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When Madrid’s higher education projects sell dreams: Metropolitan stagecraft or reality?

Quand les projets universitaires madrilènes vendent du rêve: mise en scène ou réalité métropolitaines?
Lise Fournier


How does the image of a metropolis come to be? Despite being the third agglomeration in Europe, Madrid suffers from a lack of international outreach, despite being a city that, with 270,000 students, one of the most important university centres in Europe. If the presence of universities is required to access the rank of metropolis, it is obviously not enough. Their international image must be built to be recognised abroad. However Madrid has no historically ancient academic tradition. Indeed, it was not until 1836 when the University of Alcalá transferred to Madrid and took the name of Central University. Therefore, Madrid must invent an academic story and filiation. The city does this through a narrative that is based on academic projects included in image policies. Consequently, the question is how such projects are a way to question the fictionality of the Madrid metropolisation? This article examines how a higher education project is a symbol of the construction of a Madrid metropolitan mythology in its manifestations and limitations. After identifying the part played by higher education projects in fictional urban planning, the strategies of project developers are analysed, raising the question of the sustainability of the Madrid university system.

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1How does the image of a metropolis come to be? Urban marketing strategies are based on a process of identity construction, creating images and stories more or less close to reality. The organisation of major sporting and cultural events and great architectural gestures are part of fictional urban planning, substituting a narrative creation for the real creation of a city or a territory (Matthey 2011). It is designed as a powerful lever for metropolitan mobilisation. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, Spanish cities embarked on huge projects: the Olympic area of Barcelona, the World Exhibition in Seville and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao exemplify the rivalry between Spanish cities in the age of ‘new urban modernity’ (Baron 2010: 89). But if Madrid brought great contributions to modelising cultures of urbanism—sometimes utopian, starting with Arturo Soria’s famous Ciudad Lineal—its metropolitan plans remained less famous than those of other European cities. Madrid is nonetheless an iconic symbol of urban changes, since its growth was particularly impressive in the second half of the 20th century. In spite of those changes, even if its image has been strengthened since the time when Barcelona eclipsed it, Madrid’s position is still not clear and appears somewhat tarnished by the economic crisis. However, regions and cities are the natural loci where knowledge is created and where it is more easily turned into a commercial product (Capello et al. 2013: 2). It is in a context of increased international competition between big cities that universities become a key metropolitan issue. In the economy of knowledge, universities have found a special role, turning themselves into places in which knowledge is produced and nurtured (Madanipour 2011: 154). The location of campuses and the nature of universities tell us how Madrid City grows and becomes a metropolis. In addition, the proliferation of private universities in the well-off northwest suburbs of the area reinforces territorial inequalities at the metropolitan level. The research subject that interests me is the higher education project, that is to say the creation of new universities or campuses but also the restructuring of universities, an essential element in the current context marked by major changes at the European level. The thesis I develop in this essay is that higher education plans are a means to examine the storytelling of the metropolitan system of Madrid.

2This work takes into account the context of the transition to the age of knowledge societies and the arrival of cognitive capitalism as a new paradigm of public action, constituting a relevant theoretical framework for analysing urban changes. Yann Moulier Boutang defines cognitive capitalism as a system of accumulation interested in knowledge and creativity, that is to say about forms of intangible investment (Moulier Boutang 2007: 86). Since the mid-1990s, there has been a focus on the concepts of innovation and creation in city development strategies (Besson 2014). Information and knowledge tend to occupy a central place in production, and universities as crucial intermediaries to transmit knowledge may deserve to be seen as the postmodern equivalent of what steel mills or textile plants could represent for industrial capitalism. Therefore, I will analyse here the system of actors expressing views on academic projects and adopt an approach based on interviews and an analysis of the content of the speeches delivered. By views, I mean both formal views (linguistic or iconographic) and reconstructed speeches in the context of enquiries. This analysis is based here on a doctorate work in progress on urban planning that relies on some narrative data taken from three materials: documents published by universities and local authorities (official documents including many which remained unpublished), press articles and about twenty individual semi-structured and yet open-ended interviews lasting from one to three hours, with the main administrative staff members in charge of planning, academics, university managers and university policy-makers in local communities. I will eventually suggest that the views on university plans illustrate the storytelling of the metropolitan system of Madrid and thus allow us to question Madrid’s urban model when it is criticised after having been acclaimed in the early 2000s. Indeed, with the global financial crisis, some countries were placed at the front of the media stage, including Spain with its propensity for real estate, including overproduction of housing, and an urban crisis resulted from neoliberal urbanism. The urban crisis is reflected in an urban development by fragmented projects in conjunction with the opening of the land to urbanisation and the reclassification of agricultural lands into building lands. The Spanish urban model is indeed a form of extension urbanism based on the increase of land supply: it produces urban spaces without creating cities. From an urban perspective, Spain has indeed become the symbol of all excesses, and there are countless ‘pelotazos urbanísticos’, that is to say reclassifications of lands, and property transactions negotiated directly between developers and politicians on the fringe of planning. This paper examines Madrid metropolisation from the point of view of the identity storytelling that leads to governing the city through a story to see how the staging of university projects, based on renewed urban practices, tells the making of a city in times of crisis and shows an uncertain metropolis looking for an identity.

