Saturday, June 2, 2007

Hola Madrid! (Part 2 - Historic neighborhoods)

I spend every minute I can exploring old Madrid. Puerta del Sol is where every newcomer starts in Madrid. This is where the where every the hustle and bustle is - meeting points, traffic terminals, noise, shops, news stands, as well as wonderful 19th century buildings, caf├ęs, bars, restaurants. Spain’s geographic center is located in this energetic square – it is from this point that all roads and highways were measured. I was disappointed not to be able to actually see the center; Puerta del Sol is under renovation to receive a high-speed transit line. As the name suggests, this space is the soul of the city.

Old Madrid is called Madrid de los Austrias. I got lost several times in the cobbled streets and alleyways looking up in amazement at the facades and iron balconies. Luckily, drivers are used to oblivious tourists!

In the night, street lights give these narrow winding streets a mysterious and romantic feel, and one is transported back to the days of royalty. This neighborhood is named for the Austrian Hapsbergs, and is home to beautiful places like the Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace and the Opera House.

Nearby is La Latina, home to a huge flea market. When I was there on Sunday morning, it was a bustling place and everyone was looking for a deal! It is said that this is Spain’s largest flea market.
Most everyone escapes from the hustle of the city to Parque del Retiro, Madrid’s signature outdoor space or the Casa de Campo, the royal hunting grounds that have been turned into a regional park.

Developed in the mid-18th century, these green spaces serve as the lungs of the city – with natural areas, manicured plantings, water bodies and impressive alleys of trees. There is something for everyone to do. People love their parks - strolling along the promenades, rowing in the lake, and drinking beer while watching the impromptu entertainers.

Beatriz Blanco, Director of Urban Development for old Madrid is a planner and a poet. She gave me a rich and detailed sense of renewal strategies for central Madrid, and what is being done to accommodate parking areas, new housing, community spaces, etc. in the context of highly density and historic values. My biggest learning in my four-hour walk with her was the emphasis on pedestrian friendly environments - linking important historic areas as well as improving quality of life in the center. There are many zones of the city that are declared pedestrian areas, and neighborhoods have restricted car access for residents only.

High-tech monitoring systems keep track of everyone, and cameras take pictures of cars entering restricted zones, issuing tickets to offenders. Bollards disappear into the ground to allow cars in with the wave of a security card. (I am intrigued by how successfully bollards police traffic flow.)

Beatriz showed some fascinating urban restoration projects, turning abandoned churches into libraries, and installing parking garages under public plazas for local residents.

The principle adopted for historic neighborhoods is to link every public space with a community or cultural destination.

The new housing melds in well, but does not consistently integrate energy conservation techniques. Some of the plazas are inviting, and show signs of community use and support. On one plaza, wooden boxes open out for flower vendors to use during the day.

I was impressed to see a living wall in the heart of old Madrid, done by French designer Patric Blanc. The wall needs a lot of water, sometimes as much as 9 waterings a day, but is impressive nonetheless.

New parks and plazas get a lot of resources (Imagine slabs of granite as the paving of choice!) but could use some more community dialog and innovation. I was lucky to meet with Andres Walliser, from foundacion CIREM, a not-for-profit organization focused on community development and social-service issues. During a tour with him and his wife (punctuated by stops at recommended tapas bars), I got a view of how non-profits operate in the city and the challenging issues of crime, safety, and immigrant integration they are faced with. Andres showed me a recently renovated space, Plaza Luna - completed after an outcry in the community for some improvements.

While I was impressed by the fact that the city spent 4 million euros on this project, the space itself is not as imaginative as some others in Madrid. It all happened rather quickly, given the election season, and the community did not get much opportunity to suggest its future use, it seems.
Overall, old and new come together in splendid style!

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