Zaragoza: regeneration large and small

Being host to Expo 2008 accelerated the regeneration of Zaragoza, Spain’s fifth largest city. Investment in large-scale infrastructure has been combined with small interventions which have engaged local citizens. Clare Goff reports

Fresh from the success of the roll-out of its high-speed rail network, Spain has been investing heavily in tram networks in its major cities. By the end of 2011 four Spanish cities – Zaragoza, Murcia, Jaen and Granada – will have new tramway systems, joining cities such as Valencia, the first to re-introduce trams in 1994, Bilbao and Barcelona. And the country is using its tram renaissance as another chance to experiment in new technologies, leading the way in energy-saving transportation.

In Zaragoza, the first phase of its new tramway opened in May this year and will eventually connect the historic and modern areas of the city. The city’s original tram system dated back to the late 1800s, reaching its peak in the 1950s before falling into decline and being converted to bus lines.

In 2009, a year after the city’s successful hosting of Expo 2008, a team of companies was selected to build a new tramway in the city. While the first phase of the system has been built using standard technology, the power supply for the second phase of the tramway – which runs through the old part of the city – will come from a Rapid Change Accumulator system, which accumulates the energy recovered during braking, allowing the tram to run without an overhead power supply.

Elsewhere in the country, in the northern Asturias region, a prototype hydrogen hybrid fuel cell tram has been unveiled and is set for roll-out next year. The technology, the first of its kind in the world, is emission-free and could eventually be used to provide all future light rail networks. Trams – or hydrolleys, as those powered by hydrogen have been called – are seen as the ideal transport to test hydrogen power and the success of the technology could lower the costs and propel another round of tramway development in the country.

But as new tracks and trams roll out in some cities, elsewhere in the country light rail systems are grinding to a halt. The council at Parla, near Madrid, has been issued with a warning that its tram service, introduced only four years ago, will be cut off if it fails to pay a 6.5m Euro maintenance bill owed to the company that built it, Alstom. The tram – funded and built during the boom years – could now fall victim to the financial pressures councils now find themselves in, as they seek to maintain, subsidise and pay for systems that they can no longer afford.

Alongside new major infrastructure projects Zaragoza has also been investing in small-scale public space interventions. In November it was awarded the prestigious Eurocities award 2011, which recognises outstanding achievements in ‘people-focused’ regeneration projects, for its scheme, Esto No Es Un Solar (‘this is not a vacant plot’).

The programme has a number of strands, all focused on creating usable spaces out of abandoned plots in the city. It began when the council housing association responded to complaints about neglected spaces in the city’s historical district by bringing in 61 unemployed people to clean the spaces up. This led to a broader debate around the use of public space and experimentation with small empty plots, with the public invited to participate.

Numerous vacant spaces were transformed into public areas, including urban gardens, street bowling and the construction of giant board games. Architects went into schools to engage children in the process and ask them to propose ideas for using empty space. In 2010 a dedicated Esto No Es Un Solar office was set up within the council to manage the process and the scheme has since spread to numerous districts across the city. Movie screenings in historical spaces, hanging lighting systems, basketball courts and a memory park for Alzheimer’s patients are just a few of the projects that have been established as citizens engaged with revitalising and using neglected spaces in their city.


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