A CORUÑA: AN URBAN GARDENS GREEN NETWORK
A Coruña is an extremely compact city: surrounded by the ocean and densely populated, the municipality occupies a territory of less than 40 km2. Scarcity of space has driven buildings upwards, with many buildings of over 6-10 stories by the seafront and up to 20 or more stories as the city grew further away. This resulted into a reduced number of open green areas, poor biodiversity and a high rate of soil sealing in the city centre, which in turn can lead to heat stress and surface water flowing episodes. Nowadays, the city is experiencing a declining demography, with many citizens moving to the less densely populated metropolitan area. This contributes to an excessive dependence on private transport, creating important traffic problems and lowering the air quality.
The city wishes to introduce alternative forms of transport which can free up more space for green areas (“cars replaced by trees on streets”), aiming for a softer, slower mobility system that leaves space for greener surfaces, pedestrians and bicycles: a green infrastructure that is compatible with cultural heritage and will have a positive impact on the citizens’ wellbeing levels and also on tourism. During the last 5 years, the total kilometers of urban bike lanes have doubled — the city has now over 35 kilometers of bike lanes, about 14 kilometers per 100,000 inhabitants, matching the ratio of the city of Barcelona, and surpassing many other Spanish cities such as Madrid or Bilbao. A Coruña also wants to become an even more walkable city, with a new, ambitious mobility model which includes a 30 km/h urban speed limit in effect since September 2020, and projects for more pedestrian routes connecting the different neighborhoods.
The exchange of experiences with partner cities within projects like Connecting Nature provides the city with new valuable tools to advance on the path towards a new integrated lifestyle based on ecosystems, sustainable urban planning and health. The use of NBS solutions, as opposed to grey infrastructures, can help the city mitigate climate change effects, improve air quality, reduce surface water flowing and boost biodiversity, while at the same time offering new opportunities for leisure activities, outdoor recreation or food growing.
Generally, the concept of nature-based solutions is relatively new in the city, as opposed to the traditional approach of parks and green areas. There were some highlights in the decades of the 90’s and 00’s like the transformation of the city’s main garbage dump into one of the biggest parks in the city, or the conversion of old military lands into a coastal green area.
In terms of blue infrastructure, the city has one of the longest coastal promenades in Europe, which was also built during the 90s and 00s. However, municipal competences regarding coastal spaces are limited, as the regional and national governments are the main responsible bodies for managing those spaces. There are ongoing projects to gradually renaturalize the sea promenade and extend it to the periurban areas and connecting it with neighboring municipalities. Additionally, the city will have a huge opportunity in the future to define blue NBS areas with the reurbanization of the old harbor. However, these are long-term, very complex projects, with different administrations and government levels involved.
In the last few years there has been a shift on policies towards a more NBS-focused approach with the approval of a preliminary Green Infrastructure Plan in 2018, the re-naturalization of some rivers and ponds and the realization of new, multifunctional projects like urban gardens.
The city has recently developed an integrated strategy for sustainable urban development (EIDUS) whose implementation is supported by ERDF funds, and is one of the pioneer cities in Spain to adopt the local implementation of the new Spanish Urban Agenda, which is aligned with the European Urban Agenda and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
However, the hierarchical municipal structure and the lack of coordination between the different departments (Urbanism, Infrastructures, Environment, Education, etc.) can be a barrier for an effective implementation of an integrated strategy that can break silos, as opposed to the traditional approach of various self-standing projects promoted by each department, sometimes duplicating efforts and other times blocking each other.
A Coruña is a seaside city located in the Ártabro Gulf, north-west of Spain, with a population of 244,000 inhabitants, stunning landscapes and built on over two thousand years of architectural heritage. A Coruña has a diverse economy, mainly based on the service sector, ranging from tourism to port activities, and together with its metropolitan area it houses the headquarters of several major multi-nationals. It is a densely populated and compact city, with a territory of under 40 km2, and with a scarcity of green areas.
