Spanish governance model

The current political system in Spain is based on the 1978 Spanish Constitution. Below the national level, we have three more tiers of government–regional autonomous communities, local provinces, and municipalities. [i]

Spain is made up of 17 communidades autónomas, regional autonomous communities, and 2 autonomous cities (Ceuta and Melilla) which are subdivided into 50 provinces. Provinces are then further divided into municipalities.

The powers (competencias) to be exercised by the regional governments are also stated in the constitution and the regional statute of autonomy and it includes urban planning, education, housing, environmental protection, cultural affairs, sports, tourism, health, social welfare and security. The transfer of powers to the autonomous governments has been determined in an ongoing process of negotiation between the individual communities and the central government and its not homogeneous across the regions. We could say that Spain functions as a confederation, where each region engages bilaterally with the central state.

Local government in Spain is mostly conducted at the municipal level. There are more than 8,000 municipal governments (ayuntamientos). Citizens elect local councillors who then choose a Mayor who will appoint a board of governors. Duties of municipalities include managing the local police, traffic policy, urban planning, social services, and local taxation. Their powers and responsibilities are set out in the Basic Law on Local Government of 1985 (Ley de Bases del Regimen local 7/1985).

To understand the relationship between the regions and municipalities with the Nation-Sate during the pandemic is fundamental to understand the change of powers during the state of alarm declared the 14 of March by Royal Decree 463/2020 to manage the COVID-19 Health Crisis.

The state of alarm declared on the 14th of March (Royal Decree 463/2020)

The state of alarm declared by the Royal Decree on the 14th of March changed the distribution of powers between the national and the regional -local governments. It meant that decisions were centralised at a state level, specifically the ones under the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Health and Home Office.

In the field of security, all the State security forces and corps, the police forces of the autonomous communities and local corporations, as well as the armed forces, were under director order of the Minister of Defence.

Face-to-face education was suspended that included from kindergarten, primary school, high schools, and universities. Buildings and activities related to the public sector were closed.

Retail establishments were closed except for food stores, pharmacies, newspapers, tobacconists, fuel stations, technological and telecommunications equipment, dry cleaners.

The central government had the power to occupy industries, factories, workshops, farms, or premises of any nature temporarily.

All private health resources were made available to public requirements in their respective regions. Measures were also adopted to guarantee the supply of healthcare material and products and the availability of healthcare professionals.  The government extended the contracts of resident doctors in the final years of training in the specialised fields that are necessary to deal with COVID-19.

The measures on mobility restricted the freedom of movement of persons except for essential activities such as grocery shopping, pharmacy and commuting to work. The country moved into a mass lockdown that would last three months. Mobility between provinces was limited to working reasons.

Public transport service was reduced at 50% of the usual capacity. The cleaning activities of transport vehicles were reinforced, and the use of a mask on public transport became mandatory from May onwards.

From the Ministry of Transport, a critical point was to ensure the transport of goods throughout the national territory, to guarantee supply. They established corridor to allow the entry and exit of raw materials and finished products to or from establishments where food is produced, including farms, markets, feed mills feed and slaughterhouses.

With the declaration of the state of alarm, the powers transferred to the Regional Autonomous Communities moved back the national level, from where measures where decided and actions were centrally coordinated.

“At the municipal level, there was a direct impact of the measures taken at the national level, such as reducing mobility, closing access to cemeteries, and closing schools. But the management of essential services (lighting, cleaning, waste collection, etc.) remained in municipal hands. Each mayor decided how to undertake such services and which public employees would become part of those essential services “Tomas Llorente, architect at public administration of Murcia.

Mayors became the visible face in how the measures were to be managed in each municipality. In the case of Spain, we are going to analyse the situation of Madrid, the most affected city in the country.

Madrid: the Spanish epicentre of the virus and its challenges in health and mobility

In Europe, SARS-CoV-2 severely hit Italy, the first country to report local transmission, in mid-February, by the end of the month Spain was already experiencing sustained local outbreaks and Madrid was the first region to confirm large numbers of local contagions. On March 6, 2020, the city already reached 100 confirmed cases. The situation forced Madrid to implement some specific measures before the rest of the country did, such as disinfection of public transport, restricted access to nursing homes, closure of public buildings and different activities, like, for instance, universities, which brought the lateral effect of getting people who reside in the city for work or study to leave and go back to their province of origin.

