Over the weeks of Spain’s tough lockdown, images of people on their balconies applauding healthcare workers have spread across the globe. The footage has been hailed as a heart-warming show of appreciation, but it has also served another purpose: reinforcing the idea of apartment dwellers as the core of Spain’s urban communities.
Spain has one of the highest percentages of flat residents in Europe, according to Eurostat. Almost two-thirds of the population live in flats, the highest rate for any EU nation apart from Latvia. In Italy, the proportion is around half, and in France it’s just over a third. In the UK, flat-dwellers only make up 15% of the population. Some 65% of homes for sale in Spain are flats, according to Fernando Encinar of Spanish property site Idealista, compared to just 25% on UK site Rightmove.
Teacher Miguel Cobos, 38, a long-time resident of the same neighbourhood in Madrid, currently lives in what he calls a “mini-flat”, a 25-sq/m renovated home in a corrala, a traditional 19th Century building.
In Madrid, practically the entire supply is flats – Miguel Cobos
“Spaniards live in flats because there is no supply of houses at reasonable prices, and if the price is reasonable, they are really far away from the centre or from places of work,” he says. One day, he would like to own a house in the mountain village outside Madrid where his parents have a second home. But if he stays put, his options are limited. “In Madrid, practically the entire supply is flats.”
Up, not out
Spain’s apartment boom began in the 1960s and 70s under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when people left the countryside to find work in the cities, leading to massive urban growth, says historian Gloria Román, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Radboud and the NIOD Institute in The Netherlands. “It was urgently necessary to build massively for the working classes. And it was decided to do it in height, growing vertically instead of horizontally because it was cheaper,” says Román.
Spain’s restrictive zoning laws, still in use today, put a premium on land surrounding towns and cities. “Inefficient regulation, including very restrictive building codes, created incentives to limit development, so vertical property became much more efficient and cheaper because of the price of land,” says economist Javier Díaz Giménez of Madrid’s IESE Business School.
It was something extraordinary, unprecedented, unheard of… that you could live in a house with two levels - Javier Díaz Giménez
Many Spaniards grew up in flats; using the lift in the building was second nature, and stairs within the flat were the stuff of fantasy. “It was something extraordinary, unprecedented, unheard of… that you could live in a house with two levels,” says Díaz Giménez, recounting his surprise when, on a trip to Dublin to practise English at the age of 12, he found himself staying in a house with stairs.
Apartment residents in Madrid have been maximising use of their balconies during the lockdown period (Credit: Getty)
Own your home
Spain may be a nation of flat-dwellers, but it is also traditionally a nation of homeowners. It’s another reason why flats – that were generally cheaper to buy – became so popular. According to Eurostat figures, 76% of Spaniards owned their own home in 2018, compared to 65% of French and British people and 52% of Germans.
New rental laws and economic conditions during the 1960s meant that for the first time many Spaniards’ main goal was to own property, something encouraged by Franco, whose regime attached great importance to the home as the heart of Catholic society. “The apartment responded well to the double need to offer many housing units – in a short time and at a reduced price – and to the desire that it be owned,” says Román. “In Spain at that time, owning property became one of the main symbols of prosperity.”
New-build apartments held lavish inauguration events that included key handover ceremonies and the blessing of the new homes by a priest – acts that, says Román, were “conveniently publicised by the dictatorship’s propaganda machine”. Partly because of the government messaging, for many poor families owning a property “constituted one of life’s main aspirations”, she says.
It also made sense in a country where an inflationary economy meant most people put their money into bricks and mortar. “Financial markets were not very developed and there was a lot of inflation that would eat away at your savings. The best way to preserve their value was real estate,” adds economist Díaz Giménez.
‘Intense feeling of community’
The root of apartment living may be economic, but is there a case to be made that Spaniards just like living shoulder-to-shoulder? For many, growing up surrounded by neighbours has fostered a thriving sense of community.
Marc Pradel, 40, an expert on urban sociology at the University of Barcelona, says the dominance of apartments has “generated strong and vibrant neighbourhoods in most Spanish cities, which has reinforced local social life”. In fact, these neighbourhoods and the allure of living in the heart of the town or city is what attracts many people to live in flats.
I wanted my children to thrive on that intense feeling of community – Clea House
Close-knit living is “one of the wonderful things about Spanish society” for journalist Clea House, 37, who moved back to her native Madrid from London to raise her children. “I wanted my children to thrive on that intense feeling of community and family closeness,” she says. “For me, growing up like that was special and I wanted my children to feel that too.”
One reason Spaniards cope so well living in flats is that they spend so much time outside them, taking advantage of the good weather to meet in town squares, parks and at their local bar. A 2018 Eurostat study showed Spaniards spent significantly more time eating outside the home than residents of many other European nations; 15% of Spanish household consumption was spent in restaurants or bars, compared to the EU average of 9%. A 2018 survey by housing solutions provider Velux also found that Spaniards spent considerably more time outdoors each day than Britons.
Spaniards spend more time socialising outside the home than residents of many other European nations (Credit: Getty)
Cristina Acha, 45, co-founder of AZAB architecture studio in Bilbao, says socialising in Spain is closely linked with public spaces. “In general, it makes us separate our homes from more sociable activities, which makes our homes a place of more domestic chores,” she says.
But living in flats can have its downsides. Poorer quality flats will have smaller kitchens and fewer rooms as well as absorb the noise and smells from adjoining flats.
For Acha, the main challenge is creating homes that combine intimate indoor space with “the maximum optimism that light, fresh air and nice views bring”. She believes that growing perception of access to nature as a universal right, plus technological change, will be reflected in the homes of the future.
One example: the rise in young freelancers who work from home. “This may mean the need to incorporate new spaces associated with work,” she says. The prolonged Covid-19 confinement has forced people to look at their homes in a new light, adds Acha. “In a certain sense it has been like re-examining an old relationship.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by sociologist Marc Pradel, who says lockdown measures that removed the option of using public spaces have revealed the “limited quality” of many apartments. He says it is hard to predict if anything will change in post-lockdown Spain, but thinks the quality issues highlighted during confinement will combine with general concern about housing that had been growing since Spain’s economic crisis.
And what about the eternal issue of noisy neighbours? For Clea House, it’s not a big deal. “I like hearing my neighbours and noisy living. It’s the way I’ve always lived – to me, that’s life. I like the buzz of the city and for me, part of experiencing that buzz is living in a flat,” she says.
But if lockdown is revealing the worst aspects of apartment living, it is also showcasing the very best. As well as the nightly applause for healthcare workers, social media videos have shown neighbours doing group workouts, bingo games and singing Happy Birthday to each other from their balconies.
For Miguel Cobos, if anything, the lockdown has reinforced community spirit. “Confinement has made us a little more human,” he says. “After the applause, I stay for a while chatting with an older neighbour who also lives alone, then we say goodbye, until tomorrow.”