PAP 69 - Chaos and loss of quality in urban peripheries: the diagnosis of landscape atlases in Catalonia

Pere Sala, septembre 2023

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Fringe: imprecise boundary between two states, two notions (Petit Robert). In the Hispanic world, the word fringe evokes a flexible textile border - such as the fringes of Andalusian shawls - which can fray, unravel and lose its consistency.

Peripheral areas are characterised by their relative distance from metropolitan areas. This can lead to isolation, marginalisation and a diversity of uses. They also appear to be areas of uncontrolled transition between artificiality and rurality. Although little studied, the urban periphery is also a landscape, now a real challenge for the city of tomorrow. With this in mind, Pere Sala, director of the Observatori del Paisatge de Catalunya, has written an article translated by Enric Salvans-Roussel. The text is taken from the book « Franges. Els paisatges de la perifèria », collective work edited by Joan Nogué, 350 p. 2012. Collection « Plecs de paisatge » No. 3.

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In Europe today, as just about everywhere else in the world, millions of people live or travel daily to the outskirts of cities to go to work, shop or play. The suburbs are their real everyday landscapes. One of the major contributions of the European Landscape Convention adopted by the Council of Europe in 2000 is the principle that, while it is important to protect and manage outstanding landscapes threatened with extinction, it is now more important than ever to develop ordinary landscapes. Among these, fringe areas have become essential landscapes. Over the last few decades, the city has outgrown its boundaries throughout Europe.

Yet the intense and irresistible dynamics of globalisation, metropolisation and diffuse urbanisation that have given rise to these new peripheral landscapes have shown little - if any - concern for the quality of the resulting landscape. Characterised by high levels of land consumption and the fragmentation of the territory they create, these landscapes are a source of additional costs in terms of mobility, greenhouse gas emissions and lavish water consumption, without providing a suitable setting for social life. In our country, there is a clear lack of understanding and planning for these areas. While our culture has been able to discover and reformulate, with varying degrees of success, tools for interpreting urban and natural landscapes inherited from the past, it has lacked the necessary reflexes to understand in time the characteristics of these new landscapes, the origin of the dynamics that created them and the way in which they could have been programmed or organised. The landscapes of the peripheries have therefore neither followed the models of the compact city, with its strong coherence and finished generative form, nor preserved the pre-existing functions, traces and values of rural areas. These new landscapes are increasingly blurring the boundaries and physical and social differences between town and country, while at the same time increasing tensions on their landscapes, which they are dismembering, erasing and covering up. Their emergence, often as an unforeseen, unwanted and even ignored result, urgently requires a review and sustainable development that is specific to them, and that takes into account their potential for positive synergies.

By working on the peripheries at the appropriate scale and breaking with the dominant or usual analyses, the landscape atlases drawn up by the Catalonia Landscape Observatory have proposed new readings, new landscape references and new forms of intervention and management for these fringes 1 .

In drawing up these atlases, the emphasis has been on citizen participation, in particular by gathering the perceptions that residents and various stakeholders have of the most intangible aspects of these landscapes, such as, for example, the memory of the territory, the spirit of the place and, from there, the sensations and emotions that it awakens in them.

Although often overlooked, these fringe landscapes hold great potential in terms of the conservation of natural and agricultural systems, residential use, economic development and leisure activities - potential that can be unlocked by firm, courageous action and a minimum of ethical and aesthetic sense.

In the middle of the fringes

Let’s place ourselves in the middle of these composite interstices: streams and torrents, office buildings, fire and rescue centres, supermarkets, public parks, wooded areas, fruit orchards, sports halls, cranes, vineyards, bus stops, high-voltage pylons, refineries, motorways and expressways, restaurants, olive groves, buildings of low architectural quality, wastelands, swimming pools, telecommunications aerials, golf courses, almond groves, sewage treatment plants, cemeteries, isolated factories, and so on. On the fringes, many urban elements coexist with others of an agrarian and rural nature.

With their multiple environmental, social, productive, residential, cultural, transport and leisure functions, the fringes are in fact highly dynamic areas. When you stand in the midst of the great typological, formal and chromatic heterogeneity of the fringes, you can feel that you are at the heart of an ongoing process of landscape creation and construction. And yet, at first glance, contact with the fringes gives the impression of an absence of narrative and a lack of aesthetic quality. Beyond their diversity of extension, size and scale, the landscapes of the fringes are hybrid landscapes, often chaotic and confused, which have lost the original meanings, symbolisms, forms and functions that made it possible to understand their specificity, and have rapidly replaced them with others. Often at the cost of severing the ecological, architectural, social or cultural links that traditionally connected them, these transitional spaces have a great capacity to constantly reinvent themselves. They are building new ways of understanding culture and ways of life, places of constant exchange and creation of new values and new identities. Some of these landscapes have retained traces that are specific to the place and to their previous natural, cultural and social functions - rivers, streams, the remains of agricultural activities, bridges or irrigation channels, for example. These fading traces are of little interest to the local population. What’s more, the state of the peripheries most often reflects their state of relegation: they are deteriorated, neglected and trivialised. And it is precisely this state of neglect that calls for imaginative and creative intervention projects from an economic, social and environmental point of view, with the integrative outlook and synergistic approach that these landscapes demand. How can we intervene in landscapes with great potential, but which are far more complex to interpret than some urban, natural or rural landscapes? Can these places become centres of attraction for new economic activities, or for tourism? In an area like this, where people of different geographical and cultural origins live, with different tastes, customs and references in terms of landscape, there are still other questions to be asked: what sensations do these areas arouse in the population? What kind of identities does this periphery induce? Because of the absence of the narrative we have been talking about, we lack a clear and evocative model that would enable us to think about the future of these spaces. And yet, because more and more people live there and see their quality of life conditioned by these spaces, we are faced with a landscape that calls for a great deal of social and ethical responsibility, and a great deal of public attention. The challenge, then, is to increase and manage the quality of these fringe landscapes - which are extremely diverse - according to a new territorial logic, at a time when cities are increasingly concentrating power, wealth and information, while economic, social, cultural and technological scenarios are following one another or superimposing one another at great speed in the current context of uncertainty, general breakdown of the development model and the end of the cycle.

