The Plaza de España is the second largest plaza in Spain, a popular tourist attraction featuring a monument to the writer Miguel de Cervantes. It is also adjacent to two of the most prominent skyscrapers in Madrid (Edifico España and Torre de Madrid) and located near the royal palace. The last major reform of the Plaza de España in Madrid was in 1969 and it has since seen years of abandonment and decline. Evaluations by Madrid City Council indicated that the site suffered from limited accessibility and connection to the surrounding spaces. The report also identified abandoned buildings and residential spaces nearby. The square was therefore in urgent need of redevelopment.
Plaza de España before redevelopment
To address this issue, Madrid City Council adopted a novel participatory approach. Following years of declining public confidence in politicians, exacerbated by corruption scandals and the Spanish government’s politics of austerity, the city council (led by the relatively new left-leaning political party, Ahora Madrid) was a keen advocate of participatory processes in local decision-making. In 2015, it launched the Decide Madrid platform, aiming to ensure transparency in government proceedings and to widen public participation in council decision-making and spending processes. The platform has subsequently played an important role in urban redevelopment projects, with the redevelopment of the Plaza de España a notable example. The City of Madrid allocated EUR1.1 million to the preparation, dissemination and startup of the participatory processes. This was judged by independent researchers to be a more than sufficient budget to carry out the engagement process involving the Plaza de España.
The City of Madrid does not have a general action plan that specifies how participatory processes should be undertaken. The stages for the participatory decision-making process were therefore designed and developed around the needs of the specific case of the redevelopment of Plaza de España and differed from other cases delivered through Decide Madrid. The participatory process for Espana can be broken down into the following 10 phases.
Phase 1: Debate and working groups
The city council organised three initial working groups to gather information about integrating the square with the neighbourhood and city, including how to ensure mobility and environmental sustainability. Having gathered this information, council representatives and officers met with public actors such as residents’ associations, town planners, and hoteliers, to define the scope of the intervention and develop a questionnaire on the renewal of the Plaza de España for a citizen survey (delivered in phase 3).
Phase 2: External communication
The General Directorate of Urban Strategy wrote a series of reports for citizens in order to inform their decision-making when completing the questionnaire. These included a summary of the project, reports on the Plaza’s historical evolution, a study of the use of the area, and documentation of environmental and building preservation issues relating to the project.
Phase 3: Citizen Consultation via Decide Madrid
The citizen consultation began on 28 January 2016 and lasted 40 days. The online platform Decide Madrid hosted a survey called “Questions about the participatory process on the possible intervention in Plaza de España”, which consisted of 18 questions, including the following:
- Do you think it is necessary to reform the Plaza de España?
- Do you think that it is necessary that the reform of the Plaza de España should also affect adjoining areas and the streets through which it is connected?
- Do you think it is necessary to limit some of the following uses (street markets, commercial, terraces, hotels, restaurants, all of the above, other)?
- What do you feel would be the best course of action regarding the sites monuments, including the monument to Cervantes?
- What do you think should be done with the trees that are currently in the square?
- What actions do you think are necessary regarding the traffic in the vicinity of the Plaza de España?
- What would you like to happen regarding the existing parking spaces in the Plaza de España?
- Do you think that the construction works in the Plaza de España should be carried out in such a way that the environmental impact is minimised, even if this implies an increase in cost?
- What measures of environmental sustainability would you like addressed in the design of the Plaza de España?
- How do you use this space?
- What services, activities or uses do you think are missing, or are unwanted?
- Finally, if a reform to Plaza de España is carried out, what type of form do you think it should take?
Over 28,000 people took part in the vote. (Full details of the responses and levels of support for different options can be found here). The majority of responses from the survey informed the basic elements of the tender document.
Phase 4: Project Tendering
The General Directorate for Urban Strategy then published a tender document for the presentation of proposals for the redevelopment of the Plaza de España. Following this, the committee for the “Tendering of ideas for the redevelopment of the Plaza de España of Madrid” was established in the headquarters of the Official College of Architects of Madrid in order to ensure that proposals met the project requirements.
Phase 5: External communication
70 Seventy proposals selected by the committee were published on Decide Madrid in order to allow citizen consultation. A media campaign was also developed to inform and involve citizens in the process.
