Parks provide a haven for wildlife and allow people to connect with nature. They perform an essential role in both our ecosystems and our communities. During my semester in Spain I sought to expand my perspective on public parks in the United States through a comparison between parks in Spain and parks in the United States. My hope was that experiences abroad would inform my understanding of the creation, use, and management of parks. This coming fall, I will be starting my capstone or thesis project in the American Studies department on the use of public parks in New York City. My final project will undoubtedly be informed by my experiences abroad.
I began visiting Spanish parks during my introduction to marine ecology pre-semester seminar. While adjusting to life in Spain and making new friends, I learned how to appreciate the Mediterranean Sea ecosystem through a combination of lecture classes and hands-on learning activities. The course allowed me to connect with the breathtaking marine ecosystems of Southeastern Spain and Northern Morocco. An added bonus to the program was scuba diving instruction and certification classes. Some of the most amazing moments abroad happened while diving in the Neptune seagrass beds off the coast of Cabo de Palos. This area is commonly referred to as one of the best diving spots in Europe.
The waters off the coast of Cabo de Palos are a biodiversity hotspot, in part because they are home to natural fisheries and spawning grounds for many key species in the Mediterranean Sea ecosystem. The Islas Hormigas Marine Reserve is a large rectangular area off the coast of Cabo de Palos. The waters are designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), meaning that limitations are placed on the use of the water and its natural resources. Primarily, this helps protect against overfishing and habitat destruction. In Spain, MPA’s help ensure the regeneration of fish populations. Protected waters are an integral part of sustainable fishing practices and help ensure long-term stability for local economies.
In protected waters, fishing is prohibited with the exception of sustainable artisan fishing. As a result, fish and other marine species are able to grow to maturity and spawn. These protections ensure stable populations of key species and benefit the health of surrounding waters. One benefit from this spillover effect is increased catches by fishermen operating in nearby waters. Additionally, ecotourism and recreational diving in marine reserves can provide new sources of income and a boost to the tourism industry. MPA’s are also important for scientific research because they create a controlled environment free from human pressures such as overfishing. Researchers can compare differences between protected and non-protected ecosystems to influence future policy and conservation strategies. In Spain, MPA’s are an important and complicated part of the region’s history; they symbolize the intersection of efforts to protect both the environment and the economy.
Once in Madrid, I began to explore the urban parks and preserves scattered throughout the city. Parque del Oeste was located just a five-minute walk from where I was staying for the semester. It was the perfect place to hang out on a sunny day. I spent many hours going on walks through the park, reading, and practicing my watercolors. Being able to walk five minutes to a gorgeous park for sunbathing in January is something I am sure to miss come winter back at Amherst
Living in Madrid for a few months has also given me a greater appreciation for Spanish landscape design. Although I was familiar with “Spanish” gardens, I was shocked by the variety of designs and forms. Every garden and park that I visited was gorgeously designed and meticulously maintained. A personal favorite of mine is the Sabatini Gardens on the North side of the Royal Palace. The gardens stand out as an exceptional example of neoclassical design. The park is filled with historical pieces of art and is lent an air of mystery from its hidden fountains and maze-like hedges.
It would be hard to talk about the parks of Madrid without bringing up Retiro Park, which is the largest and oldest of Madrid’s parks. The 350-acre park includes many paths, sculptures, fountains, and lakes. The park is one of the city’s major tourist attractions, and thanks to Madrid’s mild climate, something always seems to be in bloom. After class I would walk to the park with takeaway lunch to enjoy live music performances or to sit in the grass. From within the center of the park it is hard to imagine that you are in the middle of a major city.
Fortunately, my coursework provided the opportunity to explore some parks and natural landscapes outside the city limits. While I learned about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Spain, his stories were brought to life by a series of field trips to the real-life locations that inspired his most famous works. For example, the mountainous countryside North of Madrid inspired the setting of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Our class spent an entire day hiking past sites described in the famous novel.
There are so many parks and protected natural spaces in Spain, each with its own history, design, and purpose. Although I made an effort to explore as many locations as possible, I can’t help but feel that there is so much more to see. Each new park expanded my perspective on the use and history of public parks in Spain, providing context for my upcoming thesis project. However, beyond my academic interests, I gained so much personally from my semester of adventures. I feel that much of my learning over the course of the semester happened outside of the classroom. I noticed that parks are such an integral part of life in Madrid, which gave me a newfound appreciation for public spaces. One question I have is whether the apparent love of parks in Madrid is part of Spanish culture or a common symptom of city life. Either way, during my entire semester in Madrid, I never once stumbled upon a completely empty or unused park. People always seemed to be enjoying meals with friends, reading, or jogging. The popularity of parks in Madrid creates a friendly and social atmosphere that I will certainly miss, along with the great weather of course.