Having to talk about something that technically does not exist forces you to make some preliminary remarks.
As if it were a matter of writing about a presence or a ghost, which manifests itself only through the traces it leaves behind. Surely La Floresta Speaks can only be described with facts: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? What is going on?
Memories are erased at great speed, simplified, mixed up with fantasies… and even more when it comes to collective memories. This is, therefore, a chronicle of the facts, without names, from my perspective, with which I would like give readers a way to intuit the personality of this, let’s say, ‘intangible asset’ of the neighbourhood that is, in short, La Floresta Speaks.
I. It happened one day
The agenda for that Neighbourhood Council meeting had two parts. First, an external study called “Criteria for Improving Urban Space” was presented. They showed us their analysis, diagnosis and proposals for how the streets of La Floresta could be, given that it is a neighbourhood within Collserola Park, somewhat consolidated in its urban informality. Looking at a current map of La Floresta, it became clear that the future layout of the streets couldn’t be designed from a clean slate: the hills couldn’t be made flat, nor the curves into straight lines. It wasn’t possible to dry up the torrents that run down the mountain to create the perfect street system, by the book. The work, therefore, had to focus on the design of the existing streets and on understanding them not only as paths for cars to pass through and park, but as parts of the neighbourhood in their own right. Places to walk and to spend time. And, above all, the emphasis had to be on understanding that this was a system of streets aspiring to urban quality that had to dialogue with another system, the mountain and the natural park.
After they finished, the speakers left and the second part began. Then, the council announced a budget item to asphalt 90,000 m2 of streets, as a way to “eradicate dust and mud in La Floresta”. They clarified this was a low-cost operation –not about urbanising the streets, only paving them– and that there would be no preliminary executive project. Because of the council’s limited term, the works would be awarded directly to a construction company from a preliminary project, which means leaving the design unfinished.
So? On the same day they told us what should be done, they decided to do something else. In itself, the news had conflicting effects among the neighbours.
On the one hand, some, arguing social justice (“It’s about time; I’ve been paying the same taxes as in the city centre for forty years!”), moved from the joy of having finally earned the right to municipal investment, to doubting that this time it was real, to the anguish of knowing that there was no money to do all the street. And thus began the fight to make sure their own case was properly attended to.
On the other hand, united under a mentality of “they will not pass”, others rejected both the unilateral way the announcement had been made and the content of the proposal. They asked for citizen participation in the project and articulated purely environmental reasoning, concern about the effects of asphalt on the ecosystem. They saw in the extensive asphalting the destruction of the landscape, the invasion of an expansive “city model”, which contradicted the logic of its periphery, in contact with nature.
The general excitement over the imminent action led to an informal meeting of neighbours, which also brought together many who, although they did not know which side they were on, could feel that this was an important issue and joined the search for information and arguments. And so, one after another, open neighbourhood meetings on this topic started taking place, opening up the spectrum of issues to take into account, bridging the gap between the two sides and, finally, reaching a consensus. This position can be summed up as “Yes, okay, let’s go ahead with the investment, as long as things are done differently”.
One day, the people gathered at the emblematic Casino, now renovated as a municipal centre, began calling this ‘state of conversation’ La Floresta Speaks. The group participating firmly believed that the issue was important, and that debate had to be open to the rest of the neighbourhood. And thus began the campaign to make ourselves known as a space for the neighbourhood to come together.
What was La Floresta Speaks? We came to exist when we began expressing ourselves, with an initial definition. Here is what came out of it:
- La Floresta Speaks is an open group. Everyone is welcome and invited to participate with their ideas.
- La Floresta Speaks is structured around common concerns and does not tackle individual issues.
- La Floresta Speaks meets when it should. That is, when there is a cause to discuss. It is offered as a platform with various possibilities for dialogue and consensus to take place.
Meaning we have no shape or size; we only exist around a theme and we only apply ourselves when we consider it necessary.
The logo, round and green, with a loudspeaker and a tree, aimed to communicate the fractal nature of participation, in which, accepting the different degrees of involvement of the neighbours, from the leaves to the trunk, a message would emerge saying that La Floresta Speaks was a space where everyone could have a voice.