Phase 6: Citizen consultation for the evaluation of projects
Citizens evaluated and voted on the proposals via the Decide Madrid platform. This took the form of individual pages for each proposal, providing supporting details and images. By scrolling down, participants could then comment on and discuss the proposal in a threaded forum. Participants could vote on both the project and the comments. 7, 613 participated and voted in this process, there were 908 comments on the projects and 975 votes on the comments.
Phase 7: Evaluation of proposals by committee and publication of results
Following the consultation, a further committee was assembled and included representatives of relevant government departments and social actors, such as architects, engineers, town planners, and other experts in urban development. This committee was chaired by a representative of Madrid’s Department of Sustainable Urban Development, and its purpose was to evaluate the projects selected by citizens and select a few to be submitted to a public vote. Five proposals were initially selected, and further information was requested from the authors of the proposals, which were, in order of popularity:
- Urban Prairie (903 votes)
- Welcome Mother Nature (401 votes)
- From East to West (297 votes)
- A Walk Through the Cornisa (170 votes)
- My Favourite Corner of Madrid (103 votes)
A second round of evaluations by the committee followed, narrowing the proposals down to two projects, A Walk Through the Cornisa and Welcome Mother Nature. The results were published on Decide Madrid and once again put to a public vote.
Phase 8: Final public vote and publication of results
The two final proposals were put to a final vote which began on 13th February and ended on 19th February 2017. The winning proposal, with 63.5 percent of the vote was Welcome Mother Nature.. In all, 183, 476 people took part in the voting. The results were published via various channels, including Decide Madrid.
Phase 9: Technical consultation on the viability of the winning proposal
The General Directorate for Urban Strategy consulted external experts as well as the local Heritage committee on the viability of the winning project. This resulted in a minor modification to the original project.
Phase 10: Development of tender specifications and award of the project
Towards the end of 2018 the General Directorate for Urban Strategy developed and published the tender specification for the redevelopment of the Plaza de España.
The public impact
According to the Decide Madrid website redevelopment work has taken place in accordance with the “Welcome Mother Nature” project.  The project to remodel Plaza de España, based on the proposal Welcome Mother Nature, is one of the most successful examples of citizen engagement in Spain in terms of participation.  The Decide Madrid platform on which it was conducted received the 2018 UN Public Service Prize.
Institutions from more than 90 cities and regions worldwide are replicating the Decide Madrid model, using the open source Consul software on which it was based. Notable examples including Barcelona, Buenos Aires, A Coruña, Oviedo, Paris, Turin and Valencia.
Written by Martin King
Public Confidence Fair
The process was open and inclusive in the sense that all of Madrid’s citizens were free to take part. The initiative involved both online and offline methods of engagement, allowing participants to engage by whichever methods they found most convenient, including online, by post and by phone. The total number of participants engaged at the different stages were:
- 28,249 (0.84 percent of the population of Madrid) for the questionnaire
- 7, 613 (0.23 percent) for the second vote on 70 proposals
- 183,476 (6.6 percent) for the final vote.
On the one hand, this represents far higher levels of public input and involvement than traditional approaches; on the other hand, critics have described participation levels in this and other Decide Madrid processes as either low  or insignificant relative to the city’s total population. More men participated than women, although this trend is reversed in other applications of the Decide Madrid platform. The platform has also been criticised for a lack of support for people with sensory disabilities: for example, it lacks a text-to-audio function to enable participation for people with visual impairments. Decide Madrid has also faced criticism for a lack of transparency and a failure to provide an accurate evaluation of levels of participant satisfaction.
On the specific issues of the neutrality of information, the security of the voting process, and protection of personal data and privacy, an academic evaluation of the process was more positive. It observed that the technology ensured that citizens were given a wide range of evidence-based information, and that security was assured through identity verification, a well-designed signing up process, and encryption systems.
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
The Plaza de España project engaged a diversity of stakeholders, including resident associations, professional groups – such as architects and town planners – charities, political authorities, and professionals from different government departments, such as the Department of Climate Change and Mobility and as the Department of the Economy and Public Finance. These groups were involved from the start of the project, identifying the problem and citizens’ expectations of the project and determining the design of the questionnaire. Citizens were also involved at an early stage of the project, as the questionnaire invited input into the parameters of the project and enabled a process of co-governance that had been absent from similar projects.
