Ecological Construction and Local Politics
United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteur
Spanish authorities must view housing as a basic human
right (5 June 2007). That right is based in
Spanish Constitutional law:
The right to decent and adequate housing is recognized in article 47 of the Spanish Constitution, which also contains provisions that protect the “social function of the right to private property” (art. 33) and “the right to enjoy an environment suitable for the development of the person” (art. 45).
Moreover, article 10 of the Spanish Constitution states that the “provisions relating to the fundamental rights and liberties recognized by the Constitution shall be construed in conformity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international treaties and agreements thereon ratified by Spain.”
The European Parliament (21 June 2007; 20 February 2009, Auken Report) and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as well, have strongly condemned Spain’s abuse of Spanish citizens’ and residents’ fundamental human right to enjoy property protection and a sustainable environment. The violations cited pertain to land seizures and home destruction by municipalities without due process or compensation, abuses of individual property rights, secret urbanization contracts and non-sustainable resource use. The suit was brought by hundreds of people in Valencia and Madrid, but the EU and United Nations resolutions apply to all regions of Spain (abusos urbanisticos-no).
The Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Energy Efficiency (5 April 2006) clearly spells out in detail the urgent need for energy efficiency and sustainable development. Spain has the worst carbon dioxide emissions record in the European Union, and only Turkey’s record is worse on Kyoto’s global list.
On September 27, 2007 at the United Nations summit Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said that, “We are doing everything possible to reduce our emissions and meet our targets. For many years Spain did nothing but now we are going to do everything.”
Yet, inhabitants’ efforts to comply with EU directives can be impeded by municipalities, which seldom have training or interest in energy-efficient, architectural engineering technologies. Their agendas may be less about public well-being than about personal and party interests. And, because of peculiarities of local ordinances, civil servants skilled in the art of legal formalism may find within a morass of out-dated clauses and building regulations, arcane interpretations convenient to their own agendas. Of course, this results in power: a bottleneck is created that only the civil servant can open easily. And that will cost money.
The political framework of a municipal council can aggravate the problem. If a party fails to receive a sufficient majority to govern, it will need a coalition with another party, which no doubt would demand portfolios as a condition for its support. If, as is likely, the minority coalition member demands the urbanization and environmental portfolios for participation, it controls all decisions in these critical areas, even if the majority coalition party are in disagreement. Or the coalition would dissolve.
The regulatory maze derives from different political eras and cultures. Some date to the political culture of 1956 and before, others to the 1978 Constitution, and still others came into existence during the last two decades. For example, the original intent of early Asturian laws was the protection of basic food supplies, which was based on traditional farming technology. However, as the local economy changed, those regulations came to serve other interests such as large-scale cattlemen; construction companies and materials suppliers, who lobby against technology they do not sell; tourism networks, which through political connections are able to get concessions that others cannot; and real estate and construction consortia with decisive political ties.
In Asturias large-scale registered cattlemen, who receive generous EU subsidies, are largely exempt from urbanization restrictions and can remodel or construct on rustic lands even though someone with a different vocation cannot get a project permit for the exact same parcel. Moreover, it is not possible to change one’s social classification to registered cattleman even though there are cattlemen who no longer keep livestock, now live in town, but still retain their classification, which gives them the formal right to restore or build should investment opportunities arise.
Although a council’s interpretation of regulations and permit decisions are often couched in a language of ‘environmentalism’, the language is misleading, because what is now meant by ‘environmental protection’ has changed profoundly in the past year, and local authorities may not be aware of the consequences
'Environmental protection' earlier had been interpreted to refer to sector protection rather than to current pressing concerns of sustainability, carbon emissions, bio-diversity and energy-efficiency. It meant that livestock herders could control rural landscapes; builders and realtors expected to control construction; and municipal civil servants and politicians expected to control zoning in the interests of local enterprises.
About a decade ago the concept of ‘spatial planning’ began to give way to what is called ‘strategic project planning.’ A project may be deemed of vital importance to a dominant political-economic entity. The idea is to create of the region a brand that can be marketed globally in order to compete with other Spanish and world regions. (Some political scholars suggest this model readily lends itself to the discredited fuero, corporatist system, which long has dominated Spain's political culture.)
Examples of ‘strategic project planning’ are Valencia’s Science Park or Benidorm, Los Picos de Europa, Costa Verde in Asturias and Bilbao in Pais Vasco. The best do what Bilbao did: remove defunct, polluting shipyards and steel mills in favor of the Guggenheim Museum and a revitalized old city. The worst transform the Valencian, Andalusian and Cantabrian Coasts into the horrors that they now are. What will happen in Los Picos de Europa and El Sueve in Asturias is open to question.
Most municipal council decisions are based on an old interpretation of ‘environmental protection’ and are far from the directives of the UN, EU or, for that matter, Spanish law. Decisions have less to do with the science of energy-efficiency, bio-diversity and sustainable rural development than protecting historic sector and local party prerogatives at the expense of the broader social, economic and cultural fabric.
Many Spanish architects state that of the various people involved in a project from concept to finish, they themselves, as trained architects, have the least influence in the design and construction processes, because in order to get projects past a técnico, they must cede significant control to local authorities and builders.
Yet, the least qualified people to make architectural engineering decisions are local authorities. Thus, innovation in the design process, and any technological innovations, are hijacked and subordinated to other interests. Non-sustainable projects, which ignore siting, environmental impact and which use energy-inefficient materials and building methods, result.
scale and vision at the rural municipal level
‘Scale’ in planning literature generally refers to the economic and geographical range of influence that a strategic intervention has, or to the economic size of the urban project. But ‘scale’ can refer to something altogether different. Home owners’ projects have much more significance than corporate regional projects or suburban developments, because homes most directly effect an individual’s human rights and well-being. Homeowners’ private projects are and should remain projects of local people, who are interested in bringing comfort and energy-efficiency into sub-standard, unhealthy, uninsulated, damp and moldy houses, which contribute to the high incidence of lung disease in Asturias. Most people are open to and want new sustainable technology that can save them money and protect their land.
A good place to start planning reform is to enable, legally, owner-occupiers to restore, amplify or construct their own projects using energy-efficient, super-insulated, passive solar gain technologies, as mandated by EU directives. Taken as a whole this approach will save energy, increase local well-being and create economic opportunities for green engineering and construction enterprises.
Well-being itself can’t be readily put in monetary terms, but energy savings from employing energy-efficient construction materials and building methods, and from using super insulation and passive solar technologies, not to mention the benefits of diminished greenhouse gas production, can. Combined savings can approach 50%. Moreover, there is a multiplier effect as demand for new ‘green construction’ businesses are created and young people are educated into new vocations and employed.
But this vision requires a change of attitude by professional architects and zoning authorities as to what constitutes a house and who should control the design process.
Many people’s experiences suggest, however, that local political vision interprets planning regulations less broadly and equitably than people would like. Such is the nature of Spanish history and political fragmentation that municipal decision-makers are not likely to have been drawn from a representative cross section of the people, which means that projects are deemed ‘strategic’ if they bring short term economic gains, favorable publicity and economic favor to key office holders, functionaries and business associates.
However, equitable and sustainable resource use and energy-efficient ‘green construction’, as mandated by the EU and national Spanish governing bodies, may well be dismissed as ‘not applicable’ because the particular combination of decision makers often have visions distorted by decades old, ideologically driven habits. What could and ought to be accomplished in their own municipality are set aside by other interests. This problem ought to be part of the focus of urbanization reforms.