Parallels
6:56 am
Thu June 6, 2013

From The Sky, A View Of Spain's Boom And Bust

Originally published on Mon February 10, 2014 12:01 pm

Like the U.S. and many other Western countries, Spain's building boom in the previous decade was a major factor in its economic implosion. And now a trio of civil engineers in Spain has created a website that offers a dramatic before-and-after view of the country's construction bubble.

Called Nación Rotonda — "Roundabout Nation," in Spanish — the site displays before-and-after aerial photos of dozens of Spanish towns. Half-built condos, "roads to nowhere" and urban sprawl are juxtaposed with open farmland and forests that stood in their place just a few years ago.

The site is the brainchild of Esteban García, Miguel Álvarez and Rafael Trapiello. They're all civil engineers in their early 30s who studied urban planning, and then watched in horror as Spain did exactly what their professors taught them not to do.

"Around the end of 2003, I remember sitting in an urban planning class and hearing that 2 million new houses were being built in Madrid. And I raised my hand and said, 'That's crazy! Where are these people going to come from?' It was just madness!" García told NPR in a telephone interview from his office at a small Spanish engineering firm in Madrid. "Now we can see, 10 years later, that those people did not materialize."

But the houses did.

Two images on Nación Rotonda, originally taken from Google Earth, show the Madrid suburb of Paracuellos de Jarama in the year 2002, and then last year, in 2012.

Over 10 years, the size of the town doubled. Vast swaths of green farmland gave way to thousands of housing units lining newly bulldozed streets. And many of those are still empty.

Millions Of Empty Homes

Last month, Spain's national statistics agency said that 14 percent of the country's 25.2 million homes are vacant. That's more than 3.5 million homes in a country of 48 million people.

House prices have fallen as much as 50 percent in some coastal communities. Recently, the Spanish government announced it would offer residency to foreigners who buy up some of that empty inventory.

"We obviously have an excess supply of housing, not just in terms of residential construction, but also infrastructure — highways, railroads, high-speed trains, ports and airports," said José Manuel Campa, professor of financial management at Spain's IESE Business School.

"Our tax system was highly dependent on real estate development," said Campa, who served as Spain's secretary of state for the economy from 2009 to 2011. "Local communities collected a large amount of revenue from these activities — which is one of the reasons they're now struggling."

That struggle is being felt in bankrupt provinces like Valencia, where satellite photos on Nación Rotonda show a new highway cutting through former orange groves in the town of La Pobla de Vallbona.

Three roundabouts, or traffic circles, stand as modern sentinels on each edge of the swollen, empty development. Valencia is now Spain's most indebted province per capita, and one of several Spanish regions requesting a bailout from the central government.

Dramatic Changes In The Landscape

García got the idea for Nación Rotonda just last month, when he was searching through archive photos of Spanish towns from the 1950s, for an unrelated project at his engineering job.

He realized that he barely recognized much of his home country. So he started jotting down names of the towns with the most radical changes, and then discussed the idea with his friends. They invited a Web designer friend to help, and Nación Rotonda went live a few days later.

"It's a very visual thing. So we use very little text — just the name of the place, the province and the date. We don't want to editorialize," García said. "The pictures really speak for themselves."

Each set of photos is equipped with an interactive slider, offering time-lapse views of each town. Readers can also post their impressions. Most of those commenting applaud the website's founders for their creativity, but some accuse them of making fun of Spain, or question whether overbuilding really is a disaster for the country.

"It prompts people to think a lot about what they're seeing," García said. "We all have our own emotions about what has happened here."

Spain has some 8,000 municipalities, and the engineers behind Nación Rotonda hope to eventually locate and upload satellite images of them all — a project they estimate will take another year-and-a-half.

They all have day jobs and work on the website in their spare time. The site has no advertising, nor plans for a revenue stream, despite recent profiles in Spanish newspapers and thousands of mentions on social media.

"It's gone huge all of a sudden. But there's no business plan. It is what it is — pictures," García said. "Maybe in the future, if someone says, 'Hey, let's start building houses like madmen again,' this can be a cautionary reference for them."

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