La Manzana Tradicional Europea: que es, como se construyo, porque no puede construirse hoy

Urban kchoze: Traditional Euro-bloc: what it is, how it was built, why it can’t be built anymore.

Bien, así que otro tema que ya toqué antes, la tradicional Manzana Europea primero identificada en mi comparación entre los diferentes enfoques para la densidad y la construcción de ciudad. Sólo pensé que valía la pena una mejor descripción.

La tradicional Manzana Europea (lo que en un principio llamé la tradicional manzana urbana europea) es una forma de desarrollo que está presente en casi todas las ciudades de Europa y tipicamente forma sus más densas secciones residenciales y mezcladas.

Here is a typical example, in Prague:
A more recent Traditional Euro-bloc in Prague
Traditional Euro-bloc seen from the street, in Prague

Así que, ¿cuál es la tradicional Manzana Europea? Toma la forma de edificios construidos pared con pared, bordeando la calle, que suelen ser de media altura (generalmente de 4 a 6 pisos de altura, a veces un poco más o menos). Tienen poco o ningún remetimiento al frente, que da un gran sentido del recinto (tal vez incluso más de lo que a la mayoría de los norteamericanos les gustaría), pero que tiene la posibilidad de crear una escena callejera claustrofóbica y fría si no tiene actividad comercial y con aparcamiento en la calle. Dado que los edificios se construyen en el límite de la propiedad, se crea un espacio vacío dentro de la manzana, ese espacio se puede utilizar de muchas maneras diferentes: un patio compartido, aparcamiento, un parque, campos de juego, etc …

Las zonas mas antiguas tienden a tener calles más caóticas, siguiendo la geografía en vez de un plan, también suelen tener edificios más bajos, pero sus patios están llenos de más construcciones, por lo que la densidad total es igual o mayor que las zonas más recientes.

Older Prague Traditional Euro-blocs, less straight streets, courtyards are mostly built out
From the street, buildings are a bit lower than in the previous images
This is the type of bloc that most tourists see in Europe, the type of bloc that many classical urbanists fall in love with and use as inspiration for their recommended solutions to urban problems. Though not very tall, they often have high to very high lot coverage and so have very high FAR. For example, even the example in the first image has a lot coverage ratio of 55-60%, so the FAR is 300 to 350%. They will often incorporate retail on the ground floor, and therefore be the classical mixed-use building: retail on the ground, residential in upper floors.
OK, so that’s it for the form, but as I said, I’m rather a sucker for the process. How were they built? Well, I admit being privy to no in-depth research on this, but I think that by observing them, it is possible to deduce how they were built.
First of all, let’s go back to the first image, note that despite certain similarities in height, form and materials, the block is NOT made of one large building, nor even of a few large buildings. No, it is in fact made up of a lot of narrow buildings about 12 meters wide (40 feet).
Euro-blocs are made up of a lot of narrow buildings, not of a few big ones
Why is this important? Because if buildings are narrow, it means that blocks such as this can be built progressively, they don’t need to spring up at once, building the blocs can be a matter of incremental development. But if that is true, then there must be transitional areas still around where we can see some buildings having been built up and some others haven’t. And indeed, looking at smaller cities, we can notice similarities between these blocs and blocs of smaller townhouses that are present in areas that were less central and less populated, and find areas where the two building forms coexist.
The bloc’s basic design is already present, but some buildings are older, smaller, with only 2 stories, whereas buildings on the main avenue are deeper and taller, yet they have the same width, so can be built on the same lot
What this means is that it is very possible for areas to have begun full of attached single-family houses with 2 stories (or maybe even one, but they’re rare nowadays), only to be progressively built up, either by being replaced or by having floors added to existing buildings. Of course, this process didn’t need to come up all at once, which means that for a while, there would have been “pop-out” buildings taller than the rest, with walls built ready to welcome buildings of its own size later one.
This can actually be seen in certain areas, like…
A 3-story pop-out in a 1- and 2-story area
5-story pop-out near 2-story housing
Another pop-out

