Madrid’s Urban Ecology Innovations – Part III

By: Marshall B. Distel

[In Part I of this three-part series, published on October 8, 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. Part II (October 15) explored Madrid’s attempts to support sustainable transportation, green infrastructure, and open space planning. In this final installment, Marshall will review urban ecology and governance in Madrid.]


Madrid is somewhat unique because it serves as Spain’s national capital, while it is also influenced by the local city government, the regional government, and the European Union. As with most urban areas around the world, Madrid functions through the complex process of multi-level governance.

Urban Ecology and Governance in Madrid

Governance has played a key role in the way that Madrid has implemented strategies related to urban ecology. The subject of urban ecology and sustainability have often resulted in a stand-off between the left-leaning city government and the right-leaning regional government (O’Sullivan, 2018). The regional government is known as the Community of Madrid and is one of the seventeen autonomous communities of Spain.

As a result of the Spanish decentralization process that followed the 1938-1975 Francoist dictatorship, significant executive and legislative power were given to the autonomous communities to oversee a wide range of range of issues related to transportation, urban and regional planning, agriculture, education, health, social welfare and culture (Tomás, 2012). Since the Community of Madrid is comprised of many of the region’s exurban car commuters, it would come as no surprise that this regional form of government would be more critical of policies that place restrictions on vehicles (O’Sullivan, 2018).

During the 1990s, both the municipal and regional governments of Madrid were controlled by right-wing politicians. During this period, the emergence of a unified municipal and regional government allowed for the massive expansion of suburban housing tracts and the construction of a series of radial highways, which ultimately resulted in the loss of rural-agrarian landscapes and the creation of fragmented built environment (Allende et al., 2017). However, following this period of economic boom, the system collapsed with the financial crisis.

Since then, the control of municipal government has returned to left-wing politicians who have strived to implement environmentally focused policies to preserve open landscapes, limit pollution and facilitate compact and energy efficient development. While the municipal government has continued to face obstacles presented by the regional government, support from the European Union has helped the municipal government gain traction in the fight against pollution, climate change, and auto-oriented development. The European Union has continued to pressure Madrid to take action against its poor air quality. This pressure has helped Madrid overcome political barriers to manage air quality effectively.


The city of Madrid has become a model for sustainable urban development. After decades of urban sprawl and unregulated growth, Madrid has made significant progress towards becoming a more sustainable and livable city. While the municipal and regional governments of Madrid have not always shared the same view on environmentally focused initiatives, proactively pushing for cleaner, healthier and more sustainable urban areas are quickly becoming a bipartisan issue in Spain (O’Sullivan, 2018).

As the impacts of climate change become increasingly prevalent in the future, it will be vital to develop urban areas that are able to adapt to a changing environment. Madrid has started to implement a series of comprehensive strategies to enhance sustainability, support equitable community development and mitigate climate change. As one of the main drivers of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, the transportation sector is one of the most critical areas for global policymakers to address.

Madrid has taken the lead by implementing some of the most restrictive policies against cars, while also developing robust active transportation networks and supporting more efficient and accessible public transit systems. Furthermore, the city’s promotion of green infrastructure and open space planning has supported the creation of an attractively built environment that will help the city adapt to a changing climate. Overall, city governments and global policymakers should look to Madrid for inspiration on how to enhance urban sustainability through the principles of urban ecology.


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: Dani Oliver, Let Ideas Compete, EURIST e.V., and Bob Fisher.


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