Madrid’s mayor is determined to clean up its air – by pedestrianising its biggest shopping street

The pilot scheme. Image: Sebastian Mann.

This month, a fairly innocuous A-road in south London breached a 2017 pollution limit just five days into the year. On the same day, Madrid’s left-wing mayor pledged to ban cars from a massive six-lane highway through the heart of the Spanish capital. If Manuela Carmena gets her way, Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s busiest roads but also a major shopping hub like Oxford Street, will be almost completely pedestrianised by 2019.

Her plans are part of a bold green vision that includes banning cars from the city centre, and even stretches to installing gardens on top of buses and bus shelters. They also represent the latest skirmish between the city and the private vehicle in the battle to make major metropolises somewhere it’s actually safe to live.

The proposals, which were tested out over the Christmas period, transform nearly half the road into pedestrianised zones, allowing shoppers to spill safely off narrow pavements while the rest of the street is left to public transport and the odd resident’s car. Importantly, other major roads in the area also face stringent traffic limits, making it devilishly difficult to dodge the restrictions with rat-runs through the centre. Officials are now analysing the temporary experiment ahead of implementing a permanent ban – but Carmena has confirmed she has every intention of carrying it out before her term ends in 2019.

Carmena, who leads the Ahora Madrid coalition backed by left-wing populists Podemos, appears to be moved by aesthetic as well as environmental concerns. Outlining her plans in a 4 January interview with Spanish radio station Cadena SER, she described the model for Gran Vía’s car ban – the street of the same name in Bilbao 0 as “deliciously pedestrianised”. Other city officials have also been quoted saying the broad aim is to make the place “well, just nicer”.

But the green case is uncontroversial and urgent. Campaigners estimate traffic fumes in Madrid kill as many as 2,000 people each year – something attributable to a toxic cocktail of over-reliance on the car and a natural atmospheric phenomenon that traps pollution in the city. Madrid has one car for every two of its 3.2m inhabitants, and its position on a plateau means that, in winter months, smog often grips the city literally in a choke-hold. Locals call it La Boina, or “The Beret”, because of the way the fumes sit like a hat above the city centre.

The scheme in action. Image: Sebastian Mann.

Environmental activist Simon Birkett, who runs the Clean Air in London campaign group, believes Madrid’s efforts demonstrate a “wonderful competition”, driving attempts from city mayors across Europe to out-do each other. The Spanish capital’s measures, he says, send a message to London to “get on with pedestrianising Oxford Street”.

However, he urges caution over implementation. “It’s similar in a way to the Oxford Street issue,” he says. “The risk is that you shut off that road and you get people driving around the side streets. What I would say is you have to combine this with the halving of traffic in the whole area.”

His warning is not wide of the mark. When Gran Vía’s temporary car ban was put in place over Christmas, it initially led to bottlenecks at key junctions while motorists came to terms with the restrictions.


But Madrid is also behind a greater assault on the private vehicle. On 29 December, half of all cars were banned from the centre on the (fairly arbitrary) basis of their number plates. It was an unprecedented response to spiking NO2 levels, and seemed like a radical statement of intent in the battle to make the city more liveable.

Other policies take a more softly, softly approach – such as the polite messages on the Metro that thank passengers for choosing public transport on particularly polluted days. What’s more, city transport bosses are trying to get their own house in order by completely replacing dirty, inefficient diesel buses with a 2,000-strong fleet of greener electric vehicles by 2025. In the meantime, officials want to plant gardens on top of buses and bus stops in an effort to soak up CO2 emissions, with shrubs being dug into turf aboard the vehicles at a cost of €2,500 a pop.

When Gran Vía was built at the beginning of the 20th century, it was considered an axe blow through the heart of Madrid. The bold project to effectively construct a Spanish Broadway – part arterial traffic link, part entertainment hub lined with theatres, restaurants and bars – led to disruption and meant the demolition of dozens of buildings.

Some one hundred years on, the theatres have been replaced by shops, and the street is again the focal point of an inevitably disruptive plan. But now, as then, the bold steps are necessary if Madrid wants to remain a modern and bustling yet liveable city. The current administration, it seems, is willing to drive the change. 

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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