We made a flyer. We printed it. We folded it and passed it out in the neighbourhood. Then we called a bigger meeting: a conference to talk about the “Emergency Plan against Dust and Mud”. The title of the conference, “What kind of La Floresta do we want?”, already stated that the conversation we proposed was a bit more elaborate and ambitious than a mobilisation of the neighbourhood in favour of or against the asphalting.
II. And what happened?
The conference ‘What kind of La Floresta do we want?’
The conference was very positive. The communication campaign was effective and many diverse people came. The mobilisation involved the school to also include the voice of the children. It even won back a lot of “old-timers”, those disenchanted with the emptiness of the historical neighbourhood struggles, who once again got involved and interested. Exhibitions, children’s activities and a meal framed the day of debate. An attempt to make it entertaining, inclusive and festive.
The programme of the day was created with the intention of encouraging a quality conversation: the first speakers aimed to inform, explaining the subject in the easiest way to understand and going over the specific circumstances to prepare an Open Debate, which we hoped would serve to decide something collectively.
The technicians we had invited were the main thing missing. Surely, attending the conference was an uncomfortable commitment for them. Maybe they couldn’t be bothered; maybe they got waylaid, we don’t know. The fact is that, given the informational tone intended, it would have been nice to revisit the criteria document with its authors, or to be able to hear the laws that apply to Collserola Park first-hand. However, government representatives did come, dressed in their Sunday best, starting off on the defensive. But the discussion included them in the conversation, too. In a sense, the slogan “To conserve nature, we must urbanise with care”, which had been used for the Urbanisation Days in 2001, was being revived. The struggle over ‘what we want’ was moving towards ‘how we want it’ and, therefore, we had to apply ourselves collectively to define it.
But it takes time to do things carefully and through participation, and the deadline for launching the tender was approaching fast… We had to move to action.
From La Floresta Speaks to La Floresta Does. Drafting the Paving Plan Project
The City Council presented a document called Improvement Plan for La Floresta, which would replace the ‘Emergency Plan against Dust and Mud’ with a somewhat more aspirational concept. It recognised the lack of investment in the neighbourhood and divided the action plan into two phases: first, dealing with the streets (Plan for Paving the Streets of La Floresta) and, second, dealing with rehabilitating how pedestrian mobility is structured through the stairs and passages in the neighbourhood and three squares that were considered complex and important enough to be treated with particular care.
We were now only in the first phase and, for this, a series of eight neighbourhood meetings proposed a street classification system, based on agreed-upon objective criteria, and defined global design criteria, which would guide execution of the project, aware that application would be pure craftsmanship. The essence was to recognise that a large part of the streets to be paved were the smaller, more peripheral ones adjacent to the park. Because of their secondary status, they allowed us to think of inverted priority solutions, where pedestrians are the main users, and permeable solutions, attentive to the natural environment.
The process ended with four final meetings with the City Council technicians as an extraordinary Territory Group, which officially and technically validated the proposals.
The project was presented at an extraordinary meeting of the Neighbourhood Council, called solely to reach a consensus on the issue. We were in charge of publicly presenting the proposal and an agreement was reached. Next, we summoned up all our courage and wrote a document with the criteria and the agreements adopted. Meaning we wrote the preliminary project.
But this story does not end well. After the document was submitted, it was processed internally to become the preliminary project for the tender. When we saw it published, we realised there were about ten pages and all the graphic documentation was missing. It had been cut ruthlessly without even telling us. And, punctuating the omissions and changes, many key pieces had been mutilated. But we found out too late…
Six Keys and Municipal Urban Tenancy
Meanwhile, a group of young squatters took over the teachers’ house. At a time when housing was difficult to access, the City Council had, for some time, had a property sitting vacant. The squatting movement, which sought the support of the neighbourhood, proposed implementing an urban tenancy contract. Meaning they would have the right to live in the property in exchange for rehabilitating it.
A meeting was organised between squatters and neighbours. Beyond monitoring their negotiations, the meeting sought to define the meaning of this project in the neighbourhood. It was about proposing urban tenancy of municipal property, not about setting out a private relationship with an owner. Therefore, it had to define the long-term conditions of the urban tenancy rights to use the building, beyond just the initial rehabilitation, which was becoming increasingly limited.