The nature-based solution that the city has been working with is about urban gardening and creating a network of Urban Gardens that can help connect green areas and provide multiple environmental, economic, and social benefits.
At the time the exemplar was selected, there were different options being considered, including the creation of a new park in the periurban area, or the restoration of a river course in the outskirts of the city. However, the local government changed after the elections on May 2018. This meant some of the political priorites shifted, and there was a risk that some of the potential projects might not be developed in the short term. This is why it was decided to opt for a project whose implementation had already started, which was also backed by another EU project (Urbact Ru:rban), and which had a pressing citizen demand, with long waiting lists and proposals for more gardens being selected in the participative budgets.
Urban gardens are small-scale projects that can be up scaled to a citywide level; they’re cost-efficient and they’re aligned with wider scale agendas. They are able to provide benefits at many different levels – enhancing biodiversity and fighting climate change, improving health and wellbeing of citizens, promoting social cohesion, and offering new economic opportunities. They can also help recover and preserve the historical and ethnographic agriculture heritage of the region, which is gradually disappearing in urban areas, and increase the community’s sense of belonging towards the public space.
Some of the societal challenges addressed by this NBS are strengthening social cohesion and public culture, recovering and preserving for the collective memory the historical and ethnographic agriculture heritage and increasing the community’s sense of belonging towards the public space. There is also a will to increase social cohesion, promoting intergenerational and intercultural relationships and helping develop the social skills of people in situations of vulnerability and social and/or labour exclusion. All of these goals are aligned with wider agendas, like the Spanish Urban Agenda or the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The CN Framework, together with the valuable support from project partners, has provided the city with the tools to successfully develop the CN Exemplar in the three phases of Planning, Delivery and Stewardship.
A Coruña has three municipal ecoHortas Urban Gardens running since 2018 (Eiris, Agra do Orzán and Novo Mesoiro), with a total of 218 plots available to citizens. In addition to these three gardens, two smaller Urban Gardens and a greenhouse, located respectively inside of Carlos Casares, Oza and San Diego city parks, are available for NGOs to develop educational projects.
The implementation of the first gardens started as an open participatory process, involving citizens and associations in a co-production process which selected the most suitable spaces, framed how these spaces should be designed and identified the services to be provided.
With these new spaces, the City of A Coruña aimed to satisfy the neighborhood demand of spaces for urban agriculture in the city, promoting and integrating urban garden projects as an essential part of a process of urban and territorial regeneration, from an ecological perspective, as a tool to increase urban resilience, social cohesion and citizen engagement.
Thus, ecoHortas are understood as spaces which can not only help improve the environmental quality, but can also become excellent meeting places; spaces of social participation and environmental education, increasing the well-being of citizens and their life quality.
The first three ecoHortas spaces were to be located on municipal land in the areas of Los Rosales-San Pedro de Visma-Agra del Orzán, Mesoiro-Novo Mesoiro, and Oza-Castrillón-Os Castros, and their uses and concrete and definitive locations were defined through citizen participation, in which the different social entities of these neighbourhoods, as well as individual citizens interested, were invited to the process to help discover and define the actual demands at each of the three areas.
In these areas, some abandoned plots with suitable characteristics for their use as UG were detected, alongside several underused spaces in some parks with high water requirements for maintenance (lawn areas). Both types of spaces were used to develop urban gardens (abandoned plots of municipal property in the case of Agra gardens, and an underused area of an existing park in Eirís and Novo Mesoiro)
The urban gardens were divided into individual plots that were initially assigned to citizens and associations for a period of two years, extendable to three. Water supply and common tools shared between all users are offered by the municipality. One of the conditions to be granted a plot is the adoption of organic agriculture. ecoHortas have a clear educational and inclusive vocation, that’s why a certain number of plots were reserved for collective management by educational centers, non-profit associations and other groups. Also, a percentage of the plots were reserved for groups such as retired people, low-income households or people with special needs, as a way to promote intergenerational and intercultural relations and increase social cohesion. In co-operation with NGOs, various educational projects are being organized at the ecoHortas, aiming to increase social integration and develop the social skills of people in situations of vulnerability and social and/or labor exclusion.
