4 Spanish Lessons for American Cities

I had the recent pleasure of spending my honeymoon in Spain. We visited three gorgeous cities—Madrid, Granada and Sevilla—and, while my boss told me firmly not to think about work at all during the trip, I couldn't help but observe a few important Strong Towns lessons in action in these Spanish cities.

1. Accommodate cars in an environment built for people (not the opposite). 

We spent the majority of our trip walking on streets that looked like this:

Tons of people walking freely to their destinations (or enjoying food in outdoor cafes) intermingled with a few cars. There isn't much of a delineation between car space and people space. Most of the time, we'd be walking on a street that was completely devoid of cars. When a taxi or motorbike would approach, the driver would wait while pedestrians moved out of the way, then creep through, with people immediately resuming their positions in the streets. That's accommodating cars in an environment centered on people.

There’s a really easy reason for this: The city was built before cars existed. This is true for many American towns and cities but the difference is that, as cars became more prevalent, Spanish cities like Madrid figured out ways to accommodate them (widening a few key arteries, allowing slow-moving, one way car traffic onto formerly pedestrian-only streets) while keeping the overall urban fabric the same as always.

In America, when the car came along, we summarily destroyed buildings and whole blocks of houses and stores in order to build vast spaces for fast car movement and large amounts of parking. 

The difference is clear. You can either have a human-scale street like the one above with thriving small businesses and an active street life or you can have the American version:

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

which takes up ten times as much space with a fraction of the tax value per acre and immensely higher public infrastructure costs.

2. It’s possible to build compactly and still have plenty of open space.

In between our extended walking hours, we spent much of the rest of our time on gorgeous public plazas like this one (the Plaza Mayor):

Open outdoor space was in greater supply here than in my Milwaukee neighborhood, especially when you factor in the use of streets as public space. And while the above photo may look fairly devoid of natural beauty, there was also extensive public parks and gardens as well as waterfronts in every town we set foot in:

While most apartments only had tiny balconies, the public outside space more than made up for the lack of private outside space. Public plazas and parks were almost constantly in use from morning until midnight on our trip.

3. Sidewalks aren’t just for walking.

Sidewalks are far more than just paths between destinations. During our travels, we witnessed families relaxing on benches for hours at a time along Spanish sidewalks, street performers turning sidewalks into stages, and mostly, we saw lots and lots of sidewalk seating for cafes:

For many restaurants, sidewalk seating more than doubled their capacity, allowing them to serve many more customers in the delightful outdoors. It also provided a very easy way for businesses to advertise their product: no neon signage necessary, just take a glance at the food and drink being enjoyed by current patrons and, if it looks good, you ask for a table. Sitting outside and watching the world go by was far more fun than being inside a cafe with only walls and tables to look at anyway. 

Enjoying a Spanish classic—paella—at an outdoor cafe

Enjoying a Spanish classic—paella—at an outdoor cafe

4. Build off of what works.

As Jane Jacobs famously wrote, "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them." If there was one thing in copious supply in the Spanish cities we visited, it was old buildings. I'd hazard a guess that many were 100+ years old (and some much much older), with more modern improvements made along the way to plumbing, facade, and so on.

This was the view from our Madrid hotel:

You can see buildings with a whole range of ages, not to mention a range of additions with varying ages (satellite dishes, air conditioners, awnings, etc.). There is also frequent preservation and construction work happening. These cities were constantly in motion, growing where they needed to, tweaking what was already there, preserving what was beloved.

As short-term visitors, we were, of course, seeing only a tiny snapshot of the life of these Spanish cities. Still, there was a lot to be learned from even just nine days in Spain. If you're a Spaniard or someone who has lived in Spain, I'd love to hear about what other lessons you think American cities can learn from our European friends.

(All photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

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