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Spanish coast drowned in cement at fastest rate ever during boom

Spain sacrifices its coast to cement
Spain sacrifices its coast to cement

Spain’s beautiful coastline – arguably the country’s main tourist asset – disappeared under cement at the fastest rate ever during the credit-fuelled property boom of recent years, now turned to bust.

According to a recent article in the Spanish daily ‘El Pais’, new data from satellite images reveals that built up land within 2 kilometres of the coast increased by a national average of 22% during the 5-year period 2000 – 2005, double the average rate of the previous period analysed (1987 – 2000).

The data, in a draft new report prepared by the Observatory for Sustainability (run by the Ministry of the Environment), and the University of Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid, shows that some areas are more addicted to cement than others. (Bizarrely, the existence of the report has been both announced and denied by different sources connected to its preparation, explains the article.)

According to the El Pais article, the province of Valencia, in the Valencian Community, has the biggest problem, increasing the built area on the coast by a whopping 54% in just 5 years, followed by Huelva (Costa de la Luz, Andalucia), up 48%, and Alicante (Costa Blanca, Valencian Community), up 37%.

In just 6 years of construction fever the Valencian Community covered 11% of the land within 2 kilometres of its coast in cement, much of it given to unattractive and unsustainable new development.

Building paradise on the Costa Azahar (photo Carles Francesc / El Pais)
Building paradise on the Costa Azahar (photo Carles Francesc / El Pais)

The Valencian Region may take the biscuit when it comes to sacrificing the natural environment of its coastline to a speculative construction boom, but it is not alone. In the same period 9% of Malaga’s coastline was cemented over, and 7% of Catalonia’s.

The increase in the built up area of Huelva’s coast sounds bad, but can be partly explained by a low starting base. In fact, just 14% of Huelva’s coast is built up, and only 4.5% of its area was urbanised in the period, lower than for other provinces.

In Malaga and Alicante, 52% of the area 2 kilometres back from the beach has already been built to date, and 68% in Barcelona province.

The situation on the North Coast is less extreme, though the pressure is growing. Just 24% of the coast in Pontevedra (Galicia) has been developed, and 6% in Lugo (Galicia). Nevertheless the amount of urbanised land on the coast increased by 38% in Asturias.

Home truths

According to Juan Manuel Barragán, a professor and specialist in Coastal land management at the University of Cadiz, Spain has squandered one of its most valuable resources. “The country got drunk on cement,” says Barragán, quoted in El Pais. “When we look back in a few years time and see what we did to the coast during the real estate boom we will realise how stupid it was. A few people made a fortune at the expense of our common heritage.”

Of course, much of the damage has been done by illegal building. “How can it be that just in Cadiz there are 50,000 illegal properties in 17 coastal municipalities,” says Barragán. “That doesn’t happen in any other country in Europe.”

And at last, someone from the Spanish establishment points out that the building boom has also harmed Spain’s tourist industry. “The coast has lost value,” says Barragán. “Quality tourism isn’t after cement, which it can find in Düsseldorf, it’s after protected beaches, of which there are fewer and fewer.”

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