American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2007 Student Awards
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Plans for the Rebirth of the Tajo River Watershed: These plans envision a revived Tajo River and its tributaries, as well as a renewed connection with the cities along their banks. The following pages detail these proposed alternatives.
Setting the Context: Tajo River Watershed in Europe (top), in Spain (Above, Left) and in the provinces of Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha (Above, Right).
These maps diagram the framework created to understand existing conditions, and trend and alternative futures.
Vision Scenario 2030: This map compiles the three alternative maps from the previous page, and envisions a future when water in the region will be clean, landscapes continuously protected, and cities densely clustered. The designs on the following pages demonstrate how cities along these rivers can capitalize on this renewed resource.
Jarama River Corridor Master Plan: The team studied the area's land use and hydrology before laying out a landuse plan that will enhance the river's water quality. It also shows two northern wetlands that will filter water, and a town that will benefit from the cleaned river.
Jarama Wetland Park: This plan shows the main wetland treatment park for Madrid. It takes in water from Jarama, feeds it through the cells (above) and returns it back to the river. An observation tower in the center and various paths allow for recreational interaction.
San Martin de la Vega: This is the first town after the treatment wetlands, and projected growth is redirected towards the river, rather than the fragile escarpments of the valley, as is currently planned.



The Rebirth of the Tajo River
Joo Won Im, Student ASLA, Radhika Garg, Student ASLA, Ji Hyun Yoo, Student ASLA, Shi Park, Student ASLA, Ming-Jen Hsueh, Student ASLA, Monique Johnson, Student Affiliate ASLA, Linda Shi, Student Affiliate ASLA, Ellen J, Oettinger, Affiliate ASLA, Ahlam Abdulla, Student Affiliate ASLA, Alexis A. Peteron, Student Affiliate ASLA and Quilian Riano, Student Affiliate ASLA
Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Faculty Advisors: Christian Werthmann, ASLA; Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA; Juan Carlos Vargas-Moreño, Associate ASLA; Stephanie Hurley, Student ASLA

"The communication graphics are extraordinary. Very clean and simple, well presented. A very inventive way of cleaning up this river."

— 2008 Student Awards Jury Comments

Project Statement:

The Tajo River, which drains the region around Madrid and Toledo, was once among Spain’s most majestic rivers, but is now essentially an open sewer. This project envisions a future when wetlands on the Tajo’s tributaries enhance the treatment of Madrid’s wastewater, and cities downstream can recapture the benefits the revitalized river. The planning framework integrates the management of water, landscape, and urbanization, and builds logical collaboration between currently antagonistic regions.

Project Narrative:

Since joining the EU, Spain has undergone massive changes, including immigration, real estate speculation, extreme growth, and low-density development along the Spanish coast and in the greater region of Madrid. This urban growth, together with the intensified use of water and the effects of global warming, has led the country to a point where a fundamental change in the patterns of use and distribution of water resources is inevitable. The Tajo River is a prime example of how the excessive demand of a natural resource can drastically alter not only the quality of that resource but of the region as a whole. Once one of Spain’s most majestic and important rivers, the Tajo is now little more than an open sewer.

A host of factors conspire to worsen this condition. The autonomous communities of Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha, the supra-provinces that govern the upper and middle Tajo, are growing at rates of 2-3% per year, and will be home to 1.8 million more people by 2030. Due to climate change, rainfall has already decreased by 50% over the last 50 years, and is projected to fall by another 5-25% by 2030, straining water supplies that are already at capacity. New urbanization is largely low-density and car-oriented, impacting environmentally sensitive landscapes that lack protection, especially in Castilla-La Mancha. Cities along rivers turn their backs on this resource due to the smells, the color, and the low flows. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that 60% of the Tajo’s headwaters are diverted for the Mediterranean coast. While Castilla-La Mancha is eager to increase its water supply, its political party is opposite that of Madrid, which is run by the same party as that in coastal provinces that receive the diverted Tajo water.

Foro Civitas Nova, a foundation located in the watershed, commissioned this student team of landscape architects, architects, urban designers and urban planners to help revive the Tajo River. The project aimed to:

  • Create a framework to hydrologically, biologically and socially restore the watershed
  • Demonstrate how cities can capitalize upon the restored rivers
  • Craft a rationale for the two autonomous communities to collaborate with each other
    To achieve these goals, the team chose to explore the middle section of the Tajo River Basin, which includes the Greater Region of Madrid, with special attention to the 120-mile section of the ‘Middle Tajo.’ This section of the Tajo is perhaps most challenging because it has the highest levels of pollution, very low water flow rates, and is close to urban areas.

