Costa del Sprawl; Why I Care

Last month I (SE) was delighted to be awarded with the Bedford Travel Scholarship by the West Yorkshire Society of Architects for my proposal ‘Costa del Sprawl: Can Urban Design Hinder Integration?’. My proposal is deeply personal and has grown from thoughts I’ve been having about by upbringing in Spain. The Costa del Sol has a certain, somewhat justified reputation, but is a place that has shaped me into the person I am today. Of course it is nice to win any award and receive recognition for ideas, especially one which I believe reflects me as a person, but with a scholarship it’s different. A group of people have selected me to invest their faith and resources in, and that is rather daunting.

It was 15th May 2002 (half time in the Champions League Final, Zinedine Zidane had just scored that goal) when my parents called home from their short trip to Spain.

“Did you see that goal?!?”

“Beauty wasn’t it” replied my dad

“Just before half time, as well”

“Ye, listen Sam” said my dad with an unfamiliar seriousness “We’ve just bought an apartment here. We’re going to sell the house and move to Spain in Summer”

“Ok, can you bring me back a Malaga shirt?”

“I want one too” screamed my brother from the living room.

“Robbie wants one as well. The players are coming out again, see you later”

Three months later my dad, brother and I kissed my mum goodbye before driving down the steep winding roads of Calahonda to a bus stop which sat between the competing roars of the dual carriageway and the uncharacteristically choppy mediterranean. We had been promised a pink coach would collect us, and judging by the matching outfits of the others transfixed by the oncoming traffic in a subconscious but unmistakably British attempt to avoid interaction, we were in the right place. ‘The Pink Panther’, as it was know, appeared over the brow of slip road and everyone rose to their feet, unpeeling their trousers from the backs of their sticky legs. Before we’d climbed the steps up onto the bus a Scouse accent from a bearded face welcomed us aboard.

“Alright, you must be Eddie and the boys, find yourselves a seat”

My dad probably said something in response but my brother and I were too busy obeying Ken’s orders to take note. After a couple more stops Ken got up from his seat and walked along the isle of the coach placing a hand on the top corner of each seat for both stability and authority like a school teacher in charge of rows of children.

“This your first match tonight then lads?”

We nodded.

“Already got the blue and white stripes, you look the part.” he said, justifying his own choice to wear of a football shirt at over 50 years of age “right then fellas, you’re in the Fondo Alto, that’s up the top behind the goal, cracking view, it’ll be bouncing up there if they win tonight!”

Malaga did indeed win that night and in so doing  secured a place in the upcoming season’s UEFA Cup. We continued to take the Pink Panther with international supporters club for the rest of the season.

One of our first experiences of the Costa del Sol was one of immigrants like ourselves finding something we love, something we miss from home, something in the local culture we could relate to, and taking part wholeheartedly. The image of a football-shirt-wearing bloke from Liverpool with an English bar in Marbella might seem to contradict that of a passionate facilitator of desperately needed cultural integration, but it’s exactly this contradiction that allows us to embrace the richness of cultures that surround us, all the while maintaining our own culture and identity sufficiently to share them with others.

The discussion about immigration and integration in politics and the media speaks volumes of the generation in power who are driving the discussion; a generation unprepared to acknowledge that globalisation and interconnectedness are very much tethered to the arrow of time and are only moving in one direction. Discussions about the pros and cons of immigration are not only divisive and demeaning of human life, but are utterly futile. Immigration is an inevitable necessity and our efforts should not be distracted by nonsensical debate, but instead focused on how we make these defining characteristics of the modern world work well for us all. But integration is not as straightforward as certain people would like us to believe, nor is lack of integration down to cultural incompatibility, ignorance, laziness or any other single reason. Complex circumstances define what social opportunities are open to us, and more often than not we’re completely unaware of the circumstances that are at work.

