Which role should an urban center play? This is a common matter for thought around the world, as centrality is a hard to understand and even harder to replicate quality.
To focus the issue, it is worth asking which role should play urban centers in southern european countries related to the mediterranean tradition, as most of Spain or Southern France. Even if Madrid is not strictly speaking a mediterranean city, it shares many conditions with Montpellier: a tradition of intense use of the public space favored by climate, a clear historical core, and a role as the capital of a wider space, including a metropolitan area. These are two centers that began being all that was urban in their surroundings, and urban growth has implied a loss of roles to the benefit of peripheral areas. These areas concentrate relevant heritage, but also the oldest housing stock, with problems of building quality, conservation, social decay and even health.
The symbolic value is relevant for the city as a whole, but it can harm the residents: any representative building has a chance to become the location for a representative organism of municipal, regional or national relevance, rather than a school, a health center or any other facility needed by neighbors. This can also happen with retail (it can be so much more lucrative to cater to tourists than to residents). What is often unclear is what is wanted of these urban cores to become: areas with a vibrant population that can be compared to other less central areas, despite the servitudes of heritage conservation, or representative spaces that can become an acropolist to the gods (money, administration, television, tourism…) but without residents, or else… And maybe they should be, even if it is far from simple, all of this, but with residents.