Housing and Patios in Cordoba, Spain: An Infill Strategy

Many different cities offer best practices on offering dense and liveable housing options for people. A key ingredient in these best practices is common space. Vancouver, through different neighbourhood plans, has set goals to densify single family neighbourhoods although timidly. The City of Vancouver and the region often focuses too narrowly on other functions of infill such as setbacks, height, or parking. These particular items are often static and rigid. If we get away from these items the City of Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain can offer a viable infill option.

Cordoba is a historic city in Southern Spain with roots and tradition of building from the Roman Empire. The City has existed under several regimes including early Spanish, Moorish, and under the Franco regime. The predominant housing form in the historic city features several housing units centered around courtyards or patios. Subsequent eras have shaped the city, and added to the housing in Cordoba, but the courtyard style of development has remained and can offer solutions to other cities with goals for infill housing, compact neighbourhoods, and adding amenity space that promotes interaction between residents.

A Short History of Form and Use

The Courtyards (Patios1) of Cordoba are famous for being inward looking and with a few famous philosophers from the region,  the citizens of Cordoba have been given a similar reputation. However, the patios are meant to offer green space for the residents and a place to be protected from the sun in the afternoon. An example of a floor plan is provided to the right.

cordoba courtyard
Floor Plans for Typical Courtyards2

Beginning in the Roman Period, the developments were built in one phase with the Courtyard occupying roughly 10-20% of the total site. The courtyards featured a fountain to collect rainwater and would provide shade from the midday heat which is common all year round. Shade would be provided either by trees or second-stories that are on the south side of the building. During the Moorish reign, more plants and floral arrangements were provided in order to give a sense of freshness. The walls were made of stone and whitewashed to reflect the sun away from the inside of the buildings. Whitewashing is a practice of putting boiling water of stones then using the semi-liquid product to fortify the stone walls. This practice is still done today, and is a mark of pride for residents who maintain their homes.

Under the reign of Franco, the military dictator of Spain (1938-1973), the developments would undergo change. Landowners from different areas (in and out of the city) rented out the developments, but Franco implemented maximum prices and increases under the direction of the socialist government3. The rents would often be low with little chance to increase rents, resulting in absentee landlords who let the patio developments degrade. The tenants would often be craftspeople or artists, who searched for cheaper rents. The artists took pride in their homes and would decorate them with elaborate floral arrangements, plantings, or instruments which show the history of the patio. This legacy has to present times.


Because the artistic arrangements have become so famous, the City now hosts the “Festival of Patios” where the patios open for the public to view. At the end of the Festival, several awards are given to different patios. Residents of the patios often use the festival to advertise their goods that are for sale.

Read more about the history of the Courtyards here: http://archeyes.com/the-courtyards-of-cordoba/

Present Day (Regulations):

Many of the patios that were developed during the Roman period have now become UNESCO heritage sites that are paired with rigid regulations from the City of Cordoba. There is little change possible available in the city centre, and little chance of adding to the existing patio developments.

The more recent developments in the City Centre of Cordoba are often converted from old palaces from the Roman Period or the Moorish period. No new conversions are permitted by the city to preserve their history. The converted palaces feature 2 to 3 storey apartments, the maximum height permitted, surrounding a common patio. The city does not permit further site consolidations within the city centre due to UNESCO regulations.

cordoba city centre
Analysis showing the various sizes and placement of patios in Cordoba Developments4

Outside of the City Centre of Cordoba, the development form changes to low and mid-rise apartments. While these apartments look similar to the rest of the western world, they do not meet the goals of modest infill options for single-family neighbourhoods. With these limitations in mind, the City of Vancouver can still learn from the patio developments, and the following important ideas from the patio developments are presented below:

Important Ideas for Vancouver:

  1. No prescriptive design guidelines: Too often in Vancouver, entire city blocks are developed at once in high density developments with glass facades separated from the public realm. Rigid design guidelines further sterilize new housing in Vancouver often with legal agreements putting design into stone. The patios in Cordoba were a self-driven process that allowed residents to personalize their own space. There was a period of deterioration, but residents took it upon themselves to retrofit their spaces, to make the living spaces larger, to add a workshop area, and then allow other citizens to come to their courtyards.
  2. Protection from harsh weather: Vancouver’s climate is greatly different than the dry and hot climate of Cordoba. However, the insular nature of the courtyards can allow Vancouver’s rainy and windy winters to let neighbours enjoy common space because the two-to-three storeys can stop the common space from being windswept. The addition of awnings or plantings can help the common space be used during rainy periods.
  3. Promote neighbourly interactions (Eyes on the street): Similar to many of Vancouver’s co-ops, a common courtyard can promote community interaction. In the evenings many of the residents prefer to spend their time outside making conversation, or watering their plants. While many of Vancouver’s residents have preferred to only maintain their own lawn or backyard, the patio can help promote more neighbourly interaction. The patio area can also be a social place for children who want to play.
  4. No Single Family Housing the Urban Area – The overwhelming majority of Cordoba’s housing stock is multi-family in the form of patios developments or apartments. The development proves that there can be quiet and peaceful urban environments without having single-detached housing only.
  5. Affordability – In the case of Cordoba, the modest construction and facades that face the public allowed many of the courtyards to be built quickly with the onus of maintenance being on the residents. The exteriors are often plain, and stonewashed white to reflect heat, but the real character of the buildings are the floral arrangements and decorations that residents offer. When originally built in the Roman Empire, the ancient designs did not offer car parking but did have flexible site designs to allow the maximum number of units possible. Since the developments are able to dense and close to the city centre, many of the residents choose to take the pleasant and car free walk to the city centre.

To date, the City of Vancouver and every other city in Metro Vancouver has been unable or unwilling to change single-detached neighbourhoods to a more dense and liveable form. By using the patio form similar to Cordoba, The City of Vancouver can greatly add density, promote more neighbourly interaction, and develop more affordable housing forms.

Many similar forms can be found in North America including courtyard rowhouses or apartments, but the patio of Cordoba remains a unique and tested blueprint that can be used in any climate including Vancouver.


  1. Courtyards and Patios are interchangeable in this writing.
  2. Courtyards By Khusboo Sood. https://www.slideshare.net/khushboosood/courtyards (2018)
  3. Franco’s Housing Policy: Urban Tenancy Law of 1946. Tenancy laws were made stronger during due to Franco’s socialist policies. It became difficult to evict tenants or charge them greater rents.
  4. Correlations between GIS-Based Urban Building Densification Analysis and Climate Guidelines for Mediterranean Courtyards -https://www.researchgate.net/Cordoba-city-centre-every-construction-that-contains-an-inner-courtyard-was-marked_fig1_321640097 [accessed 28 Jun, 2018]

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