Questioning the fiction of Madrid metropolisation

3The Spanish capital city suffers from a lack of influence on the international scene. After the acclaimed Spanish economic miracle in the 2000s, urban action is now in the context of the bursting of the real estate bubble in 2008 and the crisis of the speculative ‘ladrillo’ economy (‘the economy of the brick’), leading to a criticism of the Spanish urban model. However, with its 6.6 million inhabitants, Madrid is the third European metropolitan area. How does the fiction in the metropolisation process of Madrid express itself?

The Spanish capital is the scene of a metropolisation process

4The growth of Madrid, a small town of Castile promoted to capital in 1561 and a European metropolis today, has been particularly pronounced in the second half of the 20th century. In the Madrid Autonomous Community, the urbanised area has increased by 50% from 1990 to 2000; some people even speak of a ‘tsunami urbanizador’, that is to say an ‘urbanising tsunami’ (Fernández Durán 2008). According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas (National Institute of Statistics) 2011 official estimate, the City of Madrid’s population was 3,198,000 inhabitants, and the 2011 estimate for the greater metropolitan region was of 6,421,874 inhabitants. And according to a study from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, based on the relationship between home and work, the functional territory of the Madrid metropolitan area accommodated an estimated 6.6 million people in 2007 over an area of 27,500 km² (Burns et al. 2009: 76). The metropolitan area covers a total of eight provinces and three regions: the Autonomous Communities of Madrid, of course, but also Castilla y León and above all Castilla-La Mancha.

5In spite of its lack of international influence, with its command and its connection to networks at different levels, the Spanish capital has many metropolitan assets as the political, administrative, economic, financial, cultural, and media centre of the country; it is also as gateway to and for the rest of the world with the hub airport of Barajas, and it is the first academic centre of the country. However, if higher education and universities have long been objects of study for geographers and planners, few works have been produced at the regional level, particularly in the Madrid Autonomous Community. It is the reason why this paper examines Madrid’s process of metropolisation in terms of university projects.

The university project as a conveyor of Metropolitan Development

6The Madrid region has some 270,000 students (325,000 if one includes distance education universities) in seven public and eight private universities, making it one of the largest European university centres (figure 1). It has the largest concentration of universities in Spain, ahead of Catalonia with its twelve universities and of Andalusia and its eleven universities. Madrid’s university system is also undergoing restructuring; three-quarters of the universities having been created between 1989 and 2001.

Figure 1: The main university campuses of the Madrid Autonomous Community in 2014

Figure 1: The main university campuses of the Madrid Autonomous Community in 2014

Source: ©Fournier, 2014.

7The recent increase in university projects stresses the obsession with Madrid becoming a great European metropolis. In fact, a university is a huge facility whose implantation has a long-term impact on a territory, and the presence of well-known universities abroad is, according to the sociologist Martine Mespoulet, necessary to claim access to the status of metropolis (Mespoulet 2012: 11). Universities, presented as central players in the economy of knowledge, are at the core of metropolitan issues; they are invested with new skills, encouraged to take on roles beyond their education and research missions, and prompted to act on the local territory as an ‘urban actor. According to the geographer Hélène Dang Vu, universities can become local actors of the urban space as soon as they become responsible for their management and prove able to develop and maintain their own strategy (Dang Vu 2011: 14). Having been for a long time monocentric, today the Madrid urban model tends to be polycentric; Madrid’s development is now done by means of the projection of residential areas and large facilities, such as universities, along the major roads (figure 1 above). New centralities emerge around the towns that have campuses; this is how the geographers Guillermo Morales Matos and Xosé Constenla Vega (2012) analysed the reorganisation of the metropolitan southern area around the multisite Universities Carlos III and Rey Juan Carlos. Reflecting on this evolution of the urban model in Madrid, one interviewee commented that ‘the creation of Universities Carlos III and Rey Juan Carlos has created new urban sub-centres. It has broken residential mono-functionalism in the old dormitory towns and university; in this case, along with technological science parks that are attached to it, is the vector of polyfunctionality, which is attached to poly-centrism. There can’t be poly-centrism without polyfunctionality’ (Interview, Academic, Autonomous University of Madrid, 15 April 2013).

