Silence in Barcelona; yes, it is possible.
I’m walking up a muddied trail in Parc de Collserola with Jonathan Minchin, a Barcelona resident who usually spends his Sunday mornings working with colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalunya’s Valldaura Self-Sufficient Lab in the Valldaura section of the park. Part of his Sunday morning routine includes a leisurely ascent of the Collserola ridge’s seaward facing flanks, which sweep down from their modest heights—512 metres at their highest point—to a maze of streets stretching from Molins de Rei to Ciutat Meridiana.
Minchin stops in the middle of the trail. He looks up to the chocolate green peaks cutting gently against the clear, blue sky. “You really feel...on top of the world,” he says as he describes what it’s like on top of the ridge. “It feels special because we’re in our own world.” He raises his arms up from his side and points to the thick brush around him. “This is ours,” he says. He begins to walk, reaching out to feel a leaf dangling from a trailside branch.
Bringing together nature and a city
Minchin is one of more than two million people this past year who ventured into the park’s approximately 8,000 hectares of space, said Isabel Raventós, manager of public use services and education for the Parc de Collserola Consortium. Parc de Collserola’s motto this year is “Healthy Park, Healthy People,” Raventós said during an interview. “There are scientific studies that show the benefits that city residents receive when they do things in nature,” she said. “It’s great for your health.” Raventós pointed out that a jog down one of Barcelona’s busiest streets doesn’t quite compare to a jog along one of the park’s trails. “Running in the middle of the Diagonal is different than running in Collserola,” she said. “There are no cars here. There’s no smoke.” Raventós and colleague Lluís Cabañeros, head of the Consortium’s environments department, work together to conserve the park’s natural habitats while making them available and compatible with the millions of people who live within a short commute of the park’s expanse. Though a staggering number of pavement-weary feet scramble and saunter along the park’s maze of trails, pockets of peace—and surprise—exist for Barcelona residents eagerly awaiting the warmer weather of spring.
Cabañeros described one of his favourite sights of the forthcoming season during an interview earlier this year. “In the spring...the leaves on the oaks are growing, and they are new,” he said. “It’s a spectacular green. It’s beautiful.” Amid the staid oaks, he said, live another form of flora much more subtle but equally as brilliant: the orchid. “It’s hard to see them, because there’s not a specific place where they grow,” he said. He took his right hand and set it perpendicular on the table in front of him. He stretched his hand out so that his thumb reached upward and the tip of his pinky finger barely touched the tabletop. “They only get about this high...about 15 centimetres,” he said, with a tinge of fascination in his voice. “I like them because their small flowers sometimes take the form of insects.”
Raventós prefers the park’s network of more than 200 springs, she said. “I really like the springs, because they’re spaces with a lot of greenery and they’re very peaceful. You hear the sound of the water, and it’s like you are far from Barcelona. They’re especially magical.” Only about 30 of the fountains still produce water, Cabañeros said. Amid the oaks bursting emerald, the orchids spinning their beautiful deception and the tranquil springs, Raventós and Cabañeros said the park’s greatest gift to the city may be its offer of quiet spaces devoid of the city’s ceaseless hum. “You can relax, and in the middle of the city that’s impossible,” Raventós said. “You get a time of silence without cars.” Gone is the heavy-handed aroma of the city. “The smell is different,” Cabañeros said. “It’s the smell of the earth, the smell of nature.”
At the end of her interview, Raventós stood up.“Sometimes, when I have a lot of work to do, I go to the window,” she said, motioning to the big picture window next to her desk. She put her hands on the window frame and leaned her body out into a mix of golden sunlight and crisp afternoon air. “How wonderful,” she said, taking a deep breath.
A Place to Pause
Three days later, Minchin and I are working our way up the trail to Valldaura. Like Raventós, he appreciates the park’s offer of peace. “You forget how chaotic it is when you’re in the city. It’s completely immersive and there are so many things to do and so many kinds of distractions,” he says. “The speed of life in the city ... you’ve got to keep running or, you know, you’re going to find yourself lost. But as soon as you get up just a little bit outside (the city), then you realise what the city is. You can see the speed change.” We continue up the trail. Minchin’s dusty brown shoes crunch and squish against the sometimes solid, sometimes soggy earth. As we progress up the hill there’s a little point with a park bench next to a cistern. “That, for me, is a very special place,” he says. “It’s a place to stop. You need to stop.” A few minutes later, we reach the spot. Oak branches hang low. Sunlight pours over the ground in some places, while in other places it barely sneaks through the leaves. Minchin’s colleague Ian Collingwood, also a Barcelona resident, is standing on a part of the trail past the cistern. He stares out from the hillside toward Barcelona’s tightly-packed swath of structures. The ridges around us frame the sweeping view. The Mediterranean shimmers silver-blue underneath the sunlight. “There aren’t many green spaces in Barcelona. There’s a real lack of contact with nature. That’s why I want to be here,” Collingwood says. “It’s a lovely place to be. I find it just kind of recharges me.”
GATEWAYS TO THE PARK
In 2011 the Ajuntament opened a high-profile design competition–Les Portes de Collserolla—to identify ways of bringing nature closer to the city and its residents. Rather than perceiving the edge of the park as a fixed boundary, the idea is to allow these great green lungs to infiltrate the city via a number of transition points (the portes), breathing some much needed oxygen into the concrete jungle. The innovative designs (see http://w1.bcn.cat/portesdecollserola) articulate this connection between nature and the urban fabric and constitute a vast amount of knowledge and ideas ready to inform the council’s strategy for Collserola going forward...watch this space! (if or when it will be implemented remains unclear.)
Parc de Collserola’s information centre is open every day from 9.30am to 3pm, and is located at Crta. de l’Esglèsia 92, 08017. Trails are available for hiking and biking. For information about the park, call 93 280 3552, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.