Process and Data

The study of the Tajo River began with a week-long visit during which students and faculty traveled from Madrid along the Jarama River to its confluence with the Tajo River in Aranjuez and from there continued along the Tajo to Toledo and Talavera de la Reina. Students returned in small groups to key sites to undertake a more thorough investigation. To identify the most critical locations and methods for intervention in the region, the group attended numerous meetings and conferences with local experts on hydrology, history, ecology and urban development. In addition, data – in the form of GIS data, interviews, books and publications – was gathered from the Ministry of the Environment, the Department of the Environment and Territorial Management in Madrid and in Castilla-La Mancha, the Hydrological Confederation of the Tajo, and the water utility. Some important aspects of implementation, such as assessments of costs and benefits, institutional changes, and amendments to the existing law were not and could not be part of the study.

Back at school, the team developed ‘Business as Usual’ and ‘Alternative Future’ scenarios considering urban growth, development of landscape, and hydrology. Using trace and preliminary research, the students delineated the geography, criteria and characteristics of each of these issues on the map. These were then overlaid on top of each other so that there were three existing conditions layers in the existing conditions group, three ‘Business as Usual’ options maps in that scenario, and three ‘Alternative Future’ map layers. These overlays illustrated how the different sectors impacted each other and how interventions might catalyze change.

With these alternatives vision in mind, groups of two or three students then sharpened the details of the scenarios and outlined proposals for specific sites along the Jarama River and at Aranjuez, Toledo, and Talavera de la Reina. At mid- and final reviews, planning directors, water experts, and landscape architects from Spain provided crucial guidance for the continuation of the study. After final reviews, the team produced a bilingual exhibition that they presented to politicians, the media, and other stakeholders in Toledo and Madrid.

Impact of Project

The greatest contribution of this project is the creation a framework of collaboration between Madrid and Castilla-La Mancha, which have historically had very antagonistic relations. The project demonstrates the positive impacts that accrue in both regions as a result of mutualistic behavior. At the students’ Madrid presentation, the directors of the planning departments in Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid both appeared on the panel and discussed how there needs to be greater communication, knowledge sharing, management, and regional level planning between the two governments, and that this project awakened them to the opportunities they currently overlooked.

This type of study is not intended to produce solutions that can be implemented immediately. The proposals are investigations into a possible future for the region that responds to the forces and factors present today. They are valuable because they allow the local entities to visualize an alternative future that is driven by market demands, but moderated by historical, cultural, and environmental impacts. This enables further investigation into whether this type of future is indeed desired, and if so what the necessary decisions will be to achieve it.


Conceptually, the proposal follows the path of a drop of water as it flows through the Tajo River and its tributaries from Madrid, along the Jarama River, flowing past Aranjuez and Toledo and ending in Talavera de la Reina. The study includes a vision for both the entire ‘Middle Tajo’ segment and proposed designs at each location that offer solutions in rapidly growing urban nodes.

The Regional Framework projects the condition of water, landscape, and urbanization in the year 2030. In the ‘Business as Usual’ scenario, the diversion continues to siphon water from the Tajo, while Madrid increases its withdrawals of water from all reservoirs and aquifers in the region. Even so, Madrid will constantly be on the verge of water shortages, even as cities in Castilla-La Mancha suffer water deficits of 70% or more. Cities sprawl outwards, entering environmentally sensitive and historic agricultural areas. The ‘Alternative Future’ scenario envisions the governments of the two autonomias working together to gradually end the diversion of the Tajo. The 60% of the river flow that is returned would be split between the two. In return for constructing a new dam in Castilla-La Mancha that would transfer water from the Tajo to Madrid’s reservoirs, Madrid would increase treatment of its wastewater that flows back to Castilla-La Mancha. Riparian corridors, alluvial soils, sustainable agriculture, slopes, and visual/cultural resources would be continuously protected from Madrid to Castilla-La Mancha, bringing a new focus on eco-tourism to the region. Finally, growth clusters near existing infrastructure, and links to newly restored recreation areas.