Storytelling as the principle of urban action and analyser of metropolisation

8As a material action on urban space, the project also draws a representation of the city; it involves actors that produce space and also speeches (Rosemberg 2000: 2). The project includes an activity of communication and speeches produced by urban actors and is a highly geographical object. It creates a picture of a dreamed city, a representation of the city. However, this essay suggests that the storytelling of university projects tries to make the metropolitan dimension of Madrid visible. Consequently, the question is how a critical restitution of university projects is a means to examine the fictional characteristic of Madrid metropolisation. For the political scientist Alain Faure, who is interested in the role of language in the political construction of a metropolis, putting the story to the test is an important variable in the challenged construction of the ‘metropolitan moment(Faure 2012). Consequently, the aim here is to question the storytelling of metropolitan identities and the metropolitan institutionalisation through performative discourses or through territorial referents that are careful about the staging. Thus, a university project appears as a key allowing us to understand—through a criticism of Madrid urban model—how a metropolis is built.

University projects in Madrid partake of fictional urban planning

9From the outset, Madrid university projects have been designed to meet the lack of international influence of the Spanish capital city, and they are careful about the staging. The assertion, not to say the invention, of Madrid’s university is achieved around the surprising urban figure of the Ciudad Universitaria, and then it goes on with the exploitation of the university as a tool meant to restore the metropolitan balance, up to recent plans called ‘excellence projects’.

The University project as a symbol of the construction of a metropolitan mythology

10Madrid, like Lisbon, is a quite peculiar capital city that remained without any university until the 19th century. One must indeed wait until 1836 when the University of Alcalá de Henares was transferred to Madrid. Then, it became the Central University. In the case of Lisbon, the university was created again in 1911. To invent a story and a filiation for a capital with no academic tradition partakes of this storytelling. As such, the Ciudad Universitaria’s project, planned in 1927, is one of Madrid’s most emblematic urban development actions. The Cidade Universitária of Lisboa was built in the 1950s based on the model of Madrid. If the Ciudad Universitaria was planned to answer the dispersion of university campuses in the urban fabric and to solve the problem of the inadequacy of hospitals in the city, it was primarily designed as a showcase for a modern capital searching international recognition. This plan was well thought out from the outset by King Alfonso XIII as ‘the work of his reign (Chías Navarro 1986: 29). It was inspired by the fantasy model of an American campus after a journey of the royal elite in North America (figure 2). Nearly destroyed during the Spanish War, it remained partly in ruin as a historical testimony, but it was finally rebuilt and inaugurated with great pomp under Franco to assert the glory of the new government. The plan of the Ciudad Universitaria is organised around the Paraninfo, an iconic building supposed to accommodate the university presidency and imagined as the model image of Madrid University. This building was never built (its site is now dedicated to sports grounds), which epitomises the way Madrid turns its university projects into theatrical performances; architectural publicity takes precedence over real urban production. The university plans of Madrid are thus developed from the outset as the symbols of the construction of a metropolitan mythology.

Figure 2: The Faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy of the Ciudad Universitaria modelled on a North American campus

Figure 2: The Faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy of the Ciudad Universitaria modelled on a North American campus

Photo: ©Fournier, April 2013.

