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Comparing Two Residential Suburban Areas in the Costa Blanca, Spain

Leticia Serrano-Estrada, Almudena Nolasco-Cirugeda and Pablo Martí


The Costa Blanca in the province of Alicante (Spain) represents an emblematic example of suburban development around Mediterranean medium-sized cities, with the existence of a wide range of residential settlements devoted both to the native population and foreign-born groups. Condominiums, gated communities and single-family housing have few facilities and inadequate space for outdoor activities related to leisure and recreation. Such settlements are characterized by a fluctuation in population which increases in the summer, fostered by the high demand for sun, sand and sea tourism. At the same time, they display a lack of vibrant public spaces and a narrow range of accommodation options and activities. Urban sociability, understood as social opportunities afforded by space characteristics, is highly dependent on physical features such as variety in space, diversity of housing types and configuration of urban activities. The aim of this study is to analyze these aforementioned factors in two predominantly residential settlements, i.e., Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis. Our research indicates a likely relationship among the following urban features in terms of whether or not they promote social life: the existing number and location of activities (retail, facilities and residential tourism related services), the distribution and diversity of dwellings, and the configuration of open spaces. Each of the aforementioned urban features is analyzed in order to understand how they may contribute to sociability.

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1Urban growth in the peripheral areas of the Southern Mediterranean European territory has changed the traditional configuration of cities and their suburbs in the last two decades. If compactness was a traditional key feature of the Mediterranean city and territory, recently sprawl and disperse urban growth have characterized the new coastal land form (Salvati and Morelli 2014, Oueslati et al. 2015, Arribas-Bel et al. 2011). According to previous analysis based on the European project Corine Land Cover (CLC), Portugal, Greece and Spain form part of the five European countries with the biggest increment of urbanized land between 1990 and 2006. Specifically, the Mediterranean coast of Spain is one of the European territories leading this increase in the artificial use of land (Arellano and Roca 2010, Jiménez 2006).

2The province of Alicante together with the province of Murcia, along the Spanish Mediterranean Arch, is representative of such process of growth. In the case of the province of Alicante the CLC land-use category designated as discontinuous urban fabric accounts for more than 40% of the total artificial surface increase between 1990 and 2006 (Martí and Nolasco 2012).

3More specifically, these areas of discontinuous urban fabric indicated by CLC data are characterized by isolated urban settlements scattered around cities which set up an urbanized landscape where the new population lives. Among the new citizens of these suburbs, foreign-born people have had an important role in this urbanization process. Some authors have related this phenomenon to the “recent wave of residential tourism” (Couch 2007: 92), consequence of North-South migration to the Mediterranean coasts, especially to the Spanish one (Leontidou and Marmaras 2001, Couch 2007). Likewise, it could be argued that initially several factors influenced the choice of the Spanish Mediterranean coast as a residential destination (Salvá-Tomás 2002). However, in time, a second factor evolved, that is, an interesting settlement of foreign citizens developed.

4Regarding the first initial factors, several characteristics should be considered: the economic advantage of low-cost carriers; the favorable climate conditions and long periods of warm and sunny days are reasons related to what is perceived as a good quality of life; and coastal landscapes of large sandy beaches and attractive scenery outside urban areas are considered a key attraction for tourists, especially those coming from northern Europe countries (Huete 2008).

5In relation to the second factor, the establishment of a foreign-born resident community, it could be mentioned several indicators of permanent settlement such as expatriate associations, political representation in local governments and the incorporation of locally based companies. These aspects have been previously studied by Huete and Mantecón (2012) who argue that the foreign population has relatively significant representation in local government and institutions although, in general, is not proportional to its growth. Furthermore, this representation together with the participation of expatriate associations has been actively involved in the promotion of new public policies. Thus, foreign community initiatives have facilitated social transformations and their citizens even “bring their experience (…) as successful professionals and/or politicians in these areas” (Janoschka and Durán 2013: 67).

6This scenario together with the assurance of necessary urban services such as power and water supply, sanitation infrastructure, garbage collection and street security make the Mediterranean Spanish coast an attractive place to live, especially when compared to other Eastern European and North African destinations. The Costa Blanca region is a good example of the aforementioned phenomenon (Benson and O’Reilly 2009). Furthermore, many suburban areas of this region have been developed with lifestyle migration purposes (Huete 2009, Mantecón et al. 2009, Huete and Mantecón 2011, Huete et al. 2013). In this context, the term lifestyle migration refers to those individuals “moving either part-time or full-time to places that, for various reasons, signify, for the migrant, a better quality of life” (Benson and O’Reilly 2009: 609). Consequently, the seasonal movement of migrant Europeans has been progressively transformed into suburban residential tourism thus losing its seasonality (Couch et al. 2007).

