Barcelona Field Studies Centre

The Barcelona Model

It's the coolest city in Europe. Its secret? Sheer imagination.
By Melissa Rossi
Newsweek International Feb. 2004

Barcelona's gothic quarter is a tangle of narrow stone streets winding around the old cathedral. Morning begins with a loud clanging of metal as the gasman rumbles along, pushing a cart of dusty orange cans and bellowing "Bu-ta-noooo!" He passes cafes, outdoor cheese markets and fountained squares where, later in the day, old men read newspapers and string quartets play Vivaldi. "Bu-ta-noooo!" Hearing his call, people pop onto their balconies and yell down orders for the butane that powers most of the neighbourhood's furnaces, stoves and hot-water heaters.

The daily ritual recalls a distant past. But slip around the corner, past the Roman wall, dart into the sparkling subway station and 12 minutes later you emerge in the future. Here in the farthest reaches of the city, a huge photovoltaic pergola stretches along the Mediterranean Sea, generating solar energy. Public trash cans whisk garbage underground through pneumatic tubes. The Big Blue Triangle, a three-sided building with shafts of sunlight beaming through to its open-air lobby, is cooled by cascades of recycled water. Next to it, lush gardens insulate the roof of the city's flashy new convention center, southern Europe's largest.

Come May 9, this innovative architectural ensemble will host the Universal Cultural Forum, a 141-day culture and design expo that city fathers hope will stamp Barcelona's image even more vividly on the world map. Until recently, this area where the BesÚs River spills into the Mediterranean was so polluted, locals dubbed it "Chernobyl." Now, atop an upgraded water-treatment plant, a seaside plaza stretches for 20 football fields, the world's largest public square outside of Tiananmen. A park wraps around a renovated waste-recycling center, and, thanks to some 30 million euro from the European Union, the polluted BesÚs is coming back to life. Along the once nauseating coastline, a kinetic work of art has unfolded: long, undulating sculptures of artificial sand dunes enfold a man-made beach with seawater swimming pools, a marina, a sailing center and a diving school. The construction has created 5,000 jobs, says Montse Prats of Barcelona's Infrastructures del Levant, the company overseeing what has become the biggest municipal-renovation project in Europe. "And of the $3 billion spent here," adds Mayor Joan Clos, president of the forum, "two thirds is private money."

The forum is only a part of an urban renaissance that has made Barcelona one of Europe's most dynamic and innovative cities. Showered with prestigious awards from the likes of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Harvard School of Design, Barcelona has become a magnet for city planners from Shanghai to Santiago. Next month 20 mayors from across Europe will meet there to discuss ways of injecting a bit of Barcelona's vitality into their own cities.

So successful is this "capital of the Mediterranean" in creatively regenerating itself that there's even a buzz phrase for how to do it: the Barcelona model. It's shorthand for a whole new approach to urban design, inventing fresh uses for the old, juxtaposing it with the new and creating loads of eye-pleasing public spaces (small parks, walkways, gardens and museums) to attract private development to previously dodgy areas. Couple that with a flair for staging high-profile international events to market the projects, and voila. "It's hard to overestimate the influence of the Barcelona model," says Uwe Brandes, project manager for the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative in Washington, D.C., one of many urban-renewal projects that have taken a page from Barcelona. He's not alone in praising the city of 1.5 million famed for the soft, swirling buildings of Antonio Gaudi. "What is happening in Barcelona is absolutely a phenomenon," says Ricky Burdett, director of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics and adviser to London Mayor Ken Livingstone. "Barcelona is the jewel in the crown of urban regeneration," adds architect Lord Richard Rogers, who headed a task force for the British government recommending that England embrace more than 100 measures first tried here. Tourists and business people all but swoon over the city these days. Barcelona is the world's most popular convention site. Cushman & Wakefield's international business surveys consistently rank the city No. 1 in the world in terms of quality of life. Some 20 million tourists visit each year; 9 million or so stay overnight, five times the figure in 1992, when the city played host to the Olympic Games.

The Olympics first brought Barcelona to tourists' attention. It also yanked the heads of urban designers everywhere. The reason: the event spurred an orgy of spending on huge infrastructure projects - airport expansion, highway rings, telecommunications and sewage upgrades, and the creation of miles of sandy beaches that entirely reoriented a city famous for "turning its back to the sea." Twenty-five years' worth of infrastructure upgrades were crammed into five years, says the city's chief architect, Jose Antonio Acebillo.

Aware that the Games often leave host cities with dozens of abandoned and costly structures, Barcelona's design team engineered its creations for the future. Football games are still played in the Olympic stadium, but it doubles as a venue for concerts and shows. Athletes' dorms were built as full-fledged apartments, then sold for a tidy profit. The beachfront Olympic Village - a maze of modern architecture and sculpture that includes Frank Gehry's huge metal "Fish" - became a magnet for trendy restaurants, art galleries and hotels, among them the swanky Ritz-Carlton Hotel Arts. Tourism, which previously generated only 2 percent of the city's annual revenues, now accounts for 14 percent. And Mayor Clos believes publicity from the forum - organizers tout it as an "intellectual Olympiad," offering everything from seminars on world peace to edgy theater performances - will boost tourism by a third. Preparations for the event have spurred yet another wave of innovation, building on a decade of what experts call "layered multiple use" of land. Across the city, parks spread out atop new highway tunnels. Parking lots hide under squares. Seventeenth-century convents are turned into libraries and cultural centers, palaces are transformed into hotels, museums sprout from former textile factories. "Here you have neighbours living and hanging out their clothes," says Burdett, gesturing to the laundry fluttering from a Gothic Quarter balcony, "and there you have a four-star hotel, a public square and a school."

Barcelona's appetite for beautiful public spaces, none of which exist by happenstance, figures large in these developments. Such places might be as simple as three benches under a palm or a tree-lined walkway. Or a grand square that can accommodate concerts or a parade. Forbidden under Franco's 36-year rule, these espacios publicos elicit more than just civic pride: they bring new life and development. Take Raval, the barrio next to the old docks, long known for prostitutes and drug dealers. "Private developers wouldn't touch it," says Derek Geary of the Barcelona Field Studies Center. But since the city put in a rambla (pedestrian walkway), a contemporary-art museum and more squares, businesses and restaurants are flocking.

What's now happening around the forum illustrates the power of Barcelona's formula - and mirrors the broader success of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's pro-business policies for Spain. Its essence is a dynamic partnership between local government and private companies, each trusting the other to act in their (and the city's) mutual interest. Thanks to strong civic backing, investors can confidently undertake projects that might not otherwise be feasible - or profitable. Not far from the city's new beachfront, for example, private developers are erecting a mini-city, complete with a shopping center, university campus, 13 hotels and 800 new apartments. A two-bedroom goes for 400,000 euros - or more. For some in the city, the pace of renewal has grown almost too frenetic. A new train station is being built for the high-speed AVE. The port is being refurbished. So is the bullring. Foreign high-tech companies are being lured to renovated enterprise zones that mix business and housing. Property values have skyrocketed. Slipped under the door of most every building are notes from foreigners wanting to buy. "Barcelona is becoming a city just for tourists," says Albert Gonzalez, owner of the wine bar Vinissim, shaking his head at the dizzying transformation.

Clos views all this as signs of "a successful city operating in a free market," and he may be right. Certainly the delegation from Seattle, strolling along Barcelona's new manmade beach and seeking inspiration for their efforts to create a "people-friendly waterfront" back home, would agree. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Barcelona will soon be swimming in praise.