Pictures: from left to right, pollution, mobility and spatial imbalance in the city of Madrid.
By Rosalía Vicente, Fundación para el conocimiento madri+d
Local administrations in Madrid have traditionally been worried by challenges such as atmospheric pollution or the increased traffic in the city, two interlinked issues that represent a major risk not only to human health but also to the environment, both at the heart of local policies. However, there’s more to the city than those challenges we can see, first and foremost those we cannot actually see.
In order to better understand how our citizens’ health is affected by the invisible city, we have interviewed Pedro Gullón, Doctor and Researcher in the field of Public Health and Epidemiology at the Alcala University, specialized in Preventive Medicine and Public Health. While he has confirmed the existing high risk of air pollution in citizens respiratory health, he has also highlighted the close relationship between cardiovascular health and other key urban aspects such as neighborhoods’ availability of healthy food, level of walkability or green space. This means detrimental health of the madrileños is severely affected by urban planning.
For instance, the influence of urban green space on human health and its wellbeing is worldwide known, but the accelerated urban growth in the city of Madrid has endangered its existence and caused its fragmentation.
According to Susana Saiz, PhD in Architecture and Director of ARUP Spain and its Sustainability and Energy team, nature-based solutions can have an exceptional impact on the urban eco-climate of Madrid and increase resiliency against climate change, but they need to be conceived from a long-term perspective, including an adequate maintenance plan. Urban green areas and woodland are alive systems that need to involve public, private and social participation, for which public-private partnership models are fundamental. Madrid+ Natural, a project led by the Madrid Municipality in collaboration with ARUP, is a perfect example.
Jaime Moreno, PhD in Organizational Engineering and Technical Director at the Center for Innovation and Technology for Human Development of the Polytechnic University of Madrid, agrees that the biggest handicap of infrastructure-associated interventions is their inadequate maintenance, pointing out at the design process as key phase of a successful nature-based intervention. This is why, projects such as the Metropolitan Forest of Madrid and the Urban Orchards have silently survived over the years. Furthermore, Jaime notes that a holistic approach that involves multiple stakeholders is vital in the design of any sustainable community, main motivation behind the Spanish multi-actor platform that has been selected as an “SDG Good Practice” by UNDESA, El Día Después (The Day After).
The proliferation of urban green space not only facilitates social interactions, health and wellbeing among citizens, but it can also extend the resilience and security of energy, water, food and biodiversity systems in the city. Carlos Martí, journalist and editor of the journal Ciudad Sostenible, as well as organizer of the Forum of the Cities Madrid IFEMA, acknowledges that initiatives towards climate change mitigation, especially related to energy efficiency, mobility, emissions and carbon footprint reduction have a positive impact on the city, but further initiatives towards climate change adaptation are still necessary. Carlos goes one step ahead and includes a rampant inequality as one of the main challenges of Madrid, a chronic problem traditionally reflected in spatial imbalance that has been worsened by COVID-19.
Income gaps between neighborhoods is especially worrying in Madrid, with an important dichotomy between the Northwest and the Southeast that turns Madrid in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in Europe. One of the consequences of this increasing segregation is the erosion of contact among unequal social groups. Territories of privilege and vulnerability are consolidated and disconnected, socially and geographically. Familiar with this dynamic, Itziar Rosado, Sociologist and Coordinator of Citizenship and Social Base at ONGAWA, Engineering for Human Development, has clearly explained during her interview the need for rethinking this unsustainable living model and how they try to make university students take a deep look at this reality through their Global Challenge Programme.
Therefore, there are further challenges to urban planning than those linked to traffic or pollution: making Madrid a more livable city for those who actually live there.