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.
The city's new master plan lays out a sharp turn back toward a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city.
Trees, bikes, and walking are in. Cars, historical protection, and new apartments are out. This is the gist of a new plan Madrid has hatched to help it catch up with its European neighbors. The General Urban Plan is a massive, doorstep-sized blueprint created by the city government about every 15 years. This latest iteration arrived just as crisis-hit Madrid badly needs an about-turn to put it back on track.
Happily, much of the plan looks great – it'll transform much of a car-snarled city center into a leafy pedestrian's dream. Still, it's understandable if some locals tend towards skepticism. Madrid's last General Urban Plan, launched back in 1997, turned out to be a dud, packed with false predictions that have dogged the city for years. Forged in the heady years of Spain's property bubble, Madrid's last plan predicted that the city's population would mushroom.
Certainly, it grew – by a striking 390,000 residents – but the city still grossly overestimated its ability to lure in new residents. Between 1997 and 2011, licenses for over 540,000 new homes were granted, before the crisis arrived and demand came crashing down. Now the city fringes are marked by empty construction sites and avenues that go nowhere, and work on 200,000 of the new homes licensed for building never began. Housing oversupply isn't Madrid's only problem – by concentrating on homes, the city overlooked the need to build work premises, schools, and social facilities, making the new neighborhoods even less livable.
Madrid didn't make this mistake alone. Across the country, much boom-era money was channeled into a construction and property speculation free-for-all that left Spain (and not just Spain) with a whole herd of vacant or underused white elephants. Madrid now plans to stop the rot, in particular by slashing home building schemes. A plan to construct a new 130,000-home neighborhood will be junked, with much of the allotted space to be taken over by parkland. Meanwhile, to help get other parts of the economy going, Madrid will radically simplify planning procedures. Historically, the city has separated real estate into "commercial" and "industrial" sectors. Now these two categories will be lumped together as "economic," which means buildings can turn from stores into workshops, or vice versa, without their owners having to apply for a change of use permit.
To boost development, buildings over 100 years old will also lose their automatic historical protection. Planners will be more open to radical remodeling of older buildings, a proposal that's likely to cause dissent. The city already has a record of letting historic buildings in their care fall into ruins, while there is an ongoing protest against current plans to gut a historic city block for a façade-ist makeover. Expect to see more public flare-ups like this in the future.
Central Madrid's environmental quality should still improve elsewhere. The city’s traffic isn't too bad by European standards – Stockholm and Helsinki both have longer delays – but the core area Madrileños call the Almendra Central (the "central almond" – because it's shaped like one) is still snarled up with some busy, roaringly loud arterial avenues. These car canyons, dusty in summer, are hardly stroller-friendly, which is a pity because a lot of them are quite attractive.
(Rafael Ramirez Lee /Shutterstock.com)
So the plan calls for 24 major Madrid streets to be radically overhauled, with car lanes removed, bike lanes added and trees planted to make them cool and shady. A new hierarchy will be in place: pedestrians come first, then public transport, then bikes, then cars. Overall, 66 percent of the affected street surface will be given over to people on foot. The irony is that before car-friendly policies reshaped central Madrid, many of these streets were just the sort of leafy, broad-sidewalked avenues the city wants, but they were remodeled to add extra motorist lanes. Now chastened by years of fumes and grime, the city is coming full circle back to its old ways. The use of the word boulevard ("Bulevar" in Spanish) may suggest Parisian influence, but the real model seems to be La Rambla, the central pedestrian avenue in Madrid's great rival city, Barcelona.
The plan suggests additional steps to keep inner Madrid car-free. Parking places in central buildings will be strictly limited to encourage people onto public transport. Even now, before the plan takes effect, the city is getting rid of state-owned parking lots. Over 20,000 parking spaces are currently being sold off, and some may be redeveloped for other uses.
Madrid car use fell 2.5 percent in 2012, according to the government. But the city still faces some specifically local issues here that are far less pressing in Northern Europe. Many commuters choose door-to-door driving because it gets them to work cooler and drier. Located on a high, dry plateau far inland, Madrid can be stifling in summer, despite its cool nights and lack of humidity. To make walking more attractive during this annual fry, the government will give incentives to building owners to extend shaded arcade space and awnings over sidewalks, as well as to employers who provide locker rooms with showers in workplaces.
The problem limiting the plan's implementation is obvious. Madrid is short of cash – the city is currently cutting public spending hard and facing a strong backlash from public sector workers. The city's new plan does have some ideas about boosting the economy, notably more development around the humdrum Manzanares River, but finding money for everything in the plan will prove tough. Still, as a set of signposts pointing the way forward, the plan suggests that in central Madrid, things might finally be looking up.