The university project displayed as a source of urban development

11According to the geographer Patrizia Ingallina, universities act ‘as a lever to boost growth both locally and globally’ (Ingallina 2012: 24). The university projects that have multiplied in the Autonomous Community of Madrid since 1970 are presented in speeches as a means to redevelop disadvantaged urban areas and as a vector of the urbanisation of peripheral areas: ‘it has been a strategy in early 1990s, in the publication Madrid Región Metropolitana, where universities are conceived as instruments to structure or restructure the metropolitan periphery, re-structuring, re-qualifying it, balance it also, bringing superior functions that did not exist’ (Interview, Academic, Autonomous University of Madrid, 15 April 2013). And according to Michael Neuman, ‘Madrid Región Metropolitana became the umbrella for all regional planning’ (Neuman 2010: 72). Universities are now considered as logical equipment planning. Public university projects are displayed as a tool to rebalance territorial inequalities, thus relieving saturated traditional university centres and thereby converting them into local service amenities. Locally, the reappearance of the University of Alcalá de Henares in 1977 partakes of the redevelopment of the historic centre of the city and even of the registration of the city as a UNESCO Heritage site. At the metropolitan level, the creation of the Universities Carlos III (1989) and Rey Juan Carlos (1996) is part of a policy aimed at rebalancing in favour of a traditionally disinherited working-class district in the south of the city. Both universities operate as an instrument of urban regeneration, both in a physical and cultural or social meaning: the university generates a new centrality while contributing to the recovery and change of the use of urban space. This spatial dispersion of Madrid universities takes place when Barcelona develops an opposite strategy. With the University Pompeu Fabra, the Catalan capital chooses a return to the city centre. In Madrid, the installation of the University Carlos III in the old military barracks of Getafe and Leganés will be part of a discourse on a so-called intra-metropolitan rebalancing legitimating this real estate opportunity a posteriori. However, the location of Getafe and Leganés campuses does not meet a process of territorial and urban planning considered in advance, but is rather the product of various decisions in several public services, which opportunity may explain (Morales Matos and Constenla Vega 2012: 221). Reflecting on the relationship between campuses and planning, one interviewee commented that: ‘If you ask me if the plan is previously made to the creation of the university: In rare cases, in very few cases, the plan goes behind. The plan assumes the existence of the university, consolidates it, foresees its growth, but it is a posteriori’ (Interview, Academic, Autonomous University of Madrid, 15 April 2013). This policy, which makes public universities a strategic element of local development, is damaged by the arrival of private universities that are setting up in the whole well-off northwest periphery of the region, thus strengthening the territorial inequalities that are already high at the metropolitan level.

12Since the 1990s, new projects have contributed to the writing of urban fictions aiming at ‘city-making’ with private universities designed as the nuclei around which urban production is organised. Thus, the population of Villanueva de la Cañada, a small rural town of 5,000 inhabitants in 1993, tripled in five years after the creation of the Universities Alfonso X el Sabio (in 1993) and Camilo José Cela (in 1998). Those two university plans are displayed by actors as the driving force behind the economic growth and real estate development of the town. However, university campuses are isolated and badly connected to the rest of the town. Indeed, many private campuses are out-of-town campuses. Reflecting on these locations, one interviewee commented that ‘there are universities that are tertiary islands, such as private, because they are not part of a diverse and multifunctional urban conglomerate’ (Interview, Academic, Autonomous University of Madrid, 2 April 2013). Some plans are accompanied by infrastructures supporting urban development. As a large institution, the university makes significant economic and social contributions to the city. The way this large institution finds physical form in the city influences the nature of the institution, as well as its relationship with the rest of the city and even the character of the city as whole. As a large landowner and sometimes developer, it can have a considerable influence on patterns on land use, access and mobility, and architecture of the city (Madanipour 2011: 154). For example, when setting up at Montepríncipe, the University San Pablo CEU financed an underground station (figure 3), also available to local residents, to serve the town: the campus ‘has also had a major impact on the environment. Because communication with the campus was only by car. Nothing more. The university reached an agreement with the city council and the Community of Madrid by giving financial contribution to get to a subway line passes close and open a door for the university [...] so that everyone can use it’ (Interview, University Promotion Service, San Pablo CEU University, Madrid, 15 April 2013).


Figure 3: The underground station serving the San Pablo CEU University in Montepríncipe

Figure 3: The underground station serving the San Pablo CEU University in Montepríncipe

Photo: ©Fournier, June 2012.