7Demographic data from the last two decades indicate that a considerable increase in foreign-born population has been registered in the municipalities of the province of Alicante. Coastal areas, in particular, have experienced intense urban growth of this nature (Jiménez 2006, Martí and Nolasco 2012) with the aforementioned characteristic urban development patterns. Moreover, there is a clear relationship between these settlements and the location of lifestyle migrants (Nolasco-Cirugeda et al. 2015). In fact, it could be claimed that the migrant population coming from northern European countries prefer suburban areas that are mostly located in the municipalities of the southern Mediterranean Arch, with specific emphasis on the coast of the province of Alicante.

8Alicante is considered to be distinguishable from other suburban realities because it meets the conditions of new suburbs inhabited by a significant proportion of foreign-born residents (Font Arellano 2006). Altogether, the aforementioned condition makes Alicante a standalone example when compared to other suburban realities in European metropolitan cities including the Spanish capital Madrid (Adelfio and Valenzuela 2013) and other European suburban developments (Mager and Matthey 2012). In other words, Alicante represents an exceptional case bearing in mind its territorial and demographical scope.

9These considerations, in line with other reasons that will be explained below, have defined the case study selection: Gran Alacant in the municipality of Santa Pola and La Marina-Oasis in the municipality of San Fulgencio. Both comprise an extensive isolated suburban residential development, remotely located from its nearest city center. Also relevant in this context is the considerable number of foreign-born resident population with lifestyle migration purposes that inhabit these settlements.

10Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis share a territorial location pattern and a rate of foreign population that may initially suggest lack of sociability among their residents. However, existing research suggests that sociability is closely related to the spatial arrangement of population and configuration of urban facilities, amenities and open spaces (U.S. Green Building Council et al. 2011, Legeby et al. 2015).

11Therefore, the main objective of this study is to assess sociability conditions of the two Costa Blanca settlements, Gran Alacant (Santa Pola) and La Marina-Oasis (San Fulgencio), by evaluating three main features specifically related to the urban spatial structure: complexity in terms of urban activity, density and lastly, the configuration of open spaces.

Literature Review

12The relationships between sociability and urban design qualities have recently received attention from researchers and have involved several approaches. Sociability is considered a key factor in providing the conditions for creating great urban spaces. Accordingly, Carmona (2010) and Bigdeli Rad (2013) cite the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit, planning, design and educational organization as an example where considering sociability creates great urban spaces. Furthermore, sociability is placed as one of the four factors responsible for place making, along with uses and activities; access and linkages; and comfort and image (PPS 2015). A similar approach is used by other authors who argue that the physical conditions of urban space can contribute to foster social experiences (Bigdeli Rad 2013).

13Other researchers have established additional linkages between sociability and the physical conditions of urban space. These approaches focus on the following: the evaluation of sociability through methodologies that include factors such as attractive land use, adaptability to mixed uses and design of urban places (Masoud et al. 2011); a study which provides analysis on how design transformations of urban spaces might alter sociability (Zakariya 2014); and the exploration of the effects of urban form on social interactions in urban neighborhoods (Wan Mohd Rani 2015).

14Besides sociability, physical urban conditions have also been related to other concepts such as social cohesion and social sustainability. On the one hand, social cohesion has been analyzed by several authors and disciplines, therefore adopting different perspectives. Such variety has been acknowledged by Bruhn (2009) who develops an extensive and comprehensive study on the definition of social cohesion and recognizes that its measurement is quite controversial and ambiguous (Bollen and Hoyle 1990) because each disciplinary field defines its very own scope and interpretations (Bruhn 2009). The author also recognizes that evaluating the social cohesion of a group or community is challenging as it requires “longitudinal studies and multiple measurements and observations” (Bruhn 2009: 98).

15On the other hand, the notion of social sustainability is frequently associated with two considerations related to the built environment: socioeconomic and cultural aspects, i.e., non-physical factors (Dempsey et al. 2011), and physical factors. The non-physical factors address equity among community members (Bramley et al. 2009, Dempsey et al. 2011), diversity at multiple levels (Moulaert et al. 2011, Novy et al. 2012), as well as two key concepts: quality of life and social sustainability (Hagerty et al. 2002, Noll 2002, The Berkley Group 2012). This paper adopts an approach, which is exclusively centered on physical factors, following urban design principles and using indicators of quality of the built environment.

