Barcelona is a city which provides an excellent case study of
many of the major themes of urban development and change, but which also has
some unusual and distinctive features that contribute to its particular
character and personality. The city lies on a coastal plain constrained by the
Collserola hills and the rivers Llobregat and Besos. These topographic
constraints have produced urban congestion and high residential densities.
Barcelona has many features typical of the north-west European
city. It has a large tertiary sector, its traditional manufacturing industries
have been declining, and multinational investment has become increasingly
important. The rapid development of Technical Parks for high-tech industry is a
modern feature associated with the growth of what is becoming known as the
European 'sun-rise' belt, along the Mediterranean coast between Valencia and
Northern Italy. Barcelona suffers from serious traffic congestion and has the
unenviable reputation as being the second most noisy city in Europe after Sofia.
The well-preserved medieval quarters of Barcelona were
constructed on top of a Roman settlement, founded in 15 BC. Examples of the
perpendicular Roman streets can be seen beneath the medieval buildings in what
is the largest underground excavation of a Roman site in Europe. The area within
the medieval city provides an excellent example of historic continuity and the
survival in the present-day landscape of an old urban core. The area today is
characterised by a maze of narrow streets, alleyways and small squares - a
relict urban landscape.
The area to the south of the medieval district, on the other
side of a dry river bed later to become the pedestrianised 'Rambla', was El
Raval. This was the site of industries too polluting to be allowed inside the
main city. El Raval was enclosed by city walls and this was the area where
factories and high-rise tenement blocks were constructed during the Industrial
Revolution. In the 1850's the city wall strait-jacket was demolished to allow
the expansion of Ildefons Cerdà's l'Eixample. Cerdà's plan was the first
example of urban planning and was heavily influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx
and other social thinkers of the time.
Ildefons Cerdà's l'Eixample
The l'Eixample was planned using an extensive grid-iron
pattern. The development rapidly spread to connect Barcelona to the outlying
towns, which were incorporated into the city at the turn of the century.
The area of Gracia, for example, was Spain's nineth-largest
city before it was swallowed by Barcelona's growth. The rigid blocks of Cerdà's
grid give way here to narrow streets arranged haphazardly, and the change in
atmosphere is striking. Many streets in Gracia consist of small, two-storey
buildings, and a series of small squares.
Cerdà's grid, with wide roads and bevelled street corners was
designed for the easy passage of the steam tram along each street. Today it
produces a large number of traffic intersections, one of his plan's main
failings. Other criticisms arise from the fact that some of his ideas were not
properly implemented. In particular, the plan intended a garden city in which
two sides of each low-rise block would be left open for small parks and
greenery. In the twentieth century, with increasing population pressure and the
need for car parking, most of these open areas were developed and infilled. Most
of the blocks were increased in height to a uniform eight storeys by developers
intent upon maximising their incomes.
To the north on the slopes of the coastal hills, a number of
large villas were built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These formed a high-class residential zone which, although originally separated
from the main urban area, has gradually been engulfed by piecemeal expansion.
La Mina: a district with high social deprivation
In the period between 1945 and 1975, large areas of high-rise
apartments were built along the major route ways and in parts of the urban
periphery for immigrants from other parts of Spain seeking work in the city. One
such residential district, La Mina, was built specifically to rehouse shanty
town dwellers. Today this has a sizeable gypsy community and the greatest social
deprivation in the Barcelona metropolitan area.
In the last twenty years, two major events, the 1992 Olympic
Games and the Universal Forum of Cultures 2004 have enabled the city to undergo
a transformation more radical than perhaps any other city in western Europe.
The City authorities have been able to invest in major
infrastructure projects and tackle serious inner city problems. Urban renewal
has followed a 'culture-led' approach, with planned gentrification based around
high-quality architecture, new museums and hotels.
Changes have been most dramatic in the medieval city, where the
striking Contemporary Arts Museum has helped transform one of the city's most
rundown districts, El Raval. Gentrification has seen the arrival of many trendy
bars and restaurants in the vicinity of the museum, but elsewhere sizeable
immigrant communities have taken over apartments no longer wanted by Spaniards.
Olympic Village: empty streets
Radical transformation has also occurred in the Poblenou
coastal district - an area of old manufacturing industry. In order to house the
athletes an Olympic village was constructed on an abandoned factory site. The
Olympic Village apartment blocks were designed along the lines originally
envisaged by Cerdà, but today much of the planned ground floor commercial space
remains empty. Distance from the central business districts of Plaça Catalunya
and Zona Alta may be largely to blame, but for the Barcelona Mayor, Joan Clos,
the Village with densities of 60 dwellings per hectare, is an example of what
should not be done in city planning.
A more recent development adjacent to the Olympic
Village, the Diagonal Mar hyper-community, has even lower densities - 48
dwellings per hectare - and is seen by some as an urban development disaster,
despite winning an Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence. According to Clos,
such low density areas do not contribute to building a sense of the city. In the
Mayor's defence of the compact, sustainable and dense city – building upwards
rather than outwards – the Eixample of Ildefons Cerdà is seen as a success.
The Eixample has 150 dwellings per hectare, creating a district “where yes,
there is life”.
One Eixample block interior includes an urban beach
High population densities in l'Eixample today help account for
the sense of vitality in the district, and the Barcelona Council are now well
underway with plans to restore public gardens to the block interiors, one for
every nine blocks. This will enable everyone in the district to have access to
public open space within a 200 metre radius.
The driving force behind Barcelona's physical expansion has
been the growth of the economy. Remaining factories and workshops in the
Poblenou district are being transformed into a zone for new technologies.
Southern Europe's new generation synchrotron is being constructed to the north
of the city. Business tourism has been boosted by the development of Europe's
largest conference centre on the Universal Forum of Cultures 2004 site. The port
acts as the point of embarkation for Mediterranean cruises and adjacent to it is
Spain's largest industrial estate, Zona Franca.
Zona Franca is the largest and most active industrial estate in
Spain and one of the most dynamic in Europe. The industrial estate is undergoing
major transformation with various new infrastructure projects being developed.
The estate includes a tariff-free manufacturing zone, and has attracted a wide
range of multinational manufacturers.
The city's economic growth has, to some extent, been achieved
at the expense of the environment, particularly the rivers. Both the Besos and
Llobregat rivers are undergoing transformation. A series of river-side parks now
line the Besos, and a new water treatment plant is being constructed at the
mouth of the Llobregat, together with a nature reserve and new beaches. However,
fresh conflicts continue to arise. The expansion of the airport has had a
detrimental impact on the Llobregat Delta wildlife and the construction of the
high-speed rail link is having very damaging consequences for Barcelona's
With its varied architecture, (particularly that of Antonio
Gaudi), cathedrals, opera house, theatres, museums and close associations with
many famous artists (including Picasso and Dali), Barcelona is very much an
artistic and cultural centre. It is also the capital of Catalunya, one of
Spain's most distinctive regions, with its own language, traditions and a strong
sense of separate identity. There is a great sense of civic pride within the
city and a competitive resolve to always outshine Madrid.
Thus Barcelona provides an excellent example of urban growth,
from the middle ages to the present. The city's landscape is clearly a product
of its past and its present. It also reminds us that town planning is not simply
a modern post-war phenomenon and that the intentions of nineteenth planners were
no more likely to be fully achieved than those of their twentieth-century
counterparts. Barcelona underlines the way in which modern cities combine major
international trends (eg. high-rise housing, gated communities and Japanese
investment) with distinctive and local characteristics (eg. Gaudi's architecture
and the Catalan dimension).