Although urban gardening played an important role in Barcelona until the end of the 20th century, urban renewal during the time of the Olympic Games in 1992 caused an almost complete demolition of urban gardens in the city. Over the past 20 years, there has been a slow recovery, triggered by public administration initiatives and community movements. Nevertheless, the total area of municipal and self-governed gardens still only amounts to approximately 4.8 ha (less than 0.05% of Barcelona´s total surface) ─ which is very low compared to other European cities.
Work carried out as part of the URBES project has helped public technicians as well as community initiatives to defend their projects from plans to develop vacant lots in the city.
Since 2008, Barcelona has been facing the severe economic crisis affecting many parts of Europe, including skyrocketing unemployment rates (reaching 18.7% in 2012), budget cuts in the welfare state and basic public services (since 2009 the expenditure on education has decreased by 13.5%), and increasing levels of poverty. URBES researchers have found that several new urban gardening initiatives have emerged across the city of Barcelona as a result of this crisis. These gardening initiatives consist of informal bottom-up movements led by neighbours, local associations, and activists who occupy vacant lots to maintain knowledge and space to grow food, creating community spirit and improving public spaces. In 2013 the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona (Barcelona municipality) launched the ‘Pla Buits’ (empty spaces) initiative, which aims to provide vacant lots to neighbourhood associations and resulted in the emergence of a number of new urban gardening initiatives.
Research by URBES partners conducted in urban gardens in Barcelona identified 20 main ecosystem services ─ or benefits ─ provided to urban society by urban gardens, including the supply of high quality food, pollination and stress reduction. In particular, the research demonstrated the importance of cultural ecosystem services, and thereby provided scientific evidence for something that many citizens, such as Pep Ordonez, a technician for the city’s green space department and responsible for a public gardening program, “have always known intuitively”. Results highlighted the strong potential of urban gardens to connect people, communities, and nature, thereby solving common problems in cities, such as growing isolation, disconnection of urban citizens from nature and a resulting loss of ecological knowledge. The main beneficiaries of urban gardens in Barcelona are lower income class citizens who are predominantly elderly people and migrants from rural areas in Spain. For this societal groups, urban gardens offer non-commercial spaces for recreation, social cohesion and integration, the maintenance of cultural heritage (often relating to gardeners’ rural past), as well as access to high quality food.