Madrid’s Urban Ecology Innovations – Part II

By: Marshall B. Distel

[In Part I of this three-part series, published on October 7, Virginia Tech Master of Natural Resources (MNR) student Marshall Distel introduced the city of Madrid as a case study for working to employ a wide array of innovative strategies related to urban ecology to enhance resilience and sustainability. In this installment, Marshall explores Madrid’s attempts to support sustainable transportation, green infrastructure, and open space planning.]


In order to fight air pollution and climate change, while also supporting equitable community development, the city of Madrid has been moving forward with ambitious plans to enhance the sustainability of its transportation system. As Madrid’s surrounding suburbs have continued to expand outward, the city has struggled to control air pollution and traffic congestion that have come as a result of auto-oriented development. The suburban neighborhoods were built in conjunction with numerous highways to facilitate the efficient movement of automobiles from the dispersed neighborhoods to the center of Madrid. However, this model of development has adversely impacted sustainability within the city.

Sustainable Transportation Planning

In 2015, a European Commission-sponsored study gave Madrid a failing grade with regards to its air quality (O’Sullivan, 2015). Within the past decade, the city has also failed to comply with European Union air quality regulations, in part because of its traffic-related air pollution.

After years of struggling with air quality and traffic congestion, Madrid has enacted some of the most stringent transportation-related pollution laws in the world (O’Sullivan, 2015). A new transportation hierarchy that emphasizes the importance of pedestrians, bicyclists and public transit over cars has been implemented. The expansion of car-free zones, the removal of over 20,000 parking spaces and the development of extensive bike and pedestrian infrastructure are a few of the strategies that the city is using to combat air pollution and create a more equitable transportation system (O’Sullivan, 2013).

Furthermore, the city recently introduced an electric-only, wire-free bus line in addition to sweeping reductions in highway speed limits to reduce energy consumption and harmful emissions (Caballero, 2017). The most drastic change is still yet to be implemented. Beginning in November 2018, city officials announced that all non-resident vehicles will banned from entering Madrid’s city center (O’Sullivan, 2018). The center of the city will only be open to cars owned by residents of the central zone, taxis, zero-emissions delivery vehicles and public transit. City officials are committed to enhancing the livability and sustainability of the urban neighborhoods by supporting active transportation and restricting vehicle traffic.

Green Infrastructure and Open Space Planning

As Madrid continues to rescind its car-friendly policies from the prior decades of suburban expansion, the city has found the opportunity to introduce green infrastructure in spaces that were formally dedicated to cars. Plans have been formed to convert vehicular travel lanes into linear, tree-lined parks and urban public gardens that will be open to pedestrians. In addition to enhancing public spaces within the city, these initiatives will help the city adapt to a warming climate.

Madrid is on the frontlines of the battle with climate change since it is already one of the hottest and driest cities in Europe (Frayer, 2017). Extended heat waves that had previously occurred only once every two decades are now happening every five years (Peters, 2016). Moreover, scientists expect that by 2050, it will rain 20% less and there will be 20% more unseasonably hot days in the summer (Peters, 2016). Vertical gardens, green roofs, and more street trees will also help to reshape the shared identity of Madrid by creating an attractive environment that supports the social and economic fabric of the city (Ezquiaga & Herreros, 2011). Reinventing the streetscape with open and accessible public spaces filled with green infrastructure will enhance the livability of local neighborhoods and help to bring nature back into the public realm.

It is imperative to incorporate both climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies into modern urban planning. Climate change mitigation involves efforts that are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while climate change adaptation involves the implementation of projects that enhance resilience and limit vulnerability within a changing climate. Infrastructure investments have become a common strategy to link climate change adaptation and mitigation objectives (Broto, 2017).

Green infrastructure in Madrid would function as an adaptation strategy by reducing the urban heat island effect, and a mitigation strategy by serving as a carbon sink. The city is spending millions to implement these low-tech strategies with the hope of effectively building resilience to the impacts of climate change (Peters, 2016). After hiring an environmental design and sustainability firm to conduct research and prepare a report titled, “Madrid + Natural,” the city is confident that green infrastructure will help to combat against the effects of climate change. The study found that if just 10% to 25% of the city’s buildings were covered in greenery, air temperatures could be reduced by up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, while particle pollution could be reduced by up to 20% (Frayer, 2017).

[In Part III of this three-part series,  Marshall takes a look at urban ecology and governance in Madrid. Watch for it on October 22th!]


Marshall Distel is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program. He expects to receive his degree in May 2019.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Zarateman, GimBo AkimBo, Alfredo Sánchez Romero, and La Citta Vita.


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