Espai Germanetes: Activating Vacant Space with Gardens in Barcelona
The Eixample Esquerre is, in terms of form and function, a patterned and monotone district of Barcelona. Solid blocks and long streets of asphalt are framing the urban grid of this part of the city which shapes the usual landscape of the Catalan capital. The excitement of finding a block that breaks this constant rhythm is enormous as pedestrians snoop around almost incredulous at the scene of a place where speculation has not arrived yet.
The majority of passers-by look down instead of looking up and surprise themselves of finding solid earth on the ground! This is the case of "Espai Germanetes", a large unoccupied block located at the confluence of Viladomat and Consell de Cent streets, where the former convent of Les Germanetes used to be located.
Empty plot in Germanetes, Barcelona. Source
This vacant plot is now a municipal property and neighbours have been in a constant battle against authorities as the space has spent more than 5 years in disuse. In 2013, the city council launched Pla Buits Urbans, an initiative which gave local citizens the opportunity to transform vacant plots into vibrant spaces. The winning project for "Espai Germanetes" was the one called Recreant Cruïlles through which the Neighbourhood Association of l' Eixample Esquerre obtained a temporary assignment of an area of more than 5,500 square metres. Their proposal was simple: to develop a community plan and promote collective experiences within the neighbourhood by transforming the empty space into an active community hub.
In order to be one of the selected proposals, the management of the sites suggested on Pla Buits Urbans envisaged the minimum cost for the "municipal coffers". So, the more economically self sufficient the proposal was, the better the chances to receive a higher score.
However, the "self" does not necessarily mean that public authorities are not taking any responsibility, mainly in the budgetary field, as the sites require some investment, which should be assumed largely by the public administration.
To mention a similar case, the pioneer program "Esto no es un solar" located in the historic centre of Zaragoza has cost a million euros just to improve 14 empty plots. Derelict spaces cannot be transferred at any cost to the public. We can speak of urban low- cost, but not at zero cost.
L'Eixample Esquerre has a few green areas: 1.37 sqm per capita, while the World Health Organization recommends that cities should have at least 10 to 15 sqm of green area per capita. This neighbourhood wants to improve these poor results and also, wants to claim their rights to feel as real citizens – prioritising pedestrians over drivers.
From here, the space opened its doors early this year; Social projects and environmental concerns have been promoted and the space is completely open and free to use for those looking to enjoy its facilities –meeting spaces, a playground, a classroom …- and it is also equipped to host conferences, debates and lectures.
There is a mural on the front door that invites passers-by to enter and discover the space, a container for storage, a community garden, and a massive dome with circular mobile stands, lent by Straddle3, which makes the perfect place to experience the ephemeral architecture of the place.
The organization gives volunteers the opportunity to participate continuously in activities such as working in the community garden, taking care of plants and flowerbeds, making guided tours for visitors, or building new features for the site such as climbing walls, paintings, furniture made with reused materials.
Container used as storage for the site made by Straddle3.
Social and cultural institutions as well as neighbourhood hubs suffer the effects of the crisis in Catalonia. The general lack of resources have to be replaced together with the cooperation between public authorities, landlords, neighbourhood associations and entrepreneurs who want to get back their unused urban spaces.
Urbanism does not consist on large urban projects, does not hold anymore major events and does not need star-architects. Not even to build, which engages both the architecture as a discipline and the logic of urban planning based on growth ad infinitum.
The most innovative urbanism passes through recycling, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Urbanism is understood now as collaborative micro-actuations that, together, encourage a deeper change about living in the city. Urban design pays attention not only in form, but also in how social relationships flow, perceptions, uses, and especially to the needs of new spaces for sociability, creativity and production.
Tere García Alcaraz is an architect and development practitioner from Barcelona, with research and working experience in Ecuador, Venezuela, Spain and the UK. She lives in London.
Photos via author unless otherwise linked.