¡Esta es Una Plaza! Inspiring Permaculture in the City
In this post I tell the story of an incredible example of what is possible when people come together to create something different in the world. This magical place is ¡Esta es Una Plaza!, an urban garden in Madrid that I am lucky enough to be using to base my permaculture design project on.
Here I share a bit about my permaculture studies so far and introduce to you this inspiring example of urban permaculture in action.
Permaculture Design Certificate
Back in March 2020, when the world closed down and I first launched this blog, I had the good fortune to have two different readers reach out to me and tell me about an online permaculture course they thought I would like. As I wrote about in my post ‘An Off-Grid Dream 6 months in- How Far Have I Come?’, after the second person reached out to me to tell me about it, I took heed of the sign from the Universe and decided to check it out.
The course was a year-long free permaculture design course organised by Heather Jo Flores and created by The Permaculture Women’s Guild. A week in and I was already hooked, so without hesitation, I took the plunge and enrolled in the more extensive Permaculture Design Certificate course.
What better way to make the most of that time of outer retraction during quarantine than to invest in myself and my dreams? Whilst the world closed down, I was planting the seeds of my future and I spent most of my time engrossed in the lessons and videos that are included in the course.
We were still in the midst of a very strict lockdown here in Spain, where we couldn’t even leave our houses to go out for a walk, so my hands-on permaculture studies were limited to the confines of my four walls. Instead, I focused on absorbing the principles and ethics of permaculture and found huge inspiration and solace in them at a time of outer chaos.
Then came the summer and with it the freedom to move freely around Spain. So I took my permaculture studies on the road with me whilst my partner Sergio and I explored some off-grid projects in ‘empty Spain’. Consequently, it was a while until I properly started my permaculture design project, which is needed to get my certificate at the end of the course.
However, in order to create a permaculture design, I have to have access to land. But there is a problem: I have no land! Not even a balcony or small garden space. Living in the centre of Madrid has its benefits but having an outdoor space to call my own is not one of them.
However, as permaculture shows us: the problem is the solution!
Problem: Living in the city centre means lack of access to outdoor spaces for growing food.
Solution: The city is full of creative and like-minded people. Find an urban community garden that I can collaborate with and use to base your design on!
Urban Garden: A Special Place in the City
Luckily for me, I didn’t need to look very far, as Madrid has numerous ‘huertos urbanos’ to choose from.
As spoilt for choice as I was, it was an easy decision. I chose my favourite of them all: ¡Esta es Una Plaza!, located in the south of the city in the bohemian neighbourhood of Lavapies. An empty plot abandoned for over thirty years, this is an oasis in the heart of the city.
This has always been one of my favourite places in Madrid and was one of the first places that made me fall in love with the city when I came here in 2014. At that time, I spoke only very basic Spanish but the community there was incredibly open and friendly and I immediately felt at home. This has been a place that I have visited with many different friends over the last seven years and was even the place where I first met Sergio, making it even more special for me.
In this way, ¡Esta es Una Plaza! is part of my history in Madrid. It has grown and evolved alongside me all this time. The people there have also known me since the beginning of my time here, something that in a big capital city where many of my friends have been and gone, is very valuable.
An Urban Oasis
So what does ¡Esta es Una Plaza! mean exactly?
‘Plaza’ in Spanish means public square where people gather, so it can be literally translated as ‘This is a public square!’, but it is perhaps better interpreted as ‘This is a place!’.
Meaning: This is not nothing; this is something. There is something going on here!.
The inspiration for this name comes from its history of being abandoned for so long. Like many big cities, Madrid has its fair share of neglected plots of land where buildings once stood. In some cases, the original owner has died and no one is sure who the current owner is. In other cases, the bank is the owner, or the council, whilst others are privately owned and for sale for property development.
Many of these empty spaces are in neighbourhoods with very little green space. On my street, in fact, there are two privately-owned empty plots, locked up and fenced and defying anyone to enter. Yet hidden behind the railings, there is a secret slice of green countryside, rewilded after so many years without use. In spring, there is an explosion of wildflowers and fauna creating a haven for birds, insects, and stray cats alike.
In my case, these two wild patches of nature are what saved me during the lockdown, when all access to nature and green space was completely restricted.
Whilst I wasn’t meant to be out on the street except for essential shopping, I allowed myself the luxury of lingering by the gated greenery just long enough to feel human again before I was obliged by law to return to my dwelling. Like Eve being locked out of paradise, I felt this disconnection from the natural world acutely (as I wrote about in the April gratitude challenge that I ran at the time).