A week later, the central government announced the state of alarm, and more significant restrictions on economic activities and citizens mobility were imposed. Although measures were defined at the national level, Madrid, like the rest of the cities, had to lead the implementation and reinforcement if needed.

Healthcare system and services under pressure

The pandemic turned Spain’s best-rated hospital and an icon of the country’s public health service into an immense machine dedicated to coronavirus. The first patient to was diagnosed and hospitalized with the virus in Madrid was on February 25. By mid-March, hospitals were already collapsing with COVID-19 patients. To deal with the need for extra capacity, some hospitals added tents outside their premises, and the city built a temporary hospital in the biggest Conference Center in town, IFEMA.

Figure 1_IFEMA temporary hospital. Source: Comunidad de Madrid

The IFEMA hospital added 5,500 beds of hospitalization and ICU, and an area to accommodate homeless people. Additionally, hotels were medicalized to host patients that were recovering from the virus.

Free transportation was provided to health personnel and volunteers to the different hospitals across the city.

Due to the high number of deceased, it was also necessary to expand the capacity of the morgues with three additional centres: the city of Justice, and two sports centres[ii]

Urban licences

Another measure that was taken during lockdown was to speed up the processing of urban planning licences; here, technology was a great facilitator. During the lockdown, it was possible for the first time to give a first occupation license through a virtual inspection. The first licence was granted to a nursing home for virus-free senior people.[iii].

Nursing home crisis

Health Minister has recognised that nursing centres were one of the main sites of transmission of the coronavirus in Spain and that they were not effectively managed.

A total of 16,937 deaths have been recorded in nursing homes during the coronavirus crisis, representing around 39% of the 42,542 fatalities recorded, according to regional data collated by EFE news agency. This figure could be even higher if suspected but undiagnosed cases were also included, which most regional administrations currently do not do.

Internal documents from the Madrid government show that regional officials issued protocols with criteria to exclude some nursing home residents from being transferred to hospitals at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Physicians at healthcare centres were also instructed to apply certain guidelines to determine whether sick people living in their own homes should receive home treatment instead of being taken to the hospital.[iv]

There is a heated debate between the central state and the region on who is to blame.

Public transport and street cleaning

Regular disinfection in public transport was reinforced and passengers were asked to use a mask and, as far as possible, maintain social distancing.

The municipality added sodium hypochlorite to improve the street disinfection especially in prioritized areas such as hospitals, pharmacies, markets, and gas stations.

Urban space and new mobility habits

One of the biggest challenges has been creating spaces for people to walk while maintaining social distancing. In Madrid, 65% of its sidewalks are less than 3.5 meters wide, according to the company Inspide. “That’s the reason why there has been an increasing demand for pedestrian space and protected bike lanes,” says Fernando García, from the Carril Bici Castellana collective. [v]

In this context, the mayor of Madrid temporarily pedestrianizes and then 29 street, throughout the city on weekends, adding 19 kilometres and 235,000 square meters of urban space (see figure 2). By mid-May 7 more street were added to the pedestrian areas (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Temporarily pedestrianizes streets

During the confinement, Madrid public bike service was withdrawn from public roads. Once people could leave their homes for a walk during certain hours of the day, bikes were back in service and by mid-May the service reached an “historic” record of users.

Municipalities request more autonomy and better coordination to the regional and central state

During the crisis, the municipalities have demanded to relax the spending of their budget surplus.  Back in 2012, the Spanish government approved the Stability Law to control the deficit of the public administrations. This rule prevents local entities from spending the annual surplus except in specific projects that must be authorized by the Ministry of Finance so that the money becomes savings.

During the pandemic, Madrid requested the central state to allow the spending of part of this budget surplus to attend the massive increase of soup kitchen beneficiaries. In May, the municipality served 88,000 inhabitants (31,000 families) through social services, compared to 81,000 in April, and the neighbourhood associations doubled the number of people served. Many families came for the first time to receive food.

Another dimension that seems to require improvement is the coordination between the Autonomous Communities (CCAA) and the state. There is a specific example of coordination challenges when purchasing medical supplies. CCAA had the autonomy to buy sanitary material, and they did; in parallel, the central state made national purchases too. With the initial shortage problems in products such as masks, one wonders if there is room to do it in a more coordinated way.

