City nature restoration in Madrid without spending a single euro

by Lorraine Williamson
nature in the City - screen grab from Twitter video in article

MADRID – Without spending a euro, the municipality of Madrid has restored a piece of nature in the city with just one measure. Since the locks in the Manzanares River were opened, the ecological development of the area became possible. 

A resident posted a video on Twitter last week of a fox scurrying around the area near the Puente de los Franceses. The fact that this animal roams here is the result of a nature restoration program by the Manzanares. Five years ago, the locks that divided the river basin were opened. 

Those sluices have stagnated the water since the 1950s to give the river a different appearance and make it appear fuller at certain points in the city. A resident told El Confidencial newspaper: “They opened them occasionally, but it was disgusting, the river didn’t flow naturally, there were lots of insects, a stench of rot and even the occasional donkey corpse.” Only the Manzanares is not a Central European river with abundant water, but a river in the Mediterranean that regularly has to deal with very little water. 

Plant and animal species arise 

Now the water flows through which the geosystem has caused the emergence of plant and animal species. “This is nature itself, the ecosystem is only regulated if it is done correctly,” Santiago Martín Barajas of Ecologistas en Acción explains to El Confidencial. In barely a year, islands appeared in the river. And in 2021 a fox is walking through a park in the Spanish capital. 

Some think that the origin of this oasis of nature is the product of the initiative to make the M-30 bypass underground and realise the Madrid Río Park. However, “the works were not created with the good of the environment in mind at all; only for the good of people. These granite structures actually hinder rainwater reaching the river when it rains, creating pavements,” explains Guillermina Garzón of the environmental group. 

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What has ensured the correct regulation of the river water and thus the stability of the ecosystem is the renaturation plan that Ecologists in Action presented in 2016. Since then, small islands have been formed that favour the flow of the water. Poplars, willows, or ash trees now grow here. And the islands are frequented by animals such as otters, foxes, or grey herons. 

‘Uncultivated townspeople’ 

Experts see Spanish culture as one of the most important issues related to environmental problems. “We don’t have an education that is focused on respect for nature,” says Garzón. The geologist explains that Spanish rivers are semi-arid, which means more effort and work in the areas. In addition, “the work of the farmer has fallen in esteem along with rural life. This causes a lack of interest in things like environmental conservation. Now we realize that this is the only solution we have. Whether we take care of the earth, or we are headed for disaster.” 

Construction in floodplains 

Currently, the river maintains a constant level of two cubic meters of water per second, although after Filomena that increased to more than 16 m3 for almost a month. Not a tree has been blown down. “This shows that the vegetation does not pose a risk of flooding. On the contrary. Trees can often prevent disasters. They consolidate the river banks and organise the catchment area. The problem is that construction is taking place in the floodplains. The part that can flood in the rainy season. You can place a park there and place livestock in a controlled way, but not buildings”. Today a large part of the floodplains of Manzanares is built up, but the water is controlled by the reservoirs Pardo and Manzanares El Real, so there is a real danger of this does not result in flooding. 

Nature in the city 

Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen. The buildings on the banks, which are protected by reservoirs and dikes, partly give a false sense of security. Still, Madrilenians and visitors to the city can now enjoy nature without leaving the city. 

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