1. Sustainability
  2. Green space
July 13, 2015updated 29 Jul 2021 2:33pm

Signage, trees and water fountains: The battle to get Madrid walking again

By David Hewitt

Economic crisis or not, the historic centre of Madrid remains as lively as ever.

The streets leading from the Plaza Mayor up through the Puerta del Sol towards Gran Via, the city’s main shopping street, are filled with people almost 24-hours-a-day. Here, the compact nature of the centre means tourists can easily walk between monuments and other attractions, while pedestrianised streets make strolling from one shop or bar to the next both safe and, above all, enjoyable.

Outside of this central zone, however, walking has arguably become the least favoured method of getting around. Many residents prefer to drive, take the bus or Metro, or go by bike, even over relatively short distances.

“The typical Madrileño will only walk for 10 or 15 minutes maximum,” says Maria Cifuentes, a professor of urban planning at the Technical University of Madrid, and a leading expert on the walking habits of her fellow citizens.

“Sure, many will have a leisurely stroll through the Retiro Park or shopping along Gran Via at the weekend. But walking as a means of getting to work, or to school, or even to a bar to meet friends? That’s become quite a rare phenomenon here.”

Such a lack of enthusiasm for getting around on two feet has less to do with laziness, and more to do with how the Spanish capital has evolved over the past few decades. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, much of Madrid was redeveloped and modernised.

“Unfortunately,” Cifuentes explains, “the motor car was given priority. Historic trees that once provided shade were removed as engineers were worried that their roots would damage their new roads. In many places, pavements shrunk to make room for an extra lane of traffic.”

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More recently, in the 1990s, a redesign of the city’s main water system, the Canal de Isabel II, meant that the water coming out of public fountains was no longer drinkable; many were either removed or became purely decorative. The city council has also been accused of putting commercial interests ahead of those of pedestrians.

“Cafes and bars now dominate many streets and squares,” says Cifuentes. “Over the years, public benches have been removed to make way for these terraces, so there’s nowhere to sit down and have a rest unless you spend money.

“So what we’ve been left with are streets where the car rules, where crossings are dangerous, where there is no shade, place to rest or any fountains to drink from. Is it any wonder people have stopped walking?”

To address this, a number of public and private initiatives have been launched with the aim of encouraging Madrileños to embrace walking as an alternative means of daily transport – rather than an occasional Sunday afternoon leisure activity.

Chief among these is “Gente Que Camina” (“Walking People”), a project rolled out by the City Hall. In much the same way numerous other European cities have been creating designated cycling lanes, the council has created an expanded web of signposted, walker-friendly routes connecting residential neighbourhoods with the commercial centre. 

These include the 10km stretch from Plaza de Castilla in the north to the Parque Tierno Galvan in the south, and a 6.8km path running from east to west. All routes come together at “Kilometre Zero” in the Plaza de Jacinto Benavente, just yards from the Puerta del Sol.

By encouraging people to walk to work or to walk with their children to school, local health officials hope to fight back against the growing problem of obesity, too. “We have to encourage people to change the way they live,” explains Mercedes Martinez from Madrid Salud, the council’s public health department. “Half of all our city’s citizens are overweight, and that’s partly because we don’t move enough. These days, if someone arrives by foot, they are often asked ‘Have you been walking?’ like this is something unusual. It’s precisely this attitude we need to change.”

But while the city council’s efforts may be a step in the right direction, some think they fail to appreciate the bigger picture – that improved public health is just one benefit of getting people back out on the streets and walking.

“By getting people walking again, we can inject new life into our communities,” argues Cifuentes, a founding member of the citizen-led NGO A Pie. “Through walking, we get to know our city better, we get to meet our neighbours and we can feel pride in our neighbourhoods. We’re less likely to see the emergence of ghettos where people are afraid of being out on foot.”

Through this combination of public and private initiatives, significant strides have been made towards making the city as a whole, and not just the touristic centre, more pedestrian friendly. Alongside installing its network of walking routes, the city council has also been open to working with citizen groups.

In the Chamberi district, for instance, new trees have been planted along some of the main streets leading into the commercial centre; these will soon provide much-needed shade during the long summer months. Meanwhile, in the Salamanca district, pavements have been widened and major crossings have been redesigned to make them safer for pedestrians. Further afield, in the commuter town of Villa de Vallecas, the main street has been completely redesigned in accordance with the recommendations of urban planners connected with A Pie.

Arguably the biggest accomplishment, however, has been to start changing attitudes, not only in Madrid, but right across Spain. The citizens’ groups in the capital are now part of a national campaigning group, Andamos, working to make urban centres more conducive to walking. As of last year, a spokesperson for the lobbying group is now invited to join the annual meeting of the government’s Department of Road Transport, a move heralded by campaigners as a sign that pedestrians’ needs would no longer be ignored in favour of those of motorists.

“In Madrid, at least, walking is still regarded as a little strange. But this is changing,” concludes Cifuentes. “And, hopefully, in the next few years, walking might become cool.

“After all, running and cycling have been embraced by the urban hipsters, why shouldn’t walking around the city be the next big trend?”

David Hewitt is a journalist and copywriter. You can visit his website here.

Images: David Hewitt.

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