Spotlight

The fight to reclaim Madrid’s abandoned plots, one plant at a time

31 May 2021

Having access to green space reduces depression by up to 40%, and reduces the feeling of worthlessness by up to 50%, according to a study by five doctors at the University of Pennsylvania. For those living below the poverty line, the improvement in mental health is proven to be even more profound.

There is a clear cause and effect between access to “greened” empty plots and improved mental health, demonstrating that our neighbourhood density impacts our well-being. This research thrusts forward new evidence for why cities need to be investing in low-cost but high-impact design interventions, including the greening of even very small abandoned spaces.

The study also concluded that it would cost on average just €1,500 to green a building-size empty plot. The cost includes labour for clearing accumulated rubbish and construction debris left behind by collapses or demolitions, cutting back overgrown shrubs, and treating weeds. Nothing has to be added either: no expensive benches, no over-designed children’s play areas and no brittle paving slabs: just wild land.

Simply being visually exposed to nature feels good and it’s something that is deeply lacking in Madrid’s neighbourhoods, especially the poorer and less funded barrios such as Vallecas, Carabanchel, Tetuán and Lavapiés. These neighbourhoods also happen to be where many empty plots lie; they’re ghosts of the 2008 financial crisis.

For now, these forgotten areas are often used as ad hoc storage for construction sites and as temporary shanty dwellings. Left unmaintained, the land accumulates urban pests including rats, cats and cockroaches. If these sites were cleared by the council and launched as communal green spaces, pests would naturally disappear, and mental health among residents would improve.

In fact, there are numerous grassroots neighbourhood associations that have taken up the task themselves:

PVA Sputnik Vallekas

One springy Saturday five years ago, around thirty neighbours of Vallecas met at an abandoned plot located at Calle González Soto 19, 21 and 23. The intention was very simple: to transform what had been a notorious fly-tipping site for eight years attracting rats, cats and bugs into a self-managed neighbourhood park for everyone to enjoy. The PVA Sputnik Vallekas website explains…

We’re people who, before this, neither knew each other nor greeted each other, never mind knew each other’s names or where each other lived. That’s what building grey neighbourhoods in grey cities is based on: the idea of ​​individualism.

Espinakas

Early spring of 2012 saw the bloom of Espinakas, a beautiful and huge self-managed urban garden in Vallecas. Neighbours join forces to grow vegetables, organise events and maintain a safe space for children, teens and mothers to enjoy. Espinakas is, fortunately, still thriving today.

Solar Maravillas

Unlike Espinakas, Solar Maravillas was handed an eviction notice in January 2020 with just 10 days’ warning. Neighbours gathered, protested, raised awareness of how few green spaces the neighbourhood had and how many local people benefitted from this urban garden. The city council pledged to pave paradise and put up a Centro de Salud but this has still not materialised.

The Madrid City Council has had many opportunities to buy up empty plots from private landowners and municipalise them, but instead, they’re doing the opposite.

Between 2009 and 2018, the Spanish public budget for access to housing and support for housing renovation was cut by over 70%. Social housing stock in Spain comprises only 2.5% of all dwellings, compared to 30% in the Netherlands, 24% in Austria, 17.6 % in the UK or 16.8% in France. Despite this obvious scarcity in social housing, Madrid City Council sold 4,800 social housing units to foreign investment trusts Goldman Sachs and Blackstone. The trend continues with current self-managed urban gardens with Solar Maravillas, for example. The garden lies empty, pests are accumulating, and there is so sign of the health centre being built.

Another hindrance to the creation of urban gardens is politics. Going against the authorities and creating a space for your immediate neighbours is seen as anarchistic, and many reclaimed abandoned buildings – or squats – establish an anarchist ideology within their community. Whatever the initially established culture of the community, it’s a space open to all people: young and old, friends and family, migrant women and abuelxs playing cards, just like in Esta Es Una Plaza below…

Madrid has, so far, officially recognised around 60 urban gardens (you can see the map of them here), but there are still many urban gardens, particularly in Puente de Vallecas – one of Madrid’s lowest-income neighbourhoods – that are fighting for recognition.

But with most of these urban gardens beginning life as illegal occupations of land by neighbours, planting trees is an act of rebellion that the 99% (not the land-owing 1%) will benefit from, and may well be the radical solution Madrid is looking for.


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