VALENCIA’S PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES AS DRIVERS OF RURAL REGENERATION
The University School Experimental Technology and Sciences (ESTCE) of the Universitat Jaume I is responsible for teaching efforts oriented towards the awarding of official degrees recognized throughout Spain as well as its own degrees, and handles the corresponding academic and administrative procedures and university processes related to those degrees. One of the more noteworthy degree programmes to be imparted by the ESTCE between 2010 and 2014 is the bachelor’s degree programme in agro-alimentary engineering and the rural environment, which has been adapted to the requirements of the new European Higher Education Area. This bachelor’s degree programme replaces the coursework offered for the diploma in agricultural technical engineering that has been offered at the UJI up until now, with the earlier programme being gradually phased out.
It is also important to understand the academic framework that gave rise to the UJI’s involvement in this project focusing on environmental rehabilitation and development in the rural areas of the province of Castellón.
POINT OF INTEREST FOR CAMPUSHABITAT5U
Noel Villanueva Negre, a student in the agricultural technical engineering programme at the UJI, has presented the city government of La Salzadella with a project proposal involving environmental rehabilitation of the Les Llacunes wetlands. This area was drained for agricultural use during the Moorish era, and is currently underused in terms of its agricultural potential.
The main objective of this proposal is the creation of an educational nature trail in the Les Llacunes area, that would transform the area’s landscape back to as it was before the 12th century, when the Moors built waterwheels to pump out subterranean water and dry out the area for agricultural use.
A BENCHMARK MODEL
The idea was submitted to the university by the mayor of La Salzadella, Abelardo Ripoll, with the notion that the UJI and the Hydrographical Confederation of Júcar could help the city present plans for a project to be funded through Valencia’s delegation in Brussels. This could take place in the context of an existing call for proposals related to rural development and environmental promotion and would serve the purpose of fostering new avenues for tourism-related work in La Salzadella, and by extension in the county of Baix Maestrat.
One of the lecturers in the degree programme proposed the project to the students enrolled in the final agricultural technical engineering course, and Noel Villanueva, who was very interested in environmental subjects, began to work on it. He was advised by lecturers in the programme and city technicians, who assisted with access to historical materials, and also benefited from the work of two younger students who had created the “Ruta de l’Aigua”, the municipality’s first environmental walking route.
The proposal presented by Noel Villanueva not only earned him a mark of “excellent” as a final project, but will be complemented by a future environmental impact study he will carry out as a student in the UJI’s master’s degree programme in environmental studies.
Les Llacunes is a level and very wet area covering about 150 hectares located 500 metres from the city of La Salzadella in the direction of Sant Mateu. The land contains three distinct types of areas: agricultural zones (with annual crops grown for local consumption); parcels that are now abandoned; and peripheral areas suitable for the cultivation of almonds, cherries, and olives.
The renovations included in Noel Villanueva’s proposal began with the design of a walking trail about 5,000 metres long that would allow visitors to experience and enjoy the area’s environmental and cultural richness. This trail includes construction of a wooden walkway 1,700 metres long and two metres wide featuring rest areas and observation points. Five informational panels and 18 botanical description signs are also included, to point out key elements of the area’s diverse flora and fauna, traditional crop plants, and the operation of the waterwheels.
The project also includes plans for cleaning and reconditioning of 32 waterwheels in the area, close to the designated pathway, which will allow detailed study of the mechanisms involved. An earthen parking area will be created to accommodate visitors with disabilities, while other visitors will begin the route from the town’s Plaza de México.
The wetlands are a vital element within the hydrological cycle. Maintaining the health and hydrological functioning of these basins allows pollutants to be absorbed and aquifers to be recharged, while providing habitats for a diversity of plant and animal species. Plant physiology expert Leonor Lapeña points out that much of the plant and animal life along the Mediterranean coast has been impacted by urban development, and that “any actions taken towards recovery have a great significance” for environmental education and conservation of rural areas, both for Spain and for Europe as well.
Plans for the trail have emphasized accessibility as a primary goal, with a flat and level route that avoids any clear safety hazards. Plans also include picnic tables facing the wetlands to allow visitors to sit and enjoy landscape, and for informational purposes, two pamphlets will be available. One of these is oriented towards visitors who arrive during the rainy season, when the wetlands are flooded, and the other towards visitors who come during the less rainy months, when the area remains dry.
According to the project plans, this work would take around seven months to complete in order to accommodate construction of the wooden walkway (the most costly portion), with an overall budget of 350,000 euros. The city of La Salzadella believes that infrastructure-related expenses could be covered entirely by aid from the European Union, as long as prior consent can be obtained from neighbouring landowners and as long as most of these would be willing to sell parcels located within the wetlands area to the city.