Signage, trees and water fountains: The battle to get Madrid walking again

Madrid's new walker-friendly signage. Image: David Hewitt.

Economic crisis or not, the historic centre of Madrid remains as lively as ever.

The streets leading from the Plaza Mayor up through the Puerta del Sol towards Gran Via, the city's main shopping street, are filled with people almost 24-hours-a-day. Here, the compact nature of the centre means tourists can easily walk between monuments and other attractions, while pedestrianised streets make strolling from one shop or bar to the next both safe and, above all, enjoyable.

Outside of this central zone, however, walking has arguably become the least favoured method of getting around. Many residents prefer to drive, take the bus or Metro, or go by bike, even over relatively short distances.

"The typical Madrileño will only walk for 10 or 15 minutes maximum," says Maria Cifuentes, a professor of urban planning at the Technical University of Madrid, and a leading expert on the walking habits of her fellow citizens.

"Sure, many will have a leisurely stroll through the Retiro Park or shopping along Gran Via at the weekend. But walking as a means of getting to work, or to school, or even to a bar to meet friends? That's become quite a rare phenomenon here."

Such a lack of enthusiasm for getting around on two feet has less to do with laziness, and more to do with how the Spanish capital has evolved over the past few decades. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, much of Madrid was redeveloped and modernised.

“Unfortunately,” Cifuentes explains, “the motor car was given priority. Historic trees that once provided shade were removed as engineers were worried that their roots would damage their new roads. In many places, pavements shrunk to make room for an extra lane of traffic."

More recently, in the 1990s, a redesign of the city's main water system, the Canal de Isabel II, meant that the water coming out of public fountains was no longer drinkable; many were either removed or became purely decorative. The city council has also been accused of putting commercial interests ahead of those of pedestrians.

"Cafes and bars now dominate many streets and squares," says Cifuentes. "Over the years, public benches have been removed to make way for these terraces, so there's nowhere to sit down and have a rest unless you spend money.

“So what we've been left with are streets where the car rules, where crossings are dangerous, where there is no shade, place to rest or any fountains to drink from. Is it any wonder people have stopped walking?"

To address this, a number of public and private initiatives have been launched with the aim of encouraging Madrileños to embrace walking as an alternative means of daily transport – rather than an occasional Sunday afternoon leisure activity.

Chief among these is “Gente Que Camina” (“Walking People”), a project rolled out by the City Hall. In much the same way numerous other European cities have been creating designated cycling lanes, the council has created an expanded web of signposted, walker-friendly routes connecting residential neighbourhoods with the commercial centre. 

These include the 10km stretch from Plaza de Castilla in the north to the Parque Tierno Galvan in the south, and a 6.8km path running from east to west. All routes come together at “Kilometre Zero” in the Plaza de Jacinto Benavente, just yards from the Puerta del Sol.

By encouraging people to walk to work or to walk with their children to school, local health officials hope to fight back against the growing problem of obesity, too. "We have to encourage people to change the way they live," explains Mercedes Martinez from Madrid Salud, the council’s public health department. "Half of all our city's citizens are overweight, and that's partly because we don't move enough. These days, if someone arrives by foot, they are often asked 'Have you been walking?' like this is something unusual. It's precisely this attitude we need to change."

But while the city council's efforts may be a step in the right direction, some think they fail to appreciate the bigger picture – that improved public health is just one benefit of getting people back out on the streets and walking.

"By getting people walking again, we can inject new life into our communities," argues Cifuentes, a founding member of the citizen-led NGO A Pie. "Through walking, we get to know our city better, we get to meet our neighbours and we can feel pride in our neighbourhoods. We're less likely to see the emergence of ghettos where people are afraid of being out on foot."

Through this combination of public and private initiatives, significant strides have been made towards making the city as a whole, and not just the touristic centre, more pedestrian friendly. Alongside installing its network of walking routes, the city council has also been open to working with citizen groups.

In the Chamberi district, for instance, new trees have been planted along some of the main streets leading into the commercial centre; these will soon provide much-needed shade during the long summer months. Meanwhile, in the Salamanca district, pavements have been widened and major crossings have been redesigned to make them safer for pedestrians. Further afield, in the commuter town of Villa de Vallecas, the main street has been completely redesigned in accordance with the recommendations of urban planners connected with A Pie.

Arguably the biggest accomplishment, however, has been to start changing attitudes, not only in Madrid, but right across Spain. The citizens' groups in the capital are now part of a national campaigning group, Andamos, working to make urban centres more conducive to walking. As of last year, a spokesperson for the lobbying group is now invited to join the annual meeting of the government's Department of Road Transport, a move heralded by campaigners as a sign that pedestrians' needs would no longer be ignored in favour of those of motorists.

"In Madrid, at least, walking is still regarded as a little strange. But this is changing," concludes Cifuentes. "And, hopefully, in the next few years, walking might become cool.

“After all, running and cycling have been embraced by the urban hipsters, why shouldn't walking around the city be the next big trend?"

David Hewitt is a journalist and copywriter. You can visit his website here.

Images: David Hewitt.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.