Europe is going through a difficult moment: after the Recession and the austerity crisis, now the refugee drama and Britain’s decision to leave the Union are contributing to question the European idea.
It is time to underline that our mutual dependence in Europe is the key to our common wealth. Instead of erecting new mental walls between the UK and the continent, Eastern European immigrants and locals, industrious North Europeans and idle South Europeans, we have the unique chance to continue learning from each other in this densely populated and miscellaneous part of the world, which is so poor in natural resources as it is rich in cultural experiences.
In seeking how to tackle these challenges it may be useful to look at the European city. It is the urban environment with its historical density, controlled variety, good infrastructure and facilities, combined with its quality and safety of public spaces which has become one of the symbols of this continent’s global branding.
In Europe, the landscapes, cities, even the houses in which we live in have been shaped since centuries by human interaction. This highlights that the modelling of the human environment is a long-term process, and it reflects the reaction and adaptation to political, economic, social and climatic changes. Although political agendas follow a 4-year rhythm, for urban patterns we think of time-units of over a 100 years, and even for the smallest unit -the single building- we calculate a shelf life of not less than 30 years. Keeping this in mind we will have to live with today’s decisions until at least the year 2047.
The question for us architects may be the following: which are the ongoing developments in Europe which, with all certainty and despite all possible countermeasures, will have decisive effects on our built environment? In our fast moving technological and fashion-obsessed society we should look at those factors which are not necessarily linked to current trends or journalistic head-lines but obey the objective dynamics which are unlikely to change in a person’s life-time. To name just some:
• Demographic development: aging and general shrinking of population, despite immigration
• Energy dependence: high energy consumption, without significant local resources
• The climate issue: rising of average temperature and climatic changes
Some tendencies are global -like climatic change-, some others are shared with other developed areas in the world (age-demographics and the absence of local fossil energetic resources), but the combination of all within a multinational political frame is a very European situation.
Our current urban planning and concepts for our houses should take account these factors to produce adequate living spaces for the next generation. This can be done by transferring experience from North to South and East to West of the continent, to enhance and improve the unique qualities of the European habitat.
If in 50 years we are told to have Mediterranean temperatures in Germany and it would be useful to assess the previous experience of Southern European cities with this climatic context; at the same time a North-South knowledge transfer would be useful to face an age-demographic problem in Southern countries which Central European nations already had to face decades ago. Finally, it is evident -not only after the financial crisis- that the energy supply and maintenance of buildings must be as sustainable as its production.
Thus, although sometimes it appears to be the contrary, as in many parts of the planet, in Europe there is a real convergence of economic structures, social models, culture, education and soon even of climate: Will we be able to recognize the elements which are creating this new context and integrate them in our regional urban-planning and housing patterns? Can we improve the specifically European model, which combines adequate density, mixed use, constructive quality and sustainable flexibility with optimal interaction between in-and outdoor living? Will we be able to provide the elements to continue the success story of the European city, which is a model of quality of life, in safety and liberty, for the rest of the world?