Barcelona Field Studies Centre

Coastal Management Issues in Barcelona

Land use in the coastal strip

The use of the coastal strip for large infrastructures affects the townships around Barcelona. In the case of Viladecans, there is the port area and other installations. In Prat de Llobregat, there is the airport, golf course, and Wetland Nature Reserve which have helped stop building on the coast and the beaches are still fairly natural (although water and sand quality are poor). The central part of the Barcelona shoreline was restored after the Olympic Games and has helped provide open spaces and visual relief as well as leisure facilities for city dwellers. However most of the shoreline is taken up by general services. The port takes up much of the Southern shoreline. The Northern shoreline is in a very poor state because that is where the river Besòs reaches the sea. The city plans to rehabilitate the final stretch of the river, improving the landscape both aesthetically and ecologically.

The Sant Adrià de Besòs township is one of the most blighted coastal areas in the province. Most of the land is zoned for special infrastructure. This dreary industrial landscape boasts a thermal power station, an urban waste incinerator and a sewage treatment plant. Apart from blighting the landscape and taking up a considerable amount of land, this infrastructure also causes high air pollution levels, hardly an invitation to enjoy the seaside. The mouth of the river Besòs and the dumping of sewage sludge from the treatment plant produce a giant slick of not easily biodegradable polluted water laden with organic material, heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons. Despite the agreements signed between the industry, the municipal authorities and the former Ministry of Works as well as the use of filters and a change in fuels (to natural gas instead of fuel oil), Sant Adrià is still a thorny urban problem, even though its beaches have improved to a small extent.

In 5 of the townships, the whole of the shoreline is built up. In Castelldefels, for example, the entire sea front is taken up by residential use without any regulation of green areas, whether private or public. One positive factor is that Castelldefels is still free of the kind of constructions which transform the beach and is one of the few areas in Catalonia where sand is deposited naturally. This is unfortunately threatened by a project to build a port as part of the services included in the town’s general urban plan.

The Badalona shoreline is heavily built up with 37% of the area given over to industrial uses. The township has begun planning measures to make the area attractive to tourists (remodelling of the sea front, improving access, facilities and services, spreading sand on the beach) many of which will be difficult to carry through since the railway line runs just a few metres away from the beach which is difficult to improve because of regression, causing about 80% of the sand spread to regenerate the beach to be lost during storms.

At Sant Vicenç de Montalt, 100% of the shoreline is built up, with “traditional” housing next to newer residential areas. Large blocks of flats and a few hotels are sited in the hilly area of the township with no regard to rational urban planning, quite apart from being an eyesore. The N-11 road and railway cut the built-up part off from the coast and make access very difficult. Roads and railway act as a barrier to beach access in all the Maresme shore line townships and are a serious obstacle to town planning initiatives and sea front remodelling.

Santa Susanna is an exception to the growing impact of tourism in the county. While 100% of the town’s shoreline is zoned for urban uses, a large part has not been built on and is still used for agricultural purposes. However, the landscape is blighted by blocks of flats in the middle of fields and two camp sites in the area reveal a trend towards private use of the shoreline. With 80% of the local population employed in agriculture and facing strong pressure from land speculators it is to be hoped that the township manages to save its coastline from the advance of bricks and mortar.

Only 7 townships have a certain amount of land left which has not been built on. The reasons for the survival of these remnants vary: the broken nature of the Sitges shoreline, the value of agricultural land in Calella and Pineda de Mar; and protection of nature areas and landscapes at Sant Pol.

The coastline in the Barcelona region is built up along practically its entire length. Except for the townships surrounding Barcelona, the land use is basically for the infrastructure for environmental protection, power generation and the city port. The main cause of this transformation of the coastline is the uncontrolled growth of the tourist sector which often outstrips the area’s ability to absorb it. In addition to the considerable burden of satisfying highly seasonal tourism (basically during the summer) there is also the trend towards purchasing homes in coastal townships.

Beaches: social and recreational use

Beaches in the Barcelona Area are affected by the way they are used by one section of the population. There are few natural beaches in the area and while there are many city beaches, these are so full of man-made elements as to make them appear totally artificial. The indiscriminate proliferation of buildings and infrastructure (largely due to a population shift to the coast) has been particularly marked in flatter coastal areas, while hillier and rockier parts of the coast have generally escaped lightly. In some townships along the coastline the land is already either completely built up or zoned for urban use, in the rest building speculation seems to be trying to strengthen the tourist industry even further to the detriment of more traditional local activities.

Few townships have proved themselves capable of striking a reasonable balance between the current pattern of development and conservation of the landscape. One of the few exceptions is Gavà. Although he whole coastline of this township is either built up or zoned for urban use, the type of architecture permitted maintains large green spaces planted with pines. This gives a softer look to the area. The maintenance of farmed fields between the coastal strip and the town centre also lends balance and harmony. This sort of town planning combined with municipal initiatives for protecting the coastal environment sets an example of how to manage and improve tourist facilities.

