removing that specific phrase from its stipulations. From then onwards, if planners wanted to make a compact city because they considered it to be more sustainable and if the district had no landscape, historical, archaeological, scientific, environmental or cultural, agricultural, forestry or livestock assets, it could not be done and the entire district would have to be declared as developable, since otherwise any private individual could challenge the plan before the courts.

Consequently, planners and authorities approving plans were obliged, even against their wishes, to declare much of their territory as developable land, meaning that any developer who wanted to, could build 15, 20 or 7 kilometres away from the town or city, resulting in legal dispersion over the territory that was highly unfortunate, from a sustainability viewpoint and for the protection of the natural environment or efficiency of the spatial and urban system.

This situation has been substantially changed under the current Act, which has eliminated the classification of land. In fact, the 2007 reform (and the Revised Text of the reform that was brought in the following year) introduced a number of major new features in the sense of moving towards a more sustainable system. Once again, the distribution of powers has meant that the State has been unable to explore all the planning matters dealt with in this report, although it has been able to regulate land-ownership rights. In any case the situation whereby urban planning determines the content of property rights continues.

Municipal planning is the basis for urban plans

It has long been traditional in Spanish planning for the ambit of urban plans to be the municipal district. Under the name of general plan or something similar, the municipal plan prefigures the uses, intensities of use, design of the communications system, etc. throughout the district. It also classified land as urban, developable, non-developable. This plan is therefore of great importance from an urban point of view. The future of the land and which areas will be developed in the years to come are matters that are determined by this plan. Since in many cases the municipal plan is not framed or coordinated by any spatial planning, it is the only planning benchmark in many places. This results in such absurd situations as that found in the municipal district of Madrid and all the districts that surround it, each of which drafts its own plan without taking into consideration anything that is being done in the neighbouring districts. And without any kind of limits or setbacks other than the resistance that might be put up by sector planning (such as transport and infrastructure plans, for example, or natural resources planning). This is another of the serious problems, from the viewpoint of sustainable planning, presented by the planning situation in Spain.

Urban planning as extension planning

Ever since the first extension plans and laws, the interests of Spanish planners have focused on the extension of the city, to the extent that no instruments have ever been created that are truly of use for intervention in consolidated city centres. This lack has been intensified even further recently. The only legislation that includes instruments for inner-city intervention was the Land Act 1992. However, that Act was declared to be unconstitutional precisely with regard to all the instruments referring to planning, and none of the autonomous regions recovered them. Instead, they opted to return to the Revised Text of 1976, which was much simpler but far inferior from a technical point of view. This has led to city centres being abandoned by the plan, because intervention in such areas is very difficult and currently depends almost exclusively on indirect instruments, such as integrated-regeneration plans. Of course, compulsory purchase, plating with distribution areas and, from the point of view of obtaining resources for specific interventions, the possibility of imposing special contributions are still available, but in any case these are secondary mechanisms that fail to address the overall problem with sufficient intensity.

Limited importance of spatial planning

The greatest differences between the autonomous regions are found precisely in spatial planning, to the extent that the first legislation generated by the regions was related to this kind of planning. However, in almost all cases all the effort has gone into legislating. One paradigmatic example is the Madrid Regional Government, which, over four successive terms, with different political parties in power, has been unable to approve the Regional Territorial Strategy Plan to which all the region's urban plans must, in theory, refer. As a result, spatial planning is almost exclusively in the hands of sector planning (for protection, roads, water, etc.) with no instrument with an integrated vision of the territory available to coordinate everything.

Limited effects of environmental-impact assessments

Yet, except in the case of some regions that are more advanced than the national government in terms of environmental legislation, impact assessments and strategic assessments of plans and programmes have little effect on any planning (sector or urban development) or development projects. This is due to various causes, including, in general terms (with exceptions in some regions) the following:

Strategic environmental assessment has reproduced the same inefficient pattern of the assessment of projects, such that an apparently important instrument, which would significantly help to orient planning, is virtually unused. The situation in this field is, however, relatively easy to reorient to make environmental-impact assessments point effectively towards the planning of more sustainable territories and cities.

4.3 Topics for consideration in urban planning

In addition to the background issues studied in the first part of this report, certain other questions have been detected which should be considered for the design and organisation of our cities:

1.- As mentioned earlier, the great unresolved question in our cities, with direct effects on their design, is the problem of home ownership. The Spanish property model has promoted investment in house purchases, reducing the market for rented housing to the minimum. This is one of the major problems of Spain's cities from the viewpoint of sustainability. The consequences are obvious:

2.- Many studies have addressed the issue of diffuse or compact cities, of particular relevance for sustainability, revealing a number of dysfunctionalities. Besides conclusions on the criteria analysed, these studies, together with guidelines and recommendations published by the autonomous regions, have enabled us to observe the following:

3.- The transformations and changes in Spanish society in recent years do not seem to have affected the basis for urban plant (most of the content of the major plans is the same and only ad hoc changes have been made to make major urban projects possible). These changes, which would have affected the organisation and design of our cities, include: