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. 

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.