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Removing Urban Barriers to Equity

Research & Commentary
May 18, 2017

by Maria Jose Carmona

In Spain, the UK, and elsewhere, residents are working together to improve their neighborhoods while preventing the gentrification that widens economic divides.

A four-lane highway separates the Madrid districts of Puente de Vallecas and Retiro. It is called the M-30 and it carries one of the highest volumes of traffic in the world for an urban thoroughfare. About 300,000 vehicles pass along it every day.

This gash of tarmac is an obvious physical border between the two Madrid districts. There is, however, a symbolic barrier that is much harder to get across. Living on one side of this barrier means, among other things, earning €10,000 less per year and experiencing 10 percent more unemployment. A walk around the area is enough to see which of the two it is.

Residents on one side of this highway in Madrid, Spain, have far higher average incomes and lower unemployment rates than those on the other side.

“It is obvious from something as simple as the pavement. Walking through these streets is just not the same as walking in the other neighborhood over the bridge, simply because of the wider pavements that make life easier,” explains Ofelia López, a Puente de Vallecas resident.

Across the road from the wide avenues of Retiro is the patchwork of narrow streets and the old buildings of the neighboring district. The problem is not only the pavements however, the differences can be seen in the cleanliness of the streets, the quality of the houses, the number of green areas, as well as the cultural and sporting facilities.

These inequalities affect the residents’ quality of life and health. “The lack of public space has repercussions in terms of obesity and this in turn leads to chronic illnesses,” explains Maria José García, a member of the district Health Council. Today the life expectancy of a Retiro resident is 85 years, while in Puente de Vallecas it is 83, even though there are only a few meters between them.

The ultimate barrier, inequality, is to be found every day in the heart of capital cities the world over. Today the gap between rich and poor in OECD countries is greater than it has been for the last 30 years. The richest 10 percent earn 9.5 times more than the poorest 10 percent.

[pullquote]This inequality is creating its own map, fragmenting cities, creating ghettos. [/pullquote]

“As result, the inhabitants of the same city can have totally different life experiences.”

According to a study by Oxfam, inequality has grown more in Spain than in any other OECD country except Cyprus since the start of the crisis. The latest Atlas of Vulnerable Neighborhoods in Spain puts the number of deprived neighborhoods at 256, with a population of between 4 and 5 million.

Puente de Vallecas, with 224,000 inhabitants, is the most populated district in Madrid and has the lowest average income, of €15,700 per year. When the crisis hit in 2007, unemployment and social cuts followed, 40 percent of businesses closed down and many apartment blocks were left vacant, to be taken over by squatters.

“The crisis has affected us all, but some more than others. In the last few years there has been investment in other areas of Madrid, while districts like ours have been deliberately neglected,” says Manuela Galán, a resident of Puente de Vallecas.

In 2015, in the days running up to the municipal elections, Puente de Vallecas residents decided to take the initiative and identify the district’s needs themselves: dirtiness, unemployment, a lack of green areas, security, and neglect.

Later, at a meeting, they voted on their priorities and presented them to the politicians. This process led to the signing last December of a protocol between the city council and the neighborhood association on the development of a Comprehensive Regeneration Plan for Puente de Vallecas.

“This type of process only works if it is done from the bottom up, promoting residents’ participation. It is not enough to complain or give ideas, it has to be a collective effort,” says Jon Aguirre Such, an urban architect from the Paisaje Transversal (Transversal Landscape) collective, which is working with the project.

[pullquote]Regeneration efforts only work if done from the bottom up, promoting residents’ participation.[/pullquote]

There are successful examples in other European cities such as Nantes or London. In the case of Nantes they succeeded in regenerating an old, abandoned industrial zone on an island on the Loire river (Île de Nantes->]), opposite the town center. The operation focused mainly on public spaces: they rebuilt the wharves as pedestrianized zones and recycled the old factories for cultural activities. Although the initiative began with the town council, the residents participated from the outset through their neighborhood councils.

In London, Coin Street had become a very rundown area in the 1960s. Its proximity to the city center however made it very attractive to big corporations wanting to build office blocks. To avoid that, the residents created a social enterprise to take the lead in transforming the neighborhood. Their priority was to build cooperative housing.

In Puente de Vallecas they have a budget of €3 million for 2017. Their first steps will be to create a public park for the neighborhood’s youth, to pedestrianize one of the principal roads in the district (Peña Gorbea boulevard) and improve access to green spaces. Other actions are foreseen such as job creation, improved transport, and children’s playgrounds. But all of that will come later. Participatory processes require a long timeframe.

There is a niggling doubt that always arises when urban regeneration is mentioned. Will this be the beginning of gentrification?

“I am deeply shocked that residents can be evicted from the neighborhood,” warns someone in the neighborhood association. “We cannot hold up development out of fear of gentrification,” says another. The issue always sparks debate.

It is true that urban transformation is often led by commercial interests with the result that rundown neighborhoods are turned into exclusive ones. The price of housing soars and those with the greatest purchasing power displace the traditional population. That is what is happening in the London district of Brixton whose regeneration plan is now threatening the survival of 30 local businesses.

“Without strong public policy the market will always find the weak point,” acknowledges architect Jon Aguirre Such.

At the moment, this is not going to happen in Puente de Vallecas for a few years yet, but given that it is only three kilometers from the center, and with the price per square meter below the Madrid average, they know the risk is there.

The president of the neighborhood association, Jorge Nacarino, believes the local residents are the only ones who can prevent this. “If we become the agents of change, it will be more difficult for this to happen.” It is clear what they have to do: everyone should regenerate the district together, so that it is not taken over by a few. Rebalance the map, defend the principal that everyone deserves to live better, on both sides of the highway.

This article was translated from Spanish and originally published by Equal Times.

María José Carmona is a journalist specializing in social and human rights. She currently contributes to various digital media outlets, including Planeta Futuro (El País),, El Confidencial and Público. Twitter : @MJCarmonaLopez

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