A Strategic Vision for the Center of Dense Cities: Madrid as a Case Study

September 12, 2011

Architects José María Ezquiaga and Juan Herreros present the project “Proyecto Madrid Centro”, a strategic plan that identifies the possible solutions to address, in a sustainable way, the challenges that Madrid is facing.


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© Proyecto Madrid Centro.

A New Urbanism of Transformation and Recycling

If there is an urban dynamic par excellence, it is change. Change is an inherent condition of the city: a permanent activity affecting the tissues, organs and systems in search of an instant balance.

Lately, we have witnessed the overlapping of changeable functions in our cities and, even more, the increased speed of these processes. Speed in this sense is the deciding factor, as it does not parallel events, and the variety of speeds systematically falls out of step in order to agree with reality. We do not, though, have the same anxiety for the vertigo of acceleration as we had three decades ago. We are now facing a new phenomenon, one that multiplies the speeds so that some processes simply cannot follow the pace of the events, while others introduce a concept of urgency far beyond the capacity of the system to accept anything new.

This change is not associated with the growth or the vanquishing of void spaces, nor to the process that builds new and each time bigger civic buildings that try to solve and profit from specific functional shortages. The reshaping that truly affects the contemporary city is a metabolic one. The former is typical of the extensive cities, able to grow across the territory, with low density or with great contrasts between a dense city center and a more or less structured sprawl. The latter is materialized in urban areas in which the limited space and the high density extend over a territory that exceeds the proportionate city center-suburbs of the Anglo-Saxon culture. They are cities that, until recently, we called “consolidated,” ones that have developed a complex network of new economic, social and cultural dynamics flowing with the emergence of a new mobility, new sensibilities (such as the environmental), new individualities and new communities.

They are presented as stable fabrics, finished cities with few specific interventions left; cities in which urbanism gives way to architecture, cities that don’t think globally any more because actions in them are necessarily isolated. Meanwhile, urban science and its tools continue to look for less compromised territories, emptier spaces in which to program long-term growth or to apply normative arguments that have little compromise over results visible only after the passage of time that goes beyond the capacity of memory for the changing world in which we live.

These cities have a city center that is neither the historic one nor the financial one. It is a city center that goes beyond these definitions, spreading out until the dense outskirts themselves begin to act as central nodes. Many European, Latin American and Japanese cities belong to this model, as well as New York and New Orleans.

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Comparison of population, density and GDP per capita. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

For these new city centers, the traditional urban planning based on a more or less predictable future does not work. We have to work in real time, overlapping the action to a series of events that is not easy to anticipate and control. Once again, the lack of coordination between speeds creates an operative void that leaves the city at the expense of other forces outside the discipline.

We live in a moment of global recession that has its bitter side in certain countries, but what has happened in Ireland, Portugal, Greece or Spain is a common issue when we are discussing cities and the overlapping of uncontrollable speeds regarding the topic of transformation. The case of Spain is especially revealing. There, the housing boom experienced during the last decade fomented the illusion that the market could support the urbanism. The systems disassociated from the real needs of the citizens, unable to assume the complexity and speed of the process of growth and obsolescence, have ended up being mere infrastructure and urban guidelines cut out from the reforming vocation that defined the beginnings of urbanism. They have become rituals, most of the time incomprehensible for the citizens, creating a schism between a community in transformation and the greater instruments of planning. On the one hand, citizens create their own vital channels and establish themselves in the unstable condition with more confidence than the planners, who still believe they are working towards the future, but in fact it’s already arrived and they suddenly have to rush in a convulsed present.

The harsh reality of this crisis has revealed this contradiction to the known dramatic consequences, but it also provides an opportunity to reformulate the urban tools from a much-needed solid ground. It provides a possible answer to the fast transformations of the city from the perspective of an urban culture in constant redefinition, calling into question criteria that once seemed untouchable, questions from a culture that demands modes of participation unimaginable not long ago while also needing an environmental sensibility no longer anti-system and, actually, quite the contrary. These are the new ingredients needed to reorient the character of large-scale urban master plans and turn them into truly stimulating tools, flexible and open to innovation, able to address emerging issues of the contemporary city (an active incorporation of nature, energetic sustainability, and alternative ways of mobility) without losing sight of quality of life and social cohesion (health, access to housing, community decline) and ultimately, a sensibility to local elements (unrepeatable history and culture of each place, the creative capacity inherent in each culture, and identity values both tangible and intangible).

