We enter through the gate on Marques da Silva Street, one of two main accesses to the garden that has yet to be inaugurated. Caracol da Penha Garden has been on the minds of Lisboners since 2016 when it became known that an EMEL (Lisbon Municipal Mobility and Parking Company) parking lot was planned for that urban void.
The will to put that space at the service of the population and a record vote in the city’s participatory budget reversed the initial intention and now the garden is about to become a reality. With only a few details yet to be completed and waiting for the last pieces of equipment to be installed, the work is expected to be finished by the end of this year.
Construction began on October 24, 2019, and should have been completed within a year, but the pandemic led to a shortage of materials and delays in deliveries. More than three years later, it seems to be finally close to welcoming Lisboans and, above all, the parishioners of Arroios and Penha de França, two of the most densely populated parishes of the city and with fewer square meters of green spaces per inhabitant.
“Except for the people who had houses facing this way, nobody knew this existed.” It is Rita Vieira Cruz who leads the tour of the garden. She has lived there since 2009 or 2010 – she can’t remember exactly – with a view of this space that easily goes unnoticed in the midst of the urban bustle.
In 2016, on her balcony, she saw that the sheds that supported the municipality’s carpentry services were being demolished. She tried to find out what was planned for that space and was informed by the Lisbon City Council that it was about to be transformed into an EMEL parking lot with 86 spaces.
Rita saw a garden being born in that space to serve the local community. She imagined it long before she knew that there were plans to build yet another parking lot there.
An urban void with 10 thousand square meters. There aren’t many of them in the city, especially in the more densely populated and consolidated areas. An economist by profession and convinced of the importance of citizen participation in the construction of the city, Rita decided to submit her idea to Lisbon’s Participatory Budget.
The power of a collective that claims a garden
She is not known for being a good designer, and for that part, Rita had the help of some neighbors. And so the Movement for Caracol Garden of Penha was born in June 2016. The following month, a popular assembly was held, with “200 or 300 people” in which the proposal was discussed.
When talking to the parish councils, Rita tells us, the idea was that the population wanted to increase the parking supply. But Rita and other neighbors believed that the people’s intentions might be different.
“We wanted to prove that what the population wanted was a garden. We used an indicator that is the square meter of green space per inhabitant in each parish and we realized that Arroios and Penha de França were the fourth and fifth parishes with the least green space per inhabitant.
A piece of land with these dimensions is not easy to find and the fact that it is owned by the municipality represented “a great advantage”. For the movement, this was the “last chance” to make a public garden grow in this space, which lives on the border of the two parishes, since “there are no other large green spaces in this part of the city”.
After the victory in the Participatory Budget, with more than nine thousand votes, the movement proposed that the design of the future garden be the result of a participatory process. The municipality accepted the proposal and gave carte blanche to the popular consultation.
“We placed some suggestion boards around the neighborhood, where people could suggest what the equipment would be and how they imagined Caracol Garden to be. Hundreds of suggestions were collected from residents, children, and adults, which then came to shape the final architectural project, which is the result of the articulation of the will of the parishioners with the project designer, the NPK studio – also responsible for Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles Park in Espanha Square.
Some of the ideas were “very good, others very good but not achievable and others impossible, like rivers. And it wasn’t children who presented this proposal,” she tells Mensagem, laughing. Another idea that became part of the final project was a slide for children and adults. “There was a proposal that called for a slide all along the slope, from up there to Almirante Reis Avenue. This is not exactly what will happen, but the project foresees the installation of a slide between the third platform of the garden, the highest, and the intermediate level of the new green space.
Guided tour to the garden designed to “last two centuries”
The challenge, Rita begins by saying, was to “design a garden that would last a century, two centuries”. The result of the idea born in 2016 and embraced by thousands of Lisboners is almost over, and Rita, who has long imagined a garden here, confesses to being “very happy with the result. It turned out better than I thought. Citizen participation is really an element that we should never leave behind in our lives. We can make many things happen,” he says.
Because it is located on a slope, Caracol da Penha Garden had to adapt to the accidents of the terrain. And there were some difficulties to overcome. The Municipal Master Plan (PDM) describes this public land as presenting a “moderate and high risk of a mass movement,” so it was necessary to adopt measures to contain the hill.
To make it accessible to everyone, the garden’s design features three levels: a lower level, close to Almirante Reis Avenue and with two accesses from Marques da Silva Street, an intermediate level, with an entrance from the top of the stairs at Cidade Liverpool Avenue, and an upper level, with an amphitheater with a privileged view that reaches 25 de Abril Bridge and Cristo Rei. At the proposal of the population, the garden will have opening hours and gates, to ensure the rest of the neighbors.
Separating the three levels are concrete walls that ensure the stability of the land. The cream tone that decorates the structures will soon take on new tones: virgin vines are growing here, a climbing plant that will cover the walls and whose leaves, green in the summer and spring, turn bright red in the fall.
Accompanied by Rita, we enter the first level of the garden through the main gate, located on Marques da Silva Street. Here, she explains, the garden has “a square, a community garden area, and a forest. And there is a mini basketball court there.” Here we see tall cacti whose existence on the ground precedes the idea of the garden. The forest is located in the corner of the first level. With dense vegetation, it was the result of a “struggle”. “We wanted a space that was a forest and, at a certain point, we wanted a garden that was like the Gulbenkian, a wilder part.
The passage to the second level is made through a ramp of a gentle slope, which ensures access to people with reduced mobility. At this second level, we find a square, a bower, with growing climbing species, and two tall poles that will serve, in the future, to support screens for film exhibitions. One of the proposals submitted during the civic participation process resulted in the implementation of smooth flooring here. “It allows dancing,” explains Rita. This is the “social” level of the new green space.
There will be a small fountain, and tables with benches, and at the end of this landing, a kiosk will be installed, which is expected to operate without music – another proposal that came up during the participatory process. “People wanted silence, it’s funny.” The terrace will have a view of the playground.
On the third and last level of the garden, the “most Zen” level, there is a lawn, where dogs will not be allowed, and cement blocks form an amphitheater overlooking the city. From this level will start the slide that will take people of all ages to the intermediate level.
There is, for now, no inauguration date announced, but the Lisbon City Hall made it known, in August of this year, that the end of the works is scheduled for the last trimester of this year.
You can read this article in Portuguese.
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