Madrid’s Urban Ecology Innovations – Part I

By: Marshall B. Distel

The world is rapidly urbanizing. While the global urban population grew to nearly 4 billion people in 2014, it is predicted to increase to 6.5 billion people by 2050 (McDonnell & MacGregor-Fors, 2016). Moreover, according to recent estimates developed by the United Nations, two out of three of the world’s inhabitants will live in urban areas by 2050 (Haase et al., 2018). As the global population continues to grow and become more urbanized, city governments and policymakers from around the world will need to address many new challenges associated with this growth.

Urban areas are being confronted with mounting threats related to climate change, pollution, suburban sprawl, changing demographic characteristics, economic fluctuations, social inequality and population growth that exceeds infrastructure development (McPhearson et al., 2016). However, the common challenges that cities are facing also present the opportunity to develop innovative solutions to address these challenges. The following paper will evaluate how the city of Madrid has worked to employ a wide array of innovative strategies related to urban ecology to enhance resilience and sustainability.

The Rise of Urban Ecology

In the 1990s, the field of urban ecology starts to emerge as a discipline that was focused on the human and ecological dimensions of urban areas (McDonnell & MacGregor-Fors, 2016). However, urban ecology has since grown into a multidisciplinary field that now also encompasses urban planning, design, and socioeconomic principles to help advance resilience and sustainability within cities (McPhearson et al., 2016). As complex systems that integrate social, economic and physical processes, cities can serve as critical drivers of change across a global scale.

The way in which urban infrastructure and development are planned plays a primary role in the ability of a city to adapt to new growth and changes within the environment (Alberti et al., 2018). Many of the world’s urban dwellers are now advocating for the development of sustainable cities that incorporate the principles of urban ecology to become healthier, more vibrant and resilient (McDonnell & MacGregor-Fors, 2016).

Decades of Urban Sprawl

Madrid has made significant progress in recent years to increase the livability of local neighborhoods and support region-wide sustainability initiatives. However, during the past two decades, the city has physically expanded across the landscape at a pace that has vastly exceeded population growth. During the 1990s, the amount of urbanized land within Madrid and the surrounding region grew by 50%, while the population grew at a rate of only 5.16% during the same period (European Environmental Agency, 2006).

Beginning in the 1980s, the landscapes surrounding Madrid started to become increasingly suburbanized as a result of weak regulatory policies, a rapidly growing economy and the development of infrastructure to support higher levels of vehicular mobility. These socioeconomic drivers have contributed to the increase in sprawl within Madrid and the surrounding region. While proponents of sprawl claim that it fulfils residential preferences for expansive and affordable homes, supporters of Smart Growth and New Urbanism argue that sprawl contributes to car dependency, a rise in traffic congestion, a loss of open space, increased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and adverse impacts to public health (Gómez-Antonio et al., 2015).

Today, as Madrid strives to move forward with progressive policies to support the principles of Smart Growth and New Urbanism, the city is still dealing with the aftermath from decades of weak land-use regulations and the outward expansion of low-density development.

Sustainability Initiatives in Madrid

As the capital city and largest metropolitan area in Spain, Madrid has become an example of an urbanized region that has strived to overcome its sprawl-related challenges by incorporating the principles of urban ecology within its city planning framework. Within the past decade, Madrid has developed numerous plans and initiatives to move towards a more sustainable model of urban development. In order to support a resilient and sustainable future, the city has adopted ambitious renewable energy and climate change mitigation plans, initiatives related to green infrastructure, restrictions on vehicular traffic and other planning mechanisms to promote sustainable urbanism.

In recent years, Madrid has become well-known within the international community for the progress that it has made to improve sustainability within its urban boundary. In 2008, the city released its Plan for the Sustainable Use of Energy and Climate Change Prevention as a coordinated effort to meet ambitious greenhouse gas emissions abatement targets (City of Madrid, 2008). Furthermore, after unveiling its Plan A in 2017, Madrid became widely known as the European city with the most robust proposal to improve air quality and combat climate change (O’Sullivan, 2018).

In addition to developing plans to address air pollution and climate change, Madrid has also focused efforts to ensure that the city continues to grow in a way that supports higher levels of livability for all its citizens. Programs related to equitable community development have been implemented to support sustainable transportation systems, access to natural areas and public parks and the inclusion of green infrastructure improvements.

[In Part II of this three-part series, Marshall explores Madrid’s attempts at supporting sustainable transportation systems, green infrastructure, and open space planning. Watch for it on October 15!]


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: Angela Ojeda Heyper, Alberto Varela, Julio Albarrán, and Carolina Madruga.


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