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Why do the Spanish all live in flats?
/ LEAL

Why do the Spanish all live in flats?

  • Only 34 per cent of people in France live in apartment blocks, while in Spain the figure is almost double. A combination of factors explains the trend

The most optimistic among us say the coronavirus lockdown helped us to get to know ourselves better. It is yet to be seen whether that is the case, but what does seem clear is that, after being obliged to stay inside our homes for so long, we have come to know our living accommodation down to the tiniest detail.

Our homes may have became fortresses against the pandemic, but they also started to feel a bit like cages. And while we paced from one wall to another, while we worked from home with views of the neighbour's laundry and we dreamed of open spaces, we learned a lot about other people's homes: we saw videos of how people were coping with lockdown in different countries and we could see how many of them had gardens and courtyards, ideal spaces to exercise and for the children to let off steam. We could also see the beautiful green, sunny gardens which formed backdrops for the wealthiest people in Spain.

The pandemic has made us more aware that there is something unusual about our way of living: Spain is a nation of apartments, because there are far more of those than any other type of home.

For years the figures have shown us to be the European country with the highest proportion of apartments, although in the most recent statistics from Eurostat our traditional companion at the top of this table, Latvia, has moved slightly ahead. Sixty-six per cent of Latvians and nearly 65 per cent of Spanish residents live in apartments. Third on the list is Switzerland, with 62 per cent, while the European average is around 46 per cent.

In many countries the vast majority of the population live in houses: in Ireland, for example, only eight per cent live in an apartment. In the UK (which has 20 million more inhabitants than Spain and is half the size), the figure is about 14 per cent, and in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Croatia and Norway it is under 25 per cent.

Why do we live this way? What has led us to be a country of communities of neighbours, with a profile more like that of the Baltic republics than neighbouring France, where the proportion of apartment-dweller is 34 per cent, or even Portugal with 45 per cent?,

"We could be talking about several factors. Firstly, the use of land and resources. Construction in Spain has traditionally leaned towards high-rise building. That means there are fewer houses on offer, so they are more expensive. The second factor is that it is a residential product which demands greater economic effort. Finally, there is the variable of population density. People have to concentrate in the towns and cities, so horizontal construction would not be logical or profitable," says Ferran Font, the director of Studies at the Pisos.com online property portal.

Specialists in the history of town planning say this peculiarity has its roots in the rural exodus of the 1950s and 1960s. Spain is characterised by a late and intensive industrial development, which led to massive emigration from the countryside to the towns and cities: at the start of the 20th century, the urban population accounted for 32 per cent of the total, while in 1960 it had risen to 57 per cent and by 1980 was over 70 per cent, which is a particularly high figure.

Millions of people abandoned their village houses and moved to the towns. The Franco regime decided to house this massive amount of labour in apartment blocks, which were quick and cheap to build: it cost less to fit 30 families into one tall building than to distribute them in 30 houses.

That was a time when there were "strategies to minimise the cost of urbanisation and construction, pressure to maximise the lucrative aspect of the space available, and abusive speculation," as one study has described it. Houses increasingly became less important in Spain as a whole: in the 1970s they went from 57 per cent of the total to 36 per cent, while vertical districts were created such as the Otxarkoaga in Bilbao and Badia del Valles, which was part of Barcelona but is now a municipality in its own right. For most Spanish people, owning a villa was something to dream about, the ultimate sign of status.

No car

Sociologists point out a couple of other factors. One has to do with mobility: working class Spaniards didn't used to have cars, so it was more practical to crowd them close to the centres of production. Of course, the number of cars in those days was nothing like the 24 million there are today: in 1960 there were only 290,000, and in 1970, 2.3 million.

Another more tangible aspect, is the Spanish character, if there really is such a thing. Compared with the individualism of people in other countries, for whom the possibility of living a private life is important, we are supposed to be more sociable, we appreciate the hustle and bustle of the districts we live in and we don't mind sharing a hive with other families. At least, until now, when some of us have started to feel like chained-up bulls.

"The lockdown and restrictions on mobility have made us rethink how we want to live. We have been confronted with a domestic space which comes far from meeting the requirements of the home we dream of, because we have had the time to see what it lacks," says the expert from Pisos.com, where they have noted a growing demand for houses: contacts made regarding houses and villas to rent increased by 64 per cent in 2020, according to their records.

However, it seems very unlikely that this shows a changing trend in our way of living, because our towns have been configured around high-rise buildings. Also, this compact model is considered preferable from an ecological poinnt of view these days, due to the lower use of land, water and energy and because it favours the use of public transport.

"Maybe this trend is slightly noticeable, but not significantly so," says Fernando Molini, a professor of Human Geography at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

"On one hand, the timescales for urban development greatly exceed the duration of the pandemic. On the other, the economic crisis will have a greater effect on the purchase of houses, because they are much more expensive. And what is most important: there is quite a strong consensus among urban planners that houses have a much higher environmental cost. Although the demand for houses may increase due to the pandemic and people working from home, in my opinion it will have little influence on urban planning policies as a whole."