A few observations on the fringes

Let’s reverse the trend, dominant until now, of looking at the periphery from the city, because today the logic of the city is totally different from that of the periphery. On the other hand, talking about the periphery from the periphery itself can be extremely evocative. Here are some of the observations and lessons that the process of drawing up landscape atlases has taught us about the landscape significance of the fringes.

The fringes have found their way into every landscape

Our map of Catalonia’s landscapes is made up of seven landscape atlases which, by listing 135 landscape units, show the great diversity and richness of Catalonia’s landscapes. We have designated each of these units with names that are rooted in the land and belong to the collective memory 2. In Catalonia, as in the rest of Europe, suburbs have grown significantly in municipalities with between 10,000 and 50,000 inhabitants, and proportionately more than in the main urban areas. According to the Urbanisation Observatory, between 1987 and 2005 more homes (268,744) were built in municipalities with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants than in those with more than 50,000 inhabitants (251,260), with the particularity that many of these homes are detached houses. In these small and medium-sized towns, the proliferation of residential, commercial or tourist buildings of eminently urban typology is weakening the rural character of the small rural nuclei and hamlets located in agricultural or forestry areas, because they are at odds with their surroundings.

Increasingly diverse fringes

The urban fringes have very different urban and rural features in each of these 135 units. On the outskirts of metropolitan areas or large cities, we commonly find blocks of high-rise buildings, vast factories, shopping centres, accumulations of advertising hoardings, vast parking areas for cars, caravans or lorries. On the outskirts of agrarian landscapes, we find agricultural sheds, silos, irrigation ponds, small remnants of vegetation on the banks of watercourses, livestock farms, agricultural cooperatives, dry-stone huts and walls, former riverside industries, fish ponds, greenhouses and irrigation canals. The spread of suburbs throughout the region means that every day they look a little more alike. This is not lost on the local population, as shown by the landscape perception survey carried out for the Atlas of the Girona Region: « We’ve lost the ability to say ‘this is the way this town is’, and it’s becoming difficult to identify where you are: it’s hard to see what distinguishes the different urban settlements from each other ». The challenge for planning and intervention is to counteract this trend and inject diversity into homogeneity. In a context of galloping globalisation, the diversity and specificity of territories are two values on the rise, and the fringes could help to reinforce them. Each of these fringes, with its own characteristics and potential, requires different management and intervention projects.

Dissonant fringes

The surface area of urban land that can be built on and occupied by infrastructure is relatively low in Catalonia (6.3%, according to Idescat land use statistics, 2009). This is not how the population perceives the area, which is felt to be heavily damaged and occupied by artefacts. In the flattest areas of the Barcelona Metropolitan Region, the impression is that everything has been urbanised, whereas on the map this is not the case. In fact, the problem is not how much has been built, but how it has been done: the proliferating model that has spread buildings and facilities of disparate heights, materials, colours and shapes all over the territory is leading to a widespread feeling of impoverishment of the quality of the landscape. The writer Toni Sala has eloquently described the lack of coherence in these landscapes: « How can the steeple-wall of a hermitage and the yellow M of a McDonald’s speak to each other in such different languages? What do the remains of a medieval castle and a cement works have to say to each other? The footpath and the motorway? There is no communication, and therefore no harmony » (Toni Sala, digital publication Paisatg-e 2010). Many landscapes on the periphery have effectively become receptacles where a variety of artefacts compose a kind of territorial cacophony, an aggressive dissonance where unpleasant perceptions for our senses - for sight, but also for hearing and smell - collide, produced by absolutely discordant elements.

The poor architectural quality of the majority of interventions and the lack of landscape sensitivity do the rest. This issue needs to be seriously addressed. The public’s perception of disorder, dissonance and dissatisfaction with their relationship with these areas has a strong impact on the degree of esteem and respect they feel for the space in which they live. The increasingly extensive, ugly landscapes of the suburbs are not only detrimental to the quality of life of the people who live or move there, but also to the image of the country that is projected onto it.

