The Madrid Río project

I visited the parklands created by the Madrid Río project1 a couple of weeks ago. The area had still been under construction in 2010 when I was last in Madrid.

The Madrid Río project is of course one of the world’s most famous urban renewal schemes. At least two books2 and a huge amount of journalism have been devoted to the project, which involved putting nearly seven kilometers of the M30 surface freeway into a tunnel, and replacing it with parkland. The project runs along the Manzanares River, and one of the project’s goals was to restore a river valley that had been damaged not just by the 1970s freeway but by centuries of human activity. Because the site of the project is not far from central Madrid, the Madrid Río project carried an enormous symbolic meaning. One of the books on the project3 compares it to Boston’s “Big dig” and the removal of a freeway and the consequent uncovering of Cheonggyecheon stream in central Seoul.

Because the project is so well-known, there isn’t much to be said about it, but I can’t resist sharing some observations anyway:

[1] The Madrid Río project is often described as being in central Madrid, but that’s really a questionable assertion. I am pretty sure that, when people talk about central Madrid, they are largely thinking of the city’s tiny medieval core and the substantial areas added to the east, north, and south of that core through the early years of the twentieth century. The reason for Madrid’s asymmetric growth is that west of the core (or west of, say, the Palacio Real) is quite a steep hill. The Manzanares Valley lies at the bottom of the hill and, until modern times, was subject to flooding. This valley was not much used for high-density urban activities until the 1950s. Even now, the Valley feels quite separate from central Madrid proper. The latter is one of the world’s most intensively used urban spaces. There are crowds everywhere, even late at night. The sidewalks connecting central Madrid proper with the Manzanares Valley tend, in contrast, to be rather empty, and no wonder—you have to manage something like a 10% grade on nearly every connecting street. Once you’re down in the valley, pedestrians are numerous again, but you’re no longer in what most people would identify as a central business district. The neighborhoods along the Madrid Río project are now fully built-up with post-World-War-II multi-family housing. Here’s a map:

Central Madrid and vicinity, showing the location of the Madrid Río project. Note the breaks in the street grid marking the steep rise between the Manzanares Valley and central Madrid proper. GIS data from the MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap.

[2] The Madrid Río parklands are in one sense somewhat American. This statement requires some explanation.

Many North American city dwellers do much of their running and cycling in linear parklands created in the rights-of-way of abandoned railroad routes and power lines or (more often) along water bodies. There has not been much opportunity to build parklands like these in Western Europe. Abandoned railroad routes and overhead power lines are uncommon in cities, and river banks and lakeshores are often preempted for other functions. The path created over the last thirty or so years along the south bank of the Thames, for example, is wonderful for walking but too crowded and irregular to be very comfortable for cycling or even running. Only a few places—the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, the Regent’s Canal in London, and the banks of the Main in Frankfurt—seem vaguely comparable, say, to the hundreds of kilometers of recreational paths that have been built in cities like Washington, Chicago, Denver, and Calgary since (roughly) the late 1970s.

The Madrid Río project is an even better example. The project created a genuine linear park, and it connects to narrower, more modest, long-existing linear parks at both ends. There is even a separate right-of-way for bicycling. 

I should add that, when I was there, the bicycle path was fairly empty. Most of the park’s many users were walking pedestrians. This may have reflected the fact that I was visiting during the morning on weekdays. Here’s a photo:

Walking path in one of the parks created by the Madrid Río project. Note the relatively recent housing in the background. The Manzanares is behind the fence to the right.

[3] The Madrid Río parklands differ from just about any North American linear park in that they are much more carefully designed. The area in that sense resembles in some ways New York’s High Line, but the scale of the work is much larger. A traverse of the area takes you through a constantly changing landscape of elaborately planned gardens, water features, and special-purpose recreation facilities, and, if you want to cross the river, you have a choice between flashy modern and sensitively restored older bridges. Only the river itself seems vaguely “natural”—and it’s carefully confined behind walls. The complexity of the parklands created by the Madrid Río project is perhaps its most distinctive feature.

The Manzanares River along which the Madrid Río project was built.

  1. “Madrid Río” can also be spelled “MadridRío.” Whatever the spelling, this phrase, which is not possible in traditional, correct Spanish, suggests the computer age.
  2. (1) MadridRío : un proyecto de transformación urbana / textos, Manuel Arnáiz and others. Madrid : Turner, 2011. Translated as: MadridRío : a project of urban transformation. Madrid : Turner, 2011. (2) Paisajes en la ciudad : Madrid Río : geografía, infrastructura y espacio public / Francisco Burgos, Ginés Garrido, Fernando Porras-Isla, editors. Madrid : Turner, 2014. Translated as: Landscapes in the city : Madrid Río : geography, infrastructure and public space / Francisco Burgos, Ginés Garrido, Fernando Porras-Isla, editors. Madrid : Turner, 2014.
  3. Paisajes en la ciudad, pages 14-21.
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