Landscape lost: building amnesty and profit of illegal buildings

“The structural integrity of a building is no stronger than the social integrity of the builder and each nation has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure adequate inspection. In particular, nations with a history of significant earthquakes and known corruption issues should stand reminded that an unregulated construction industry is a potential killer”.
Modern ruins. A profitable topography

An interesting photography research project entitled “Modern ruins: a topography of profit” leaded by J.S.Dornburg shows the new Spanish landscape in the area between Malaga, Murcia, Zaragaza and Almeria. 
It is a photography inventory of the new housing estate, built during the property boom (1996-2007) before the economical crisis and never inaugurated. These new settlements intended to be luxury resorts, actually they will be the modern ruins, the new frontiers of profitable urban districts. Virgin transformed landscape. Unfinished, abandoned and empty.

In Spain between 2000 and 2005 the surface of built-up soil increased to 27.666 ha. During the building boom Spain built more houses than German, France and Italy put together. Ask for a loan was very affordable until the financial bubble burst. The first consequences were a credit crunch and a lot of unfinished buildings yard. Hundreds of thousands of unsold existing homes and the construction industry not in operation led the Spanish economy to nose down. The Spanish bank which financed the development was trapped between unsold properties and financial exposure by billions of dollars. That is the Bankia case, which had twenty percent of loans in the real estate sector and in May was nationalized by the government. Immediately the stock market crashed.

The italian case

In Italy during the ’70 a big economical crisis hit the nation, but the investments “on the brick” were the only way to protect savings. Many of these buildings were built illegally and the phenomenon was so vast that three building amnesties, the last in 2003, increased the public earnings, but didn’t solve the real problem. Still today on the 7.400 Km of Italian coasts, it is possible to count a thousand of architectural emergencies subjected to demolition. In most of these cases they are seized and perpetual neglected, with a consequent degradation of the structure with high risk of collapse.

The phenomenon of illegal buildings in Italy is very old, and very specific for the Italian context, but recalling some important events could help to understand other similar conditions in different countries.
In Italy after the war, the situation about the illegal housing met a new development because of the massive wave of immigration and the simultaneous lack of public solutions related to the housing. In response to the housing crisis, the number of illegal units recorded a soaring. After the Agrigento landslide (Sicily) in 1966, caused by the production of 8,500 buildings in conflict with the rules, the awareness of the immorality of unauthorized buildings led to reform urban planning. The reform attempt was foiled by the lords of the brick, as a result of their pressure on politicians of the time.

Illegal buildings were legally regulated in 1985 with a law by Craxi. It was the first Italian building amnesty and unfortunately not the last. Decades after the first building amnesty, in Rome other abusive villages were built. The tolerance of the institutions for this phenomenon and the lack of public intervention permitted that the speculative annuity prevails. The 1994 is the year of the second Italian building amnesty. The law introduced under the Berlusconi's government had the aim and the illusion to refill the public finances. The building amnesty was repeated in 2003 as a measure for the development and correction of public finances.

After sixty-three years from the first urban planning law, in 2005 in Italy was introduced an urban reform law, which makes equal the public to private. According to this law the public and private sectors draw together urban plans. Nothing wrong, but for the numerous gaps. Italy is the country where the public housing continues to fail because is the answer of a system in perpetual emergency. The persist of this state of affairs leads to a sort of no future city and for the Italian territory in general, no longer regarded as common goods to preserve and improve in a long-term perspective, become simply a tool in the hands of speculative bodies with a short term vision.

In the book 'A brief history of unauthorized buildings in Italy' Berdini illustrates ninety years of unauthorized building. In the chapter "The Triumph of the do it yourself country", he shows as a nation without an involved government, become a DIY land, with all the negative consequences.

Still building amnesties

Today the Spanish parliament approved a measure, which reduces to just 20 meters from the coast the extent to which it is possible to build.
The measure reverses the effects of a 1988 law that prohibited the presence of houses less than 100 meters from the coast. It states that twenty thousand houses built before 1988, whose demolition was planned in 2018, will now be able to stand for 75 years more. This building amnesty maybe will be able to increase public cash, maybe will give oxygen to the real estate industry paralyzed by the crisis and will avoid the cost of dozens of demolitions of illegal buildings. Although it represents a recovery of money, it is just an illusion: it is shown that the costs of an unplanned territory are greater and they can never be recovered by a building amnesty. The substantial failure of the practice of building amnesty consists in a measure that not only hurts the economy and culture of legality, but legitimizes the presence of entire new urban areas built on rural non-building land.

Moreover, it si important to recall the deep relationship between the construction industry and corruption. In particular a study leaded by professors Nicholas Ambraseys of Imperial College of London and Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado explores the link between corruption in the construction industry and the deaths caused by the collapse of buildings after earthquakes, and shows that 83% of the deaths caused by the collapse of buildings during an earthquake occurs in corrupt countries.

The use of low class materials, the rudimentary assembly methods, buildings placement in unsuitable sites and a non-compliance with the building codes are the faces of corruption. The worldwide construction industry, with an annual wealth of 7.5 billion, expected to double in the next decade; it would be the most corrupt segment of the global economy. Since 1980, deaths caused by the absence of an effective earthquake engineering activity averaged 18,300 per year.

What can we learn from these experiences, as citizens, as architects, as well as planners, politicians or tourists? 
If we can learn from mistakes, the Italian and Spanish cases can help us to understand the role that the construction industry performs in the national economy, but also the long-term consequences they cause. If it is true that "the urban space gains its significance as a result of the activities carried out within it, the characteristics of people who inhabit it, the shape which it derives from its physical structures and perceptions that people have of it” (J.Borja), as result the city is a social creation. The city is the mirror of society. Improving the city means improving society and vice versa. That being so, what city needs, it is control and freedom, but in order to equilibrate the two aspects a greater effort of participation in decision-making is necessary.

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