Friday, May 09, 2008

Madrid Versus Barcelona

No, this post is not about football. That’s probably just as well after what happened on Wednesday night. I have been meaning to write a post comparing Madrid to Barcelona ever since my visit to the latter city a few weeks ago. I have what I suppose might be a slightly romantic notion of Barcelona, which perhaps comes from being an occasional visitor rather than someone who lives there. I’ve always had the idea of it being a more imaginative, better administered city, than Madrid. Every time I go there it seems that something has been done to make the city more attractive and user friendly, and I compare this with Madrid where it has always seemed to me that making the city more attractive and easy to live in has never been high up on the list of municipal priorities.

In Barcelona I see more pedestrian areas, inner city cycle lanes, and the complete renovation and recovery of the beach area by the sea. The bicycle sharing scheme they have introduced seems to be a great success, much to the disappointment of those whose gloomy vision of human nature demands that such schemes should fail. Then I think of Madrid with narrow traffic clogged streets where the remaining pavement is so thin that you and the bag you are carrying cannot share it. Those who ride a bike on the streets of Madrid do so because they need an adrenaline fix that they can only get from dodging murderous taxi drivers. The “beach” by the River Manzanares is still a dustbowl and will probably stay that way until two months before the next elections – they could at least plant some plastic palm trees to give it that desert look and feel. I know it’s not all so rosy, Barcelona has its protests over urban speculation and some things they do there are just disappointing. The imaginative extension of the Ramblas into the port area is completely marred by placing the most ordinary of chain-store, fast food, multi screen shopping centres at the end of it; it’s already starting to look a bit tatty.

Is this as good as it gets?

In reality, Madrid is not just behind Barcelona in terms of making the city more habitable. I’ve seen similar initiatives to those I’ve mentioned above in other smaller cities of Spain, and Madrid always seems to be the last place to adopt such ideas. I’ve reached the conclusion that the capital simply lacks the sense of civic pride that Barcelona and other cities possess. If you look back over the past few years for significant projects or changes in the city the result is the infamous traffic tunnel under the river and four huge office blocks built as a result of the dodgy deal done over Real Madrid’s former training ground. That’s about it, I can’t think of anything really important that I’ve missed, and the biggest problem of all is that very few people in the city seem to care. The interests and priorities of the city administration are a reflection of that.

Much of the municipal budget for the next few years disappeared under the river with the traffic, and what can literally be described as “tunnel vision” seems to dominate thinking about what the city needs. Madrid has boomed economically in recent years, and the spread of the city means that almost everything is just reduced to how to navigate between the suburban home, the out of town shopping centre, and the office. A large part of the population rarely passes by the centre of the city and when they do they are often just driving underground. In other words, a significant part of the population cares little about what happens in the city provided that their key journeys are not interfered with in any way. Broach the subject with Madrid residents and many will probably protest that they do care about their city, all I can say is that they hide it well. Perhaps my (undisguised) prejudices against those who run the city and the region affect my judgment, but I don’t think I have ever lived in a large city where there is so little evident interest in how the city evolves. Despite what some might think after reading this post, I’ve said all of this because I like Madrid; I just think it could be better.


moscow said...

Sorry Graeme, but this time I must object to your comments. I agree that after one has lived for a while in a place it becomes almost inevitable to take many things for granted. I live in Moscow and I am just back from a short 3 day visit to Madrid. As it happens I lived in Madrid from 1975 to 1986, so I enjoy what could be called a historical perspective. If you think building the world's largest underground - after Moscow - is a small feat, I am afraid there might not be much I can do to influence the way you see things. But Madrid not only has one of the best and largest underground networks, it has now one of Europe's best airports. I remember what the centre of Madrid looked like in 1977. It was pretty grim. Even in the 1980's it was still rather scruffy. The change has simply been staggering. Obviously not all this change should be adscribed to the present administration. Things started to get moving with Tierno Galvan, the old socialist mayor, in the early 80's. I can't comment on Barcelona, but a relatively recent visit to Milan confirmed my view that Madrid is doing rather well, even if those living in it might loose perspective from time to time. And Gallardon's giant project on the Manzanares will one day be perceived as a stroke of genious.

Graeme said...

Well my comments were not really aimed at the public transport network , which I agree is very good. In fact, when people from Madrid have talked approvingly to me about the London Underground I look at them in disbelief - the Madrid system is far more modern, cheaper and efficient. But then perhaps those people are part of the significant percentage of Madrileños that don't even use public transport at home because they have been led to believe they can take their car anywhere?

What has the administration done to the centre of Madrid to make it look better? Some areas look better because they have become richer, but in the 10 years I have lived in Madrid I have seen no significant public initiative to improve the centre of the city. I have seen one of the oldest historic buildings in Madrid allowed to collapse so they could build something else in its place - cleaner, newer and what else?

Gallardon's stroke of genius would have been to convince Madrid that an inner city ring road is not actually needed when you already have two outer ring roads. Closing it would have been brilliant, burying it was just a way of mortgaging the city budget for a generation and sacrificing many other potential improvements to the city. Investing money in the means of entering and leaving a big city is important, but when it becomes the only thing that matters then you have no sense of the city as something to be appreciated or as a living space - it just becomes a means to an end. Madrid is doing well economically and in terms of transport infrastructure there has been significant investment, but that's not what my post is about.

moscow said...

