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Homo Paulista

The Rise of a New Tribe

by Tolis Tatolas

Abstract: Once a thriving transhumance the Cañada Real Galiana in the outskirts of Madrid accounts as one of Europe’s largest illegal settlements today. The original cattle drive has increasingly been built on from both sides towards the middle of the path since the nineteen sixties thus evolving into a unique informally grown urban environment. [1]

01_Aerial picture sector 2 of the Canada.jpg

[Image 1] Collage of aerial pictures, sector 2 of the Cañada, original images by google maps 

(accessed 01.03.2020)


This essay sets out to explore informal settlement processes in Europe by the example of the Cañada, an urbanisation located in the outskirts of Spain’s capital city, Madrid. The Cañada is one of Europe’s last large-scale, permanent, informally grown settlements. As a remnant of multicultural historic urbanisation patterns adapted to the 20th and early 21st century context, it has been subsequently built up and transformed since the 1970s - for a long time a designated blind spot in the government authorities’ field of vision. As recently as 2016, Madrid’s government officially recognised the informal settlement and thus enforced a plan to incorporate the uncontrolled and illegal growth into the city’s formal system. At this historical turning point, it is crucial to closely examine the evolution of the Cañada, an extraordinary urban environment which has evolved over the past 50 years. 


Characterised by articles like “Showdown Looms Over Europe’s Largest Shanty Town“ [2], or  “Drug clans take control in shanty town where Madrid’s politicians fear to tread“ [3], the long ribbon-like settlement has come to be stigmatised as one of Europe’s most disordered, messiest urban entities. It is the aim of this work to approach the issue of informal housing in Europe from an architectural and analytical angle, in order to understand the circumstances leading to a specific informally built urban fabric. As part of a wider research scope, this essay serves as an introduction to the Cañada. It will mainly focus on the description and a brief analysis of built entities encountered within the elongated village. 


Spanish sociologists and social workers, as well as occasional researchers from other European countries have recently become more engaged in the settlement and its inhabitants. While most publications concentrate on the socio-economic side of the phenomenon, very few projects have dealt with its built form so far. At this time, architectural work concerning the Cañada ranges from urban regeneration schemes to landscape design, infrastructural suggestions and attempts at poverty reduction. However, this essay focuses on the uniqueness of the Cañada’s originally grown built form and its exceptional status in contemporary European urban building history. The focus of this paper is not on suggestions of alteration or problem-solving; in a historical-architectural sense, the settlement cannot simply be considered a problem, but should be regarded as a revealing and refreshing case study.     

Research material for this essay consists of continuous studies of the Cañada’s environment since 2015. Site visits,  combined with detailed analysis of aerial photographs, form the centerpiece of this work. Historical aerial pictures since 1975, as well as statistics and surveys provided by the consulate for the Cañada Real in Madrid [4], further illustrate the issue. As outlined before, this essay will focus on the built form of the Cañada rather than its socio-economic components. In order to identify settlement characteristics, a comparison between historical examples of settlement structures is one of the methods applied. Furthermore, analytical drawings help in bringing out information which would otherwise remain undiscovered in the diverse, overflowing landscape of the informally built form. 




Once a thriving transhumance, the Cañada Real Galiana [5] in the outskirts of Madrid has transformed in appearance. The historic cattle drive of approximately 70 metres [6]  width has increasingly been built on from both sides towards the middle of the path since the 1960’s [7]. Starting from San Fernando de Henares, a town located in the outskirts of Madrid, the ribbon of illegal buildings stretching linearly in a southern direction as far as the Río Manzanares offers an amazing sight: first multi-storey town houses, then holiday homes, residential buildings, caravans and industrial plants of different development typologies follow one another closely. The ”Cañada” [8] is a short term used colloquially for the entire diverse settlement, comprised of a 7000 person population [9] which in turn belongs to several ethnical and cultural groups. Apart from Spaniards, mostly Gitanos, Gitanas [10], migrants from the Maghreb, and other minority groups live in the illegal settlement of the Cañada Real. [11]


[1] The starting point for this essay was research conducted in the course of my master thesis in 2017. 


[2] ‘Showdown Looms Over Europe’s Largest Shanty Town‘, (accessed 17 April 2012)


[3]  ‘Drug clans take control in shanty town where Madrid’s politicians fear to tread‘, (accessed 16 November 2009)

[4] Consejería de Transportes, Vivienda e Infrastructura“, an institution installed by the Spanish government in 2016 for the settlement’s incorporation into the legal system

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