Re-Block: Lessons on Improving Quality of Life in European Block Real Estates

Ivan Tosics

By Ivan Tosics, on April 22nd, 2015

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By today it is more or less clear that constructing large-scale housing estates was one of the dead-end pathways of urbanism 30-60 years ago. The architects of such estates believed “… in the role of architecture as a weapon of social reform … when everyone would live in cheap prefabricated flat-roofed multiple dwellings – heaven on earth.” (Philip Johnson, American architect). Their dream became partly true: many families, who could not afford to live elsewhere, moved into the prefabricated highrises. However, due to the concentration of poor (and in many cases, migrant) households, most estates soon became problematic.

Roughly 50-60 million people in the EU15 countries (14% of the population) and further 30-40 million people in the EU13 countries (34%) live today on such estates. What can be done to improve their quality of life? This was the question of the Re-Block network, which held its final conference at the end of February in Iasi, Romania.

The complexity of the situation can easily be illustrated with four cases of the 10 cities of the network.

In Södertalje (a growing city of 65 thousand habitants, 30 km away from Stockholm), the Fornhöjden housing estate with its 1100 flats/4000 inhabitants has been built in the 1965-75 ‘Million Programme’ period. The estate, being not far from the city centre but very separated in the middle of a hilltop forest, became very segregated with 60% of its residents having a foreign background. The growing social problems can not be recognised from outside, as the physical environment gets proper maintenance (and there is a zero tolerance policy to litter or graffiti) in order to prevent the bad image of the area becoming worse.


In Malaga (a growing city of 580 thousand habitants in the south of Spain), the La Palma housing estate with its 2400 flats/11500 inhabitants became the most problematic area of the city. Poor urban planning is not the m,ain problem: unemployment reached 75-80% (and 90% among the youth), and 50% of the residents live with an income below the poverty treshold. Education is poor and the proportion of early school leavers is very high. The area is reputated an unsafe place, described as a city without laws. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that on the flat roofs of some of the buildings, illegal cock-fighting is sometimes organized.

In Magdeburg (a shrinking city of 230 thousand habitants in the post-socialist part of Germany) the Neu Olvenstedt housing estate was finished in 1990 with 13000 flats/31000 inhabitants. Since then 6000 flats had to be demolished in the last years as the population reduced drastically to only 10000 people. Despite the very good infrastructure (tram to city centre) and good schools, further decline in population is expected. Due to the demolitions there are large empty spaces and green fields between the blocks and also the former shopping centre disappeared.


In Budapest District 18 (a local government with a stable population of 98000 as part of the stable 1,7 million city of Budapest), the Havanna housing estate was finished in 1983 with 6200 flats for 17000 inhabitants. The isolated estate has a relatively bad image and very low real estate values compared to other parts of Budapest. As a consequence, many residents consider Havanna only as a temporary location, not wanting to spend more than 2-3 years here. The buildings have low energy standards. Despite all of those problems, there are no visible signs of deterioration in the estate.

Ivan3The summaries illustrate the huge differences there are between the cities and their housing estates. Södertalje and Malaga are growing cities; Magdeburg is shrinking, while Budapest/Havanna are stagnating. In the Södertalje and Malaga estates social problems dominate. Magdeburg fights with empty spaces, and Budapest, with energy efficiency problems. There are also large differences in the property relations: the Budapest estate is 95% owner-occupied, Malaga’s situation is mixed, while in Magdeburg and Södertalje, housing associations dominate.

There are similarly huge differences in the financial circumstances of the cities, impacting on how much they can spend on their problematic estates: Södertalje and Magdeburg are financially rather strong, having spent at least 15-20 thousand euros/flat for improvements (or demolition). Compared to that, Malaga and Budapest have insignificant financial resources.

No wonder that the aims and aspirations of the cities are also quite different: Södertalje would like to turn the estate into an ecological model of good quality neighbourhood; Malaga would like to transform the area into a normal part of the city; Magdeburg would like to solve the problem of empty areas while Budapest aims to deal with the energy efficiency problem, also in order to increase the real estate value of the flats.

During the project visits, the partners of the Re-Block network could see and understand many different approaches to tackle the problems: tenant’s associations, neighbourhood management, local newspapers, attractive low-cost programmes for residents, efforts to create better public transport connections to the city, participative planning. Richer cities could learn from the cheap and simple solutions applied by the poorer cities while the latter could think about the advantages and disadvantages of the more costly interventions.

From the many discussions, the importance of Urban Governance was crystallized. The problems of deprived areas can not be solved without the involvement of minorities and disadvantaged groups into decision-making. As a sign for a move from hierarchical, top-down attitudes towards enabling and inclusive approaches ,the idea of PPPP (public-private-people partnership) has been raised, especially in service provision. Cities understood that they have to find that type of governance innovation which best fits the specificities of their housing estate.

Important lessons could be learnt:

  • social problems might lead to deterioration even quicker than physical ones
  • demolition of (even good quality) housing might become unavoidable in the case of extreme segregation
  • but demolition is not always appropriate (especially if transitory housing would be eliminated) and does not always ease the problems
  • above a given concentration of problems, local solutions do not work anymore: higher administrative levels have to be involved to handle the situation.

After “miniscans” of each of the Local Action Plans, implementation directions have been explored. Concrete ideas have been raised towards the social domain (exploring low-cost solutions on municipal level), energy efficiency issues and the physical domain (improving image and environment, new transport links, etc.) It will take the next 6-7 years to see how much of these ideas can be implemented, predominantly with EU money.

The Re-Block project helped to prove that mutual learning is possible even between cities facing very different circumstances regarding the type of their problems, the prevailing legal frameworks and the financial conditions under which they have to operate.

Header image: Malaga Municipality
Other images: Melinda Benkő, 2014; Re-Block Baseline Study;
Ivan Tosics, 2014



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