Excellence projects as staged by Madrid metropolisation

14University projects from a number of ministerial calls for projects of ‘campuses of international excellence’ (CEI) stage a real metropolitan fiction. This programme illustrates the central government’s tendency to govern territories from afar, guided by the search for competitiveness in the logic of New Public Management. What emerges is why the government chose a strategy of metropolisation concentrating its investment effort on a few cities (Pinson, Rousseau 2011: 48), including Madrid, as far as Spain is concerned. Indeed, among the 51 projects submitted in 2009, three of the five ‘campuses of international excellence’, sealed with approval in Spain during the first call, are in Madrid, while the other two are in Barcelona. However, if the projects boast excellence stage metropolisation, they are also empty shells. If the ‘Campus of international excellence UAM-CSIC’ highlights the plan of the Cantoblanco campus Plaza Mayor, displayed as a new service centre in terms of campuses (figure 4), it was planned and funded before the call for government projects. Indeed, CEI projects were not equipped with the proper financial means to make this metropolitan fiction effective, the problem being exacerbated by the financial crisis that led to budget cuts affecting higher education and research. According to the academic staff, they rather act as a brand trying to make the Madrid universities visible in a context of international competition, bringing together scattered initiatives under a single seal, but stamped as CEI: ‘What can we do to raise? Many things. But above all, we need to increase critical mass […]. Putting everything under a common brand that can be recognised by search engines of the big publishers. Well, here we are looking for something like that’ (Interview, Vice-Rector for Innovation and Technology Transfer, Autonomous University of Madrid, 17 April 2013). So, the Madrid university projects partake of a fictional urban planning which reflects a transformation of urban action.

Figure 4: The Plaza Mayor project of the Autónoma Universidad Cantoblanco campus in Madrid

Figure 4: The Plaza Mayor project of the Autónoma Universidad Cantoblanco campus in Madrid

Photo: ©Fournier, March 2013.

Holders of university plans are developing new ways to make the city

15The strategies used by project managers to stage the university project develop new ways of making the city based on storytelling as a cardinal axiom of urban action. Communicators then see their power increase among university administrators and local authorities as project leaders develop strategies based on partnerships.

Urban marketing establishes the advent of the entrepreneurial city

16The marketing of university plans, as a strategic approach implemented to promote the image of the university and the city and making market mechanisms one of their main organisation vectors, exemplifies an entrepreneurial turn (Rousseau 2011: 340) in university and city management. In a pioneering article, the geographer David Harvey strongly links urban entrepreneurialism and marketing; he explains that ‘the selling of the city as a location for activity depends heavily upon the creation of an attractive urban imagery(Harvey 1989: 13). In 1995, the conservative Partido Popular (Popular Party) won the Madrid regional elections. And in 1996, the Popular Party won the national elections, ending a four-term reign of the socialists. Thus, in 1996 the conservatives had a lock on all three levels of government in Madrid. In 2003, the arrival of Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón as mayor of Madrid marked a turning point in the conception of the management of the city; it was then meant to integrate the city in the process of globalisation. During this period, the municipality chose to promote flagship projects that fell within urban marketing. The ‘mega-projects’ that caused a scandal under Franco have multiplied under democracy. Far from creating the expected domino effect in the whole city, they have caused large waves of speculation, uncontrolled land use and a high indebtedness of the municipality. The operation of Cuatro Torres is thus representative of the type of planning adopted in Madrid in recent years. As part of the extension of the historical axis of the Castellana, this megaproject reflects the reclassification of the lands of the former Real Madrid sports city, which enabled the sports club and local authorities to pocket gains of several million Euros, by building four disproportionate towers on its former sports field. This was made possible through an elitist agreement established on the fringe of planning, between the city council, the Autonomous Community and the famous football club of Madrid, thus preventing any public debate on planning choices. Then, the point was to get the support of renowned architects to legitimise those huge building projects in public opinion (Naredo Pérez and Montiel Márquez 2011: 41). With economic liberalisation after the 1980s, governance arrangements in the regions have become more complicated than before. The university is often a large landowner in the city. In this context, the university as a large local institution ‘can find a stronger voice, and is expected to play a more significant role in urban and regional governance’ (Madanipour 2011: 155). In recent years, the neoliberal urban plans developed mainly in Madrid elites’ spaces have encouraged the development of infrastructure and real estate products strongly linked to the activities of global economy; this raises the question of spatial justice as far as action is concerned when financial public resources are limited and reveals territorial problems. Those megaprojects that function like foreign bodies in the city emerge and develop through the free exercise of market forces and, according to their own logic, on the fringe of planning, thereby generating huge gains. Self-proclaimed as being strategic, they are objects of important marketing operations aimed at public opinion and based on ideological slogans (Arias 2009: 182), which raises the question of the exploitation of the economic crisis by different actors so as to legitimise these urban strategies.