16In relation to physical factors, authors such as Bosselmann (2008), Jacobs (1961) and Brewer and Grant (2015) argue that the vitality of any given street or neighborhood is closely associated with its density, layout and diversity of land uses. Also, the intensity of economic activities that take place in any given urban area is a factor to consider in understanding social interaction in neighborhoods (The Urban Task Force 2003: 31). Likewise, “local amenities can exert important influences on individual well-being (…) by meeting daily functional needs and creating opportunities for incidental encounters and development of social relationships” (Hamiduddin 2015: 33). Furthermore, these amenities are the “social infrastructure” of any local urban environment – medical, educational and recreational facilities and meeting areas – and have a powerful effect on the social sustainability of a place (Kavanagh 2009).

17These ideas along with the notion that the spatial dimension of the urban space “mediates everyday social experiences and confrontations” (Cassiers and Kesteloot 2012: 1917), suggest that, not only the design but the spatial and population distribution within the urban environment are likely to influence social processes in the community (Carmona et al. 2010, Jacobs 1961). Thus, it could be assumed that sociability can be fostered by certain physical features in a neighborhood.

18In spatial terms, some considerations regarding the definition of density could be taken into account. “The density of urban development has the potential to impact upon all the dimensions of social sustainability” (Bramley and Power 2009: 33), however, “the meaning of high density is a matter of perception” (Ng 2010: 14). Perceived density is subjective and depends on the physical interaction between an individual and the surrounding environment (Ng 2010, Rapaport 1975, Dempsey et al. 2012). The definition of high or low density depends largely on its context. While UK lively city areas have a density between 100-200 dwellings per hectare, Barcelona has about 400 dwellings per hectare (The Urban Task Force 2003). Less than 20 dwellings per hectare in a residential development is considered as low density for the UK (Ng 2010) while the LEED ND rating system do not certify residential urban developments with lower densities than 17 dwelling units per hectare (U.S. Green Building Council et al. 2011). Likewise, other Spanish sustainable indicators systems do not recommend density values less than 25 dwellings per hectare (Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona 2012: 103).

19In terms of assessing and measuring social sustainability of an urban area, social cohesion refers to the “degree of diversity and interaction between people of different ages, cultures and incomes living in the city” (Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona 2015); it also relates to “diversity and multiculturalism, and is highly representative of urban compactness and complexity” (Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona 2015). In this regard, of particular interest to this paper are the physical and measurable features of the urban environment that promote and contribute to the development of social bonds.

20Even when there are limitations for measuring social aspects (Dixon 2011) solely by addressing urban form, previous research has proven that urban layout, density, building typologies and a diversity of land uses can contribute to create socially sustainable urban environments (Dempsey 2008, Arundel 2011, Dempsey et al. 2012, Bramley and Power 2009). In addition, metrics such as LEED Rating System for Neighbourhood Development (LEED-ND) (Talen et al. 2013, U.S. Green Building Council et al. 2011) provide insightful clues on the assessment of compactness, density and diversity at an individual building level or at a neighborhood level.

21Taking into account the literature reviewed, which has mentioned different terms related to the social implications of urban design, this paper focuses on one of them, namely, sociability, which is an influencing factor of the social opportunity provided by spatial features. This approach concurs with Talen (1999: 1374), who declares that “physical design need not create sense of community, but rather, it can increase its probability”.

22The analysis of physical urban features adopts the aforementioned urban design approach which, given its clear orientation towards physicality, may appear deterministic and, thus, its limits should be recognized. This paper proposes three metrics to examine the potential role that the physical environment plays in social interaction, in line with the above considerations. These metrics are specifically related to the urban form and spatial distribution. Firstly, density, intended as the amount of residential units in an area in terms of how many people live in relative proximity (Ng 2010). Secondly, the complexity of urban activities, understood as the diversity of uses and activities in a given area. Lastly, the layout and spatial characteristics of the urban environment, focused mainly on open spaces. The following table (Table 1) summarizes an overall theoretical approach to the three metrics considered for the purpose of this research.

Table 1. Previous research on the three metrics selected for the physical evaluation of the case studies




Complexity of activities

Muñoz 2003

The minimal urban complexity and the lack of urban diversity compromise cultural and social interaction.

