Urban gardening was an important aspect of life in Barcelona until the late 20th century. Infrastructural developments and the urban renewal that spread across the city around the 1992 Olympic Games removed almost all its urban gardens – between 1993 and 2000 almost 8,000ha of agricultural land in the Barcelona Metropolitan Region was lost to make way for new transport links and urban developments. As a result, the urban gardens of Barcelona today have mostly emerged since the early 2000s.
The urban gardens that have emerged in Barcelona since the turn of the century have often been the result of protest, occupying the empty spaces the city’s urban expansion left behind. One of largest community gardens in Barcelona is Can Masdeu; situated on the site of a former leper colony on the outskirts of the city, it was occupied in 2001 to raise awareness of climate change, and has since been associated with social and ecological protest movements. The city’s urban gardens, and the protests that led to them, also exist at much smaller scales. L’Hortet del Forat in the El Borne neighbourhood began in 2004 following local struggles over how space created by the demolition of a building in the Ribera district should be used. The open space, that used to be known as the “hole of shame”, is now a thriving self-managed community garden, with allotments, a football pitch and children’s playground.
Whilst many of the urban gardens are the result of protest and occupation, there have also been initiatives led by the city council, promoting urban gardening to increase the amount of green space in the city. The Network of Urban Gardens is a participatory programme established in 1997, encouraging citizens over 65 to develop urban gardens on public land; providing social and environmental values to both the people involved and their local communities.
Following the economic crisis of 2008, there was a proliferation of urban gardening initiatives across Barcelona, with bottom-up movements occupying vacant spots to grow food, foster community cohesion and improve public space. In 2013, the city council launched Pla Buits (meaning ‘empty plan’), a co-management initiative that aims to involve civil society in the design, implementation and management of unused spaces across the city.
On a trip to Barcelona in October 2019, I came cross one of the community gardens that emerged as a result of the Pla Buits. The ConnectHORT garden in the Poblenou neighbourhood was created in 2016 as a space for education, agriculture and community engagement. The garden occupies the empty space of a walled-off derelict plot, hardly noticeable from the street. However, within the walls, the garden was thriving a space, growing food and encouraging the community to come together, offering a range of classes from agriculture to woodwork.
The benefits of the community gardens that have emerged throughout Barcelona are not just social. Research by URBES found that the gardens of Barcelona provide 20 key ecosystem services to the city’s residents, including the supply of high-quality food, pollination and stress reduction.
Barcelona’s high density means that public space, and how it is used, can be a controversial and highly politicised issue. Urban gardens in Barcelona are under increasing pressure due to the city’s rapid sprawl. These gardens also highlight the contradictions of public policy in managing urban development – on the one hand, community-run gardens support the sustainability goals and “greening” initiatives that city’s such as Barcelona are pursuing; however, on the other hand, the same gardens may pose obstacles to the advancement of urbanisation, with mainstream urban policy supporting their removal in favour of more economically valuable development.
The repurposing of empty spaces within the city, and the neighbourhood groups that develop and manage these plots, demonstrate the impact that community initiatives have had on the evolution of Barcelona’s urban fabric. Whilst the commitment shown by community gardeners to cultivate land and spread environmentalist messages throughout the city is becoming increasingly recognised by the formalisation of gardens, they are still at risk of removal due to mainstream urban policy’s pursuit of growth. The importance of the recognition of urban gardens, in Barcelona and other cities around the world, for their social, economic and environmental potentials is increasingly important, especially in the face of climate change and an uncertain urban future that may require a move away from conventional food production.