The irruption of communicators in the machine of city-making

17In an increasing interurban and inter-university competition context, universities pay greater attention to various ranking evaluations and face the need to attract new audiences. Holders of university plans develop new strategies to enlist first-choice students. Reflecting on the university’s strategy of communication, one interviewee commented that: ‘we started the campaign in September. Classes begin in Spain around September 15th. The first thing we do is to send a letter to all secondary schools for the new academic year […] and soon begin to telephone them […]. We are clearly a commercial department. What happens is that it’s a commercial department with a twist. We don’t sell anything. We just try to convince that we are the best academic option […]. Another project is that secondary school pupils come here. We pay for the bus, we feed them, and we make sure that they spend the day in the university as students. What is the purpose of all this? It aims to create a less mercantilist image that to go to schools and tell them ‘our degrees are very good, to come with us’ […]. It is an indirect way of marketing working very well for us because we are generating a lot of prestige in all secondary schools’ (Interview, University Promotion Service, San Pablo CEU University, Madrid, 15 April 2013). As we have seen above, the university project designers regard CEI projects as trademarks. This strategy of creating a brand identity enriches the marketing approach of a new concept, ‘urban branding’ (Rousseau 2011: 18). By introducing the idea of brand, urban branding brings urban management and firm management even closer, reinforcing the role of communicators who have more and more functions in universities. According to the academic staff, ‘we have to make strong affiliations, which affects the external visibility but [is] not as strong, agile, affecting the inner working’ (Interview, Vice-Rector for Innovation and Technology Transfer, Autonomous University of Madrid, 17 April 2013). This introduction of communicators in university plans appears in advertising images, promotional texts, and media events. Those advertising strategies are conceived by the communication departments of universities in participation with educational fairs, open days for parents or the promotion of the university by volunteers in high schools. Those kinds of strategies are particularly well developed in private universities, such as the University San Pablo CEU that finances promotional campaigns in Madrid public transport (figure 5) as the administrative staff explains: ‘the marketing department, meanwhile, buys radio spaces, press spaces, panels or exterior promotion. For example, if you go to the exchanger of Moncloa metro station, there are panels now. And if you go by Goya street, in Salamanca, which is the highest economically neighbourhood, we also have a lot of panels. Marketing controls it. Marketing is everything that makes the media campaign […]. The places are chosen to appeal to a very specific type, specifically. It is an economic profile of average upper-middle-class and the areas where they go or live’ (Interview, University Promotion Service, San Pablo CEU University, Madrid, 15 April 2013).

Figure 5: Universidad San Pablo CEU’s campaign in Moncloa underground station

Figure 5: Universidad San Pablo CEU’s campaign in Moncloa underground station

Photo: ©Fournier, March 2013.

3.3 Development of partnerships in answer to a more competitive environment

18Holders of university plans also develop new types of partnerships between universities, with local authorities or the business world. Thus, the Universities Autónoma and Carlos III in Madrid have developed a strategic partnership (the alianza 4 universidades) with the Universities Autónoma and Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona to promote their international image. Partnerships can also be established with local authorities; the city of Alcalá de Henares, registered by UNESCO for its university and its historic centre, began a partnership approach with other universities in cities registered as World Heritage sites; Caracas, Mexico, and Charlottesville (Virginia, USA), for example. A declaration on the protection, preservation, and publicity of their university heritage was signed in Alcalá between the four partners in 2013, joined later on by the university and the city of Coimbra. Partnerships have also been established between universities and the world business. In Hoyo de Manzanares, on the northern outskirts of Madrid, the businessman association hopes to develop partnerships with the private University Antonio de Nebrija located in this town.