Complexity of activities

Roger Evans Associates Ltd 2007

Mixed developments offer greater opportunities for social interaction. A mix of uses, as a key aspect of urban design, engenders social interaction.

Complexity of activities

U.S. Green Building Council et al. 2011

A mix of uses is often integral to the vitality of a neighborhood. It can include a variety of retail establishments, services, community facilities and other kinds of 'diverse uses'.

Complexity of activities

Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona 2012

Continuous lines of non-residential uses at street level facilitate interaction and promote lively public spaces by encouraging social and commercial activities among community members.

Complexity of activities

U.S. Green Building Council et al. 2011

The clustering of diverse land uses accessible to neighborhood residents fosters social interaction.


Roger Evans Associates Ltd 2007

Higher densities benefit social proximity that encourages positive interaction and diversity.


Bramley et al. 2009, Bramley and Power 2009b

There is a relationship between density —and other urban form variables— and the social sustainability of a community.


Dempsey et al. 2012

Density influences residents' propensity to engage in socially sustainable activities.

Density and open spaces

Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona 2012

The main aim of clustering high densities is to increase social interaction by gathering enough people and activities in the public space.

Open spaces

Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona 2012

Open public spaces foster social interaction.

Open spaces

Hamiduddin 2015

Communal open spaces and local amenities exert important influence on individual well-being and social cohesion.

Open spaces

Legeby et al. 2015

The spatial configuration plays an important role in shaping the potential for social interaction. In particular, the design and configurational layout of public spaces such as streets, squares and parks contribute to day-to-day interaction and potentially to overcoming social exclusion.

Source: authors.

Case Studies Overview

23Two specific predominantly residential areas have been identified to conduct this study: Gran Alacant, part of the municipality of Santa Pola, and La Marina-Oasis, part of the municipality of San Fulgencio. Both of them are located in the southern littoral of the province of Alicante (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Orthophotography of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Figure 1. Orthophotography of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Source: Spanish National Plan of Aerial Orthophotography, PNOA (National Institute of Geography and Ministry of Development 2015).

24Previous researchers have paid special attention to these two particular suburbs (Mantecón et al. 2009, Mantecón 2008). Although they do not address their urban environment, they do explore some interesting sociologic facts and processes about the characteristics of the resident population.

25Specifically, Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis (Figure 2) were selected as case studies as they share territorial and social particularities but, at the same time, they display physical differences to which special attention must be given as they may have a diverse impact on sociability. Regarding the location and territorial similarities, both suburbs comprise an area of approximately 350 ha and their position in the territorial structure is similar. In this sense, they could be regarded as satellite cities, a term first defined by Taylor (1945), since they are both subordinated to major urban centers. In addition, Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis are characterized by possessing mainly residential-oriented amenities, thus falling into the dormitory suburb category (Douglass 1925, Schnore 1957). Equally important is their access to a major road, i.e., the national road N-332, through a connecting road. The N-332 is a nearly 400 km-long axis located at the Southeast of Spain that connects, from south to north the province of Almeria with Murcia, Alicante and Valencia.

Figure 2. Territorial location of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Figure 2. Territorial location of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Source: authors.

26In terms of social similarities, La Marina-Oasis and Gran Alacant both belong to municipalities that have a great amount of registered foreign population. In the first place, 78% out of the total registered population of San Fulgencio are foreigners (cf. the 2011 municipal population census, National Institute of Statistics 2015). With this percentage, San Fulgencio heads the ranking among the 34 Spanish municipalities where more than half of their residents were born somewhere else (Membrado Tena 2013). Meanwhile, the foreign population registered in Gran Alacant reaches around 56% of the total population. Moreover, the presence of European residents, mostly northern European, is remarkable in both cases: 74% in La Marina-Oasis and 40% in Gran Alacant (Table 2). This fact supports the aforementioned lifestyle migration phenomena (Huete and Mantecón 2013, Mantecón et al. 2009).

Table 2. Origin of the population in both case studies


Urban area

Total population

Spanish population (percentage)

Foreign population (percentage)

European population (percentage)

San Fulgencio

Urban center


1487 (79%)

387 (21%)

164 (9%)

La Marina


1065 (12%)

7477 (86%)

6446 (74%)

Santa Pola

Urban center


19267 (82%)

4171 (18%)

3133 (13%)

Gran Alacant


3247 (56%)

2536 (44%)

2311 (40%)

Source: Mantecón et al. (2009).

