This is the Torre Hercón (Hercón Tower) in A Coruña. It has 31 floors, 24 of which are dwelling units. It was inaugurated in 1975 and is the tallest building in Galicia🏙️
Tall buildings allow for more people to live in less space. A Coruña is the city with the largest average building height in Spain and some of its square kilometres are the most densely populated in the entire country.
Let's look at the map, which shows all the buildings constructed in the capital of the Galician province according to their height. The ones in pink are the tallest buildings and the ones in green are the ones with the fewest floors.
In A Coruña, as in all big Spanish cities, people live in apartments🏢
Spain is one of the countries with the highest percentages of apartment dwellers in the world, according to data from the OECD.
The concentration of population in a small spaces is even greater than in countries such as Switzerland, Germany or Italy. Only in South Korea more people live in collective dwellings than in Spain.
Percentage (%) of population living in collective dwellings, as opposed to single-family houses and townhouses
|Country||% living in apartments||South Korea|
Why and how did we get here? Join us on this historical tour and we'll show you.
Let's travel to Barcelona's old town: the Ciutat Vella district. These narrow streets were enclosed by a wall 🏰 until 1854.
The population density was high. It was believed that diseases🦠 were spread in the form of poisonous air through miasmas. This is how cholera was depicted in the 19th century 👇
Ildefons Cerdà wanted to demonstrate that the high population density was deadly. With his design of the Eixample, influenced by the hygienist movement, his proposed planning for the city lowered population density and regenerated the air.
Cerdà thought of open blocks with interior gardens🌳. Speculation truncated his plan. In the end, some areas of the Eixample became denser than the Ciutat Vella.
Today, Barcelona is one of the tallest and densest cities in the country. So are the municipalities on its periphery, such as L'Hospitalet or Santa Coloma, which grew from the 1950s onwards, as a result of the rural exodus👨🌾.
Data from the Spanish Cadastre (not includign Euskadi and Navarra) shows this relationship in most Spanish cities. The taller the constructions in the cities are, the higher its population density. In addition to the Barcelona metropolitan area, other urban areas such as Cádiz and Valencia are among the densest and tallest so far.
Comparison between population density and average height of cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants
Source: Spanish Cadastre, INE (Spanish Statistical Office)
Between 1950 and 1975, thousands of Spaniards migrated from the countryside🚜to the city🌆. Franco's dictatorship Ministry of Housing promoted the construction of high-rise housing estates to accommodate them.
This is the "Antonio Rueda" housing group, consisting of 1,002 low-income social housing units. This type of development was influenced by the modern movement.
During the 60's and 70's more dwellings were built in Spain, and these were higher than ever. Thus, the first 'metropolitan crowns' were created, surrounding the historic nuclei and the 'ensanches' (widenings) of the beginning of the century. 👇
Buildings with 5 or more stories per decade
Source: Spanish Cadastre
Housing blocks built under Francoist developmentalism started with four stories because there was no money for elevators. Then came the H-shaped blocks, which incorporated an elevator and more stories so as to make it profitable. The distribution of dwellings in each city according to the number of floors in the building shows this phenomenon.
For example, most of the industrial belts within large cities concentrate their housing in 5-story buildings. Also developed in the 1970s, other industrial estates such as Fuenlabrada, Alcorcón and L'Hospitalet condense most of their housing in buildings with seven, eight or more floors.
Distribution of dwellings in each municipality according to the number of floors of the building
Source: Spanish Cadastre
An example of these H-shaped polygon developments is in Móstoles, on the outskirts of Madrid.
From the 1980s onwards, the rural exodus slowed down. At the same time, the 'urban sprawl'🏡, inspired by American suburbs, arrived in Spain.
Municipalities such as Sant Cugat del Vallès (Barcelona), Godella (Valencia) or Pozuelo (Madrid) are good examples of urban sprawl.
The housing is single-family🏠. The population density is very low, which increases the cost of public services.
But such real estate is a luxury and does not reach many people. Urban sprawl would continue in the form of townhouses🏘️, especially during the 1990s, and housing blocks.
In Santa Marta de Tormes, in the metropolitan area of Salamanca, there are several developments of townhouses, also called 'pearl necklaces'.
This change is clearly shown in the evolution of housing built in each decade in Spain. While buildings of five or more floors were in the majority during the first development boom in the 1960s and 1970s, during the real-estate bubble mainly low-rise dwellings were built.
Evolution of the number of dwellings built in each decade, according to the number of floors of the building
Source: Spanish Cadastre
Parallel to the townhouse fever, and after the polygons and H-blocks, came the next generation of housing blocks: the perimeter block, which would predominate from the 1990s until the bursting of the real-estate bubble and after the recovery.
Parque Venecia, a neighborhood in Zaragoza, is a prime example of a new neighborhood with perimeter blocks. It was planned in the middle of the bubble and its urbanization began in 2008. Its 7,000 residents, young families with children, have denounced the lack of public services. .
These new 'ensanches' offer more affordable housing than the consolidated city and attract the middle classes. They tend to be sparse and disconnected from the city.
City centers rised in value before the outbreak of COVID-19. After the pandemic, the demand for single-family homes and apartments in the metropolitan areas has increased.
Evolution of the percentage (%) of single-family home sales and purchases
Source: Bank of Spain
But contemporary urban planning trends point in another direction: compact, complex and cohesive cities.
What is the appropriate height for a city? And what is the appropiate density? Where is Spanish urban planning heading and where should it be heading?