Now, it is important also to consider that these areas were largely designed before the 20th century, so before elevators and modern building techniques, in a time where builders were probably a guild of artisans who didn’t have a lot of theoretical know-how, so they stuck to what they knew and used local materials. That explains the similar look of buildings built in earlier times, as opposed to today where construction companies can and do design buildings on computers and calculate loads to be able to come up with diverse models of buildings, using materials imported from everywhere in the world. The lack of elevator explains why height is limited to 4 to 6 stories, as stories over the third floor have less value than the 3rd and 2nd floors. The ground floor is unique in that it is worth more if used for commercial uses, but less if used for residential use (because of lack of privacy).

I know many urbanists and architects have eyes only for the ultimate form of Paris, central Prague, central Munich and others, areas that have already largely maxed-out their Euro-blocs, with similar-looking buildings over whole blocs…

Barcelona from the street

However, it is important to understand that this is only the final form these neighborhoods took, they mostly had to go through transitions where a few buildings were taller than others, then ratios reverse and you had a few small hold-outs in a zone of taller mid-rise apartments.

In Lyon, one small hold-out in an area of 6-story high apartment buildings

So, to come back to the idea of urbanism focused on form or on process, focusing on the form of these Euro-blocs rather than the process through which they were built is, in my view, a mistake. They have emerged largely organically through incremental development, responding to economic signals and community needs, trying to replace that by a planner’s dictates seems like a bad idea to me. But that’s what happens when people want harmony and are ready to leapfrog stages of development heedless of economic realities to get it. Not that it cannot work, but it can also fail by making it so expensive and difficult to do that developers will pass on that opportunity and prefer to work in suburbs where regulations are less restrictive.

Can we build this today too?

Actually, the exact form of these Euro-blocs would probably be illegal, and adapting them to fulfill the legal obligations would make them much more expensive.

The primary reason is that these small buildings were walkups with, in general, 2 units per floor maximum, some are less than 9 meters wide (30 feet) and so have 1 unit per floor. They only had stairs to allow people to move from one floor to the other, even when they had 5 or 6 stories. They also were designed to be deep, to have windows both facing the street and the courtyard. Remember that exterior walls are crucial because windows are required for bedrooms and living rooms (either required by law or by buyers’ demand).

Schematic of a possible walk-up building forming part of a Euro-bloc

The problem is that nowadays, regulations exist to impose elevators, sprinkler systems and concrete to buildings that are 4 stories or more in North America and in a lot of other developed nations. All of these are systems with very high fixed costs. For example, apparently the average cost of building an elevator for a multi-family building is around 110 000$ (source), and you also need stairs, for emergencies if nothing else, so it’s not like you’re replacing stairs by an elevator, you’re adding an elevator to the stairs.

So you’re piling on cost after cost, and losing some floor space every time. But if you have a small building with 4 units (a 9-meter wide, 4-story tall building) or even a larger one with 8, these fixed costs weigh heavily on each unit, making them much more expensive than they otherwise would be if the building was a traditional wooden-frame walk-up, up to 60% more expensive by my rough estimates. To solve the issue, you need to build more units per building so as to spread the costs around, and you can do that one of two ways:

1- Build higher, at 8 stories you can have twice the number of units you’d have at 4 stories, and an elevator’s marginal cost per additional floor isn’t that high
2- Build a much wider building, so that each floor is bigger and has more units, units sharing the same elevator.

In the first case, you go much higher, which is a marked departure from the traditional Euro-bloc. In the latter, the effect is less perceptible… from the outside, but the impact on residents is much greater. Whereas in the previous walk-ups the units had windows in the front and in the back, allowing for some natural air flow through the unit, the units in a wide building will have windows only on one side, making it harder to get good ventilation and proper illumination  (a famous issue withback-to-back houses, but one that is not often mentioned when talking of condo units with a similar layout)

Interior schematic of  a wide apartment building with a corridor separating front and back units in order to allow residents of each to get to the shared elevator

OK, to be fair, there is a design to combine the apartments that have windows on the back and front with a wide building, but it is a design I have rarely if ever seen outside of Japan. Basically, you have an exterior corridor on the front or back of the building, and windows open on that corridor.