27Considering the urban physical differences of both suburbs, at least three features should be outlined regarding housing, open spaces and urban activities: different distribution and proportion of housing typologies; distinct types of open and public spaces as well as a completely diverse configuration of communal areas; and a dissimilar amount, variety and location of urban activities. These features will be analyzed in depth in the results section.


28In line with the objectives of this study, it is assumed that social circumstances, in terms of population, culture, ethnicity, language etc. in both places are similar and the research focuses on the physical differences between the two suburbs. So three urban features have been assessed in both case studies: density of dwelling, open spaces and complexity of urban activities.

Density of dwelling

29The perceived density of both case studies is very similar; however, by studying the real density we assess whether in fact there is any evidence suggesting otherwise. Even though density can be evaluated using different metric parameters (Ng 2010) such as Floor Area Ratio (FAR) or population per hectare (pph), this study focuses on the amount of dwellings per hectare (dph) due to a twofold motivation: the availability and the accuracy of data.

30In relation to density metrics, data about the amount and distribution of dwelling units (dph) were considered more reliable than population data. The reason behind this may be explained by the lifestyle migration character of the studied suburban areas whose residents are not all registered. In other words, the pph. values hinder proper density analysis due to the significant floating population identified in these kinds of settlements. On the other hand, since the FAR does not differentiate between residential, commercial and other land uses, further analysis would be necessary in order to obtain a more accurate picture of the population density of these urban environments.

31That being said, this research considers density as the ratio between the number-of-dwelling units and the total buildable urban land within the studied area. For this purpose, the number and location of dwelling units of each selected sector were extracted from the 2001 Spanish census data (National Institute of Statistics 2015). With regard to new and refurbished developments, it was necessary to recalculate the number of dwellings to achieve an acceptable level of accuracy. Recalculation of dwelling units was carried out using a high resolution, updated 2012 aerial orthophotography from the Spanish National Plan of Aerial Orthophotography, PNOA (National Institute of Geography and Ministry of Development 2015).

Open spaces

32Addressing and measuring the urban open spaces of the case studies by using existing indicator-based criteria is a challenging task, for example, the criteria suggested by the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona (2012) are complex to use and the data required are difficult to access. This is mainly because existing urban indicators tend to focus strictly on the habitability of public open spaces where calculations often address rates of civic open space area per person or per building volume. Therefore, an alternative calculation proposed by Nolasco-Cirugeda (2015) is adopted considering the use and the degree of publicness of urban open spaces as the main drivers. Special attention is given to the social relationships produced in the urban context.

33Public space is referred to as a privileged space for urban sociability, but in fact, there are open spaces accessible to the public and other exclusively private spaces (Verdaguer 2005). Despite the fact that the two case studies analyzed are characterized by a lack of civic public spaces, both cases have open spaces in which, to some extent, people can gather and socialize. This latter condition could be considered as semi-public spaces or communal spaces that influence the “sense of community” of residents (Smith et al. 2008). Thus, this study focuses mainly on: the “external public space”, accessible and available to all, and the “external and internal quasi-public space”, legally private open spaces (Carmona et al. 2010).

34In particular, San Fulgencio and Gran Alacant present different housing types. Consequently, three categories of open spaces can be recognized hinging on their dual nature: their publicness and use and the building type with which they are associated.

35The first category refers to the strictly public urban open space. In both case studies, such types of open spaces are characterized mostly by roads, pedestrian paths, roundabouts, etc., with very few spaces with a social purpose.

36The second category, the private open space, is mostly found where detached dwellings are the predominant housing type. In this case, open spaces within privately owned individual plots tend to be exclusively used by a single family. Subsequently, these spaces will be referred to exclusively as private open spaces.

37Lastly, the third category of open space corresponds to those adjacent to housing types such as medium-height blocks and terraced or row houses. These multi-family buildings share common outdoor facilities like swimming pools, sports facilities or playgrounds that are used collectively facilitating sociability and, to some extent, sociability (Hoogland 2000). Thus, these spaces are considered as communal or semi-public open spaces.

38As previously mentioned, the availability of data is a prime driver for the definition of the methodology. In this case, data for assessing open spaces was collected from the Spanish General Directorate for Cadastre (General Directorate of Cadastre and Ministry of Finance and Public Administration 2015). The proposed procedure consists essentially of calculating the total net areas of the three aforementioned types of open space. A classification of open spaces was conducted according to the building types with which they are associated: single-family dwelling units, multi-family dwellings and facilities or institutions. In this regard, the height of the buildings was used to determine whether the adjacent open spaces were private or semi-public.

