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.
Spain's capital is banning everything from dangerous rollerblading to jumping in a fountain.
Dangerous rollerblading: €1,500. Beating carpets in the street, washing a dog in public, or jumping in a fountain: €750. Place a potted plant unsafely on a balcony: €3,000. These are just some of the new fines being proposed by the city government in Madrid, determined to kick back against "anti-social" behavior on its streets.
Many of the new penalties (part of a general wave of urban clampdowns sweeping Europe) make some sense. No one really wants to be brained by a falling geranium, and the city government's new suggested fines for racist and homophobic bullying (up to €1,500) are pretty mild by British standards.
Still, as with all ordinances governing public behavior, there's an uneasy sense of authoritarian mission creep hanging in the air in Spain's capital. Civil liberties campaigners, for example, may be concerned over planned fines for camping in Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, a tactic used recently by the Indignados, Spain’s anti-austerity campaigners. Elsewhere, new rules stipulating the creation of permits for street musicians and how long they can play (120 minutes) before they move on (at least 500 meters) suggest a willingness to get involved in the minutiae of urban life that smacks of micromanagement – though probably not for residents with tuneless buskers encamped beneath their windows.
The proposed penalties don’t come solely from a wish to lessen the hell that is other people. They're part of a top-down fightback against the perception of Madrid’s sliding place in the world.
There’s no denying that the city has taken a few knocks recently. Spain's capital is looking increasingly rundown, understandable given the country's ongoing economic crisis. Squatters are now living in some office buildings in the city's center (which at least means they’re being put to use), major projects have stalled, and streets are looking dirtier thanks to cuts in the cleaning budget.
Madrid is also smarting from the loss of its bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, although winning might have proved a Pyrrhic victory given its current dearth of cash. To cap it all, fewer people are visiting. Compared to last year, tourist visits during August were down a reported 22 percent, a pattern that continued into September, when Barajas Airport showed an 11.7 percent year-over-year passenger drop. Clearly, something needs to be done to make the city more attractive. But what?
The city government’s idea seems to be that tidying up and getting the city more orderly will do the trick. This will certainly help cultural assets such as the superb Prado Museum shine for visitors and bring out the best in grand urban set pieces such as Madrid’s Plaza de Oriente and Plaza de Cibeles. Still, Madrid is not Geneva, nor should it ever try to be. While the mayor is pinning hopes on a new mega-casino out in the city's suburbs, the arts and culture scene is losing some of its spark, with 12 theaters closing over the summer. Its streets are also getting quieter, a marked turnaround for one of Europe’s nightlife capitals.
In the 1980s and '90s, the city had one of the latest, liveliest nightlife scenes in Europe, a place that made Berlin seem eerily silent and London a ludicrously early sleeper. This buzz still survives, but thousands of bars and over a hundred clubs have closed over the past few years, victims of reduced spending power and tougher noise restrictions.
All this should matter to more than just drinkers and theater lovers. Madrid's main selling point is the friendly, anarchic energy of its urban culture. Compared to Rome, its history is short and its monuments modest. The city also lacks the grand planning of Vienna or Berlin's sense of space. What Madrid does have is an irrepressible fizz, with an eclectic architecture that includes medieval alleys and renaissance squares but also art deco skyscrapers and slightly hysterical buildings that resemble Belle Époque Paris on steroids. While its main street is often said to recall New York’s Broadway in all its pre-2000s grungy energy, around the corner there are quiet, village-like corners apparently populated only by old women walking toy dogs. And although it has one of the grandest royal palaces in all Europe, it’s always been a fairly scruffy place and none the worse for it. Nowhere else in Europe quite matches its contradictory mix of big city bustle and quiet provincialism, its combination of old guard Spanish tradition and punkish vibrancy.
Lose this balance and you lose an awful lot. But for some reason the municipal government thinks it's going to bring the city back to local and international favor with jaywalking fines and a suburban casino. Good luck with that.