By 2018 a total of 218 new plots had been created in the three areas (Agra do Orzán, Eirís Public Park and Novo Mesoiro).
Actions took place in order to facilitate self-management of the ecoHortas by its users, with a process developed between the months of July and November of 2018 in which an expert trainer and facilitator of collaborative processes and team work organized workshops and advised users with the objective of facilitating the provision of operation norms and the election of a Management Committee for each of the urban gardens. At the same time, the municipality offered training in the field of organic agriculture to users of ecoHortas, starting in May 2018, with theoretical classes, practical workshops at the ecoHortas and an online platform in which users can ask their questions.
The gardens that started the network were all built in 2018, just after the CN project had begun. The design process started in parallel to the city’s participation in the CN project. Thus, the gardens were understood from the beginning as a NBS providing multi-level benefits. However, the first gardens of the network weren’t initially designed following the CN framework and using its tools because the CN framework itself didn’t exist yet. As a fast-follower city, during the first two years of CN our involvement was limited, and we weren’t part of the process of co-creating the framework until a later stage. Probably because of this, the gardens have some flaws like the governance model (individual administrative concession, top-down), the maintenance model (same as green areas in the city), or the lack of common areas for socializing and promoting the creation of communities. These are the aspects that we have been trying to enhance, both for the existing gardens and for the new ones, building on the CN framework.
The city’s Environment department has managed the Urban Gardens program, but other municipal departments, like Employment or Education, have been also involved. The Employment department created in 2018 a training program on urban gardening. In this course, trainees learn how to create and grow urban gardens, keeping them healthy and productive, in accordance with the principles of organic agriculture, and they learn to organize and develop didactic activities taking advantage of the potential of urban gardens. This course, thanks to co-operation with some schools, included a practical internship during which urban gardens were created or improved in the following primary schools:
- CEIP San Pedro de Visma
- CEIP Wenceslao Fernández Flórez
- CEIP Emilia Pardo Bazán
- CEIP Juan Fernández Latorre
The goal of this program is to boost the employability of the trainees and to create a new productive sector in connection to the fields of urban gardening and ecology. As a promising result of this program, some of the trainees are already starting new SMEs/social enterprise projects related to these topics.
Additionally, a new pilot project for school gardens has been recently approved by the City Council. It will be carried out by a private company after a tender. This pilot project will work on two levels: on the one hand new school gardens will be implemented on some of the schools that don’t have them yet, expanding the network. On the other hand, activities and educational actions will be organized for integrating the gardens into the school curricula on those schools that already have a garden.
Thanks to the participation in the URBACT Ru:rban project (2018-2021), there is already an active local group (ULG) of stakeholders who meet regularly and share their experiences and views on the field of Urban Agriculture, with presence, among others, of the municipality’s Environment and Employment departments, the municipal Urban Gardens community, school community and NGOs.
The City Council is committed to expanding the Urban Gardens network, both by creating additional ones and by improving and expanding the existing ones.
In 2020, a project was approved for the creation of a new Urban Garden in the Adolfo Suarez Park, with 87 new plots. More details on this project can be found in the technical solutions chapter. The project was one of the approved proposals promoted and selected by citizens through the Participatory Budgets. The new urban garden was co-designed by a team of architects, with the support and inputs from neighbors and gardeners from the existing urban gardens. Due to different barriers such as the COVID crisis and the raising building material prices, the construction of the garden did not begin until the first semester of 2022.
In February 2022, a project was approved for the improvement of the three urban gardens of Agra do Orzán, Novo Mesoiro and Eirís. The goals of this project are to increase the number of available plots, and to create common areas that enhance the sense of a community and promote collective activities.
