photo by David Adamson
Connecting city and sea
It's not your standard urban park, but it still gets a lot of use
Both reviled as an urban planning disaster, and celebrated as a daring development revitalising former industrial wasteland, Parc Diagonal Mar provides a rare oasis of green and a respite from the constant background noise of construction, the rattling, roaring, grinding symphony named ‘Progress’ that is currently playing all day, every weekday, in Saint Marti.
Squeezed between the Ronda Litoral and Avinguda Diagonal on the grounds of a former industrial railway yard, the €36 million project was designed by the celebrated Spanish architectural team of the late Enric Miralles, and Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT Architects) whose other local works include the Torre Mare Nostrum, head office of Gas Natural Barcelona, Igualada Cemetery, and the blanket-roofed Santa Caterina Market in the Born.
Miralles’s concept was to create a park to connect the city and the sea; his vision was a tree sprouting up out of the Mediterranean and branching out into the city’s urban grid. The tree’s trunk became a rambla running directly through the park from La Diagonal, connected to the sea by a pedestrian footbridge, which passes over the Ronda Litoral.
Its branches form a series of walking paths, recreational tracks and cycle ways, carving the park up into its many distinct areas. An extensive recreational zone of ping-pong tables, basketball courts and football fields provide plenty of scope for budding athletes, and the ever-present petanca pitches are a worthy battleground for teams of octogenarians.
Children have their own play area. For the under-sixes there are swings, walking ramps and musical instruments all constructed from natural looking materials, which blend in with the colours of the park’s vegetation. The ‘Magic Mountain’ with its series of stainless steel slides, or toboganes, of varying degrees of steepness is a ‘must do’ with a constant stream of children who hurtle down head-first under the watchful eyes of anxious parents.
Moon crater urban furniture and porous concrete zig-zag seats are scattered throughout the park, encouraging passers-by to stop, relax and take in the surroundings. “I really like this park,” said Fernando Do Couto, a local resident who lives in one of the adjoining residential complexes. ‘‘It offers a fantastic space within its special design. It’s different to other parks, it’s great for kids, families, and older people who just like to walk or sit in the sun. You can just sit or lay in the grass, like many couples or groups of friends do.”
The central feature of the park is its magnificent man-made pond, alive with its abundance of vegetation and local birdlife. Sea gulls, ducks, geese, fish and frogs have all made their home there as well as other, more unexpected wildlife—turtles illegally smuggled in by local residents. Tangled steel piping criss-crosses the park, supporting giant hanging mosaic vases sprouting vegetation and spraying a light mist of water over the pond's perimeters, the soft splashing helping to oxygenate the water.
While Parc Diagonal Mar’s aesthetic and architectural qualities may be debated there is little doubt that its use of natural and recycled resources, married to modern technologies and materials, make the park an excellent example of sustainable urban development. To help combat the sea breeze and prevent the whole area descending into a highly manicured wind tunnel, large North African palms play sentry at the park’s entrances, breaking the wind and protecting the park’s less resilient specimens.
Much of the landfill from the original industrial site was recycled during construction, helping to create the artificial contours and mounds that give the park a feeling of both permanency and movement. Paths made of porous materials minimise storm water run-off and the need for further irrigation. The use of naturally resistant plant species such as the Mediterranean flax, the eucalyptus tree or the wonderfully named Arbol del Amor cut down on the need to use pesticides.
These sustainable principles also extend to the residential towers, which have been strategically placed on the park’s perimeter. They are positioned to optimise sunlight during winter and air circulation during summer, helping to reduce energy consumption. Each tower contains rainwater collection systems to irrigate gardens, solar panels for heating swimming pools and pneumatic systems for waste collection.
While the park continues to receive its share of accolades, it has also received its fair share of high-profile criticism. The Urban Land Institute’s Award for Excellence praised the park’s developers for their “willingness to take risks in achieving a daring development of a former industrial site”.
But Barcelona’s former mayor, Joan Clos, unceremoniously described the park as “an urban planning disaster”, and The Project for Public Spaces Institute, an international non-profit, planning and design organisation, included Parc Diagonal Mar in its Hall Of Shame, describing it as a park “seemingly designed by lawyers, who have taken all preventative measures necessary to ensure nothing can happen in it.”
Critics have also pointed out that much of the land originally set aside for the project has subsequently been swallowed up by a series of luxury residential complexes, leaving a mere six of the original 14 hectares available as green space and water to be used by the public. Local access is also a source of contention. Although touted as a public space, at dusk the park’s iron gates are locked to the outside world. The high-end housing complexes, with their paddle courts and swimming pools, actually prevent access to the seashore and risk further marginalising their neighbours, in particular those from La Mina, one of Barcelona’s most economically excluded barrios, already physically and psychologically severed from the rest of the city by the Ronda Litoral and the River Besòs.
Obviously Parc Diagonal Mar does not please all of the people all of the time, but setting aside the arguments from both sides, a brief stroll through its many hectares shows it certainly pleases some of the people some of the time. Picnicking families, huffing joggers and competitive petanquists all show that local workers and residents alike have made it their own.
Xavier Sierra, who lives near by and who spent 40 years working in one of the factories that once stood on the same ground, said he thinks the park is fabulous. But his personal opinion, like the more official ones, was mixed. He admitted to wishing there were just a few more trees.
To get there
Metro: Selva De Mar
Bus: 26, 36, 41,141