Madrid: a city in accelerated transformation

The “Proyecto Madrid Centro” (Central Madrid Project), an initiative of the City of Madrid, represents the opportunity to test the concepts and proposals of a new urbanism able to address the challenges created by globalization, climate change and social transformation from the recycling and transformation of the existing city.

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Area of study of Central Madrid Project. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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Area of study of Central Madrid Project. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

The analysis of the main elements of the central area of Madrid demonstrated the need to act decisively and urgently in five essential areas:

  • Socially, the decade is characterized by the rapid changes experienced in the structure of the population of Madrid. In the last few years, there has been an acceleration in the spatial movements between the intra and extra urban areas, leading to segregation and inequality in the population of Madrid and the remains of social marginalization. As well, the structure has suffered from imbalance and aging issues, with an evolution very distinct across the neighborhoods, depending upon whether or not they have seen migration or if it has been the focus of a functional transformation. In general, the population in the central area of Madrid has become younger due to the migratory contribution, but the decrease in representation of the younger ages is striking, especially children.
  • Economically, Madrid has evolved from a centralized macrocephaly due to the loss of relative importance in its relationship to its metropolitan surroundings. In the last decade, Madrid followed the path of the Anglo-Saxon urban model: a growing tendency of metropolitan suburbanization, first of families and then of institutions and economic activities. It is the case of the so-called “financial cities” and the big civic buildings relocated in the periphery. This process is particularly worrisome in regards to the most innovative activities. The structural and normative obstacles become other problems that the city has to overcome to efficiently attract talent and innovation to the central areas.
  • Accommodation in the city center is characterized by a pronounced heterogeneity, where the processes of modernization coexist with vast areas of structural deterioration. In short, it can be said that the housing “boom” experienced during the last decade has been evident in the city center because of gentrification (attraction of higher suburban incomes to renovated areas of high quality) or “ghettofication” (consolidation of vast areas of deteriorated housing linked to immigration, particularly the illegal variety). Similar to the economic field, there are social, financial and administrative difficulties in implementing efficient policies of recycling and renovation. Among the obstacles that need to be overcome, we can hope for the obsolescence of the Plan General de Ordenación Urbana (General Plan for Urban Zoning) itself.
  • In regards to the public space and landscape, a process of increased banality and lost identity is detected and associated with the deterioration of the urban environment caused by the preeminence of the car. The placement underground of the radial highway M30 in its South sector brings up the opportunity to transform the Manzanares River into the spine of a green system that can infiltrate into the urban fabric. At the same time, against the homogenization and increased banality of the public space, there are emerging tendencies that rediscover local identities subject to be promoted through themed strategies of the public spaces of the neighborhood.
  • Accessibility to the city center is strongly determined by the economic and institutional centrality. In the last decades, there has been a sustained increase in the demand for mobility, which was matched by a substantial improvement in the public transportation. To this we have to add the situations generated by the main municipal interventions done in the road infrastructure of the city during the last few years: the already mentioned tunneling of the M30 South, the start of the restructuration of the Prado-Recoletos corridor, and the selective transformation of streets into pedways in neighborhoods as emblematic as Las Letras. There are still, however, problems associated with the excessive use of the street by the car and parking areas, a problem that, as we will point out later, has been a top priority in the Project.
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From expansion to recycling. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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From expansion to recycling. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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From expansion to recycling. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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From expansion to recycling. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

From expansion to recycling

The nature of the problems in the central area of Madrid demands a deep change not only in the objectives but also the object itself of the Project, from indiscriminate expansion and growth to the transformation, renovation and recycling of the existing urban fabric, infrastructures and activities, and from zoning to the improvement of the quality of life of its citizens.
The “Central Madrid Project” adopts as its strategy the value of the social, economic, spatial and symbolic capital of the central area of Madrid and the understanding of the city via the real processes that define it, rather than from regulations. The need is to address the spatial and social complexity of the city from an understanding of a likewise complex set of urban techniques and interventions, and adopt a style of flexible management within the framework of “strong” strategies able to raise large social support.

