Communal Urban gardens

City dwellers who won’t lose the plot

More and more Spaniards are seeing the virtues of communal urban gardens
El Pais April 6th

Taking the lead from London and the United States, more and more of Spain’s inner city residents are implanting the tradition of allotments — plots of land leased or loaned free by the local authority for those without a garden of their own, but who want to get some soil under their fingernails and taste the fruits of their labor. Ana Pascual has lived in the Barrio del Pilar, a working-class district of Madrid, for more than four decades. And for most of that time, her apartment has looked out onto an abandoned plot of land. But since 2007, thanks to an initiative by neighborhood association La Piluka, Ana now looks out onto what she calls a “little bit of village,” with a picnic table sheltered by a tree, surrounded by tomato plants, cauliflowers, and aromatic herbs. “I spend a lot of time there — it helps me disconnect,” she says, with a watering can in hand.

Ana’s community garden is one of the first of its kind in the country, but the movement is putting down roots fast. The appeal, says Rufino, one of Ana’s fellow gardeners, is that it brings neighbors together and creates a sense of community. “And the tomatoes taste like tomatoes should,” he laughs. “We share out the produce,” says Mikel Fernández, one of the founders of the garden. “But that isn’t really the point,” he adds. “We want to bring people closer together and make an attractive space out of a bit of land that was only used before as a dogs’ toilet.” The plot has inspired others to set up different projects, ranging from organic-soap making to poetry teas.

La Charca de la Rana (The frog pond) brings together residents of a northern suburb of Madrid on the second Saturday of every month. To raise funds for their planned garden, they have been organizing jumble sales. “Our next project will be to set up a garden,” says Miguel, looking over the plot of land he and his neighbors intend to convert into an inner-city oasis, once they have cleared the undergrowth and detritus left by local kids who have used it for impromptu parties. Like most of the capital’s inner- city areas, Madrid’s Lavapiés neighborhood has no green spaces. But the Estaesunaplaza residents association aims to convert a walled-off, abandoned plot into a garden and children’s play area. Last year they took over the piece of ground, cleared it, and planted vegetables, garnering support from locals in the process. But in December, the city authorities padlocked the entrance. Residents sent a proposal to the mayor in February outlining their plans and are awaiting a reply. “There are no parks in Lavapiés, and we wanted to make use of this space, which has been empty for 30 years,” says Nuria Navarro.

Across the river, in the capital’s Casa de Campo park, a more ambitious enterprise is underway. ARBA, a group that started out protecting local species of trees, along with fellow environmentalists GRAMA, have been given a piece of land that they are using to teach people about organic gardening. Over the last four years, they have cultivated around 100 square meters of land. “We have a harvest festival each year where we eat what we have grown,” says Antonio Gabriel, who teaches environmental education. “We teach people how to set up their own innercity gardens.”

So far, the grow-your-own movement in Spain has had to make its own way, but official support is slowly emerging. One such example are the neighborhood allotments that the town hall of Rivas Vaciamadrid, in the southeast of the city, inaugurated last year, which have already attracted 30 families. The environmental education center set up by Rivas town hall gives information about environmentally friendly ways to grow vegetables in urban areas. It began offering classes in the summer of 2006, and now puts on weekly, hands-on classes between January and September that attract around 25 people interested in learning the basics of horticulture. As any gardener will tell you, cultivating one’s own patch of land can be extremely therapeutic. A state-run retirement home in the east of the capital has now set up its own garden, covering 100 square meters. Residents there were visited last week by Jorge Reichmann, who teaches ecology at Barcelona’s Autónoma University, and Mariana Ponce, an expert in city gardens from Rosario in Argentina, a city of 10,000 people that boasts some 800 community plots of land.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License