Manzanares River, Spain

When it comes to national capitals and rivers, Madrid, Spain does not come to mind so quickly. Paris has its Seine and London has the Thames while Rome has the Tiber. The Spanish capital’s main stream isn’t so big and it is not navigable by boat. With little development along its banks,the Manzanares River made for an ideal highway route in the 1970s, akin to Tel Aviv’s Ayalon River  or New York’s Harlem River Drive.

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Since 2003, a six-mile section of highway M-30 running along the Manzanares was gradually sealed in a tunnel and above it, a waterfront park was built that reconnects Madrileños (people of Madrid) to their river. In many ways, it is the European equivalent of Seoul’s famed Cheonggyecheon

Manzanares in History

Originally this river was regarded as a branch of the Guadarrama, possibly derived from the Arabic وادي الرمل Wad-al-Raml, a river of sand. An alternative theory suggests it as a corruption of the Latin aquae dīrāma, or “diverging waters.” This branch is a tributary of the Tagus, which flows across Spain and Portugal, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon.

In the 17th century, the Duke of the Infantado assigned this branch the name Manzanares, in honor of his castle, Manzanares el Real (royal apple orchard) which overlooks the river. At the time, Spain was a superpower with colonies across Latin America, the Caribbean and the Philippines.

The Segovia Bridge and later the Toledo Bridge on the Manzanares demonstrate the architecture of an empire.

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Nearly two centuries later, Spain’s great romanticist artist Francisco de Goya who lived in Madrid, painted leisure scenes on its banks, such as Picnic on the Banks of the Manzanares and Dance on the Banks of Manzanares.

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Depending where one stood on the river, one could see imperial period bridges, or humble workers’ dwellings as in the 1900 postcard above. Nevertheless, symbols of the monarchy were never too far from its banks. But the former empire continued to decline, suffering a series of coups in the 19th century that culminated with the Spanish Civil War in 1936 that pitted an unstable coalition of leftists against fascists and monarchists. The river became an afterthought and easily provided a path for a highway, as often happens with urban rivers.

Madrid Rio

Following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the kingdom transitioned to a democracy and sought to attract tourists to the millennium-old city. Unlike Barcelona and Valencia, it did not have a seashore, located deep in the country’s interior. The Manzanares offered potential to give Madrid a waterfront of fountains, urban beaches, playgrounds and trails. The Madrid Río project was born.

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Where the highway ran there are now trails and trees. Below the park is the longest urban highway tunnel in Europe. Boston’s Big Dig can be compared to it, with its high cost, sunken highway and linear park on the surface.

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Where there were historic crossings such as Segovia Bridge, above, the park’s designers created vistas of arches from below, giving residents an appreciation of what their ancestors built nearly 500 years earlier.

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Along with the restoration of existing bridges, new footbridges patched up a divided city. No two footbridges are the same. Each has a unique design, an attraction in and of itself. Perhaps the most documented of these is the Arganzuela Footbridge. Madrid Río is the product of a design competition. The winners were local architect Ginés Garrido, with Adriaan Geuze’s Dutch-based firm West 8. An ambitious park, it cost nearly $5 billion, most of the funds going to the highway tunnel beneath the park.

In the News:

New York Times reports on volunteers in Rome cleaning up the Tiber River.

American Public Media‘s Rob Schmitz reports on China’s program that encourages citizens to report pollution in urban rivers through an app.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on the restoration of Reedy Creek on the south side of Virginia’s capital city.

A Note on this Blog:

From its start last December, I have followed a weekly schedule of articles that included out of town Mondays, cited books on Wednesdays and a historical photo of the week each Friday.

Since its start, the book has been reviewed by New York Post, Queens Chronicle, Queens Gazette, Bronx Times, Queens Jewish LinkBrownstoner, Gothamist, Bensonhurst BeanForgotten-NY, and Atlas Obscura.

Not too long ago, I applied for a media relations position which I did not receive on account of insufficient experience.

I can proudly say that when looking at the book reviews, sales, followers, social media posts, and speaking engagements, I was able to spark a conversation about urban streams that resonates with students, historians, architects, urban planners, tourists, city residents, neighborhood advocates and elected officials. What has become a career step up for me as a journalist/academic/historian also benefits the world by focusing attention on our environment. What else could a millennial ask for?

I cannot do this alone. Throughout the world there are hidden urban streams whose stories are worth sharing. Send me a photo or video of a stream and I will do my best to research its history. You can share it with me by email, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Here are a few examples of such streams: Apies River in Pretoria, Akaki River in Addis Ababa, Shahrud Canal in Bukhara, Bayou Gayoso in Memphis or the apparently unfinished Swan Lake of Baghdad!

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That’s “Swan Lake” above. I don’t know anything about it and my Arabic literacy is nonexistent. I look forward to your submissions.


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