Smart and sustainable: How Spain’s cities are shaping urban living

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
Gothic Quarter in Barcelona
Image credit: Shutterstock

Change is in the air in many modern European cities. Cars no longer get priority over people. Green space is being reclaimed. Action is being taken to balance the benefits of tourism with the wishes of locals.

Innovative city planning is a key part of the solution to create a more sustainable form of urban living – and the Spanish heavyweights of Madrid and Barcelona are leading the crowd.

“Madrid and Barcelona are among the most sustainable cities in the world,” says Elsa Galindo, Head of Research at JLL Madrid. “Both cities are now on a path to improve the quality of life for their citizens, while refocusing on sustainability and the environment.”

Turning down the traffic volume

Plummeting air quality in cities across Europe are leading many lawmakers to introduce car bans. Barcelona has a more radical strategy: to reorganise the city’s network of gridded roads into car-free superblocks, relegating traffic to large boundary roads, and returning the use of smaller streets to pedestrians and leisure services.

In Madrid, the process has begun to pedestrianize its main avenue, Gran Via, a six-lane highway that serves a major shopping district. It’s part of a wider environment-focused plan to ban all diesel cars from Madrid entirely by 2025.

Lawmakers in Barcelona have long invested in alternate modes of eco-friendly travel. Barcelona has operated a bike-share scheme since 2007, and today is home to the most electric cars in Spain, with 300 free electric charging points. As car-centric Spaniards began to favour the bicycle commute, Madrid launched an electric bike-sharing program too. Today, both Madrid and Barcelona have integrated fully electric cars into public taxi fleets; many Barcelona buses are also electric.

It’s not just the streets that are getting greener; Madrid and Barcelona are also planting more gardens within crowded urban areas – by going green on their rooftops and bus tops.

Tackling core city issues

Much of the impetus for transformative initiatives have come from the left-wing mayors of Madrid and Barcelona, Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau respectively, both elected in 2015.

In Barcelona, a key campaign for Colau has been to reduce the growing impact of the city’s millions of yearly visitors.

“Tourism is one of the biggest assets to Spain’s economy,” Galindo says, “but Barcelona has marketed itself as a travel destination so well that some residents in Ciutat Vella, Born, La Barceloneta or Sant Antoni now feel the city center has become overwhelmed.”

In 2016, the city’s 1.6 million residents played unwilling host to 32 million visitors, citing tourism as a problem worse than unemployment. A recently passed law will limit the number of beds available for tourist accommodation, and halt licenses for tourist apartments and building new hotels.

For Madrileños, mayor Carmena pledged to clean up local politics alongside a new vision for environmental awareness and quality of life. “There is a focus on reclaiming the city for citizens,” Galindo says.

Yet there have been some clashes between a newly progressive government and a tradition of right-wing policies. A mega-project to regenerate the hinterland north of Madrid as a mixed-use district designed to invite foreign investment has been blocked by city hall, due to concerns that the development would be overseen nearly entirely by one corporate entity.

In Barcelona, not all citizens are pleased about pedestianization, protesting that it is too difficult to do business and reach the city center.

“In general, citizens are positive about how the city must evolve – in traffic, sustainability and environmental awareness,” Galindo says. “Right now, Madrid and Barcelona don’t have traffic at the same level as London or Paris. But as e-commerce develops and retailers need to deliver in 24 hours, there could be a much bigger issue. The big challenge now is to develop the public transport system.”

Creating a 21-century city

The most profound initiative for a sustainable city is nearly invisible – the hundreds of kilometres of high-speed internet cables that weave through Spain’s most connected cities.

Barcelona has long been ranked as one of the world’s smartest cities, with a sophisticated urban network of sensors that monitor street lighting, traffic and waste, and provide free public Wi-Fi, saving municipal funds and enhancing quality of life for their residents. Smaller coastal city Santander is the site of a living lab for smart tech, funded by the European Union.

Now Madrid is following suit, addressing its own civic challenges with a vast digital project to connect and monitor its public services and maintenance.

“Spain is at the forefront of new technologies, with a history of investment in research and development,” Galindo says. Barcelona’s investment into R&D amounts to nearly a quarter of the national R&D expenditure; Madrid’s spending totals 38 percent of the national. Technology hubs in Barcelona and business hubs in Madrid are increasingly built in city limits rather than on the outskirts, fostering innovation in close, rich communities.

“To attract and retain talent, it’s important to be able to offer the right digital experience for a Millennial generation that’s used to flexible spaces and constant connectivity,” Galindo says. “In Spain, an attractive office real estate market is increasingly about buildings with smart services.”

As millions more people are projected to move into cities, data-driven urban networks have the potential to improve the quality of life for citizens, by enabling civic transparency, reducing pollution and congestion, and making urban maintenance more efficient.

“To continue to be aligned with other European countries, Spain must react and reinvent,” Galindo. In the smart cities of the future, urban data from transport information to city hall records would be easily accessed by citizens, while sensors in roads would be able communicate with smart cars, smartphones and transport hubs, paving the way for a city that can not only maintain itself, but streamline the flow of traffic and pedestrians, making urban life smoother, more efficient, and more enjoyable.

Spanish cities certainly have big plans; the challenge is now to turn them into a smart and sustainable reality.

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