19New partnerships can also lead to the creation of the necessary conditions for the emergence of new territories. The ‘CEI UAM-CSIC’ plan of the University Autónoma in Madrid stages the concept of ‘territorial campus’ by inventing and promoting a new scientific territory for the Spanish capital, ‘Madrid Norte’, which includes the University Autónoma, the CSIC (equivalent to the CNRS in France or to the Science and Engineering Research Council in Great Britain), the institutes financed by the Autonomous Community (IMDEAs), the Scientific Park of Madrid and a number of business associations (figure 6). About this new scientific territory, one interviewee explained: ‘I don’t know how the project will continue, but I think that [it] is rationale to invent a brand, Campus Madrid Norte, and with that, then we could achieve that from the outside[;] this aggregation becomes visible, gradually but quickly, so Campus Madrid Norte has to climb […]. This is a draft speech and brand’ (Interview, Vice-Rector for Innovation and Technology Transfer, Autonomous University of Madrid, 17 April 2013). Storytelling aims to give greater visibility to university plans and thus also participates in the conceptual production of new territories, a prerequisite to achieving real action in the city. By offering a narrative, storytelling creates the conditions for the emergence of a metropolitan identity. Those new methods of urban action also reflect a different conception of what managing a city means.

Figure 6: The invention of the ‘territorial campus’ Madrid Norte

Figure 6: The invention of the ‘territorial campus’ Madrid Norte

Source: author, 2014.

Strategies that tell about an uncertain metropolis

20The storytelling of university projects can be contradictory. The expansion of storytelling is based on a theatrical staging of university projects and leads to the dematerialisation of the urban-making. This discursive bubble reflects the deficit of political narratives with a metropolitan scope, and in the absence of institutionalised metropolitan authorities the question of the legitimacy of such practices is raised. However, the fictional setting is part of the territorial production and, by offering a narrative, it makes the conditions for the emergence of a metropolitan identity possible. Thus, these narrative strategies—with two faces like Janus—put the metropolitan moment to the test.

The issue of the sustainability of the regional university system

21First of all, in spite of a declining demand for students in Madrid, the creation of universities (private universities included) increases, and this raises the question of their sustainability in the short term and of the urban developments that are associated with them. After an explosion of the academic demand in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the number of students stagnated in the 1990s, and it started to decrease in the early 2000s. The Universities of Madrid welcomed 327,025 students in 2012. As estimated by the geographer Pedro Reques Velasco for the Madrid region, this figure is expected to decline until 2016, when it is predicted to reach a level of 271,853 students (Reques Velasco 2009: 261). However, after the monopoly of the University Complutense that lasted until 1968, the building up of the regional university system has rapidly accelerated over the last two decades. Three-quarters of the current fifteen universities in Madrid emerged between 1989 and 2001, including many private universities, and university plans are more and more based on growth programmes. There is a gap between speeches and reality as it can be observed: the event takes over the sustainability process. This situation is all the more problematic as the lack of anticipation is not specific to the academic world—it affects other sectors of economic activity—and it amplifies with the economic crisis.

An uncertain metropolitan governance

22The relations among the city, regional and central governments (and their predecessor in metropolitan planning COPLACO) provide critical clues to understanding the resolution of metropolitan planning issues. According to Michael Neuman, in Madrid ‘the institutional milieu of metropolitan planning is complex and fragmented’ (Neuman 2010: 4). Metropolitan strategies are prepared by regional government, but there are 180 municipalities in the greater metropolitan region, each with numerous departments involved in spatial planning. So Madrid’s regional government has a limited direct influence on the municipal planning schemes. University plans are chosen only for reasons of urban opportunity, without any overall strategic vision, and in a context of land liberalisation with no metropolitan planning. This strategic deficiency can be explained by the absence of institutionalised metropolitan institutions covering correctly most functional levels. If higher education is a matter for the regional competence, the Madrid Autonomous Community benefits no specific planning at the supra-municipal level nor at the regional level (Valenzuela Rubio 2010: 96), and that makes university planning at the metropolitan level even more difficult. If the creation of universities has increased in the last forty years in the urban area of Madrid, I think that those projects reflect more underlying general urban evolutions. The university project appears as an analyser of Madrid planning developments that have to be examined in the long term.

23Democratisation was accompanied by a reconfiguration of the Spanish territorial model, with an important process of decentralisation that explains the absence of any metropolitan planning in Madrid. Indeed, with the attainment of autonomy for municipalities (cf. the 1978 Constitution), the local level became responsible for most of the skills in urban planning and development through the working-out of the general development and planning plan. Promoting the municipal level challenged the agglomeration and urban structures implemented by the Franco regime—the COPLACO in the case of Madrid. The supervision of urban planning and the regulatory competence of the state (that were associated with the Franco regime) have been delegitimized. It is in this context that major cities are now trying to develop with great difficulty (Coudroy de Lille et al. 2013: 7).