I'll try to give you a few examples:
1) In the early eighties the Atocha station was in a state of total disrepair if not abandon. The round square in front of the station was buried under a huge fly-over road (scaletrix in Madrid speech), and the surroundings buildings' facades had not been touched by a paint brush for decades. Obviously, the Reina Sofia museum did not even exist back then. Anyone walking now around Atocha for the first time in 25 years would simply not recognize the place.
2) Recently, a similar change but on a smaller scale has been achieved at Cuatro Caminos.
3) The pavements - sorry the sidewalks - of a good chunk of the centre have been replaced over the last 15 years. If it is not ideal now, it is used be absolutely pathetic a few years or decades ago. Many areas have broadened the space for pedestrians. This last time I was pleasantly surprised by what has been done around Bilbao.
4) In the 70's the only area where pedestrians could walk without cars around was the Plaza Mayor - and the Retiro. That was it. Period.
5) Madrid had only 2 'green' areas in the seventies: again the Retiro, and the Casa de Campo. I have lost count of the number of new parks or green areas that have sprung up since then all over Madrid.
6) The centre has seen a great number of squares, 'plazas', little parks with fountains and/or sculptures been built over the last decades. The last example is that horrible parking lot between Callao and Opera which has now disappeared to give way to a new open space for pedestrians.
7) Until the 80's the Conde Duque Palace, which is now being refurbished once more, was a total rat-infested ruin. Most people - including me - did not even know it existed.
8) Going out for a stroll around central Madrid has become sort of a pleasant activity. Back thirty years ago, with exception of the Princesa, Gran Via, Castellana and Salamanca areas, the centre - that is everything between S. Bernardo and Atocha, Alonso Martinez and Pta. de Toledo - was a grim, murky, filthy affair, and in state of total decay, bordering collapse.
8) I guess I could go on and on, as this was all from the top of my head.

Graeme said...

Well let's go point by point Moscow:

1. Atocha was reformed to house the AVE to Sevilla. It's nice, they did a good job but the principal objective was to build transport infrastructure. The area surrounding Atocha is still a traffic infested nightmare.

2. In Cuatro Caminos they removed a small flyover, apart from that it is still a major traffic intersection.

3. Much of the old centre may have new pavements but they cannot be widened without restricting traffic. I live in a street which has only one residential garage and no parking space at all. There is a main road parallel to it and 90% or more of the traffic that uses it is completey avoidable.

4.What new pedestrian areas are there? We have Arenal and Sol which are not strictly pedestrian - semi pedestrian is the description I believe they use. Oriente is pedestrian. It's not much more in so many years.

5. Countless new parks? Not in the centre. Although the centre with the existing Retiro and the Casa de Campo is better off than the outskirts.

6. You mean Santo Domingo which has been returned to pedestrian use. Many squares have been refurbished in a horrible bare concrete style with one single objective - to put car parks underneath them. Olavide is a perfect example, a beautifuul square that was destroyed with the first attempt and had to bbe reformed again to make it look even a little bit like it used to.

7. Conde Duque is nice, I like it - but it has been under refurbishment the whole time I have been in Madrid (over 10 years) and it is still nowhere near finished. Hardly seems to be a municipal priority.

8. "Sort of a pleasant activity". I agree, could be nicer.

9. I'm still looking for significant improvements made by the administration of the city with the sole objective of improving the habitability and environment of the city - not secondary benefits from huge transport projects. Some progress is being made - I don't deny it. But Madrid is light years behind other cities. They are late adopters of everything except tunnels.

moscow said...

It's hard not to agree with you that things could be better. They can always be. But I find it difficult to agree with your opinion that Madrid is behind other cities. I haven't been much to Barcelona, but let me, please, at least doubt that things there are much better. I have lived in the UK for 10 years, in various cities and towns, and my take on British urban planning is extremely negative - perhaps even prejudiced. I have lived in Germany, and there things are, as one would expect, a lot better. But surely, if we want to assess the progress over time, it would be unfair to Madrid to look back beyond the 1970's, because during the Franco era, and the helter-skelter 'desarrollo' years, very little - if anything at all - was done to improve the quality of life of people in general, and there was a total absence of any form of urban planning. Thus, if we focus on the 70's as the point of departure for analysing how urban planning has evolved over time, then German cities were already at a great, seemingly unsurmountable, advantage back then. It is my point of contention that this advantage has been greatly reduced in the space of 30 years, but that Madrid is certainly still behind places like Stockholm, Vienna, Paris or Amsterdamm. Then again, are there many other cities around the world that aren't? Certainly Moscow, or Bankock or Milan or London are, to name a few I know. I am not disagreeing with you in that things can and should be improved still, but I care little whether there is a hidden 'transport infrastructure' agenda behind all the change or not. Perhaps I am not sufficiently 'green' or romantic, or both.

Graeme said...

I don't see it as a question of being "romantic" about the city - except in the sense that I do see the city as being more than just the sum of its infrastructures. It is a bit about being green, I'm not an eco freak but the fact is that Madrid has steadily headed in the opposite direction during the last few years to that of most other Western European large cities. Whilst many other cities seek to reduce traffic, Madrid has acted to increase it. For all the (thin) camouflage, that is what the M-30 project was about. After all, we still have a few days of the year when the pollution limits are not exceeded.

When I say that other cities are better I mean in terms of dealing with these kinds of issues - Barcelona for example would certainly claim that its infrastructure is behind that of Madrid, but it appears far more active in making the city more attractive to walkers or cyclists. An example helps to explain the point I am making. A few years ago, on the token "day without cars", Barcelona reacted by closing several streets of the centre to traffic and achieved a traffic reduction figure way above that of Madrid. The administration of Madrid reacted by saying that Barcelona had "cheated" by closing streets to cars! They just don't get it.