Adapting urban infrastructure to increase Madrid’s resilience

The state of alarm ended on the 21st of June, and powers returned to the Autonomous Communities. But at the national level, it remains what is called a “state of health crisis”, for which a specific Royal Decree-Law has been issued, RD-L. June 21/2020.

During the “state of sanitary crisis”, the coordination between regional and state health entities are reinforced, and some measures will remain, such as wearing a mask in public spaces and social distancing. Each autonomous community will define additional measures.

The pandemic has led the redesign of some of the elements of urban infrastructures.

In the field of health infrastructures, the Community of Madrid will build an epidemic hospital that will serve to relieve Madrid hospitals in the case of regrowth of COVID-19. With a total surface of 40,000 square organized in three pavilions of 7,400 square meters each, it will have 1,000 beds, and 48 intensive care beds and intermediate care are. With an investment of 50 million euros, works will begin this June and are expected to be finished by the end of autumn.

Also, the regional government wants this centre to become a point of reference for research, training, and development of new therapeutic solutions for the fight against this and other possible pandemics. To be able to attend to any epidemic/pandemic in the future; the hospital will be multi-purpose, based on sectorized wards for installations and modulation (to enable only the necessary part), and capable of adapting to any functional plan designed by the healthcare departments. [vi]

In mobility, the Madrid Environment and Mobility Area will continue with the measures announced in the plan presented at the end of last year to meet the air quality objectives of the European Union, the Madrid 360 Plan.

The objective of the Plan 360 in Madrid is to reduce emissions through restricting private transport in the city centre and promote the use of public transport with the construction of new deterrent parking’s with capacity for 10,000 cars, the expansion of 45 kilometres of bus lanes and the creation of Line Zero, the first free metropolitan bus line that will connect the city centre district with main neighbourhoods.

Measures to increase the use of public transport are now in danger due to the fear of citizens of virus contagion. In this context making the city more walkable is going to be fundamental. Madrid wants to promote walking and cycling as an alternative for routes between one and five kilometres that today represent 76% of bus trips. An example is the commitment of the city council with the deployment of 4,800 more electric bicycles in the city and new areas to pedestrianize.

Madrid has still a long way to go, it is behind some other Spanish towns and many European ones on reducing car presence in city centres. For example, in Spanish town of Pontevedra in the last 15 years that more than 70% of urban journeys are made on foot or by bicycle. In addition, nine out of ten residents do their shopping on foot and four out of five children walk to school every day. Meanwhile, the number of deaths from road traffic accidents has fallen to three in ten years.

By the end of June, Madrid has announced that is considering a more ambitious plan that would transform the city in car-free “superblocks”, following Barcelona’s model. The “superblocks” are groups of streets where traffic is reduced to mainly residents and last mile good distribution, the space formerly occupied by cars is given over to pedestrians. The idea would be to free up to 70% of the space dedicated to cars, that would also allow to increase green areas that would improve air quality and liveability. [vii]

Source: El País. The yellow lines in the Madrid map show the potential superblocks.

Lessons learned that could inspire Madrid’s evolution

Resilient cities can cope with potential disasters, whether they are due to extreme weather, national or international economic meltdown, grid power blackouts, disruptions in food supply or a health crisis.

Madrid was established as an urban centre in the early eleventh century and grew to serve interests that do not fit today’s citizen needs. The Spanish urbanism in recent decades has been characterized by a predominance of private and speculative interests. Let us review the challenges and opportunities for Madrid future as a sustainable and resilient city.

Can a dense city be healthy: the elastic city?

In sustainable city, density is a key factor, since it facilitates the sharing of resources and the concentration of services for a larger share of the population.

How do we make density compatible with parameters of social distancing? This question is hard to respond in cities that are old and crowded as Madrid. One answer could be to redefining the use of certain urban space (“superblocks”) or make some urban space multipurpose, maybe both.

“Land in cities like Madrid is single-purpose. We must start to make cities space and city elements more flexible. Municipalities know the purposes each urban area, they know where flexibility could be implemented” Tomas Llorente, architect at public administration of Murcia

“It is crucial for cities to be agile to promptly respond to the new scenarios. Soon, we might imagine the case of a street for autonomous vehicles that creates an extra car lane during rush hour, but then turns it into a pedestrian-only plaza in the evening” said architect Carlos Ratti, co-chair of the World Economic Forum Council on Cities and Urbanization.[viii]

Specific actions that have been taken in the context of the pandemic could become regulated and promoted in a permanent manner.

