In his first dispatch in almost a month, Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman heads (back) overseas, where he tours a new riverfront park in Madrid. Like the story of Hudson River Park and the West Side Highway before it, or Boston’s Big Dig, Madrid decided almost a decade ago to bury a major highway that flanked the Manzanares River in the heart of the city. Naturally, there has been a return to the bucolic, Mr. Kimmelman writes: “All around the world, highways are being torn down and waterfronts reclaimed; decades of thinking about cars and cities reversed; new public spaces created.”
Mr. Kimmelman has proven himself, even after an exile in Berlin, intimately concerned with the goings on in New York, and he finds them yet again halfway around the globe:
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.
Add to this wading pools for toddlers that landlocked Madrid parents already fondly call “the beach,” and a paved plaza, in patterned tiles, large enough to fit a few hundred thousand people.
New York has recently benefited from the growth and upgrading of its own parks, but much of the city’s expanding public realm is now dependent on private investment. At the epicenter of laissez-faire capitalism, a skepticism about big government, a web of well-meaning regulations and opposition groups empowered by easy access to the courts combine to create barriers to the investment of public money in major infrastructural improvements. Change happens slowly and incrementally, certainly compared with what Madrid has accomplished.
So we confront the problem yet again of how and even why to invest in public infrastructure and space. The Observer has been suspicious of Libertarian Parks for some time now, a fact only underscored by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the lack of quality public space created in the past few generations. Madrid Rio proves that the public sector can still build public space, but it is not any easier to pay for. There is no clear answer to our skyrocketing everything.