Thus, this strategy is organized around a series of core themes:

– Public space as an organizing system, identity reference and mediator element between city and citizens.
It is necessary to reinvent the local public space as the main aspect of urban transformation. The Strategic Plan starts from the premise that the quality of the public space is the most relevant catalyst to trigger the transformation of the city. As a result, it is necessary to reinvent the public space from the perspective of limiting and rationalizing the preeminence of the car and recover the street for the economic and social activities of pedestrians and cyclists.

This approach is based on the most simple, yet also richest element of the system of urban public spaces: the street. In the city center, the street becomes the reference for buildings, the structure for mobility and, through its commercial base, the membrane of interaction between public and private. For this reason, working with the relationship between street and building creates the opportunity to explore the potential of an urban fabric rich in available space and offering the possibility of rethinking the activities, densities and volumetric configuration of the urban block.

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Block uses. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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Innovation in superblocks. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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Current condition on versus potential for transformation. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

Far from understanding the city center fabric as exhausted, the Strategic Plan proposes a rethinking of the organization of the built space, from the perspective of what we are denominating “new urban cell.” This is based on two main ideas, noticeable in the plans of new spatial organization for the city center area as well as in the application in a typical block. From the discrimination of the traffic exclusive to residents, we are able to generate environmental areas in which it is feasible to reverse the uneven distribution of the use of the street between cars and citizens that, nowadays in Madrid, is reflected in a disproportionate predominance of the car. While they only provide 30% of the trips from and to the city center, they benefit from the 70% of the area of the street. The Strategic Plan offers an alternative, radical but susceptible of being gradually implemented and at a low cost, to the need to introduce limitation to the indiscriminate access of cars to the city center without affecting accessibility as an essential quality associated to centrality. The structure of the main streets guarantees the access with public transportation and cars to the entire urban grid, but the secondary grid of streets with restricted access for the residents allows the creation of a complementary network in which pedestrian comfort, bike accessibility, sidewalk greening and the commercial and economic activities become the main aspects. The “new urban cell” also becomes the coherent area to reorganize the access for the citizens to nearby services and civic buildings, an important correction tool to the geographic inequalities.

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Naturalization of the city. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

– The naturalization of the city as an active strategy to build a new urban landscape.
The Strategic Project gives a key role to the recovery of the geographic memory of the city. The original topography, the course of water, the cornices… they have all frequently been eclipsed by the predominance of the homogenous built environment and mobility. A good example of this is issue is the role that, during four decades, the Manzanares River has had as the support for the urban highway M30.

The Project proposes the establishment of a new local green system organized around the recovery of the Manzanares River that, at the same time, becomes the link between the big natural spaces of the region of Madrid: Sierra del Guadarrama, Cuenca del Manzanares, Monte de El Pardo, Parque del Jarama and Vegas del Tajo-Tajuña.

This strategy articulates the connection between the main green areas of the interior of the Almendra Central (Central Almond) of Madrid through a network of green streets and small plazas in order to make up true environmental corridors in the interior of the city. Those would be reinforced with the incorporation of nature in the built fabric itself: vertical gardens and green roofs.

The goal is to achieve a positive synergy between the improvement of the urban quality and the mitigation of the climate change, starting the change in the central city. It would transform from the drain of the energetic consumption to a potential producer of clean energy and the drain for carbon.

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Naturalization of the city. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

– City center as the economic asset of the city of Madrid.

As a response to the emerging process of suburbanization, the project promotes maintaining the central location of the public, private and cultural institutions and corporations, understood as an asset of the city as a whole as well as to its metropolitan area. In that sense, the Project chooses a “Hybrid Madrid,” defending the integration of a wide range of commercial and economic activities (traditional and innovative) within the residential fabric. Considering this mix as the base of the urban complexity, the Project also proposes the establishment of innovative activities that comprehend the economic value that the scientific, cultural and artistic creations have in the modern metropolis. In that sense, it generates multiple actions oriented to facilitate the creation of an attractive environment in which people and activities related to creation and innovation can be located. That is, it supports the attraction of creative talent over the objective conditions of a complex social and economic fabric and an urban space of high quality.

– Create an identity from the recognition of the plurality of a complex city.

