Looking down on Barcelona from Montjuïc or Collserola, all you see is a solid mass of buildings. Depending on your angle, the odd avenue cuts through. And maybe that avenue is lined with trees, whose leafy crowns paint a timid brushstroke of green, struggling against masses of grey construction. The only significant green spaces in the city are all on its edges, as if they have been vilified, labelled for exile and expelled from its midst. In Barcelona all parks worthy of the name are outliers, fully detached from the main body of the urban system.
If a garden city denotes a human community wrapped in ribbons of verdant plant life (as originally conceived by English planner Ebenezer Howard), Barcelona is the exact opposite of a garden city. I am not sure, though, what that is: what do you call a city that was designed to emphasise the fact of being a built space for habitation, even more that it really must? Perhaps there is no name for a place like that.
If the streets and squares of Barcelona have ever been dirt, so that rainwater could filter directly down through layers of soil to underground rivulets, I never saw it. I have only seen liquid either sit in an asphalt puddle, or scurry along a hard curb, like a rat, until finding a drain. It is not the sort of city where weeds sprout up because someone forgot to fill in the cracks. Where bushes grow because a seed fell. Except on its hills, the only officially green things you see were planted deliberately by someone in Parcs i Jardins. Nowadays every single tree is registered, as we are reminded when they remove one from its hole and leave a little plaque to apologize—like what happens to museum paintings when they are sent out on loan.
Even then, the concept is relative: there are many parts of the urban fabric that City Hall denotes “green” but are not, as if it were a word with no real relationship to the colour we associate it with. The new super-blocks (the super-illes) are blocked off by a few mega-planters straight out of a Disney animation; then the streets are brightly painted by someone who seems to have learnt their craft doing body painting at Glastonbury or Coachella. All of this, on revised city maps, is green space.
Barcelona is not alone in showing such obsessive hatred for the original surface of the Earth, which human beings have come to be so terribly uncomfortable with.
My first apartment in Barcelona was on the Gran Via, which I shared with three students from Mallorca, an aspiring English football writer, and Laurence, a moody French photographer. As I inspected my new neighbourhood on a map from the tourist office, I noticed the street we were on was coloured green. Confused, I looked out the window: all I could see was the broad central boulevard and the two lateral lanes, then cobbled, with those walking sections in between. Where I saw granite and bitumen, the map showed me two verdant parallel lines running from Plaça Espanya across the entire breadth of the city, until map’s end somewhere past Glòries. In Barcelona no word is used more euphemistically.
Barcelona is not alone in showing such obsessive hatred for the original surface of the Earth, which human beings have come to be so terribly uncomfortable with. Contemporary civilisation seems to be eager to pave the whole thing over, birds and insects be damned. I learned in biology class that there was a thin layer of organic matter called humus lining a thicker horizon of topsoil, after which came the subsoil (beautifully named “loam”), made of silt or clay. As you got further down everything got less organic and more mineral, until hitting bedrock.
All these layers are connected, as soil nutrients are leached into the depths, or as the roots of trees reach down to the hardest stone, jamming themselves into the tightest of cracks to find water: recent studies have even shown that tree roots even follow acoustic signals, listening for drips and dribbles. But what I find amazing is that when I write this all out, it sounds so poetical, so summarily literary, when it’s not. We are not talking about The Wind in the Willows: this is nothing but the cursory summary of standard textbook soil science for twelve-year-olds.
Green space in Barcelona is pathetic, which has a direct corollary in the ways residents compensate. Plants on balconies struggle terribly; inside they take up precious space. Most working-class Barcelonans forget that those who determined the city’s hyper-urban morphology, hypocritically preaching eco-density and urban sustainability, also happen to have second residences: they simply leave whenever the hell they want.