Predominance of residential and industrial fringes

Infrastructure plays an indisputable role on the outskirts of Catalonia, but the fringes are predominantly made up of residential and industrial areas. The vast majority of residential estates - second homes before the 1970s and main homes from the 1980s and 1990s onwards - have drifted towards an open, sprawling city model, devoid of any urban structure, which is now known as diffuse urbanisation and contributes very little to sustainability: in 1955, the urban area represented 4.6% of the Barcelona Metropolitan Region. By 2004, it had risen to 20%, representing an increase in built-up area of 48,000 hectares, most of which was urban sprawl, as there was no significant growth in the main urban centres during this period. From a landscape point of view, housing estates represented a change in the structure and form of settlements, with the appearance of new skylines and the emergence of new forms which, in some cases, created a contrast between the building typology of the villages and that of the housing estates located around them. Urban sprawl has also contributed to the disappearance of high-quality woodland and farmland, the loss of ecological functionality of residual soils, an increase in the risk of fire, the alteration and obscuring of skylines, backgrounds and other prime landscape reference points, and barriers to the recreational use of certain landscapes. The effects of the gradual standardisation of landscapes are probably most apparent on housing estates. This is often compounded by a lack of coherence and integration with the landscape in terms of building typologies, volumes, colours, roofing, plot distribution and use of materials, which is particularly noticeable in facades, roofs and fences. The result is a landscape that has lost its uniqueness, inauthentic and alien to the character of the place. There are also over two thousand industrial, commercial, logistics and service estates in Catalonia, some of which are currently being developed, concentrated along the country’s main communication routes.

In terms of both their volume and the functional architecture of their buildings, these areas contrast sharply with the surrounding landscape, particularly if it is rural. They are also highly visible because they are located close to the main roads. Of the various types of business park, those designed for commerce and services have developed most rapidly in recent years. These include superstores dedicated to household goods, clothing, sports, DIY, car dealerships, cinemas, supermarkets, etc., concentrated mainly on the outskirts of towns, and associated with vast parking areas and large-scale advertising hoardings, with no harmony of shape, colour or brightness. Disorganised, incoherent, low-density urban growth, disconnected from traditional compact urban cores, embodies a model that is considered obsolete. Catalonia has begun to rectify this trend with a regional plan approved by the Generalitat in the first decade of the 21st century that prioritises urban densification and continuous urban expansion, although the results are still slow to be seen on the ground.

Visible and emerging values

On certain fringes, rapid and radical transformations have wiped out the traces that human activity had left on the land throughout history. The result is a landscape that we no longer know or can interpret. This is why some landscapes on the periphery may seem to us to be spaces without identity where, at first sight, it is difficult to recognise any overall coherence, meaning or landscape values. Yet somehow, amidst the chaos and apparent confusion, obvious and latent values are emerging. There are torrents, riparian rivers, coppices, crops grown along historic lines, meadows, vegetable gardens, enclosures, orchards, cellars and vineyards, windbreaks, tree-lined access to urban centres, castles and villas, urban centres with their own distinctive features, etc. These are all elements that make up precious ecological connectors, fertile productive spaces, harmonious and balanced ensembles, backgrounds and evocative contrasts. These elements are repositories of natural, historical, productive, aesthetic, social or symbolic values, although they are often little known or in danger of disappearing. The peripheries therefore offer potential based on a variety of values. We need to make these obvious values more visible and seek out traces of latent values. Bringing them out into the open will raise the quality and strengthen the identity of these areas.

Contradictory views

In general, the population perceives the fringes as degraded areas, as the antithesis of a quality landscape. These are areas that are rarely visited outside of compulsory travel, because they are expected to be a mixture of artefacts arranged in no order and which have corrupted the traditional landscape. In some cases, there is a negative reaction to the presence of large technological infrastructures associated with energy production, such as reservoirs or tall electricity pylons, despite the efforts made in recent years by the authorities and companies to improve the environmental quality and image of these areas. The public participation processes of the Catalan landscape atlases have revealed that some of these elements give rise to highly contradictory opinions. Because of the pollution caused by the chemical industries located to the south of the city, part of the population of Tarragona attributes little landscape value to this area. Others, on the other hand, recognise the aesthetic value of the diversity of shapes and colours of these factories, particularly at night. It has also been noted that this type of landscape gives those who work there a sense of belonging. This example shows that a landscape is not just about the physical elements that make it up, but also about the meanings that people attribute to it. The means of communication therefore have a very important role to play in the process of creating and consolidating new criteria, points of view, preferences and forms of representation for these landscapes. This important issue poses another challenge for planning. On certain fringes, the location of an activity or use that is a source of discomfort for the population increases the feeling that these places have no value or attractiveness and that, as a result, they are not worth visiting, living, working or even caring for. This is why it is vital that the fringes can boast quality features to which the population is sensitive, and which promote their well-being, so that these areas can become pleasant places, even though they have long been a source of confusion. In some cases, it is in fact possible to see beauty in disorder, by emphasising functionality. The task of planning must therefore go in two directions: that of the physical development and treatment of fringes and peripheral areas, and that of paying particular attention to the image and imaginary worlds generated by these new landscapes.


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