Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Greening Spain’s increasingly dry capital could transform the city.
Nature is poised to reconquer Madrid. Faced with rising summer temperatures, Spain’s capital has announced plans, reported in today’s El Pais, to seam the city so thoroughly with new green patches that its face could be quite transformed.
City parks will be expanded and restored, and 22 new urban gardens created. Vacant public land will be freed up to create community gardens while the banks of the city’s scrappy Manzanares River will be thickly planted with trees, doubling the size of a linear park first begun in 2003. Green roofs will get special funding and buildings will be encouraged to plant their facades with cooling, insulating creepers. Paved squares will be get green makeovers with plant beds to allow better rain absorption and the city will fund a new urban gardening school. Madrid could also take a leaf out of Copenhagen’s book by creating ponds for storm overflow.
When everything is in place, Madrid should be fresher, cooler, cleaner, and more livable. It’s easy to feel delight at plans that are so obviously poised to improve quality of life. There are nonetheless serious reasons that go far beyond simple beautification why these plans have been given priority. Currently, Madrid is drying up.
Located on a high, dry plateau far away from the temperature-moderating effects of the sea, the city has always had a fairly extreme climate. Winters are surprisingly crisp and frigid for a city this far south, while summer heat can transform its paved squares into giant, searing grill pans.
In the future, things are set to get worse. The study on which the new plans are based—entitled “Madrid + Nature” and conducted by Arup—estimates that by 2050 there could be a 25 percent drop in the city’s accumulated rainfall. When rain does come, it’s more likely to arrive as the sort of powerful summer storms that cause flash floods. Accompanying this will be a rise in temperature. As Juan Azcarate, director of Madrid’s Energy and Climate Change Department told El Pais:
"The first evidence [of climate change] is increasingly long periods of very high temperature. The European project Ensembles, which analyzes various scenarios in Madrid in the next 80 years, shows a 20% increase in the number of abnormally warm days in summer, with an average increase of four degrees Celsius (39.2 Fahrenheit) of temperature.”
If Madrid doesn’t want to get crisped at the edges, it needs to do something. The new greening proposal should, if carried out in full, make a considerable difference. The plan would also have positive effects beyond cutting temperature. Growing creeper on windowless walls can also muffle street noise, while expanding the linear park all the way along the Manzanares River would create a corridor for bees, insects, and birds that feed on them.
Elsewhere, the city government is working on other plans to improve the city’s environment. This week, officials announced equally bold measures to ban polluting cars from the city center. From 2020, diesel vehicles will be forbidden from entering inner Madrid. In 2017, all non-resident cars of any fuel type will be barred from some key central neighborhoods, expanding on a plan that had already restricted car access. The city is even currently asking citizens whether it should bury road traffic along Gran Via, the city’s main street, which is a bit like New York pondering a road tunnel running the length of Broadway.
Such plans seem optimistic, even utopian. But yet again they respond to a desperate need. Madrid’s pollution levels routinely exceed E.U. limits and the past 12 months have been particularly terrible for nitrogen oxide pollution. The city has responded to the crisis short-term with temporary car bans to ease off the pollution peaks, but it knows that these one-off efforts aren’t enough. The new plans to banish cars and bring in trees thus have a double edge: They show a city thinking about ways its citizens life could be healthier, longer, and more pleasant. They also reveal an understanding that, as it heats and dries, Madrid’s existing quality of life is more fragile than ever.