Valencia’s Green River: Landscape Infrastructure and the Transformation of a City’s Identity

“Bold ideas are easy, implementing them is hard. This is particularly true as cities around the world want to use their landscapes as infrastructure to address current urban issues.”

Valencia’s Green River, Photography by Brian Phelps.

Bold Visions For Valencia

Bold ideas are easy, implementing them is hard. This is particularly true as cities around
the world want to use their landscape infrastructure to address the issues they face. How can interventions be woven into the existing urban fabric? Beyond simply mustering the financial resources or political will, one must seek opportunities to carefully insert or adapt landscape systems to the constraints of established urban communities. New York’s High Line, Atlanta’s Beltline, and Madrid’s RIO project all relied on abandoned or superseded rail or highway infrastructure to thread linear landscapes through the hearts of old cities. Valencia, on the other hand, relied on a crisis, and in the words of Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

The Floods of Valencia: Planning a New River

In 1957, Valencia experienced a devastating flood that forever changed the city’s relationship with the Turia River. Nearly three quarters of the city was inundated by floodwater and over 60 people lost their lives. The following year, the city embraced a plan to divert the river around its western outskirts to the Mediterranean Sea.

1957 Flood in Valencia: Photograph extracted from PereDrak’s Valencia Slideshow.

 Re-routing the City’s River.

The ambitious plan, known as “Plan Sur,” was completed in 1969. Though the new channel was a missed opportunity for innovative construction, the remnants of the old riverbed became a chance to create the landscape network which became today’s Jardín del Turia.  A park wasn’t the city leadership’s first idea—in an effort to alleviate traffic congestion, they envisioned an elaborate highway system through the heart of the City. But by 1970 the citizens pushed back and protested the highway proposal under the motto “The bed of Turia is ours and we want green!” By the end of the decade, the City approved legislation to turn the riverbed into a park and commissioned Ricard Bofill to create a master plan in 1982. The plan created a framework for the riverbed and divided it into 18 zones. Currently, all but one of the zones has been developed.

The resulting design establishes a monumental five-mile green swath within a dense and diverse urban fabric, including the historic center of the city, and has an average span of 600 feet, from bank to bank. The park comprises over 450 acres and is characterized by bike paths, event spaces, active recreation fields, fountains, and many notable structures, such as the Alameda Bridge by Santiago Calatrava.

Each of the sections has its own distinct design style, ranging from Ricardo Bofill’s formal gardens with modern touches, built in 1986; and Calatrava’s biomorphic City of Arts and Sciences, completed in 1998; to the sinuous landforms of Header Park by Eduardo de Miguel Rabones, Blake Muñoz Criado, and Vicente Corell Farinós, completed in 2004. The final zone connecting the park to the Mediterranean Sea and the city’s marina district has been master planned by Tomas Llavador Architects.

 

Today’s Jardín del Turia; photographs by Brian Phelps.

Landscape as Infrastructure and Transformation

While the heavy-handed conception of the Jardín del Turia might be problematic, the project is a fascinating modern example of the transformative effect of landscape infrastructure on a city’s identity and well-being. Born out of a crisis, Valencia has managed to integrate a recreational and transportation infrastructure network with its historic heart and surrounding neighborhoods. It is now difficult to imagine Valencia without its green river. The city has created a space that brings together both its residents and visitors from around the world. The park’s accessibility and economic impact is amplified by its linear form, which maximizes its edges.

Despite the apparent success of Plan Sur in preventing flooding, the long-term impact of diverting the Turia River is unknown: under the same circumstances today, would we consider such acute changes in a region’s hydrology? As Valencia’s development encroaches on the channelized river (Nuevo Cauce del Turia) and absorbs the waterway into its new urban fabric, it becomes increasingly important to reconsider this past solution. The channel provides a second chance to rectify and build upon the legacy of Jardín del Turia by encapsulating the parallel highways and restoring the river’s natural systems. This new intervention could provide an even larger linear park system that further connects the City and transforms its western edge, while maintaining the necessary function of flood control. What is the future of the channel? Will it be an opportunity to fulfill Valencia’s next big idea?

This post is syndicated with Metropolis POV, the blog for Metropolis Magazine that examines contemporary life through design and perspectives.


Brian Phelps is a news junkie, amateur economist, twitterholic, and lover of cities: As a senior associate at Hawkins Partners, Inc., a landscape architecture and urban design office in Nashville, Tennessee, Brian Phelps explores viable market-based solutions for repairing our cities and improving our urban experiences. In addition, he is co-founder of sitephocus.com, where he blends his interest in photography, technology, and urban design to create an extensive on-line image library of projects from around the world.

 

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