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How Madrid reclaimed its river

by editor

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim.

MADRID — Carmen Muñoz lives in a building just a stone’s throw from Madrid’s largest river, but for most of her life, her view of the water was blocked by a major eyesore — the Spanish capital’s main ring road, the M-30.

For nearly 40 years, the six-lane thoroughfare — the busiest in the country — acted like a concrete corset around the Manzanares river, cutting off locals’ access to the waterway.

“The river was invisible to me: In its place, there was only the M-30,” said Muñoz. “The rumble of cars was constant, and if you made the mistake of opening the windows car fumes and soot would fill every corner of the flat.”

That has since changed thanks to a major project that saw the highway buried, a sprawling park built above it, and the heavily polluted Manzanares restored to health.

The three-pronged infrastructure scheme, which started in 2004 and took nearly a decade to complete, has been hailed as both a “miracle of engineering” and a model for restoring damaged ecosystems and improving access to nature in urban spaces.

Although it was initially met with skepticism, the transformation is now hugely popular, especially among neighborhood residents like Muñoz, who said she “no longer [wakes] up to the noise of honking cars, but rather to the sound of birds singing in the trees that now line the river.”

As local leaders across Europe try to offset the need to green their cities against worries about popular pushback, Madrid’s success story is a lesson on how to strike the right balance — and push through major changes.

“The main thing you need is political conviction,” José María Ortega, the city’s general coordinator for urban development, said during a recent stroll along the river. Although the area’s transformation has earned Madrid a bevy of international awards, “there was immense pressure on the mayor” during the construction process, he said.

The project cost some €4 billion, more or less equivalent to Madrid’s annual revenue. “Not every city can afford to take on that debt, so it’s important to be creative and find financing wherever possible,” said Ortega.

But the success of the scheme shows that the short-term pain — whether financial or political — is worthwhile, he stressed.

“Madrileños tend to be very conservative and oppose any changes to the status quo,” he said. “For a city to evolve you have to be ready to question the things everyone thinks are unchangeable and be prepared to do the things no one ever thought possible.”

Back to blue

The Madrid Río complex — a lush riverside park that extends over 7.5 kilometers — has become one of the most popular spots in the Spanish capital, with pedestrians, joggers and cyclists sharing its verdant paths.

The contrast couldn’t be greater to the early 2000s, when the area was dominated by the M-30 and the 250,000 vehicles that rumbled through on a daily basis.

When conservative politician Alberto Ruíz Gallardón pledged to bury the ring road as part of his bid to become Madrid mayor in 2003, many dismissed the scheme as an expensive folly and assumed it would be abandoned once he was elected.

But Gallardón pushed ahead, tasking a team of urbanists led by Ortega with carrying out the ambitious plans. Over the next eight years, engineers burrowed massive tunnels to reroute the M-30’s traffic deep underground, a disruptive construction project that opposition politicians used to attack Gallardón.

Likening the mayor to a “pharaoh” obsessed with a self-aggrandizing project that would “ruin the city,” Gallardón’s political opponents organized public protests against the scheme.

In Brussels, left-wing Spanish MEPs reported the city to the European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions for purportedly violating environmental standards on the building site. A related suit filed by environmental NGOs at the Court of Justice of the EU did not find Madrid to have committed any wrongdoing, but the ruling established that all future projects of that size had to be subject to more rigorous environmental impact studies.

Following the Manzanares’ restoration, wild animals have returned to the river | Emilio Naranjo/EPA-EFE

The construction process also wasn’t easy on local residents. “At certain points we had people working 24 hours a day, with jackhammering going on at all hours of the night,” said Ortega, who recalled that one infuriated neighbor even went so far as to shoot at a construction worker with a BB gun. “There were a lot of upset people.”

But despite the pressure, the team kept going.

Eliminating the M-30 entirely “was out of the question,” said Ortega. So he had to “figure out a way to make it disappear, and to simultaneously recover the river as well.”

The Manzanares river had become heavily polluted as a result of automotive runoff that would drip off the ring road and into the water. Biodiversity in the area took a hit as a result of a series of dams built along the river in the 1950s that made it impossible for native fauna to build their habitats.

Ortega and his team decided to lift those barriers and let the water flow freely.

“Leaving the dams open has meant going back to having a river that exists in winter and nearly vanishes in summer, but it’s also meant allowing nature to come back to its waters,” said José Luis Infanzón, Madrid’s general director for public spaces who worked closely with Ortega.

“Almost as soon as we did that small islands began to develop in the riverbank, providing spaces where birds could nest,” said Infanzón.

Soon, mallards, herons and egrets had built nests in the area; migrating wagtails, kingfishers and cormorants stopped off en route to Africa. The river is now also home to foxes and even endangered otters not seen in the Spanish capital since the 1950s.

The riverside park — which spreads over 120 hectares and creates a green belt around the city — has also attracted wildlife. Wild boar have been sighted using the park to make their way from the Monte del Pardo to the north (one of the best-preserved forests in the Mediterranean region) to the Lineal Park in the south.

Extreme heat

Besides being a boon for urban biodiversity, the Manzanares’ renewal has arguably made Madrid more prepared to deal with the effects of climate change.

In preparation for the extreme weather that is set to become more frequent in the decades ahead, the reengineered riverbank now has containers that can collect the excess water produced by 500 year flood events. “If a catastrophic event were to occur, we’re now in a much more resilient position to handle it,” Ortega said.

The sprawling Madrid Río park will also help the city adapt to higher temperatures.

Drawing inspiration from the hardscrabble trees that flourish on the granite mountains north of the city, Ortega’s team designed the riverside park to allow for native species like pines to flourish, creating plenty of shade.

The team of urbanists installed a biodegradable grid making it possible to plant trees along the artificial riverbank | Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

Transforming the space presented a major challenge, but proved that even the trickiest built-up areas can be greened. The artificial riverbank is not deep enough to support vertical tree roots because of the road beneath. So the team installed a biodegradable grid to force them to expand horizontally. “The roots are locked together to support the entire system,” said Ortega.

But the dense tree cover will help cool the city and provides shade for residents during periods of extreme heat, said Infanzón.

“We have thermographic images that show how the tree-lined park acts as a corridor for cool air coming from the north,” he said. “The up to 700,000 people that live in the immediate surroundings of the river can get relief here when temperatures rise.”

Ortega added that turning the river into a place where Madrileños can once again congregate was helping heal a social division too. For decades, the M-30 separated the city’s working-class districts in the west from central, more prosperous neighborhoods.

“This project is, in a lot of ways, one of unification,” he said. “It’s allowed the city to reconcile with nature, stitching communities back together.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities. Chapter 3 of the project is presented by Holcim. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers. You can sign up for Living Cities here.

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