Madrid to revelers: 'Silencio, por favor.'

Officials recently began a $1.5 million ad campaign to keep boisterous locals quiet.

Dos de Mayo is one of Madrid's biggest holidays, a four-day celebration of the city's brave 1808 revolt against Napoleon's invasion. And nowhere is that event met with more fervor than in the city square that bears the holiday's name.

But this year, Madrid officials refused to pay for the party in the Plaza Dos de Mayo. Citing complaints from residents about excessive noise, they offered no money for the late-night concerts and no permits for the impromptu, street-side bars that normally keep revelers well lubricated.

Despite the government's efforts, however, the sound that emanated from the square at 1:35 a.m. Sunday morning could safely be described as a roar.

And so this city's battle between rest and recreation rages on. Frequently cited as one of the world's noisiest cities, Madrid is pockmarked with neighborhoods where the average sound level, according to a study by the Consumers' Union of Spain, is at or above the 65 decibels identified by the World Health Organization as the maximum tolerable limit. A 2001 survey by the National Institute of Statistics here found that 37 percent of Madrileños live in areas contaminated by noise pollution.

Much of the din comes from construction. A growing population, a prosperous economy, and several large-scale public works projects mean that the piercing whine of a jackhammer is never far off. But in a city where crowded bars frequently let their clients take their drinks out onto the streets, and where a favored form of nocturnal entertainment is the "botellón," in which locals gather outdoors until the wee hours to chat, drink (the word translates literally as "big bottle"), and occasionally burst into song, a large part of the noise is generated by people - like those in the Plaza Dos de Mayo - simply out to have a good time.

One person's good time, though, is another's sleepless night. It's a tension that Ángel Sánchez, director of sustainability for the city, is trying to soothe. "In Madrid, there is a lot of activity in the streets, and the hours are very long," he says. "At 9 o'clock at night in Berlin, there's practically no one in the street, but in Madrid that's when people are getting off work, when they want to go out to get a drink or a bite to eat. Our obligation is to reconcile those commercial activities with the right of citizens to rest."

In an attempt to achieve that kind of reconciliation, the municipal government recently began a 1.2 million euro ($1.5 million) advertising campaign designed to persuade Madrileños to keep it down. Featuring a picture of a sleeping baby with a pacifier in her ear, the ads remind viewers that "Madrid Needs its Sleep."

Last June, the city introduced a 360-member antinoise brigade, made up primarily of police, who measure noise levels and hand out fines to violators. On April 20, it held a special concert of soothing music to mark "Day Without Noise 2005," and the city is among Europe's first to conduct the acoustic mapping required by the European Union. "Madrid is one of the European cities doing the most to fight noise pollution," says Mr. Sánchez.

But antinoise activists like Jorge Pinedo disagree. Mr. Pinedo, a lawyer who wrote a book on noise pollution, likes the new ads but finds them insufficient. "The real problem is that the government doesn't enforce its own laws," he says.

Enforcing those laws would require police to prevent botellónes and impose penalties on bar and restaurant owners who don't comply with noise ordinances. But that, says Pinedo, is something the city would not do. "The government would lose a lot of votes," he says.

Still, some fed-up citizens are fighting back. After an eight-year fight, residents in the bar- saturated neighborhood of Las Letras won a provision that keeps cars from their narrow streets.

In November, the European Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg, France, ordered the city of Valencia to pay one citizen more than 8,000 euro ($10,300) for violating the "fundamental human right to the integrity of the home." Similar cases are pending in other Spanish cities.

But in a city where nightlife is seen as part of the cultural heritage, it is not difficult to find opposition to Madrid's antinoise efforts. Maria, manager of the popular Pepe Botella bar in the Plaza Dos de Mayo, calls the government's efforts to keep things quiet over the holiday weekend an outrage. "They're ruining us," says Maria, who refused to give her last name. "Not just the bars, but the whole neighborhood, our traditions."

From the hushed rooms of the city's Environmental Protection offices, however, Sánchez disagrees. "The right to sleep," he says, "is as fundamental as the right to eat or drink."

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