Rethinking the housing design after the pandemic

The pandemic has turned our homes into a centre of coexistence, work, entertainment, and rest. This experience has not been lived equally in all Madrid families. In Madrid more than 25% is less 60 m2, and in most cases it lacks common areas and terraces.

“This pandemic has reopened old debates, such as the minimum characteristics of housing. It has also generated others, such as the exploitation of common areas, the use of underused spaces” María Teresa Cuerdo Vilches from the Eduardo Torroja Institute of Construction Sciences (CSIC) [ix]

Barcelona municipality launched some years ago an initiative to use rooftops and courtyards as green areas or energy generation hubs, with solar panels. 67% of building in Barcelona have a roof, and most of them accessible and flat.

In Madrid we must rethink the homes of the future and perhaps learn from our northern neighbours who, due to their culture and weather, have valued beyond the location, the light, the space, the green areas of their homes.

New models of transportation: multimodal transport systems

“The fear of all of us who think and work in urban planning that post-pandemic cities will embrace the private vehicle again,” writes urban planner José Manuel Guzmán.[x]

There is the risk of the rise of private transport compared to public transport for fear of contagion. A survey in China this March by IPSOS consultant was observed as the use of private cars doubled for fear of becoming infected. Of the respondents who did not have a vehicle, 66% were in favour of buying a vehicle within the following six months. In Madrid, the expected ratio of swap from public transport to private cars is around 20% according to a survey done by the RACE (Real Automoóvil Club de España) [xi]

One of the possible solutions is to facilitate intramodality by promoting the use of the bicycle and walking. The bicycle is a relatively new transport in Madrid compared to other European cities, but the pandemic has been a driving force of this transport as an alternative or complement to public transport for certain routes.

In the context of a pandemic, there is another fundamental dimension in the world of mobility and that is the rationalization of travel. For example, mobility restrictions have led many companies to promote home-office with the benefits of reducing commuting journeys. Maybe there is a role of the central government to encourage and benefit companies that promote working from home.


The pandemic has opened a massive debate on how suitable and resilient our cities are, and we need to take this opportunity to act upon it.

In Spain, the central government needs to improve the mechanism to mobilize and coordinate resources across regional autonomous communities. Those mechanisms need to be managed outside the political debate.

At the municipal level, there is a fundamental role when deciding the land use, public transport modalities, private car restrictions and the enforcement of policies. There is also an educational role that needs to be promoted at a local level.

Making cities more liveable is going to be an effort of all agents: administrations at all levels, companies, and citizens. And it will have to be done with strong citizen participation and involvement.g


  • “Real Decreto 463/2020, de 14 de marzo, por el que se declara el estado de alarma para la gestión de la situación de crisis sanitaria ocasionada por el COVID-19”, Ministerio de la Presidencia, Relaciones con las Cortes y Memoria Democrática. Boletín Oficial del Estado, 2020.
  • “Real Decreto-ley 21/2020, de 9 de junio, de medidas urgentes de prevención, contención y coordinación para hacer frente a la crisis sanitaria ocasionada por el COVID-19” Ministerio de la Presidencia, Relaciones con las Cortes y Memoria Democrática. Boletín Oficial del Estado, 2020.
  • “Ley 7/1985, de 2 de abril, Reguladora de las Bases del Régimen Local”. Jefatura del Estado Boletín Oficial del Estado, 1985
  • Mattia Mazzoli, David Mateo, Alberto Hernando, Sandro Meloni and José J. Ramasco, “Effects of mobility and multi-seeding on the propagation of the COVID-19 in Spain”, medRxiv, 2020
  • Tomás Llorente Aguado, “La Respuesta de la Ciudad”, 2020.
  • Elisabeth Contreras, Isabel Castillo, Isabel, “Guia de terrats vius i cobertes verdes”, Àrea d’Ecologia Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2015.
  • “Avance de al estrategia de sostenibilidad medio ambiental. Madrid 360”, Área de Gobierno, Medioambiente y Movilidad de Madrid. 2019



[ii] Https:// 






[viii] Reuters:




Share This