Political Commitment Good
In the case of Plaza de España, the political groups involved in Madrid’s local government have demonstrated commitment to the process by allocating sufficient budget and accepting the outcome. However, while there was a commitment to accept the outcome, political actors influenced the potential outcomes very significantly at different stages. For example, the committee chaired by Madrid’s Department of Sustainable Urban Development was able to narrow down the initial selection to five projects and then finally to two, which were not the most popular with the public but were rather the second and fourth most popular, well below the Urban Prairie (see The Initiative above).
There have been reports of varying levels of support among different political groups and also of some discontent among civic and neighbourhood associations. Of Madrid’s main four political parties, the left wing Ahora Madrid and the centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español demonstrated greater support for the project, while the centre-right Partido Popular and the centrist Ciudadanos have been more reluctant, claiming that the low levels of citizen participation delegitimise the decisions. At a more abstract level, the newer parties (Ahora Madrid and Ciudadanos) have dedicated more space to citizen participation in their programmes than have more traditional, established parties.
The process, as delivered through Decide Madrid, also limited the power of citizens’ associations, since their proposals and support carried no more power than those of any other individual citizen. This might have resulted in the associations being suspicious of the process, but this does not appear to have been an issue.
Clear Objectives Good
The objectives of the Plaza de España were clear: to “rebuild the pedestrian infrastructure of the area, generate new open air spaces and improve existing ones, promote a programme for leisure and commerce, develop a sustainable urban space and link the square with the different urban spaces that surround it”. Part of the process of citizen engagement involved allowing citizens to provide input into the project’s objectives and structure. Thus, how the objectives were to be achieved was intentionally left open. An academic report raised criticisms over the clarity of communicating the objectives to the public. For future campaigns, it suggested, further efforts would be needed on the part of public institutions to improve social awareness and citizen education campaigns for initiatives of this kind. There is also a need to present a clear summary of the project’s objectives, methods and schedule.
The Decide Madrid process represents Madrid City Council’s first attempt at e-democracy, and evidence suggests the process was thoroughly researched. It was the result of a three-year investigation and learning by a collection of anti-corruption and pro-equality political organisations, including the 15-M Movement and the political parties Podemos and Ahora Madrid. During this period, these groups actively searched for referential models and digital tools, investigating democratic innovations in other countries such as Iceland (see Better Reykjavik) and Finland (see Open Ministry). Finally, a small prototype was tested, called the Open Mincent system.
In the specific case of Plaza de España, evidence was gathered from a wide range of stakeholders and experts during the process of developing the initiative and evaluating proposals. The Department of Sustainable Urban Development also prepared all the necessary information in a range of documents that were published on the Decide Madrid platform. This information included evidence on a number of issues, including a study of pedestrian usage of the square, environmental surveys, and sociodemographic and mobility reports to ensure that citizens had “maximum information”. The 70 selected proposals were published on the website with all paperwork generated by each proposal made physically available in the Plaza de España itself. Two potential difficulties have been highlighted with this approach: the information overload, as a result of the exhaustive paperwork, and the technical language used, which presented further barriers to citizens.
The City of Madrid allocated EUR1.1 million to the preparation, dissemination and startup of participatory processes, including the redevelopment of the Plaza de España, which independent academic research on the project concluded was more than adequate. However, there is no publicly available information about how much finance was devoted to each process, and the same researchers recommend that this information be published to improve transparency.
In 2015, the City of Madrid introduced a the Office of Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government, whose responsibilities include promoting and administering citizen participation, facilitating cooperation and volunteering, and promoting transparency and accountability. An academic paper about the project judged that, in general terms, the new municipal office helped ensure that the Plaza de España process had appropriate institutional support to guarantee its successful development.
Evaluations of the project show a failure to implement a process of monitoring and evaluation. They argue that this has impacted negatively on the initiative, because these processes would have facilitated continuous improvement and institutional learning.
The Plaza de España project involved a range of political actors and departments dedicated to the values of the process, notably the Department of Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government, the General Sub-directorate of Citizen Participation and Volunteerism, and the General Directorate of Urban Strategy. Furthermore, there was a strong culture of resident-led movements and associations working in collaboration with municipal administrations. Data from the Centre for Sociological Investigations in 2014 showed a high percentage of Madrid’s civil society (63 percent) had supported a “bottom-up” model of representation . This suggests that the values of the initiative were aligned with the preferences of civil actors.