Bridging the divide: landscapes and lawmakers in Ronda, home of Spanish romanticism

The Puente Nuevo in Ronda. Image: Claude Lynch.

Perched on a mesa in the middle of a wide Andalusian plateau, Ronda is a sleepy Spanish town much like any other. Its inhabitants number a meagre 35,000. The nearest city, Malaga, is 100km to the south. The town is unassuming from a distance.

And yet, as a place, Ronda has been home to more than its fair share of famous figures; since the 19th century, an air of romanticism has led artists from Irving to Rilke to Welles to Hemingway to visit Ronda, and write no shortage of poems and prose dedicated to the city. This was no doubt a testament to the town’s stalwart atmosphere; it is cited as the first home of bullfighting and maintains an almost village-like contiguity even in spite of its size.

But if any one monument defines Ronda’s ubiquity in the Romanticism of old, that monument would be the Puente Nuevo, the New Bridge, which spans the Guadalevín river cutting the town in two. The third of a series of increasingly elaborate bridges built over a series of centuries, the Puente Nuevo is not only incredibly architecturally sophisticated, but also effective; it connects the disparate halves of Ronda without requiring travellers to scale the mesa (as the other two do). It’s no coincidence that the town only really achieved notability after the bridge was finished in 1793, Ronda’s fame a testament to its majesty.

The question remains, however, what makes this bridge special? It’s hardly the only gorge-spanning structure in the world, or even in Spain. In fact, as far as arches go, it pales in comparison to the Aqueduct of Segovia. However, the value of Ronda’s Puente Nuevo lies less in its construction but its context, the way the town and its surroundings intermingle in the gentlest ways, less a dichotomy of urban/rural and more a testament to how the two can become one.

The bridge comes to represent how Ronda has overcome its natural surroundings, tied itself over the gorge of the narrow Guadalevín, yet maintained a special relationship with it. The bridge dominates the gorge, but the gorge still dominates the town, while spectacular vistas surround all sides. Ronda spoke to the 19th century Romanticists because it was emblematic of a more humble humanity that could run parallel to the awe of natural beauty, compared to the urban sprawl that, in their eyes, ran against it.

Now, the councillors running local government in Ronda find themselves defending the very same romanticism, but this time, in the 21st century. When first built, the Puente Nuevo enabled a series of new developments on the newer, northern side of town, such as the municipal gardens and the Círculo de Artistas building, where modern Andalucia was founded.

The north half of town now dominates the much smaller, older south half – a mixed use area of churches, tourist attractions, and older Moorish buildings. As such, it is the north side that houses an industrial estate, the local train station, and most modern amenities.This is why residents of the south side were up in arms when plans were introduced to restrict the use of private vehicles over the Puente Nuevo. As well as an integral part of Ronda’s identity, the bridge lies on the main road that runs north to south through the old town.

6,000 residents joined associations, put up placards, and penned condemnations in protest of plans to alter the bridge’s access timetable. Some might say their claims were petty, that southerners could simply reroute around the medieval wall and use one of the smaller bridges to access the new town. But this would go against the protesters’ central motto: “los puentes nos unen, los muros nos dividen” (Bridges unite us, walls divide us).

Some small displays of dissent on the south side of town. Image: Claude Lynch

The problem Ronda’s local officials face is not an uncommon one. How do these ancient European cities, built equally of medieval centres and expansive modern suburbs, protect their cultural heritage while designing urban spaces and rules that don’t feel increasingly prescriptive? The case of Ronda demonstrates the clear dichotomy at play here: The officials prize the Puente Nuevo, given its tourist acumen; meanwhile, the locals prioritise convenience and common sense. Of course, no real research has been done into the tangible effects that automobile use is having on the bridge’s integrity, so the council’s decision might be a case of speaking too soon.

A study of Ronda leaves the budding urbanist with far more questions than those it answers. Should we still prize a quixotic image of these ancient towns and cities? One of Welles’ unfinished manuscripts was a story of Don Quixote based here; Ronda’s quiet prestige is not a subject that ought to be taken lightly. However, before we revert to appeals to traditionalism, we should consider how structures like the Puente Nuevo earnestly contribute to a sense of place. From the plateau to the river bed, the bridge embodies Ronda’s relationship with every acre that surrounds it; the stones that compose it were mined from the very same mesa it crosses. Cities have symbols, and this grandiose display is Ronda’s; denying the Puente Nuevo a certain esteem would be a bridge too far.


Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.

At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.