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Runways or Community?

Runways or Community?

Visitors to the island of Gran Canaria are often surprised to learn that the island hosts the third largest airport in Spain. Due to the rapidly increasing popularity of the island as an attractive and successful tourist destination, the airport has, until recently, been close to maximum capacity. Over the last few years, a programme of refurbishment, redevelopment and extension has taken place to ensure that the airport retains its prestige position and meets the needs of the island. Indeed, over the last few days, an impressive new terminal building has been opened, but the one thing that is still missing is a second runway, which is needed in order to absorb increased capacity of flights, as well as larger aircraft.

A second runway has been planned since 2001, but the downside was that it would necessitate the demolition of an entire Canarian village, Ojos de Garza. Needless to say, the villagers were not too impressed with the plans and embarked upon a series of disruption for many years in an attempt to persuade developers that they should build the second runway elsewhere. On a small island, the choices are limited, but the villagers were determined to ensure that their views were fully taken into account.

Legal battles, hunger strikes, marches and disobedience has followed over the years, with the 5000 villagers remaining united against both the threats and temptations thrown at them. Most of the residents refused to sell their properties to the developers since it would be difficult to buy new homes on the island. They wished to remain as a community and stay together.

Since the end of the Second World War, the UK has seen social problems as a result of mistakes made by well meaning planners and architects who demolished what were regarded as terraced ‘slums’ in favour of high-rise flats. Many such monstrosities were built in cities across the UK, as well as in other parts of Europe. As well as disregarding the need for green space, and play areas for children, many planners forgot that community cohesion is the essential component for any society to thrive. Disrupting neighbourhoods and tearing whole communities apart from their neighbours, extended families and friends may have made economic and commercial sense at the time, but failed to take account of community needs and the provision of mutual support.

For many years, the people of Ojos de Garza have been unable to move home, because no one wanted to buy their properties. Mortgages could not be obtained from the banks since the properties were deemed to be worthless. Thankfully, their determination and perseverance has forced the planners and authorities to think again.

A solution has finally been found, with developers agreeing to rebuild their homes in a new location, two kilometres away from their existing village. The airport management company, Aena, has agreed to build an entirely new village, which will be a copy of the original, and both locals and the management of the airport are happy with the arrangement. After years of indecision and argument, work on the new runway can begin and is scheduled to be completed by 2025, but only after the villagers of Ojos de Garza get their new village and their existing homes can finally be demolished.

Yes, the airport does need another runway, but at what cost to family and community? These villagers have demonstrated that the value of community, which is very much an intrinsic part of the Canarian and Spanish psyche, is important to them and that their views deserve to be taken into account. Maybe other towns and cities in Europe could learn a little from their example, and the mistakes of tearing communities apart in the past, at the whim of architects and developers, will not be repeated.

© Barrie Mahoney
Barrie Mahoney was a head teacher and school inspector in the UK, as well as a reporter in Spain, before moving to the Canary Islands to launch and edit a new English language newspaper.