Barcelona Field Studies Centre

Barcelona: districts without life

The Mayor of Barcelona, Joan Clos, has blamed low density planning for the lack of social and economic life in Barcelona's Olympic Village and Diagonal Mar districts.  There are few people on the streets and public space, shops or bar terraces are little used by the neighbours. This has led to plans for a greater density of dwellings in the two new districts that the City Council is designing, in Zona Franca and Nou Barris.

Olympic Village: vacant commercial properties cover whole street blocks
Olympic Village: empty streets

In the Mayor's defence of the compact 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. For Clos, the Olympic Village with 60 dwellings per hectare, is an example of what should not be done in city planning. The adjacent Diagonal Mar hyper-community with even lower densities - 48 dwellings per hectare - is seen as an urban development disaster, despite winning an Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence. According to Clos, such areas do not contribute to building a sense of the city. Density determines the nature of community life and the kind of city created. Future projects should involve the recovery of higher levels of density.

Diagonal Mar: empty streets
Diagonal Mar: empty streets

The British architect Richard Rogers has pointed out the difficulty of achieving high density in city centres when housing markets value low density. He stresses the tension that exists in urban development between money, power and democracy.

Joan Clos was therefore guarded in his voicing his opinion, since The Diagonal Mar project is supported by powerful developers and home-building industry, as well as by public authorities earning their share in the process.

The impact of gated communities

Compact v Dispersed City Models:
There are two contemporary models for cities based on level of density: the compact city and the dispersed city. Density affects the quality of urban life and how public spaces are used. In low-density cities, these spaces undergo a process of gradual privatization, are neglected or are used to extend the road network. The dispersed city is also less efficient in terms of energy consumption, transport and water use.

In the USA, 50% of the population live in low density suburban areas. This trend is also affecting the European city model.

High residential building densities can help create social and economic vibrancy in a neighbourhood. The housing market, however, values low density. Tension exists in urban development between money, power and democracy.

Best practices:
Land recycling is an effective strategy for cities that have run out of land that can be developed. This involves giving land new uses through urban renewal and regeneration processes.