The Project gives the city center a critical role in reshaping a shared identity. The city center becomes the reference and the shared space for the residents of Madrid. Historically, this quality has been reinforced by the presence and the powerful attraction of the singular public spaces and major civic buildings. The Project wants to maintain this asset and round it off with a “Madrid próximo” (Close Madrid), with the promotion of the local identity mosaic linked to the melting pot of differentiated social spaces that nowadays make up the city.

As it has been stated previously, public space and civic buildings in close proximity become key elements in the new “cell” organization of the city center.

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Matrix of results. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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Organizing corridors. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

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Summary of the proposal. © Proyecto Madrid Centro.

A new culture of public management

Finally, the translation of the strategic elements into actions and of those into social, architectural and infrastructural projects demands from the public sector and private corporations a radical change in the style of management or governing regarding to three key aspects:

Integration: recognition of the plurality of interests and sensibilities present in the city center.

Agreement: create a shared strategy from cooperation, institutional and civic participation and negotiation.

Section: establish a complex strategy capable of integrating local forward-thinking approaches from the public institutions as well as from the civic society of Madrid.

In short, Madrid needs an urbanism that assumes as a starting point the plural demands of the society. It needs to give up the pretension of replacing the complex geographic and social reality of the city with mere regulation, and adopt instead alternative principles to the bureaucratic opacity: transparency, flexibility and direct civic participation.


The “Central Madrid Project” can be presented as a valuable opportunity to establish a test laboratory of an operative methodology for dense cities. Nevertheless, the condensation of the research in time and space and its offer as an operative manual for the present and immediate future of the city makes us recap what, from this experience, we can extrapolate to the disciplinary need that suffocates us: how to implement working mechanisms that allow us to observe, interpret, describe and act in the contemporary city, a place understood as a network of diverse systems and speeds that look for a coexistence full of contradictions.

It is not crazy to talk about the reestablishment of a science that remains trapped in the complexity of its own tools, overwhelmed by that other exponential complexity that is reality. It is not crazy to try to summarize a first set of criteria which need to be implemented from this moment on to increase the compromise between means and objectives and address without any reservations the factor that truly generate our cities. In that sense, the main Urban Projects will have to be considered from new criteria:

a) As an expression of the value and the social, economic, spatial and symbolic capital of the existing city, giving up the illusion of unlimited urban growth and expansion. Instead, cede priority to the activation of the urban center, the reprogramming of the vacant urban spaces, the recycling of the defining housing stock, the integration and mix of uses, and social cohesion.

b) As a vehicle of intergenerational responsibility summarized in the concept of sustainable growth, this conception of growth has basic consequences over the conventional approach to urbanism and management of resources. It demands a prediction of the consequences of the processes of long-term spatial transformations, as well as the adoption of polices that reflect the real costs of the consumption of the territory and its impact over the non-renewable resources.

c) As a framework of negotiation of the plural interests existing in the city, understood to be not only as those belonging to the traditional actors (government, neighborhood groups, land owners, building contractors and developers), but also the voices that have been excluded from the conventional urban discourse, especially women and the more fragile sectors of society (children, elderly, cultural minorities).

d) As a useful tool to manage the real processes of the city. It is unlikely that the social, geographic, historic and morphologic complexity of the contemporary cities can fit in the statutory zoning. On the contrary, these conventional tools often become a serious obstacle to addressing the essential problems of the contemporary planning: the unsustainable quality of a model of land use and occupation of territory based on the massive consumption of land, water and energy.

Project credits

Central Madrid Project (2011) is an initiative of the Oficina del Centro del Área de Gobierno de Urbanismo y Vivienda del Ayuntamiento de Madrid. It is directed by architects José María Ezquiaga, PhD, Juan Herreros, PhD and Salvador Pérez Arroyo, PhD with the collaboration of Javier Barrios and Ramón Bermúdez (Coordinators), and Ariadna Cantis (Communications manager).

It also includes the following experts: Ariadna Cantis (Culture and Communication), Juan Fisac (Mobility), Eva Hurtado (Actions), José Luís Maldonado (Mobility), Jesús Leal (Society), Gemma Peribañez (Methodology), Salvador Rueda (Environment), Pep Ruiz and José Antonio Herce (Economy), Belinda Tato (Environment), and Julio Vinuesa (Housing).