The Jarama River flows from north of Madrid south to Aranjuez, where it joins the Tajo. Sewage, industrial and agricultural wastes drain into the Jarama River from these urbanized areas, while extensive gravel extraction operations are located in the floodplain between the cities. A large section of the river is protected within the Southeast Regional Park of Madrid, the closest area of protected landscape to the capital city, though this protection ends before Aranjuez because it enters Castillian territory. In order to clean the water and create opportunities for public recreation, the proposal creates a 2.5 square kilometer wetland treatment park located at the confluence of the Manzanares and Jarama Rivers that would clean up to one-third of the wastewater from metro Madrid. Gravel extraction sites would gradually be discontinued and transformed into lakes and wetlands. Towns downstream of the treatment plants would reorient their existing master plans to connect to the river, rather than sprawling towards the valley escarpments as currently planned.

Aranjuez is south of Madrid near the confluence of the Tajo and Jarama Rivers; the city is steeped in history and is recognized internationally by UNESCO for its cultural landscape and as a summer residence to Spain’s royalty. It faces several major challenges: a doubling of the population by 2030, high unemployment rates, contamination of the Jarama River, discontinuous landscape protection, and a physical disconnect between the river, palace, and train station. The proposed master plan links the landscapes of Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid to the historic part of Aranjuez by transforming a gravel extraction site along the Jarama into a lake and restoration area, extending the Regional Park, and providing rail access to Madrid and Aranjuez. It also proposes the creation of a university campus adjacent to the riverfront, a revitalized mixed-use neighborhood near the train station, and improved pedestrian access from the train station to the heart of historic center.

Further downstream is Toledo, a World Heritage Site that juts into the Tajo River and one of the most visited sites in Spain. As recently as the 1970s, people swam in the Tajo; now, the high contamination and low water level make it impossible for recreational use. In anticipation of the improved water quality and quantity in 2030, the Toledo master plan proposes a series of open spaces and wetlands along the river that will further improve the quality and quantity of water. In addition, to accommodate rapid population growth, the plan concentrates new development in two areas, northeast and northwest of the old city. These urban districts areas would feature commercial and recreational amenities, agricultural landscapes, and riparian restoration.

Talavera de la Reina, the furthest downstream of the study sites, rests on the northern bank of the Tajo. In recent years, the city’s growth has been characterized by low-density peripheral development with little attention to the adjacent river; future growth is expected to continue this trend. To shift the city’s attitude towards the river, this plan proposes creating a strip development with various recreational activities along the river. The river park would feature four zones of activity: urban and cultural recreation, a research/education center on the island in the river, tertiary sewage treatment wetlands, and two small locks that would raise the level of the water in front of downtown to swimmable depths. This plan concentrates future growth between the planned rail station further inland and the Tajo River in order to minimize impact elsewhere, while preserving historic views. New buildings would capture rainwater and reuse greywater for non-potable uses. Daylighted creeks would flow openly through the urban districts, creating a new ‘green boulevard’ system.

To restore the region’s cultural connection to the river, this project also proposes a Tajo Trail that travels from Madrid to Toledo and beyond. Visitors would be able to experience a diversity of cultural and natural landscapes along the river, and use the trail for bicycling, hiking, fishing, and races. The trail could be programmed with public events to attract people to the river, and build a societal consciousness towards the river’s importance, which hopefully would ultimately lead to popular demands on government to improve the river’s conditions.

There are signs that the governments of Castilla-La Mancha and Madrid are aware of the irrationality of the current modes of operation. It is the sincere hope of this project that these tools and strategies will serve to garner the support and enthusiasm needed to restore the majestic Tajo River to its former natural beauty and cultural significance.


Aranjuez Waterfront Park: At La Montaņa, currently a gravel extraction site on the Jarama River, this plan proposes to extend the Southeast Regional Park, restore the riparian corridor, and transform the gravel pit into a recreational pond.
Aranjuez Master Plan: The plan reconnects the Tajo and the historic train station with the rest of the UNESCO World Heritage site by restoring pedestrian axes. The plan also creates a new university and mixed-use district near the station.
Toledo Master Plan: This master plan for Toledo re-opens the waterfront for public recreation. It also concentrates urban growth in central areas that are strategically located to preserve historic views.
Talavera de la Reina: This project proposes the above land use plan for the entire city, and then provides detailed proposals for waterfront and urban redevelopment in the inset area.
Use of Water in Talavera Reina: Greywater in the urban district would be directed to waterfront treatment wetlands, where it would be treated to tertiary quality and directed either into the in-river pool, or for reuse.
Plan and Aerial Views of Talavera de la Reina.
Tajo River Trail: The Trail and its recreational activities would raise awareness and appreciation for the Tajo. Implementing this project would mainly involve marketing and programming, since 86% of the trail already exists.
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