Parks in, Cars not out? Is that going to be our future?

reports in today’s New York Times about the new trend whereby “All around the world, highways are being torn down and waterfronts reclaimed; decades of thinking about cars and cities reversed; new public spaces created.” That is certainly good news and true, but there is a bit more to it than that as you will see if you read on.

In Madrid’s Heart, Park Blooms Where a Freeway Once Blighted

By

MADRID — Even on a chilly Thursday afternoon in December, the old men, engulfed in cigar smoke and reading newspapers, were sitting around chess tables under tall pines. Nearby, a young woman had strung her line between the trunks of two mulberry trees to practice tightrope walking.

Behind her, hypnotized toddlers stared into a small oval fountain full of swirling water, and cyclists pedaled across new bridges with cement roofs that are shaped like upside-down canoes and also across a new steel forked bridge, an elegant nod to industrial-age steelwork, with a great view of the royal palace on its hill.

The park here, called Madrid Río, has largely been finished. More than six miles long, it transforms a formerly neglected area in the middle of Spain’s capital. Its creation, in four years, atop a complex network of tunnels dug to bury an intrusive highway, also rejuvenates a long-lost stretch of the Manzanares River, and in so doing knits together neighborhoods that the highway had cut off from the city center.

All around the world, highways are being torn down and waterfronts reclaimed; decades of thinking about cars and cities reversed; new public spaces created. . .

Of course Madrid is now just about broke, and Mr. Gallardón’s opponents point to his civic improvements as one cause. They were indeed expensive, albeit a fraction of what the costs would have been in America. Pilar Martínez, who oversaw the park project in the mayor’s office, told me that the official price tag of Madrid Río hovers near $5 billion, all but $500 million of it spent to bury the highway. Twenty-seven miles of new tunnels were dug; countless tons of granite installed to make paths and fountains; some 8,000 pine trees planted. A new, elegantly simple boathouse has been designed, and a 19th-century complex of brick and glass buildings, including a derelict slaughterhouse and greenhouse, are now being renovated to house art studios and a dance theater.

- – - > read full text of this article from the New York Times here.

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About the author:

Michael Kimmelman is an author, critic, columnist and pianist. He is the chief architecture critic for The New York Times and written on issues of public housing, public space, community development and social responsibility. He was the paper’s longtime chief art critic and, in 2007, created the Abroad column, covering culture, political and social affairs across Europe and elsewhere. In July, 2011, the Times appointed him chief architecture critic and also made him the paper’s senior critic. (Click here for more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Kimmelman).\

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More to it than that:

This is an interesting article, and an interesting concept, but the latter at least requires comment. It is surely a great thing to create public and social space in the middle of our cities. But as the article’s author points out in this case the city government has been in a situation in which they, in the words of the old phrase, “want to have their cake and eat it too”.

By that I mean that on the one hand they have been able to create new and much needed social space — that’s great! — but at the same time are doing this with a strong commitment to retaining the full flow of automobile traffic into the city – which as we know is not so great. This I guess you can do when you have a lot of money rattling around, though even then it would be preferable to take a more strategic approach in which in parallel with the social space project to also bring on a strong effort to reduce car traffic and facilities in the central areas.

All that two-cake business Was possible in the past when there was plenty of money around both from national sources and from the coffers of Europe. But we have to understand now that those days are gone if not for ever at least for the next handful-plus of years. So that the new strategy is called for.

This is in fact good news — because we now have as a result of these great demonstration projects a strong and growing public awareness of the importance of creating this public space and amenity in the city (i.e., a growing base of political support), and at the same time from the leading edge of policy and practice of transport in cities the knowledge that we can still do this in parallel with reducing the infrastructure take of the all-car system. Therefore, with a bit of luck and a lot of brains, good days lie ahead in Madrid. And maybe in your city too.

For a five minute video on the Madrid Rio project from the public source, click here.

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