(re)occupy the ruin. Adaptation strategies for vacant vernacular heritage in rural depopulated territories under transformation.

Depopulation of rural areas as a result of migration towards urban centers is an urgent issue which affects many regions in Europe. It is mainly triggered by difficult socio-economic conditions of rural territories, as compared to urban environments, forcing their inhabitants to leave in search for better life and job opportunities. A direct consequence of this phenomenon is the -complete or partial- abandonment of villages, being particularly striking in the mountain area of the Spanish Pyrenees. Besides the estimated 2800 depopulated villages in the entire country, 38% of municipalities in Spain are currently in severe risk of depopulation. Activity decline is accompanied by a loss of the cultural landscapes in which those abandoned villages are embedded and connected with. Depopulation poses therefore a double challenge: (1) it generates an important cultural loss, as well as environmental and land-use issues, in places which become empty and unmaintained; (2) life conditions of remaining and shrinking local communities get each time more difficult, as the socio-economic structure disappears (service provision, population aging, job opportunities, accessibility-connectivity), expanding the development gap between urban and rural areas and contributing to population decline.

At the same time, there is an increasing interest from the urban society towards those rural landscapes, generating new conditions. New activities in depopulating areas have emerged, triggered by certain spatial conditions and establishing a new relation with existing heritage spaces. These activities can be either temporary, mainly linked to recreation -nature and culture routes and events, second residence or tourism accommodation-, or permanent, like urban commuters and groups of neo-rurals looking for alternative ways of living through small-scale local production. These activities reactivate the territory, changing the way in which depopulated villages are perceived and their spaces re-used. The arrival of new users to these areas can be beneficial for territorial development, although it also poses different challenges, many times represented in conflicts between external visitors and local communities. On the other hand, the update of infrastructures and improvement of socio-economic conditions, enabled by these new activities, can be a potential tool to retain population.

Avoiding a nostalgic vision of the past, this research aims to inquire into the future of rural areas, investigating the potential of heritage, under adapted conditions, to enhance the reactivation of depopulating villages and the development of the territory. This research aims: (1) to investigate the conditions which enable the reactivation of depopulated areas; (2) to provide insights on the spatial-programmatic transformation of heritage in depopulating villages (past-present-future); (3) and to develop design intervention strategies for the adaptation of depopulated villages in outdated rural territories through the regeneration of cultural and natural heritage.
For that purpose, a particular study area at Spanish Central Pyrenees is selected for further research. This area experimented a deep decay but, differently to many other depopulated areas, new experiences of occupation of abandoned villages are detected. It investigates the transformation of those villages linked to their cultural landscape, trying to detect the conditions which facilitate the reactivation of certain spaces. It is conducted through the close investigation of the spatial-programmatic transformation of representative study cases of small settlements in the area, and a cross-view at other foreign references. These village-cases are analyzed at an urban design level, in relation to its surrounding landscape and a larger territorial extent. Through the close analysis of the different experiences detected, as well as the critical assessment of alternative intervention strategies, this thesis proposes a new approach to understand, interpret and adapt these outdated rural spaces, enabling their sustainable development.

This project generates novel insights on the field of transformation of vernacular heritage in remote rural areas, provides design strategies and knowledge on the recovery of abandoned villages and cultural landscapes, and investigates their potential for territorial development.



-Keywords: Landscape transformation, Adaptive reuse, Rural Heritage, Local Identity, Territorial development, Sustainable communities.


PhD Project by Drs. Ignacio Galán

Promotors: Prof. Dr. Yves Schoonjans; Prof. Dr. Gisèle Gantois.

Assessors: Prof. Dr. Ángel Comeras (San Jorge University, Spain);  Prof. Dr. Bruno Notteboom (KULeuven); Prof. Dr. Kris Scheerlinck (KU Leuven).



*Source of pictures: Transformed village Isin. Project by C.A.B. Arquitectura
Pictures. Left: cuestiondegustosgdu.blogspot.com/2011/06/isin-huesca.html . Right: https://orejadeoso.com/