¡Esta es Una Plaza! is a revinication of this waste of green space and a reclamation of the power of the local residents to create a different reality for themselves and their neighbourhood.
A Revolutionary History
The project was born at the end of 2008 when a group of neighbours who, inspired after attending a workshop about how to intervene in empty urban spaces and tired of having a lack of green spaces in the neighbourhood, decided to take action. They created a proposal that would take this sad and neglected plot of land and transform it into an alternative green space for leisure and collective enjoyment.
In the beginning, the only way to access the plot was to occupy it (illegally). Whilst the vision that they held was that of an alternative green oasis, full of creativity, collaboration and community, what they found when they first intervened was a space full of over 30 years of rubbish, building rubble and waste.
Together with the help of a group of artists, architects and biologists, they set about imagining how they could develop the space and sketched out an initial design. Seeing the amount of support they were receiving from both inside and outside the neighbourhood, they began the process of applying for cession of the land from the council, who are the owners.
At that time, urban gardens in Madrid were not very common and it was very uncertain whether they would be able to get official permission to use the space. The council was not so sympathetic to this kind of project and the possibility of the group bringing their vision to live seemed unlikely.
However, they were not to be fazed and implemented the necessary structures to allow the cession to take place. This meant creating a cultural association to create an official container for the project, which was founded on the principles of self-governance and the willingness to experiment, in line with other initiatives that had taken root in other cities around the world, such as Main Verde in Paris, Community Garden in New York and PAC-gardens in Berlin.
Amazingly, their application was successful and they got permission to use the plot for 5 years. It was very touch and go and as one community member recalls: “They (the council) didn’t want to risk giving the project the green light when they didn’t really know what was going to happen”.
A Political Hiccup
It seemed too risky to go ahead and give a group of citizens control of a public plot of land. What if it was filled up with hippies and revolutionaries?! It would reflect badly on the council and damage their image. And as we all know, in politics image is everything.
But the story goes that one of the government officials in charge had a political fall out and was being pushed out from his post. On his last day in office he signed off a lot of applications on a whim, as if hoping to have the last laugh on those who had ousted him. (“Haha, now you will have some trouble to deal with!”).
Whilst it may have been an unfortunate day for him, it was a great day for the community of ¡Esta Es Una Plaza!, and the community garden was officially born. Whether this is synchronicity in action or simply a happy coincidence is for you to decide, but for me it seems like luck was shining down on this project that day and so far it hasn’t run out.
12 years later at the time of writing, ¡Esta es una Plaza! is still going strong. It is well known around the city and well connected within the network of other self-governed spaces and urban gardens that have sprung up all over Madrid. People visit from all over the world and it has appeared in many different news publications.
Not Just a Garden
However, this is more than just a garden. La Plaza, as it is commonly known, is a place where the social fabric of the city is repaired; where community is formed; where people come to discover and experience an alternative way of being in society and what’s more, participate in its creation.
As one person has told me during one of the interviews for my design project: “La Plaza is like a village. Once you begin to visit, little by little you start to recognise faces and get to know people. It reminds me of my village in summer when I was a child when everyone knew who each other was”.
In a city of over 3.2 million people, this village-like feeling is something very special. Personally, I love being able to visit La Plaza alone and always end up seeing a familiar face to chat to or meet someone new. I also love that it is such a multi-cultural place. In one afternoon alone during some of my observation sessions for my design project, I heard a multitude of different languages: French, English, Arabic, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and probably more that I’m still not aware of.
I’ve met people from all over the world there, sometimes as far away as Lebanon! Some people are just passing through the city or and then there are those who have lived here for many years. Either way, whether you are a local or a foreigner, ¡Esta es Una Plaza is an inclusive place for everyone, which for me, is part of its magic.
The Social Landscape
This is also an important component of the neighbourhood, since it is one of the most mult-cultural neighbourhoods in Madrid, as almost 27% of its inhabitants are from outside Spain. It is also a very diverse neighbourhood in terms of age (Lavapies has one of the highest numbers of elderly people, as well as highest numbers of children) and socio-economic status (33% of residents don’t have any school qualifications whilst 23% have degrees).
For this reason, one of the founding motivations of La Plaza is ‘la convivencia’, our ability to co-exist and live with each other peacefully regardless of our differences. Two ways that La Plaza aims to do that is by helping to develop citizen participation and offering spaces for social integration.
