La Ciudad Lineal – an excerpt from Madrid

Arturo Soria y Mata was a madrileño who got his fingers into everything that moved his native town. Born in 1844 he made a career as a journalist and a pro-Republican politician, while finding time to invent an improved telegraph, and working unsuccessfully to bring telephones and subways to the city when such things were still new toys. In the 1880s he helped build Madrid’s first streetcar line, and it was this interest in transportation that led Soria to become interested in the design of cities.

Madrid, booming, dirty and overcrowded like all the capitals of Europe a century ago, was full of discontents, and Soria, writing in the newspaper El Progresso, came up with a startling original remedy–the Ciudad Lineal, the Linear City.

It was a truly remarkable concept, and a simple one: a broad central street with separate tracks for long distance trains and local trolleys in the middle, along with single tunnel for telephone and electric cables and gas mains. Or either side of this, a block or two of houses, and no more. Everyone who lived in the Ciudad Lineal would be a minute’s walk from shops and efficient public transport, and a minute’s walk from open countryside. Soria promoted his idea as the perfect form for the adaptation of the city to modern technology, and he imagined his linear cities one day running from Cadiz to St Petersburg, and from Peking to Brussels.

Madrid is one of the few places in the world where a utopian plan like this could not only be imagined, but actually attempted. Even then, however, the project didn’t turn out to be exactly what Soria had in mind. He started a development firm, the Compañía Madrileña de Urbanización, but the only lad he was able to acquire for a linear city was not between two exiting towns, but on the periphery of the Madrid suburbs between Charmartin station and the eastern reaches of Calle de Alcalá. The plan is still visible on any city map–two neatly parallel rows of blocks on either side of a broad boulevard, still just as Soria designed them. Only instead of passing through open country, the Ciudad Lineal now is part of one of the busiest neighbourhoods of Madrid–unfortunately, Soria was not able to stop over developers from building up all the land on either side. Visiting the site today, you will hardly see a hint of the original intention. But the world’s planners still honour Soria as one of the most original urban designers ever, and the city of Madrid has commemorated whim with the Ciudad Lineal metro stop, and with the central street of the original development, now named Calle Arturo Soria.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls