When considering the sustainable rehabilitation of cities, we almost always think about traffic or energy savings, and without hesitation, these aspects of sustainability are very important, but it is not enough to stay there. On what aspect we must take into account to have a truly human and sustainable city, this article is about.
The ancient Romans already differentiated two “founding” parts in their cities: “Urbis” defined the built, the whole of architecture and urbanism, while “civitas” referred to the interpersonal relationships within the built city. The two were connected to each other. The place where each citizen lived affected their relationships and vice versa: their social environment influenced their way of life. As Saskia Sassen says, all this has come down to our days although some factors have gained and others have lost their strength. The sociologist points out the importance of the place where we were born as a key element in the development of each individual and the consequence of this fact is the constant increase of social differences; the rich are born rich and the poor are born poor.
But how does this theme move to the field of contemporary cities in Spain?
Let’s go back to the question of sustainable rehabilitation demanded by our cities. A disproportionate urban development in the decades of the 60s and 70s, gives us back, now, a crisis in most of the neighborhoods built at that time. Many times deteriorated, giving its inhabitants a quality of life that leaves much to be desired, these parts of the city become a real problem. But an even more serious problem can lead to inadequate solutions to this question, and that is where urbanism and architecture play a leading role.
It seems that issues related to the material part of the city are currently more developed than those focused on the civic, both at the scale of a portal and a metropolis. It is true that there is enough to stimulate citizen participation, but on the subject that is in its roots, and that is none other than identity, little is said. And why is this question so important? Because understood as the need of belonging of an individual to a place defines the foundation of the city “civitas”. It is a “construction” raised slowly for many years. It has a very fragile structure and is very sensitive to changes. But the contemporary city with its flows and mutations neglects identity and when we look for places where it is present, we reach a scale where the concept of neighborhood becomes important. It is the spirit of the neighborhood that makes people feel rooted. Paraphrasing Heidegger, we are part of the places because the places are part of us. There are some very important bonds that make us say: “I am from here”. The same happens to the neighbor of the Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona, Alfama in Lisbon or Montmartre in Paris. In these cases the issue of identity is evident, but there are places where people feel ashamed of their roots.
However, there are no bad places, only those that need to be recognized and that is why stimulating the recognition of deteriorated neighborhoods is the question that we should consider in the framework of sustainable rehabilitation. A place by the mere fact of being inhabited by a person already takes on a special value and belongs to architecture and urbanism the ability to value a deteriorated identity.
We need an architecture that recycles the spirit of the neighborhood by stimulating relations between neighbors and freeing them from the complex that is supposed to inhabit a degraded area. The ways to carry out this concept can be several, but all require dialogue and collaboration of the triumvirate formed by competent technicians, real channels of citizen participation and politicians sensitive to the needs of people.
The policy of tabula rasa, often practiced in the case of deteriorated neighborhoods, becomes a more than incorrect solution. It supposes an enormous expenditure of energy and materials and produces an inordinate amount of waste. In addition, the fragile system of the “civitas” is destroyed in the eviction-relocation process of the inhabitants. Thus, the spirit of the neighborhood ends up dying under the rubble, something unique and impossible to rebuild in the cities that we are raising today.