The Maresme coast has undergone a radical change since the 1960’s. Large blocks of flats have been built (right on the sea front) to provide accommodation for summer tourists. If this were not bad enough, a significant proportion of people in the Barcelona Area have chosen Maresme county for second homes and, increasingly, as their main residence. Some of the problems affecting these beaches have already been mentioned, one of the most important being the extent to which they are being destabilised by the building of yacht marinas (a process which dates back to the 1940s).

The beaches in the Barcelona Area represent an extremely important leisure asset. Urban beaches are heavily visited, even if only for comparatively short spells. Metropolitan beaches, which are now being sited further away from urban centres, are visited throughout the summer, with the highest demand at the weekends. In general both city and metropolitan beaches are overcrowded. A beach may be considered overcrowded if each user has 4 square metres or less to himself. On Barceloneta beach (which is not the most crowded) this area shrinks to 0.6 to 0.4 square metres per person. The Castelldefels beach suffers from the same problem, placing an insupportable burden on services and infrastructure. The lack of adequate public transport to more distant beaches merely compounds the problem. The result is roads choc-a-bloc with private cars. Lack of parking places encourages motorists to park on open spaces which tend to turn into unattractive wastelands.

The leisure needs of the population make it essential that both bathing water and beach sand meet the minimum health requirements. Sea water is affected by marine pollution around the large conurbations along the Mediterranean coast. While Spain’s entry into the European Union has improved matters, things are still far from satisfactory. The pollution in the Barcelona area is particularly significant, especially near Sant Adrià where the river Besòs reaches the sea and where sewage plants will continue to dump their sludge until the end of 1998. In addition to the normal discharges there is also the danger of damage to the submarine sewage outlet pipe from heavy shipping traffic along the coast. Bogatell beach and the Poblenou coastal strip also have their problems. To the South of the city, visitors to the Prat de Llobregat beaches are accustomed to the stench caused by lack of proper sewage treatment in the township. Off Maresme county beaches, one can often see a slick of pollution with all kinds of solid and liquid waste floating just a few metres from the surf line, carried there by onshore currents. One can only hope that the plans for treating the township’s waste water will be swiftly put into practice and a stop put to dumping raw sewage at sea.

The health and aesthetic characteristics of the sand are also worth considering. The cleaning up of the most disgusting items found on beaches varies considerably. Some of the busiest beaches close to urban centres are well looked after. The same cannot be said of the more isolated ones. While considerable effort is put into keeping beaches clean, the sheer number of people using them makes achieving a satisfactory level of cleanliness very difficult. Obviously the health issue is much more important than the appearance of beaches. In this respect the micro-biological quality of the sand is improving.

Changes in coastal dynamics: ports and beach regeneration

The balance struck in coastal systems is based on the interaction of land and sea processes. Rivers transport sediments which provide material for beaches and the sea bed. Sea processes redistribute these sediments and add new materials. Wave patterns play a crucial role in transport (factors such as angle of arrival, height, etc. determine their precise action). Sediments are transported both transversely and longitudinally, the predominant pattern in the area being of the second type, with material being swept along beaches in a South Westerly direction.

Infrastructure plays an important part in altering coastal processes. Marinas split up beach morphology, both above and below the water line, changing sediment transport systems and re-activating movement of the sea bed because of a change in the sediment budget. This in turn increases turbulence and material in suspension which then affects habitats. Building fishing ports and marinas also increases deposition of the finest sediments in partly enclosed areas. This can lead to an accumulation of organic material, depending on the nutrient content of the sediments.

The groynes which have traditionally been used to retain beach sand are something of an eyesore and merely pass the problem on to beaches lying to the east. Some of these groynes have been either completely or partly removed over the last few years, with intermittent sand replacement used instead.

The beach resort of Sitges provides a good case study of the impact of both marina and breakwater groyne developments. The loss of sand from the Sitges beaches had reached very serious levels by November 2001.

Beach regeneration operations have been carried out on several beaches, including Barcelona's over the last few years, partly to remodel the city for the Olympics in 1992. The results of beach regeneration are not ideal. They are unsuitable for reasons of cost, geology, biology and leisure use of beaches. While the organisation responsible for these operations estimates annual sand loss from beaches at 10% of the amount spread, in fact the amount retained on the beach above the waterline ranges between 0% and 15%. The cost of replacing beach sand is much above all criteria of what is sustainable and except in a few isolated cases, yields very disappointing results. Alternative systems with less environmental impact have proved more effective, such as submerged dykes (examples: the playa de Gros, San Sebastian and the playa de Las Teresitas, Tenerife). One of the most promising and innovative measures is instalment of drainage systems along the beach which have no impact on the environment and are long-lasting. However, the results still remain to be seen.

Sitges Beaches: widths based on July 1999 data
Sitges Beaches Management Case Study (S.W. Barcelona)
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