Madrid’s residents are being forced out of the city centre. Blame Airbnb

The Metropolis building on Madrid's Grand Via. Image: Getty.

Central Madrid is not going to “become a theme park like Barcelona, Rome or Venice”, the city’s urban development boss José Manuel Calvo pledged recently. Hundreds of thousands more tourists descended on the capital last year, adding to rental pressures that have forced 10 per cent of locals from the city centre in the past decade. And wildly increasing numbers of people are using tourist accommodation platforms like Airbnb. In the view of Madrid’s left-wing leadership, the problem is critical – and the required solutions are bold.

In many ways, Madrid is a success story. Last year some 680,000 more tourists visited the Community of Madrid, a region of 6.5m people, of whom half live in the city of Madrid. The rise represented a 13.5 per cent increase on 2015 which left Barcelona, although still more popular overall, in the shade. For a country struggling with high unemployment, especially among young people, this was good news. But there are losers.

To some the cause of the exodus seems obvious. Population in central Madrid has plunged in the past ten years, but in the last two, tourist accommodation has grown by 50 per cent. According to a study by the Madrid Higher Technical School of Engineering, the number of properties available on various platforms rose from about 4,000 to 6,000 from 2015 to 2017.

And while much media focus has been on Barcelona, Airbnb has emerged as a major force in Madrid’s tourist economy, with rentals in the city as a whole doubling to 650,000 last year. It means the Spanish capital now has more Airbnb lets per visitor than any other Spanish destination.

This meteoric growth has sparked urgent calls for action. Rents in Madrid have risen by 14.6 per cent in one year, according to recent Bank of Spain figures. And so the city is looking to policy to reduce the undeniable incentives for landlords to use Airbnb, as well as other similar platforms, to profit from their property and indirectly push up rents even further.

 As it stands, pokey one bed attic flats easily command about €60 a night on Airbnb, meaning owners can pocket up to €1,800 a month. The same flat will be lucky to fetch €1,000 on the rental market – and that’s with the rapidly inflating prices partly caused by pressure from Airbnb.

Add to this the comparative freedom property owners have compared with Madrid’s well-regulated rental market (flexibility to up prices at will, for example), and converting your pad into holiday accommodation seems like a shrewd business proposition.

Madrid’s City Hall has recently laid out a three-pronged effort to curb the popularity of home-sharing platforms. The first measure would ensure that only someone living in a property could let it out as tourist accommodation. Speaking to EuropaPress, José Manuel Calvo said the move would be necessary “so that we don’t have intermediaries or anyone buying 17 homes in order to put them up as tourist properties”.

More interestingly, the leadership also wants to limit the numbers of days in a year for which a property can be leased out. Slightly radically, Calvo has suggested that 60 days “seems right”. But given that he plans to agree the cap with platforms like Airbnb, this seems ambitious.

Finally, Mr Calvo says, the plan would mean “part of the economic return obtained by the property owner would go to City Hall” – which is an innovatively indirect way of explaining a tax.

The central area of Madrid to be affected by these policies is often called the almendra - or almond – but so far it is proving a tough nut to crack. City Hall itself has limited power to take action. Most of that lies with the regional government of the Community of Madrid – which is in the hands of City Hall’s political opponents. And recently Carlos Chaguaceda, director of tourism for the province, suggested a national solution was necessary, while stressing the importance of not demonising Airbnb and other platforms.

Airbnb, for its part, has said it wants to be a “good partner” with the city and regional government to help “local families” who want to share their homes. But in Barcelona it is currently at loggerheads with a city hall that is breathing down its neck. 

Nestled on the outskirts of Madrid is a monstrous amusement park packed with rollercoasters. Adventurous tourists who strike out into the city’s expansive Casa de Campo park occasionally have their genteel strolls interrupted by screams from the rides.

For most, though, the disturbance is a distant hum. With their efforts to prevent the city centre becoming a theme park itself, Madrid’s policymakers are keen to keep it that way. But it seems they will have their work cut out. 

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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