There are spaces to meet and develop personal relationships, hold events such as clothes swaps and cultural exchanges, as well as a space to celebrate local festivals and eat together, all of which help to revitalize the neighbourhood.
I love to see the diversity of different groups that meet amongst the vegetable gardens. There is always a mix of families, young people and elders, who normally wouldn’t tend to visit the same places. It makes the chances of meeting people who you wouldn’t usually come across in your day to day life much higher.
The social nature of the space also means that when you visit, you’re likely to interact with others, even if it’s just a few words about the beautiful flowers or ripe-looking tomatoes. It provides a common point of interest and people often share growing tips, plant knowledge and favourite recipes whilst admiring the raised beds.
For me this is what makes growing food to share in community spaces such a powerful tool for social regeneration and transformation. It brings people from different profiles and backgrounds together and allows the exchange of knowledge and wisdom that may otherwise never be shared.
Connection to Nature
Another challenging aspect of the neighbourhood is the lack of green spaces. Most of the public spaces are all paved with concrete and the narrow streets don’t allow for many trees. This, combined with a high population density and some of the smallest flats in Madrid (many of which are interior with very little natural light), create the need for access to more open spaces.
In this way, La Plaza acts as a small green lung of the neighbourhood, which helps to improve the quality of life of the residents. It also provides opportunities to connect the countryside with the city through the vegetable beds, compost, gardens and bike workshops, which everyone is welcome to get involved with if they so desire.
As one person has told me: “I just need to feel my hands in the dirt. I need it! I love coming here and working in a team in the vegetable garden and feeling connected to nature”.
Citylife more often than not means that we never touch the earth. There is tarmac beneath our feet and concrete above our heads, and all of our green spaces are normally managed by the local council. Unless you are lucky enough to have a terrace or window space with enough light to grow things, you may go your whole life without ever experiencing what it is like to plant and seed and watch it grow.
¡Esta Es Una Plaza! provides an opportunity for those of us who yearn for more connection to the natural world to at least experience it in small doses, everytime we visit.
Active Participation in Creating Alternatives
But La Plaza is more than just a space to enjoy some nature in the city. The real inspiration behind it is the aim of creating a space where the habitants can go from being passive inhabitants of the city to active participants, fulfilling their own desires through direct action and collaboration with others.
As the original proposal states, here translated from Spanish:
“The idea of being able to intervene in the decision-making process, construction and transformation of our own habitat is strongly connected to human development, in which the human being is not considered to be merely an instrument or object in the chain of production of consumer goods, but always and without exception, the beneficiary and subject of the process of development (…) Human development cannot be referred to only as the satisfaction of basic needs, but also development in terms of a dynamic and integral process of participation”.
Or in other words, returning the power to the people and allowing us to be direct participants in the design, creation and transformation of the spaces that we inhabit.
Collective Learning and Creation
For me, this reclamation of our public spaces at the heart of La Plaza is what makes it such an inspiring place to be. I think it serves as an example of what can be achieved when people come together to imagine what could be possible if we could just allow ourselves to step away from what we have always known and dare to dream something different.
But of course, not just dream it, but also create it. For this reason, collective learning is another big component of La Plaza and there are many different workshops held every year and are open and free for anyone to take part.
Some of them have more of a practical focus, such as self-building and organic gardening, whereas others involve a more theoretic approach through the exchange of ideas, discussion and debate. Art and culture are also a big part of the philosophy of the La Plaza, and it hosts many activities such as theatre, concerts, poetry readings and performances that aim to increase accessibility to art and cultural events in the neighbourhood.
It continues to amaze me what human beings are capable of creating together when motivated by love and inspiration and not fear. Yet working together is not always easy and more difficult still when we have so much diversity of life experience, values and perspectives. But permaculture shows us that it is our diversity that is actually our greatest asset and this is another principle on which ¡Esta es Una Plaza! was founded.
But how can this principle be taken from a nice theory to real practice in a diverse group setting? More often than not, we default to the traditional ways of thinking that society has laid out for us, hierarchical and homogenized. Whilst this may not necessarily be a problem in all cases, there also exists other models and ways of organising ourselves that often prove to be more fruitful and fulfilling for those involved.
In ¡Esta es Una Plaza!, a horizontal model is used, which is based on interaction, collective problem solving, and the value of cooperation and reciprocity. This means a culture of direct participation is nurtured, and an experimental space of self-organisation and management is created. This requires new ways of relating to others and the environment, and the creation of new networks of communication-based on trust and feelings that counteract the individualistic model of society that we are accustomed to.