The project was co-designed with the gardeners, and include the creation of a shaded common area with a pergola and a table in Eiris and Agra gardens. The creation of a shaded area for meetings and celebrating has been a recurring demand of the gardeners, and specifically in Eírs, a group of gardeners submitted a proposal to the Council for a pergola to grow a grapevine. This was taken as the basis for the design of the pergola, which will give the gardeners the possibility to populate it with a grapevine or other climbing plants that will allow light to pass during the winter while providing shadow in the summer months.
The three gardens will now also have a common plot for its use as community garden/ children’s garden (another suggestion by the gardeners), and the Mesoiro garden, the smaller of the three, will be expanded to and adjacent area with eight new plots. Additionally, following the suggestion of the gardeners, some of the larger plots, which were too big for a family, will be also divided into two.
The final number of available plots will be as follow:
Agra: 112 plots à 117 individual plots + 1 common plot
Eirís: 77 plots à 88 individual plots + 1 common plot
Novo Mesoiro: 29 plots à 36 individual plots + 1 common plot
All of the works will be undertaken during March 2022, so the gardens are ready for the summer crops.
For the future expansion of the network, there is also a will to explore the possibility of expanding Urban Gardens not only to abandoned land areas (including temporary gardens on privately owned plots), but also to the roof of buildings, which offer options for the more dense city centre, starting with municipally-owned buildings, weaving a network of Urban Gardens that can help connect green areas, boost biodiversity and provide ecological services.
The main goals of the projects are the following:
1. Increase biodiversity and boost ecology.
- Transform abandoned areas and degraded or underused green spaces into productive plots able to host more life, more biodiversity, more uses and activities.
- Promote the installation of roof gardens and green roofs and walls, starting with municipal-owned buildings, in order to create new green areas that help connect parks and natural spaces with one another and act as green reservoirs which will help boost biodiversity.
2. Boost resilience against perturbations
- Mitigate climate change effects maximizing CO2 absorption, increasing vegetative coverage, permeability and water retention, combating urban heat islands and providing areas which can retain flood water and contribute to thermal isolation.
- Allow self-production and self-consumption of vegetables, providing a stable access to healthy food that increases food security and promotes sustainable consumption and help reduce carbon footprint.
3. Provide a sustainable public space offering healthy recreational opportunities for people
- Promote and increase the contact of citizens with nature, with the potential gains on their physical and psychological health.
- Promote urban gardening as a moderate physical activity which can combat a sedentary lifestyle.
4. Protect and reinforce ethnographic and cultural values of environment
- Strengthen social cohesion and public culture, recovering and preserving for the collective memory the historical and ethnographic agriculture heritage and increasing the community’s sense of belonging towards the public space.
5. Increase social cohesion and community engagement
- Increase social cohesion, promoting intergenerational and intercultural relationships and helping develop the social skills of people in situations of vulnerability and social and/or labour exclusion.
- Promote models of active citizenship, increasing engagement, community self-organization and involvement in social life. Engage citizens to play an active role in the maintenance and managing of the public space.
6. Provide a space for environmental education
- Promote educational activities linked to the Urban Gardens that contribute to maximize the social return on investment.
7. Boost new economic opportunities
- Increase the attractiveness of city areas which are lacking valuable green space.
- Identify and promote new sustainable economic activities and business models which can arise linked to urban gardening and greening of buildings.
Connection to existing urban agendas
The city has developed an integrated strategy for sustainable urban development (EIDUS) approved in 2016, whose implementation has been supported by ERDF funds and which specifically includes the funding of urban gardens. It also one of the pioneer cities to adopt the local implementation of the Spanish Urban Agenda (2018), aligned with the European Urban Agenda and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The local action plan is being developed and is expected to be approved within this year (2022).
Nature-based solutions have the potential to bring multifunctional benefits, potentially addressing many of the UN SDGs at once. Thus, the Urban Gardens Network project fits perfectly with these agendas, and contributes to reaching the goals, not only responding to environmental challenges and climate change, but also to other aspects, as stated above, such as health and well-being, socio-economic development, and governance principles.