Aside from with my football and athletics team mates, most of my social interactions were with British people. Even when I was at the Spanish state school I attended, breaks would be spent in a social group of compatriots talking about the Premier League, Big Brother, the new Scottish girl in my class, and who we think she fancies (not me). It was hard work holding my own among my British peers; hours of awful television and doing jobs for my mum just so I could keep up with conversation while wearing over-priced but definitely cool trainers on my feet. Integrating with people from my own country was tough enough, the thought of breaking into and then staying afloat in a Spanish group seemed nothing short of impossible.

It’s only since starting my studies in Architecture that I’ve really started to question and think more about the surroundings in which I spent some of the most important years of my childhood and adolescence, and how strongly they have influenced the person I have become. Every time I return to the Costa del Sol I’m more intrigued by complexity of the place and the unique lives its resident live.

The whole area I was brought up in was shaped around the sea and the idea of selling people a dream. The steep hills which rise up from the beaches led to an unimaginative, simplistic and uncoordinated approach which saw development squeezed and stretched along the coast. The properties of the initial wave of sprawl were designed to accommodate dreams of escape, luxury and tranquility, and it was never foreseen that in a few decades they would become the closest thing to a centre for tens of thousands of new residential and holiday properties. As enthusiasm for the Costa del Sol’s offerings reached its peak in the early 2000’s the hills which had once jammed development into a thin band along the coast became the recipients of property developers’ speculative constructions. There was never any plan to build a functioning community for people amid this challenging topography, simply an opportunity for financial investments in concrete and terracotta brick form. People were never intended to congregate anywhere other than around the pool of for a game of tennis within the community’s fenced boundary.

Hills, golf courses and gated communities are the main obstacles to direct walking routes in the area around my apartment. If you’re prepared to be chased by angry golfers in electric buggies, you can shave 15 minutes off the 20 minute walk to the nearest shop by taking the par 5 12th hole instead of Severiano Ballesteros Street. A mile as the crow flies is at lest two walking the meandering streets, and without the slightest public transport coverage, just about anyone who wants to go anywhere is forced to travel from one underground garage to another in their private cars. This meant (and still means) that if we wanted a social life independent from our parents we had to find friends that not only lived within walking distance, but also shared interests that we could do in places which were within walking distance. The sprawl imposed demanding criteria upon any potential new friends.

It may seem odd to bemoan the possibilities of social settlement afforded by a somewhat designed environment considering that humans settlements have managed to thrive in far less hospitable environments for thousands of years, but it is this very consideration that pushes me towards the hypothesis that the sprawling urban design of places such as the Costa del Sol actively discourages the coming together of people. This in turn inhibits the formation of any meaningful, active or engaged community, and therefore any ability for residents to collectively imagine and create a built environment that works for its inhabitants.

Reliable statistics are incredibly difficult to find about specific areas of the Costa del Sol, despite the vast variety of communities that exist in different parts. The lack of any physically recognisable centre dilutes any unique sense of place that might develop in these newly formed neighbourhoods, denying residents a place to protest in times of frustration, to unite in times of pride (should there ever be any in future) or to care for one another in times of need such as the wild-fires of 2012. There is of course no cultural nor administrative centre for most neighbourhoods, meaning a full day trip is required for residents of the newer structures should they not own a car and wish to visit an art gallery or update their documentation.

I hope to build a balanced body of research with intertwining anecdotal and statistical evidence to highlight the social difficulties imposed upon these predominantly immigrant inhabited urbanisations. I’ve looked for information on this subject in this area before and found nothing so I hope my work can at the very least form a foundation from which others can build in future should they wish to. I don’t feel the need to defend the Costa del Sol, but I do feel the need to better understand it, and the key to understanding how things are is being able to imagine alternatives. It is for that reason I have launched an ideas competition which seeks designs from anyone and everyone which examine the future of the abandoned concrete structures left behind by the financial crisis.

I will exhibit my research and the ideas proposed in order to build up a picture of the past, present and possible future ways in which urban design can allow communities to best take advantage of one another’s rich and contradictory cultures. Until now design has let the residents of the Costa del Sol down and I hope to show that whether it be at an urban, architectural or product scale, it shapes us all, and the more we all understand how, the more control we have over the kind of people we want to become kind of societies we want to build.

[COSTA DEL SPRAWL open ideas competition]

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