Inspired by green areas in walled cities, the Gibraltar Government decided that Gibraltar finally needed some greenery in 2011. Dr. John Cortes, now Minister for the Environment had this idea long before he even came into office. As Director of the Botanical Gardens, Dr. Cortes had many years of experience with wildlife and the environment on the Rock. He wanted to bring nature closer to the people of Gibraltar, and he did just that.
In the 2011 elections, the GSLP Liberals manifesto included the idea to turn a car park into the first green area on the Rock. Growing up, I had very little contact with grass here in Gibraltar. In fact, many people I know had a similar first experience with grass: we did not want to touch it, because it was such an odd sensation to us. Now, children in Gibraltar have different experiences. Parents take their babies to Commonwealth Park, and now Gibraltarians can experience grass and greenery as a normal part of life. Long ago, this same patch was a sports field, normally used to play hockey. It then became a car park, where the fair was held annually every August. It is now an integral part of Gibraltarian life in a different way. When the then newly-elected GSLP Liberal government was elected, work on Commonwealth Park started shortly after.
The project was overseen by the Botanical Gardens in Gibraltar and was also advised by Kew Gardens in London. Mark Gregory, one of the top garden designers in the UK, was chosen to design this park. Dr. Cortes wanted certain features in this garden, such as greenery, trees and a fresh water feature. The water feature includes two ponds and fountains where children tend to splash around on a hot day. These water features have also impacted the environment in Gibraltar, as now fresh water birds are found here, although they are not indigenous to the Rock and were not found here before the park was built. The green was sponsored by the Gibraltar branch of the Kusuma Trust, and this green contributes to the environment in a way that is not visible to the naked eye. Under the grass, there is a tank that collects and recycles rain water that has been filtered down through the soil. This water is then used to water the plants in the park.
Commonwealth Park has provided plenty of employment in Gibraltar since Dr. Cortes started on this project. Local company GJBS laid out the soil and the grass. The soil itself is also locally sourced; it came from cleaning and breaking down soil and rubble, and then mixing it with manure and sand to make it fertile. Dr. Cortes also made sure all aspects of the park are environmentally friendly, so the paths are made from recycled car tyres.
As with all major projects, Commonwealth Park and the team behind it faced setbacks along the way. During the building of the park, there was plenty of vandalism. This was of no major concern to Dr. Cortes who says that this vandalism was just fixed and that would be the end of it. However, the main setbacks came after the park was open to the public. It’s a generally small area, and there were thousands of people using the park. The summer of 2015 saw the park used as an open-air cinema, which was something the people of Gibraltar were not used to seeing. The result of so many people sitting on the grass caused the soil to be packed together, so little oxygen reached the grass roots. Consequently, the grass developed a fungus and it had to be closed off for a few months while it was treated. Holes have been punched into the soil to enable air to reach the roots. The grass is now well maintained and there are at least four people employed at all times to ensure the park is kept well.
The money given to the project from the EU ‘makes the difference between being able to fund a project and not being able to afford it’ says Dr. Cortes. It was these funds that made this project, as well as countless others viable. For Commonwealth Park, the EU contributed 30% of the total cost, which made all the difference to the team and the people of Gibraltar. Dr. Cortes is concerned that one of the consequences of Brexit is the loss of these funds. Without these funds, many projects like this could be lost in the future. Commonwealth Park is a unique project, as it has positively impacted the environment and the people of Gibraltar. Without EU funding, this project would not have been able to exist.