One way that this is practised is through the open assembly that is held every month, where issues are debated and decisions are made through collective consensus. Whilst there is a president, treasurer and secretary, these roles are purely bureaucratic and one of the terms of the cession of the plot. No one has more power than anyone else; everyone is equal.
In this way, La Plaza is akin to a hive of bees. Everyone participates in a different way depending on their skills, interests and time available. Sometimes we may work individually but we always coordinate with our workgroup and organise days where we work together as a team, e.g. I might go to water the tomato plants alone, but I coordinate with the others in the vegetable garden group too and we work together as a team on allotted days.
I am also part of the group that tries to encourage participation, and we often meet in the vegetable garden where I had been working previously with the others. All this, whilst also being connected to the whole group via email, whatsapp and later the monthly assembly.
However, the main difference between the collective of ¡Esta es Una Plaza! and a beehive is that there is no queen bee, just the hive working together.
Not all Plain Sailing
Whilst I can not truthfully tell you that this is always a bed of roses and that herein lies the keys to an urban utopia (far from it!), the fact that this project has been going for over 12 years speaks for itself.
As one long-time plazera or community member told me: “There seems to be something magical about the assemblies that we have. When we all get together and work together, in the end, something amazing often comes out of it. It is a really beautiful experience”.
However, it is true that not all assemblies are full of magic and creativity. Sometimes there is conflict, sometimes nothing gets decided, other times it’s boring. But that’s just a part of life, isn’t it? Why would La Plaza be any different?
The magic is often visible afterwards when something has been created for others to use or admire. But just like anything in life, the process of creation is often sweaty, tedious or arduous, punctuated with small moments of “wow, look what we have achieved!”
It is said that the journey is better than the destination. In the case of ¡Esta es Una Plaza!, the journey is one never-ending marathon of experimentation and cycles of birth and rebirth.
Another Way Is Possible
As I wrote in “Authenticity, Empowerment, and Co-creating a More Beautiful World”, I think it is our own self-empowerment that is the key to creating the world that our hearts know is possible. For me, ¡Esta es Una Plaza! is an example of this.
It is also an example of the great generosity of all those who have been involved and those who continue collaborating 12 years later. Over the years hundreds of people have willingly gifted many hours of their time to the space and offered their skills and talents to help create what it is today.
Since I have been more involved over the last year, I have been truly amazed by the number of hours people put in voluntarily, not just in terms of physical work, but also with the admin and paperwork that this kind of project requires.
And all of this without any kind of obligation or financial compensation. What could it be that unites so many people and inspires them to work together in this way?
For me, this speaks to our collective inner knowing that there is another way of inhabiting this earth that is far removed from the systems and structures that we have today. And as much as these systems may seem to hold strong, initiatives such as ¡Esta es Una Plaza! show us that there are many people out there courageous enough to put aside the status quo and dream something different together.
And then put their money where their mouth is, and try to create it.
A Dream Fulfilled
When I came to Madrid, I had great intentions of getting involved in projects such as ¡Esta es Una Plaza! and continuing learning more about sustainability, food growing and community projects. However, adult life combined with all the other challenges that starting a new life in a foreign country brings, meant that this dream never really got off the ground.
Now, 7 years on, it feels like this dream is finally coming to fruition. I feel so lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to dive into this new world of permaculture using such a wonderful place to base my design project on.
It also seems like a beautiful representation of the permaculture ethic ‘Fair Shares’.
After having given me so much- my partner, new friends, a sense of community and a place to grow food, learn and have new experiences- it only seems fair that I give something back.
An Invitation to Co-Create A More Beautiful World
For me, permaculture is a tool for which to make the vision of ‘The More Beautiful World’, mentioned so many times on this blog already, tangible. It takes it from being a mere heart-warming dream to a real possibility and I am looking forward to sharing what I learn with the world as I continue learning and walking on this path.
If you would like to join me on this journey, then sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t already, and get my next post straight to your inbox. You can also follow my journey on Facebook and Instagram– feel free to say hi!
A big thank you once again to Aurelie and Lorna for giving me the heads up about the work of Heather Jo Flores and the Permaculture Women’s Guild. I’m very grateful to have connected with you both- your input has aided me on my path. Thank you!
Also, thank you to the community of ¡Esta es Una Plaza! for being so supportive of me and my studies. ¡Gracias a tod@s!
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