Alternative design, rare (but more common in Japan) where a long balcony serves as an exterior corridor connecting apartments, with windows opening on it
Example of this design in Fukuoka, shared balcony on the front of the building, connecting apartments to the stairs and elevator
A view of the doors and windows on the front
In the back, private balconies, also not that the ground floor is used for parking

No matter what form they take, the big problem with wide buildings in developed areas is that, unless there are already big lots for sale, you can’t just replace one small building, you have to buy a whole lot of them, and they must be adjacent to one another, so that you can replace them all in one swoop. That is very hard to do, especially if people own the housing, they may be reluctant to let it go, even if they are paid handsomely to. This slows down redevelopment to a crawl as the opportunities for redevelopment are very rare.

Regulations imposing harmony between buildings also make it much harder for redevelopment to occur, as they force entire blocs to be redeveloped at the same time, which is extremely hard to do, unless one uses eminent domain, or if there are abandoned areas in cities, old industrial areas or blighted neighborhoods, which by definition tend not to be areas where demand for housing is highest.

Emulation of the model outside of Europe

North American cultures mainly come from European civilizations, but they have distanced themselves from Europe over time. Older areas tend to be most similar to Europe, areas like Boston and Québec City.

Street from the old areas of Québec City

However, most North American cities, even in the 19th century, have departed greatly from this model, mostly with the addition of front setbacks and a tendency to eschew attached buildings in favor of detached ones.

Brooklyn, the attached narrow walk-up building model of the Euro-bloc is present, but wide streets and front setbacks have been added, with front stairs to create a buffer between
From the sku, Brooklyn bears some resemblance to the Euro-bloc, but the courtyards are next to never developed and don’t seem shared
Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie in Montréal: also with attached building, but 2 to 3 stories only, with  Québec-style exterior stairways, front setbacks, wider streets and private backyards, often with a back alley cutting the yards in two
From the sky, the blocs tend to be much longer than in Europe, courtyards are less developed

It is important to point out, I think, that most major North American cities were mostly built in the era of streetcars and trains, which allowed faster commutes that reduced the need to really optimize to the fullest the use of land. So there is also an economic reason why the European model wasn’t copied completely, if not outright abandoned. As land was less valuable thanks to faster travel (in most cities anyway), they could afford to waste a bit of land for setbacks and buffers to suit the sensibility of North Americans, more used to isolated rural buildings.

Now, in most recent years, there has been a few outright emulations of the FORM of the Traditional Euro-bloc, but the process behind their creation has been completely different. Generally, a developer will seize upon a vacant or blighted large lot and build a few big buildings copying the Euro-bloc, if not outright a bloc-sized building. For example:


Recent apartments built in downtown LA that copy the Euro-bloc form
This is the view from the street

This is a recent development in Los Angeles, an extremely controversial one. One of the projects of the same developer, built on the same design, was even victim of an arson while in construction, an arson attack that was thorough so that the entire building burnt down. Unlike the traditional Euro-bloc, it is not made up of small walk-ups, but is one massive complex with courtyards built inside. Taking a page from the North American condo lifestyle, many private amenities (pool, gym, etc…) have been built inside the project. Since it’s one complex, it largely offers blank walls to the street and has been accused of being an inward-looking fortress (which is a criticism that could somewhat also be leveled at traditional Euro-blocs).

Utase, Japan
I’ve also chanced upon a weird example of Euro-bloc emulation in Japan through Google Maps. It was so glaring that I was able to find it while looking at a large zoom level.