Could the young people possibly conduct neighbourhood service activities? What kind of services could be proposed? Perhaps maintaining the forest and neighbouring centre facilities? Babysitting? Cooking? How would the shape and functioning of the housing block itself be conditioned by thinking that, in addition to a place to live, it would also be a place where things happened about and for the neighbourhood? And, even more, would the right to live in the building in exchange for services be temporary? Would it give successive generations of young people from the neighbourhood their first chance to leave home?
This interesting conversation was interrupted. One day, we were no longer summoned to the meetings and negotiations continued behind closed doors. It had to be resolved. Surely because the municipal elections were coming up…
‘The La Floresta We Want’ Manifesto
And with elections came the electoral propaganda, which La Floresta is not used to being reflected in.
La Floresta Speaks launched a call to participate in the drafting of a manifesto: ‘The La Floresta We Want’. Instead of waiting to choose between what was on offer, the idea was to reverse the prevailing mechanics and, as a neighbourhood, write our own programme. It would have concepts and specific actions for the next term that we would share with the parties running for mayor in a bid for support.
The manifesto was drafted by neighbours through an exercise to synthesise the varying specific proposals that were being submitted. In short, everything could be summarised in four blocks:
- We want to participate
- We want to preserve the natural spaces where La Floresta is located
- We want to improve urban quality
- We want to foster day-to-day coexistence and neighbourhood co-responsibility
If we were people from the ‘model neighbourhood’, we would be Ecobarri.
Most of the political parties explicitly supported it by signing the document. A few looked the other way. And one publicly stated that the document had no value; that opinions are expressed at the polls.
The results of the municipal elections changed the political organisation, as well as an important rule that affected the Neighbourhood Council: now the council can be presided over by a councilman who does not belong to the winning party. A neighbour of La Floresta, who had participated actively in La Floresta Speaks, became its president and, supported by an active neighbourhood network, began changing how the council works. But we wouldn’t see any of this until summer!
The Town Crier for Feast Day 2015
They invited us to make be the town crier for Feast Day and we got quite excited. After such a busy year, giving the welcome speech ringing in the summer was a gift.
It was divided into two actions: first, explaining again, now with a microphone, what La Floresta Speaks actually was, and using the opportunity to list the many associations, groups and collectives in the neighbourhood. We are many; we are very alive. This had to be made visible! Then, the Indian Chief Seattle from the Suquamish tribe came out of the audience. In 1854, in response to an offer from the white man to purchase their lands, he had responded with a beautiful letter arguing the need to defend the environment. The spectre of Seattle had visited, from another time and from another place. And he was amazed by what he had found in La Floresta. He praised us highly, called La Floresta the centre of humanity and concluded: La Floresta has Flow!
III. And what is going on now?
After the summer and the municipal elections, the situation was renewed.
On the one hand, the Neighbourhood Council came back in a new format. This could be seen in the arrangement of the audience, in the diversification of neighbours’ voices, and in unique commitments like ending each meeting with a musical performance from someone from La Floresta. On the other hand, the City Council itself responded to the citizen participation movement by opening a Participation Department and deploying resources and personnel to professionalise and centralise the event itself.
In this new context, in line with the third commandment that said “La Floresta Speaks, when it is necessary”, leadership was left to the Neighbourhood Council, with help from the Participation Department to carry on the conversation.
In dormant silence
But most of the new players had no experience in the previous stage and were unaware of the work done. When the time came to execute the Paving Plan, the information leaflet that was distributed did not mention any of the Criteria for Paving La Floresta that had been issued by La Floresta Speaks. The neighbours were being summoned to discuss their specific cases, but without respecting the list of agreements. Everything had been slashed. It was starting from scratch. We even witnessed screaming matches and confrontations on the streets. It was hard to see how the criteria simply evaporated and we lost the chance to humanise and naturalise our streets.
But everything has moved on. The most important, positive transformation has gone on within the neighbourhood, activating themed work groups, many of which have managed to turn their concerns into proposals. Also, with the call for projects for unassigned spending and opening up the issue of a Mobility Plan. Also, revitalising the public health centre with a youth centre and a provisional neighbourhood library. Also… maybe it is too much? La Floresta is very lively and speaks everywhere!
La Floresta Speaks has now spent two years in dormant silence, taking only small breaths. Will it wake up?