39On the one hand, buildings whose height is greater than three floors were considered to be building blocks with semi-public or communal open spaces. On the other hand, buildings whose height is equal to or less than three floors presumably correspond to detached, semidetached or terraced houses and, therefore, their associated open spaces were considered to be of individual and private use. In order to ensure the accuracy of the adopted criteria, fieldwork was carried out in all the cases where the building morphology was unclear.

40It must be noted that the calculation of communal spaces includes those open spaces accessible to the general public even when they are located within the boundaries of a privately-owned plot. That is the case of open spaces adjacent to a major retail frontage, to name one example.

Urban activities complexity

41Based upon the literature review, the study of urban complexity in terms of activity is of considerable importance in relation to the assessment of sociability. In this sense, the quantity and the variety of non-residential uses is assessed in order to evaluate to what extent the selected suburban areas are complex in terms of mixed-use and urban activity.

42The methodology proposed follows a rather different approach from the previously described methods. In this case, the main information source is Google Places, a location-based web mapping service with an extensive business listings database. Data are extracted from the Google Places API, i.e., the Application Programming Interface, through a self-developed desktop application formerly used and tested in previous research (Agryzkov et al. 2015, Nolasco-Cirugeda and García-Mayor 2014).

43Information acquired from Google Places API includes a wide range of geo-positioned places whose main activity is related to business categories. Hence, the collected data were filtered and categorized in order to have a better understanding of the pattern and character of the urban activities in each case study.

44Four out of the five categories adopted for this purpose correspond to those found in the LEED ND Rating System manual (Appendix: diverse uses, see U.S. Green Building Council et al. 2011). Furthermore, sub-categories of each category have been defined by following two criteria. (1) When available, the original Google Places’ sub-categories were taken. (2) When the sub-categories were not available or ambiguous, manual identification and definition of sub-categories was performed. For those places whose sub-category was still not be clear, the Google Places’ generic category type ‘Establishment’ (Google Developers 2015) was left intact.

45The categories taken from the LEED ND Rating System Manual are: Civic and Community Facilities (Administration, Educational, Post office and facilities), Services (Atm/bank service, Sports Complex, Beauty and Wellness, Health, Insurance, Transport, Professionals and others), Community-Serving Retail (Retail, Animal care, Electronics, Establishment, Furnishings/Households, Travel and Leisure), and Food and Restaurants. In addition, a fifth category was introduced: Accommodation, e.g. Lodging and Real Estate Agents, due to the large number of these types of businesses and services found in both case studies.


46The results indicate, contrary to what was expected given the apparently similar perceived characteristics of both suburbs, that there are important differences between both case studies. Those differences are defined in terms of the three factors evaluated – typology of dwelling, open spaces and urban activities – whose quantity and spatial distribution varied in both cases.

Figure 3. Urban environment of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Figure 3. Urban environment of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Source: authors.

47Both case studies present low densities according to the definitions of density mentioned in the literature review. In global terms, Gran Alacant has a lower density, 12.50 dph, compared to the one of La Marina-Oasis, 16.44 dph. However, the distribution of different typologies of dwelling follows a dissimilar pattern. Residential plots in La Marina-Oasis are all occupied by a limited typology of houses –detached, semidetached and terraced houses- whereas in Gran Alacant, besides the aforementioned types, other urban morphologies can be identified such as closed and open city blocks and medium-height blocks. Also, the location of these more dense buildings within the suburb, interestingly, show a certain equal distribution throughout the suburb. This finding was unexpected since denser clusters of dwellings and urban activity were observed throughout Gran Alacant which is on average the less dense suburb compared to La Marin- Oasis. These plots of denser dwellings are occupied by multi-family buildings whose ground floor are shop fronts for retailers, services and restaurants, which tend to create areas with higher densities and a greater number of activities (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4. Community-serving retail facilities in Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Figure 4. Community-serving retail facilities in Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis

Source: authors.

48In contrast, the predominant dwelling type observed in La Marina-Oasis is single-family housing. In addition, as can be observed in the figure below, the distribution of dwellings does not have a consistent pattern and thus, the dense clusters of urban activity found in Gran Alacant do not exist in La Marina-Oasis.

Figure 5. Building typologies

Figure 5. Building typologies

Source: authors’ calculations and drawings.