Towards the construction of a Madrid metropolitan identity?

24The university plans developed on the outskirts of Madrid participate in the emergence of new centralities in the metropolitan area. However, the rapid evolution of the location of universities tends to emphasise territorial inequalities historically marked between a wealthy North and a poor South. After the rehabilitation of the working-class suburbs in the South of Madrid, the private universities that multiplied in the 1990s settled exclusively in the select areas of the Northern part of the city, thus reinforcing the image of a socially dual metropolis.

25However, metropolitan identities are the product of business and political competition. Territorial identities do not exist as data, as immanent and eternal realities; they are rather the fragile work of the delimitation and discursive construction of a group. Urban marketing strategies are essentially based on the making of images and stories that ultimately form urban identities more or less out of kilter with reality. Following the political scientists Gilles Pinson and Max Rousseau, I start from a constructivist conception of identities and assume that the forms of identification with the metropolis can only proceed from performative effects of entrepreneurial identity speeches (Pinson and Rousseau 2011: 41), as the example of university plans shows. Encouraged to develop new partnerships, the University Autónoma stages the concept of ‘territorial campus’ by inventing and promoting a new scientific territory for the Spanish capital, ‘Madrid Norte’. By being part of the conceptual production of new territories and creating the conditions for the emergence of a metropolitan identity, this project shows how Madrid metropolis and image are built. The urban crisis thus generates new representative spaces for fictional urban planning, emphasising narrative production at the expense of the real production for territory. This identity storytelling is also more and more designed as a lever for metropolitan mobilisation. Nevertheless, the question of the sustainability of such strategies also arises, the first victim of the crisis being the speech ‘bubble’ built around the ‘University of excellence’, as the philosopher Antonio Valdecantos said (Valdecantos 2013).


26This essay has given a detailed account of the university project as a symbol of the construction of a metropolitan mythology. Now that knowledge is considered as the driving force of economic development, universities can find an even more central role, both economically and spatially. The relationship between the university and the city can have a new significance for urban development (Madanipour 2011: 154). In the Madrid region, universities are essential to understand how the image of a metropolis builds itself. So this essay validates the assumption that higher education plans are a means to examine the storytelling of the metropolitan system of Madrid.

27We have seen that the location of campuses and the nature of universities tell us how Madrid City grows and becomes a metropolis. The university project is both a conveyor of metropolitan development and a source of urban development. Thus, public university projects were displayed in the 1980s and the 1990s as a tool to rebalance territorial inequalities. Moreover, the staging of university projects, based on renewed urban practices, tells the making of a city in times of crisis and shows an uncertain metropolis looking for an identity. However, the question of knowing if the inhabitants of major cities take over this new identity is more difficult to tackle. This challenge is even more crucial in the context of the discussion of the new development plan of Madrid (the PGOUM), the question being what capacity mobilisation and urban organisation will be granted to projects, including university ones. There only remains the hope that the fictionalisation of city-making will provide awareness of the need to build a common future.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: The main university campuses of the Madrid Autonomous Community in 2014
Credits Source: ©Fournier, 2014.
File image/jpeg, 96k
Title Figure 2: The Faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy of the Ciudad Universitaria modelled on a North American campus
Credits Photo: ©Fournier, April 2013.
File image/png, 615k
Title Figure 3: The underground station serving the San Pablo CEU University in Montepríncipe
Credits Photo: ©Fournier, June 2012.
File image/png, 594k
Title Figure 4: The Plaza Mayor project of the Autónoma Universidad Cantoblanco campus in Madrid
Credits Photo: ©Fournier, March 2013.
File image/png, 614k
Title Figure 5: Universidad San Pablo CEU’s campaign in Moncloa underground station
Credits Photo: ©Fournier, March 2013.
File image/png, 611k
Title Figure 6: The invention of the ‘territorial campus’ Madrid Norte
Credits Source: author, 2014.
File image/png, 217k
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Electronic reference

Lise Fournier, When Madrid’s higher education projects sell dreams: Metropolitan stagecraft or reality?Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Special issue 7 | 2015, Online since 13 July 2015, connection on 13 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lise Fournier

Lab’Urba, University Paris East, France. Member of Casa de Velázquez, Madrid, Spain. Contact:

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