I am not kidding, I spotted this neighborhood UFO from this zoom level, just by looking at patterns that can be seen here, the squares in the red circle do not belong there

The neighborhood is called Utase, or Makuhari Baytown, it was built in the mid-1990s on reclaimed land, so it was tabula rasa, planners could build whatever they wanted. What I’ve been able to find on it doesn’t say if it was the work of one private developer or if the town atypically for Japan decided to create a master plan and direct its construction.

Makuhari Baytown

There are some pretty tall structures on one side… closest to the train station, but the blocs in the middle are more scaled to typical European sizes, but with a Japanese twist, following rules of protection of access to the sun and the huge sidewalks with little on-street parking the Japanese prefer. Buildings also have big balconies, another departure from the European style.

The central blocs of Utase, with big parking lot in background

As the last image shows, again, though it resembles the outline of the Euro-bloc, the composition of it is radically different. Rather than traditional narrow walk-ups built wall-to-wall, they have used very wide modern mid-rise buildings with elevators.

Street view of Utase, big sidewalks, not much place for on-street parking and balconies fronting the street

As I pointed out however, the Traditional Euro-bloc was developed in a certain context and is the result of the incremental development of central urban areas. This is a neighborhood that was built ex nihilo on reclaimed land, so disconnected from existing urban areas. It is relatively close to a train station… but not for Tokyo. The nearest train station is about 1,5 km away, or nearly a mile away. That is not bad from a North American perspective, but this is a Tokyo suburb, where most housing lie within 500 meters of 1, sometimes 2, train/subway station.

The 6-story high Euro-blocs tend to have been built over time, in areas that were already in the heart of cities, full of services and retail. This was built in a relatively secluded area, as a result, parking had to be provided. The Euro-bloc form is not really friendly to cars as it offers little parking, often taking place in the street, an impossibility in the Japanese regulatory context. The result was instead huge bloc-sized parking lots as seen in an earlier image, or even elevated parking garages built in the “courtyards” of the blocs.

3-story elevated parking garages built inside the blocs surrounded by tall towers
You can see the parking garage between the nearer and farther towers

So this shows one issue with copying the form without necessarily looking at the process and the economic reasons why that form exists in the first place. If you just build it anywhere because you like how it looks, it won’t necessarily perform as well you would think. Still, I’ve got to admit, that area (well, the mid-rise parts) look pretty damn nice, especially the Japanese-style streets and the balconies. But looks are one thing, function is another, I am not sure this area is quite as successful as traditional Japanese-style developments in encouraging non-motorized modes of travel.


So that was my take on the traditional European urban form of development, as I understand it. Again, it is important to keep in mind that the form that it took was due to the economic and technological realities of European cities. That form makes perfect sense in that context, but it may not be adequate in other contexts. This is the pitfall that many urban-minded people fall into, they come into contact with that building form, whether on trips to Europe or while in school studying urban planning, and they decide they like that form, then push for it.

Euro-blocs often have 4 to 6 story limits? OK, but those limits were due to the absence of elevators and regulatory environment that allowed wooden-frame 4+-story walk-ups. Nowadays, it’s largely not possible to build something like that. At 4 stories and more, we are often required to use concrete, have elevators and sprinkler system, which pile on costs and make the typical building seen in Euro-blocs uneconomical to build, so if you want the Euro-bloc logic to function, you have to allow buildings that allow these higher costs to be diluted on more units. So being too focused on copying the form may severely handicap our ability to build cities that respond to people’s needs and ambitions.


Acerca de salvolomas

Asociación vecinal, cuyo objeto es preservar la colonia habitacional unifamiliar, sus calles arboladas con aceras caminables, con trafico calmado, seguras para bici, parques, areas verdes, centros de barrio de uso mixto accesibles a pie y oficinas solo en áreas designadas.
Esta entrada fue publicada en Densidad y Productividad, Desarrollo Urbano, Economia, Edificios, Espacio Publico, Habitabilidad, Planeacion Urbana, Politicas Publicas, Uso de Suelo, Vivienda y etiquetada , , , , . Guarda el enlace permanente.


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