What makes your nature-based solutions’ strategy legally binding, e.g. by connecting it to existing policy plans?
The compromise of the city towards the environment and to fight climate change has been growing since the start of the century, with several plans and policies approved in this direction. Signatory of the Aalborg Charter in 2001, A Coruña developed its first Local Strategy Against Climate Change in 2011, and in 2012 the city signed the Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy. In 2021 the city renewed its commitment to sustainability, endorsing the Basque Declaration and the Mannheim Message, and joining the Green City Accord.
The city is also developing an updated Plan for Climate Transition, aligned with the Urban Agenda and expected to be approved in 2022.
A Coruña also is pursuing to become a more walkable city, with a new, ambitious mobility model (Coruña Camiña) which includes a 30 km/h urban speed limit in effect since September 2020, and several projects to create pedestrian routes connecting the different neighborhoods.
Additionally, since 2021, the city leads the Spanish UrbanByNature Hub, committed to the mainstreaming of nature-based solutions in the Spanish cities and regions.
In 2022, A Coruña has applied for funding granted by Fundación Biodiversidad (Ministry for the Ecological Transition) to develop an Urban Greening Plan, which would include the urban gardens strategy, and which will follow the diagnosis drawn on the Green Infrastructure Plan developed in 2018. The idea for this new plan is to build on the lessons learned with the CN exemplar and the tools from the process, upscaling them to a wider level.
- Restoring ecosystems and their functions
- Greater ecological connectivity across urban regenerated sites
- Increase Biodiversity
- Increase quality and quantity of green and blue infrastructures
- Increased cultural richness and biodiversity
- Enhancing sustainable urbanisation
- Increase accessibility to green open spaces
- Increase amount of green open spaces for residents
- Increase awareness of NBS solution & their effectiveness and co benefits
- Increase communities’ sense of ownership
In terms of stewardship, the main barrier is the resistance to change and the reluctance to implement novel models. In the particular case of the urban gardens, there is also a lack of trust in the gardeners association, as its creation is very recent and there is a risk that they might not be able to completely self-manage the gardens in a proper way. This is why the new call for the authorization of use of the urban gardens introduces some changes to promote self-organizing of the gardeners, but the plots are still granted to individual citizens. For the same reason, the stewardship responsibilities are shared, and not fully assigned to gardeners or a gardeners association.
In a more general sense, the new tender for the maintenance of green areas will introduce many changes in the way green areas are managed, promoting a more natural approach, progressively reducing the lawn surfaces with high water requirements and substituting them with meadows. The main barrier for this is the citizen perception, which still values freshly mown lawns over naturalized meadows, still considered by many citizens dirty and not taken care of.
Both the capital expenditure costs and the ongoing operational costs of NBS in the city have been mostly financed with municipal funds, and in the case of capital expenditure often with support from European, national or regional-level funds.
- The city has depended on European funds for public infrastructure and urban regeneration projects, but access to these funds is not always guaranteed and can be problematic for political reasons (different political parties at local and provincial level).
- The city has access to European funds like ERDF programmes for developing new urban projects, with a focus on social inclusion.
- Funds from the national level have been used to renovate different public spaces.
- Municipal budgets for parks and gardens, including for investment and maintenance.
- Participatory budgets: 2 million euros per year.
- Green public procurement including street cleaning, waste collection etc. represents more than 30 million euros annually.
- The presence of large economic actors in the metropolitan area like the Port Authority of Galicia, Inditex or Estrella Galicia could be a potential source for the funding of NBS, although this possibility has not been much explored until now. Inditex, through Amancio Ortega Foundation, has sponsored some projects in the past like nursing homes, kindergartens or medical equipment for hospitals.
For maintenance, the city is divided in four zones that are maintained by private companies under contract with the municipality (three geographical zones and one including all historical gardens in the entire city). Currently there is one company (Althenia) which won the tender for the three geographical areas, and another one (Imesapi) which won the tender for the historical gardens.
These companies also have a budget for “improvements” which has been used to create or improve green areas in the city.