“We must think of the city as a laboratory for citizen-led innovation.”
-Patrizia Di Monte, gravalosdimonti arquitectos
Located halfway between Barcelona and Madrid, the once-prosperous city of Zaragoza was hit hard by the global economic downturn. In 2008, the full impact of the recession that had already slammed much of the Eurozone would be temporarily hidden behind the fanfare of the International Expo, which the city hosted that same year. But as the fair came to a close and Zaragoza was no longer on the international stage, the extent of the crisis quickly hit home. Unemployment was at an all-time high, property values had plummeted, and a deep social unrest that had been bubbling just below the surface for some time finally erupted. Protesters were taking to the streets by the tens of thousands to demand more jobs, more help, and a better democratic system altogether.
Even in the midst of this chaos, and despite a scarcity of public resources and morale, a group of architects, citizens, community organizations, and city agencies saw an opportunity—a chance to come together to imagine new possibilities for the city and its residents.
And the solution began with its public spaces.
Developed in 2009 and 2010, estonoesunsolar (“this is not an empty site”) is an experimental “urban acupuncture” program in Zaragoza, Spain, that has turned many of the city’s vacant lots into a network of usable public spaces. Since the initiative began, there have been interventions in 33 sites throughout the city, more that 42,000 square meters of public space has been recovered and transformed throughout the city of Zaragoza, and more than 60 citizen associations have been involved throughout the process.
Estonoesunsolar began not as an architectural project, but as an employment initiative through which the municipal housing office could finally address complaints about the city’s numerous and unsightly abandoned lots. Over a period of six months, 61 workers were hired to clean up these sites. It was a quick success, and soon into the program, participating agencies saw an opportunity to take the project one step further by opening some of the newly cleared lots for public use. From here, after gathering proposals from a network of architects, associations, and neighborhood groups, estonoesunsolar, which would be managed by the Municipal Housing Society and architects Patrizia Di Monte and Ignacio Grávalos, began to take shape.
As architects, artists, and researchers, Di Monte and Grávalos were no strangers to this kind of creative urban intervention. Several years earlier, the pair began thinking critically about the many abandoned plots within the Zaragoza districts of San Pablo, Magdalena, and Arrabal. The problem went beyond simple aesthetics, and they noticed in particular a correlation between the poor physical conditions of these areas and the weakening social and cultural life of the surrounding neighborhoods. “In this sense,” Di Monte explained in an interview with PPS, “public space cannot be understood apart from its social dimension—apart from its role as a place of interaction and exchange.” In 2006, during Zaragoza’s urban art festival, En la Frontera, the architects were able to test some of their ideas about creatively occupying the area’s empty plots.
“We understand architecture and urbanism as a way of creating a platform that can produce multiple routes, intersections, and interactions,” Di Monte explains. “And that was one of the main premises of the program: discovering spaces that could become places.” In her description of Placemaking and urban networks, Di Monte also makes a passionate case for the value of what PPS calls The Power of 10+, and at every stage of the estonoesunsolar program, the city itself is conceived as a powerful network of linked destinations.
Estonoesunsolar’s pilot phase, which took place from July to December 2009, launched temporary, flexible, and low-cost interventions in 14 sites—both public and privately owned—within Zaragoza’s historical center. Using classic Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategies, abandoned plots were repurposed into urban gardens and simple green spaces, into playgrounds for children and street bowling (“petanca”) courts for nearby older communities.
The plans and uses for each location would emerge out of a series of meetings with city agencies, community organizations, architects, and neighborhood groups, and each was based on the specific social and spatial needs of the surrounding area. This emphasis on citizen participation and community involvement at every step of estonoesunsolar has been the most vital component of its continued success. The project began with “a local will to act on a micro-scale,” Di Monte explains, but “each intervention, far from acting independently, formed a network of small actions that together were able to effect a wider impact and reach on the neighborhood as a whole.”
Based on the success of these first interventions, in 2010, City Council moved to continue the program, extending it to include 14 more sites throughout the entire city of Zaragoza, not just its Old Town. These projects were slightly larger in scale and budget, with interventions including the construction of a walkway along the Ebro River, for example, and newly built plazas and squares containing permanent elements like infrastructure and lighting systems. Since the 2010 interventions stretched across the city, the theme no longer revolved around the proximity between plots, so each site was identified by its geographic coordinate rather than a number, making it “visible just from the Google eye.”
By design, each re-purposed site invites multiple and spontaneous uses, while many also host a variety of planned recreation and educational opportunities such as outdoor movie screenings and concerts, public horticulture programs and dance classes, or hands-on architecture workshops for children.
At its heart, estonoesunsolar asks us to confront important questions about urban public space—and in particular about the cycles of vacancy and disinvestment that are both a cause and symptom of socio-economic decline in cities. In her perception of the contemporary city as an intricate network of people, places, and histories, Patrizia Di Monte also worries that the emptying of a city’s spaces “has led to a loss of [public] memory, and to the erasure of important links” between a place and its unique identity. “Each vacuum—each ‘dead space’—produces a disconnection that interrupts the continuous murmur of urban life,” she explains. Nonetheless, from within this emptiness there also emerges a space to imagine “alternative possibilities”—different ways of thinking about how cities are created, planned, and experienced.
Estonoesunsolar is a showcase of these “alternative possibilities,”and however temporary or inexpensive each individual intervention, taken together this network of transformed public spaces has become a powerful vehicle for citizen involvement, social cohesion, and a rekindling of public life in the historical city of Zaragoza.
To learn more about the project, visit the estonoesunsolar blog.