49The above considerations about different housing types have a direct impact on the configuration of open spaces and their degree of publicness. In this sense, in areas where the above described cluster condition is met, the multi-family buildings and other urban activities are spatially linked to and by public open spaces, a sort of urban square created by the shop front. These are potential social places that provide opportunities for informal, casual meetings among people within the community.

50Another important consideration is the spatial relationship between communal open spaces and multi-family buildings. Although these spaces are not accessible to the general public, previous research suggests that they foster sociability among residents since they are community-owned and managed (Manzi and Smith-Bowers 2005). Thus, social relations are developed from shared interests of a group (Bruhn 2009), conferring a degree of identification with the space and with the community itself. Communal open spaces are then treated in this research as potential social places.

51An entirely different condition is recognized in La Marina-Oasis owing to its characteristic dwelling types. Single-family housing with privately owned open spaces does not contribute to the overall social public space network.

Figure 6. Communal open spaces within a multi-family dwelling plot in Gran Alacant and public open spaces in La Marina-Oasis

Figure 6. Communal open spaces within a multi-family dwelling plot in Gran Alacant and public open spaces in La Marina-Oasis

Source: authors.

52It is also relevant to note that Gran Alacant has twice as much undeveloped urban land as La Marina-Oasis, even when this latter settlement has a greater amount of total open space (Table 3). Taking these two circumstances into consideration, one could initially expect Gran Alacant to have less indicators of sociability than La Marina-Oasis due to the spatial segregation of its urban layout. However, while assessing the settlement’s spatial characteristics, such as the quantity and the publicness of urban open spaces, interesting conditions were observed.

Table 3. Quantity and degree of publicness of urban open spaces in La Marina-Oasis and Gran Alacant, in ha

Gran Alacant

(Santa Pola)

La Marina-Oasis (San Fulgencio)

Undeveloped urban land



Semi-public / communal spaces



Private open spaces



Public open spaces






Source: authors’ calculations.

53On the one hand, a statistically insignificant percentage of communal spaces were found in La Marina-Oasis, whereas 36 ha of communal spaces were identified in Gran Alacant (Figure 7). These data suggest that, at least at the community level, the latter presents an urban environment whose urban form encourages - to a greater extent than the former - places of opportunity for sociability. On the other hand, La Marina-Oasis has twice the amount of both, private and public open spaces compared to Gran Alacant. This is also a consequence of the aforementioned housing type, characterized by individual and privately used open spaces. Moreover, a large amount of the total public open space is occupied by roads serving single-family dwellings.

Figure 7. Developed and undeveloped land and the predominant character of open spaces within urban plots

Figure 7. Developed and undeveloped land and the predominant character of open spaces within urban plots

Source: authors’ calculations and drawings.

54Besides this, greater areas of developed urban land may mistakenly lead to the assumption that there are more opportunities for businesses and urban activities in general. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Gran Alacant comprises a smaller settlement area than La Marina-Oasis, the table below (Table 4) shows that there are 368 economic activities in Gran Alacant and 120 economic activities in La Marina-Oasis. These findings suggest that even with lower densities, the former has a number of urban activities three times greater than the latter.

Table 4. Quantity and categories of urban activities in La Marina-Oasis (San Fulgencio) and Gran Alacant (Santa Pola)


Sub- categories

Gran Alacant

(Santa Pola)

La Marina- Oasis

(San Fulgencio)

Civic and Community Facilities







Post Office







ATM/ Bank Service



Sports Complex






Beauty and wellness


















Community-Serving Retail

Animal care












Furnishings and households
















Real estate







Food and restaurants






Source: authors’ calculations using Google Places location-based data.

55Furthermore, when analyzing the nature of those activities it must be pointed out that there are neither administrative, nor educational, nor insurance related activities registered in the La Marina-Oasis, whereas in Gran Alacant, there is a broad range of uses that fall into the categories selected for this study, mostly based on those outlined in the LEED ND Rating System manual (U.S. Green Building Council et al. 2011).


Figure 8. Location and distribution of businesses and urban activities

Figure 8. Location and distribution of businesses and urban activities

Source: authors’ calculation and drawings.

