Reviving vacant land through citizens' engagement
Through the combined employment and urban development strategy titled Estonoesunsolar, the Zaragoza city council aims to implement an employment plan for the area’s long-term unemployed by providing them with work cleaning abandoned empty plots of public and private land and thus, in the long run, to rehabilitate the city centre. This strategy enables temporary public use of these sites as squares, children’s playgrounds, and community gardens, while clearing the plots for their ultimate purpose: housing construction.
Initiated by two local architects, Ignacio Grávalos and Patrizia Di Monte, and further developed by the Zaragoza City Council, Estonoesunsolar is supported by an independent technical office operating under the municipal housing entity. The establishment of the office was proposed by the architects with the aim to provide effective and quick responses to the social and spatial issues faced by the city. The office is the main actor in the process and is responsible for developing the strategy as well as dealing with the realization, management and maintenance of all interventions.
The temporary interventions are proposed by the technical office and discussed in the relevant municipal district council in several meetings. However, in some cases they are an outcome of a co-design process. Once the final decision is agreed upon by all participants, the proposed intervention is carried out with a group of workers selected though an unemployment plan. The integration of the public and private sites into the city’s network of public spaces is accomplished by dismantling the surrounding walls and fences, and hence by cleaning and redeveloping the plots that emerge. The average time spent on one intervention is four weeks, involving the process of obtaining the lot owner’s permission, selecting a specific use for it based on various types of citizen participation, designing each intervention, as well as the subsequent construction process. The planning for an intervention is conducted by the technical office architects; the main local actors are involved by consulting them on the neighbourhood’s needs through a series of meetings. Moreover, the neighbourhood is invited to supervise the program and design of the plot, although not always following the city’s regulations, since most of the planned uses are obsolete. The least successful interventions are modified as necessary, thereby serving simultaneously as a learning experience for improving future interventions. Although these are temporary, all projects have been conceived to yield a long-term impact, leading to the improvement of the public space quality, and an increase in the quantity of public facilities in the city centre. This is achieved by keeping the number of temporary interventions constant through initiating new lots while dismantling existing ones and using the emerging empty spots for housing construction.
With its creative and effective approach, the Estonoesunsolar project represents a successful example of a strategy established by a public-private partnership intended to tackle multiple social and urban issues. By improving public space use through the creation of public areas adjusted to respond to the locals’ needs, this project has a significant positive impact on the relationship between locals and the public administration, as well as on the citizens’ perception of their city, while also strengthening their sense of belonging. The strategy’s temporary and innovative nature promotes experimentation while enhancing learning about the social role that architecture and urban planning can play within the specific context.