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August 5, 2014

From Gray to Green: The Madrid Rio Project

What was once a 10-lane highway is now a park that brings inner and outer Madrid into a shared green space.

By Kelsey Dedels

MADRID – Three years into the Madrid Rio Project, an expansive parkland built on top of a major highway, Madrileños are conflicted as to whether or not the $7 billion used to create the park was worth it. 

The Rio Manzanares runs through the middle of the Rio
parkland. (Photograph by Kelsey Dedels)

Construction began on the Madrid Rio Project in 2003, Madrid’s equivalent of Boston’s “Big Dig.” The first step was to take the M-30, a major highway ringing the city, and put it underground in tunnels. The second phase was to convert the surface area into a 10-kilometer long, 2.5-square-mile parkland.

Designed and overseen by Madrid-based Burgos & Garrido Architects Associates, the park project took eight years and $5.8 million. The balance of the $7 billion went to putting the highway into tunnels. The project was completed in 2011, giving local residents a new place to run, bike, walk and recreate. 

Madrid native and avid runner Juan Alvarado said he comes to the Madrid Rio park at least three times a week.

“I think this [park] is a success,” he said. “It has been open for a long time now and I think that there are more people enjoying it each time I go.”

Bridging the gap

Cars can be seen snaking up into the sunlight from the
M-30 underground tunnel. (Photograph by Kelsey Dedels)

When above ground, the M-30 stretched over 10 lanes, five on each side of the Rio Manzanares, making it impossible for people to walk from one side of town to the other. Javier Malo de Molina, the Rio project’s lead architect, said to fix this, the city needed an “intervention.” The Rio Project is that intervention.

“There were only two or three points where you could cross [the street], but the rest, you could not even cross,” de Molina said. “It would be better if you took a bus or metro (because) walking was not possible. It was really like a barrier for the city.”

A major goal of the park project, and a big reason de Molina’s firm’s bid was chosen by the city, he said, was to create a “natural interface” for the two Madrids, the city center inside the river and the less affluent neighborhoods on the periphery, on the other side of the Rio Manzanares.

“The two sides are very different, so the river divides the city between low and middle class to upper middle class,” de Molina said. “This park serves as a meeting point between the two, and I think it is a sign of opportunity to bring people (together) into public space.”

Residents agree.

“I can pay less rent and still experience the other neighborhood,” said Madrid resident Miguel Gil, who lives adjacent to the Rio Project. “This park brings everyone together.” 

Restaurants can be found throughout the park.
(Photograph by Taylor Patterson)

Gil said he meets up weekly with friends in the park, where they bring lunch and catch up with one another.

“The [neighborhoods] are different places, but the park makes them feel like one,” he said. “I think that this park is really successful. There are always people here enjoying it.”

Rio Project as gateway

In addition to serving as a socio-economic interface, the park also is a sort of gateway in connecting Madrid to the surrounding countryside, which also is by design.

De Molina said his firm conceived of Madrid not as an isolated cityscape, but as part of a larger region that flows out into and includes the countryside and that incorporates movement into and out from the city center. A bike rider in the Rio project, for example, can cycle more than 20 miles into the foothills well outside Madrid, he said.

The architects’ goal with the park was to create “a gate to the countryside,” de Molina said, and to “establish links to the landscapes around the city.”

In doing this, the park recognizes that the city’s “surroundings are valuable,” he said.

Worth the money?

The park’s merits are significant, but whether on the whole the Rio Project and the highway-tunnel network that made it possible were worth the price tag still is a matter of public debate. Spain’s economy began to slide in 2008, fueling the Rio debate.

Wide sidewalks are a hallmark of the Rio parklands, which
allow walking, running and biking.
(Photograph by Kelsey Dedels)

“The park was started in the boom [of the economy] and then only at the end . . . the crisis struck,” de Molina said.

Though he sees and approves of the park’s benefits, Madrid resident José Emilio said “the money could have been used in different ways. The park cost so much [money].”

While the Rio Project and highway submersion cost billions of dollars, some residents agree that the money was well spent by providing the surrounding neighborhoods a place to freely enjoy.

“I think it was worth the money,” said college student Alejandro Carrillo. “The park brings that area access to a river and now there isn’t a loud highway. Many people enjoy [the park].

Alvarado said he loves what the park has brought the area.

“I like coming here to walk my dog and run,” he said. “I like that [a park] is here now. Everything in and around [the park] is beautiful.”

Conservation in context

Interface. Gateway. Intervention. Conservation.

A local artist literally hung residents from this bridge
by wires to photograph them in the air. He then painted
their likenesses onto the bridge as if it were the ceiling
of a cathedral. (Photogrph by Kelsey Dedels)

These are the reasons de Molina said he believes his firm was awarded the project by the city, which he said is by far the largest and most important architectural project of his career. A Dutch firm, for example, proposed an elaborate system of fountains as part of their bid. Fountains . . . for a dry city centered in an arid country.

The Dutch architects were “completely out of touch with what Madrid is, with who we are,” de Molina said. His firm, by contrast, made water conservation a centerpiece of the project.

For example, though the park uses trees to buffer surrounding neighborhoods from noise pollution and to create shade for people on the parklands, these trees were selected for their hardiness and relatively low water needs. Same for the shrubbery.

“Most of the species [of plants in the park] are selected because of their low water consumption,” de Molina said. “Nothing lives here if it isn’t irrigated because [Madrid] is very, very dry, and if you don’t [irrigate], they won’t survive."

But the park’s irrigation is provided with recycled water from a water treatment plant.

From one end of the park, visitors can see the top of
Madrid’s Royal Palace. (Photograph by Taylor Patterson)

While there may not be a lot of grass in the park due to the city’s aridness, Madrid is a fairly green city, according Dr. Jonathan Snyder, a professor of Spanish literature and culture.

“If you compare Madrid to other European capitals in general, there is quite a bit of green, green areas, parks or conservation areas,” he said “There aren’t a lot of slabs of concrete so to speak.”

Madrid resident Victor Gonzalez said his city “has always taken great pride in being one of the greenest cities in Europe.”

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