57Unlike La Marina-Oasis, Gran Alacant includes institutions that serve long-term residents of all ages and needs. This is supported by the number of educational and administrative uses identified. Considering the link between urban density, typologies of urban spaces and urban activities, there is a notable concentration of economic activities in areas with multi-family residential buildings and communal spaces, which occurs in Gran Alacant and not in La Marina-Oasis. Thus, the main difference between both suburbs in terms of business location affecting sociability is twofold: the total amount of urban activities is three times higher in Gran Alacant than in La Marina-Oasis; and these activities in Gran Alacant are based in shop fronts of multi-family buildings which offer communal open spaces.


58This research evaluates the potential for certain physical features to promote sociability in residential suburban settlements. In particular, three urban parameters related to spatial configuration - housing types, complexity of urban activities and open spaces - have been addressed. The link between complexity of urban activities, the typology of residential housing and the different types of open spaces could be used as an indicator of the opportunity afforded by residential areas to promote social interaction. However, these factors do not necessarily bear any relation to the global density of the settlements.

59As the data and used parameters are quite universal and can be obtained and evaluated in other cases and contexts, the proposed methodology could be useful to evaluate other international cases with similar tourism characteristics and territorial conditions, for example, settlements with lifestyle migrants in the Algarve and Malta regions (Benson and O’Reilly 2009). Indeed, the housing types and complexity of urban activities quantification might be easily applied to other urban contexts while the quantitative evaluation of open spaces may be specifically used for suburban areas.

60The findings of this research suggest that the combination of multi-family housing, the use and degree of the publicness of urban open spaces, and the quantity and diversity of economic activities provide an insight on the extent to which a residential suburban area may promote sociability. This consideration is especially relevant in urban areas such as Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis given the diverse and fluctuating population size.

61At the same time, it has been observed that low urban densities do not necessarily translate into low levels of sociability. Certain dwelling types along with clusters of various economic activities could generate concentrations of socially active urban spaces whose identity and image are easily recognizable and appealing for the community. Through this research, it has been recognized that the quantity, diversity and spatial distribution of economic activities are factors which are likely to influence the social use of urban spaces.

62Thus, the contribution of this paper is related to the influence that physical factors of urban design could have on sociability in residential suburban areas. Nevertheless, two considerations should be highlighted regarding this research: firstly, the research approach focuses on physical factors of urban design and their evaluation through quality indicators of the built environment; and secondly, the assumption of similar social characteristics in both suburbs. Therefore, the deterministic conditions of the study and thereby its findings and results should be understood within these limits. Arguably, this research could be further strengthened by evaluating socio-cultural and qualitative aspects in order to gain a wider perspective on the social structure of the settlements.

63All in all, the planning and creation of an urban open space network that comprises both public and communal spaces, along with an adequate amount of urban activities distributed in a cluster pattern, are design issues to be considered in order to promote social interaction in a residential community.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Orthophotography of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis
Credits Source: Spanish National Plan of Aerial Orthophotography, PNOA (National Institute of Geography and Ministry of Development 2015).
File image/jpeg, 760k
Title Figure 2. Territorial location of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis
Credits Source: authors.
File image/jpeg, 84k
Title Figure 3. Urban environment of Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis
Credits Source: authors.
File image/jpeg, 184k
Title Figure 4. Community-serving retail facilities in Gran Alacant and La Marina-Oasis
Credits Source: authors.
File image/jpeg, 196k
Title Figure 5. Building typologies
Credits Source: authors’ calculations and drawings.
File image/jpeg, 1.0M
Title Figure 6. Communal open spaces within a multi-family dwelling plot in Gran Alacant and public open spaces in La Marina-Oasis
Credits Source: authors.
File image/jpeg, 268k
Title Figure 7. Developed and undeveloped land and the predominant character of open spaces within urban plots
Credits Source: authors’ calculations and drawings.
File image/jpeg, 252k
Title Figure 8. Location and distribution of businesses and urban activities
Credits Source: authors’ calculation and drawings.
File image/jpeg, 224k
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Electronic reference

Leticia Serrano-Estrada, Almudena Nolasco-Cirugeda and Pablo Martí, Comparing Two Residential Suburban Areas in the Costa Blanca, SpainArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 13 | 2016, Online since 02 April 2016, connection on 05 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Leticia Serrano-Estrada

PhD in Architecture. Researcher and Lecturer in the Urban Design and Regional Planning Unit, University of Alicante. Email:

Almudena Nolasco-Cirugeda

PhD in Architecture. Researcher and Lecturer in the Urban Design and Regional Planning Unit, University of Alicante. Email:

Pablo Martí

PhD in Architecture. Researcher and Professor in the Urban Design and Regional Planning Unit, University of Alicante. Email:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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