Madrid Rio – urban regeneration at a price

THE lack of a major river passing through the city has put Madrid at a disadvantage compared to other European capitals such as London, Paris, Rome or Budapest.

Waterways like the Seine, the Thames, the Danube or the Tiber, which divide their respective city centres, usually conjure up a notion of space, bridges, leisure cruises, terraces, riverside walks, open air restaurants, and romance, as well as a means of attracting tourists.

The Spanish capital does have a kind of river – the Manzanares.

Few people ever had reason to take the trouble to notice it or look for it because it is too shallow for navigation and flowed through a wasteland of obsolete industrial buildings alongside the M30, Madrid’s congested eight lane ring motorway.

For years residents in the southern and western districts of the city were virtually cut off from the rest of Madrid. All this has changed. The local residents can now gaze out over the water and see parks, play areas, ponds, fountains, bridges and not a car in sight.

The Madrid Rio project, one of a number of urban regeneration schemes planned by the local authority in the capital, had three main objectives: recover use of the neglected river and improve public open space along the river banks; give priority to the Madrid population; integrate the centre of the city with the southern and western districts.

The result suggests the mammoth project has succeeded in its aims. The new park, more than six kilometres in length, provides over 1.2 million square metres of space with 1,000 acres designated as landscaped gardens.

The first phase, an engineering feat, consisted of building a massive concrete deck over several kilometres of the M 30 urban motorway. Instead of over 200,000 vehicles passing there is now a network of interlinked parks and 30 kilometres of trails and cycle paths on both banks of the river.

More than 30,000 trees have been planted and ornamental fountains, artificial ponds, children’s play areas and sports facilities installed along the riverbank.

The Playa Urbana beach area, complete with three large oval shaped paddling pools and water jets, opened last summer in the Arganzuela park area, while many of the old industrial buildings including the city’s abattoirs, built at the beginning of the 20th century have been refurbished as cultural centres with open air cafes and restaurants.

The two existing historical river crossings, the Puenta de Segovia, Madrid’s oldest bridge built in the 16th century during the reign of Philip II, and the 17th century Puenta de Toledo bridge, have been carefully restored. But to link the south western district of Carabanchel and its northern neighbour, Arganzuela, more bridges were required.

The new river crossings, reserved for pedestrians and cyclists are no more that than 300 metres apart. They provided architects with an opportunity to introduce innovative designs which include a diagonal bridge, previously open to traffic, transformed into a pedestrian walkway complete with garden, covered catwalks with vaulted mosaic ceilings and the Puente Verde (green bridge) with its “Y” shaped steel structure.

However the most ambitious and innovative project was designed by French architect, Dominique Perrault, known in Madrid for his avant-garde Caja Magica sports arena. Instead of a standard open catwalk he designed a futuristic 270 metre long steel construction in the form of a gigantic spiral built with steel beams like a ribcage.

Inside the spiral the 5metre wide platform for pedestrians and cyclists is formed from timber planking complete with seating.

Its originality comes from the separation of the bridge into two sections that do not align themselves. While the northern element rises gently from the main road across the park, over the pedestrian and cycle paths, the southern section spans the river. They converge in the centre divided by an open space with ramps descending to the river bank.

The lighting, designed with security in mind, not only makes the bridge bright at night but illuminates the park and river.It stands out as a unique, creative example of bridge engineering and has become of one of the principal attractions within the park.

The Manzanares river project has transformed the lives of the residents and may well help gentrify what has always been considered one of the city’s less salubrious locations.

The project has been criticised by political opponents of the mayor, Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, since the €400 million investment, added to the City’s already large debt, will place a financial burden on the Madrid citizens for years to come.

However from the number of families that have taken advantage of the riverside gardens, ponds, sporting facilities and walks it would seem that they consider the investment worthwhile.

If we are going to improve the environment in our cities by reducing the nuisance and pollution caused by traffic, Madrid’s long term planning may have set an example that should be followed,  ensuring a better quality lifestyle for future generations by giving the city back to the people.

Peter Fieldman’s novel ‘1066 The Conquest’ is available on Amazon or visit


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