Of Eyesores and Assets

The way a mid-sized city in Spain built a signature park holds many lessons.
October 2015
A portion of Terrassa, Spain's most popular Parc de Vallparadis (City of Terrassa)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

If you look at a map of Terrassa, a medium-sized city about 20 miles from Barcelona in the Catalonia region of Spain, you’ll see a jagged green gash, about two miles long, running down the middle of the city. Until recently, this was a dark, imposing ravine that, despite cliffs studded with a historic castle, an ancient church and 19th-century brick mill buildings, was a place where few locals -- much less outsiders -- ventured. “It was a dirty, dangerous place where people were scared to walk,” a local taxi driver told me.

Today the ravine is a verdant canyon filled with walkways, bridges, small restaurants, playgrounds, lawns, trees and a pool at one end that you could practically float an aircraft carrier in. Parc de Vallparadis is clearly a well-loved and well-used space. Even on a late summer afternoon in the middle of a heat wave, it was filled with people. “My husband and I go there all the time,” said my taxi driver. “It’s the lungs of the city.”

A city planner could not have said it better. It’s Terrassa’s “Central Park,” uniting the city’s different neighborhoods as New York City’s park does. So how did a city turn something so bad into something so good? The answer is the usual one: a steady application of good sense, organization, patience, money, time, and intelligent and perceptive design. It’s something that American towns and cities should imitate more often.

What distinguishes Terrassa’s park is that such a cutting-edge and high-quality public amenity exists at all in a mid-sized city that economically is now basically a suburb. I stumbled across the park by accident while on vacation in the region, and I liked it so much that I spent a day enjoying its pleasures rather than another day in nearby Barcelona.

The idea for Parc de Vallparadis stretches back at least as far as 1989. But the project didn’t get off the ground until 1996, when the first phase was begun under a master plan by the late Manuel Ribas Piera, an architect and town planner known for his passion for urban landscape. Proceeding in phases and declared finished two years ago, it has both a practical and a whimsical nature to it. It’s studded with unexpected small surprises, such as a miniature train line for children. There’s also a glass-walled elevator for those who are disabled or simply tired.

One vital player in creating the park was the European Union. The EU’s Cohesion Fund paid for viturally all of the park’s first phase, and overall almost 40 percent of the park’s low 18-million-euro cost. That’s an aspect of the EU that many people are not aware of: It is not just about free trade among nations and a common currency, but also about investing in infrastructure to bring all countries, particularly the poorer ones, up to a common level. We don’t have a comparable program here, except maybe the federal transportation funds that are sometimes made available for better sidewalks and bike paths.

What’s also notable in the development of Terrassa’s park is the way the city coordinated with different departments, some of which were on regional and provincial levels. The politics of infrastructure seem particularly difficult in Catalonia, where the citizens speak their own language, Catalan, and have a factured relationship with the central government in Madrid.

This coordination was apparent in July, when three new commuter rail stops on a line to Barcelona opened, including one right next to the park and to a new branch of Terrassa’s university. The university building has a doorway that opens onto the park’s lower level, which includes a set of attractive bleachers clearly meant for students to hang out on; the tiers of seating could even be used for a class on a sunny day. Doing this required that the city coordinate with both regional transportation agencies and academic institutions.

We can do such projects here, but our coordination and design efforts are often clunkier. There is a smoothness and attention to detail in Parc de Vallparadis. A footbridge linking one side of the ravine to the other, for instance, has railings made of vertical gray bars with recessed lighting. The lights along the walkways are clear glass globes. These nice touches may be due to the greater skill of the park’s designers and craftspeople. Or the lack of them here may be due to our more fragmented layers of government that all too often produce fragmented infrastructure.

The most positive comparison I can think of is to New York City’s High Line, the old elevated train trestle that was turned into a park. It’s beautifully designed and is wildly successful. People forget that when the High Line was just a rusting, weedy eyesore, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered it torn down, an order countermanded by Giuliani’s successor, Michael Bloomberg. Giuliani didn’t have the vision to see how great the High Line could be. That’s something else that is always needed -- vision.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist | alex@rpa.org