Barcelona has served as a crossroads of manufacturing - a vital centre of trading and shipping - since before Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas. Its strategic location, on the Mediterranean Sea and near the border with France, has made its emergence as the principal industrial and commercial centre of Spain inevitable. But just as important has been its cultural commitment to manufacturing as the mainstay of the community's economic life.
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 transnational investment has become increasingly important. The rapid growth of 'Technical' parks for high-tech industry is a modern feature associated with the growth of what has become known as the European 'Riviera' belt, stretching along the Mediterranean coast between Valencia and northern Italy.
Barcelona built its industrial might on its centuries-old status as one of Europe's most important ports, a status it maintains today, with container traffic hitting record levels in recent years. Madrid might be the political and financial capital of Spain, but Barcelona holds sway as its most culturally and industrially vibrant city.
Not only has Barcelona led Spain in the amount of foreign direct investment it receives (nearly a quarter of the total) but it also has won acclaim as one of the world's most highly regarded business locations. Surveys of European executives regularly make Barcelona the sixth most popular choice and vote it the top spot for quality of life.
Barcelona is the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia and accounts for more than a quarter of Spain's GDP. The growth of the economy has been the driving force behind Barcelona's physical expansion and the region benefits from a large local market of some four million people. The economy is particularly strong in the motor vehicle industry, electrical engineering, publishing, wine production and consumer goods.
The region serves as host to large automotive assembly plants for Nissan and Seat-VW. The latter's 14-year-old plant in suburban Barcelona has seen its workforce swell to nearly 12,000 workers who produce cars that have become an increasingly popular choice throughout Europe. In common with much of Western Europe, the older traditional industries, such as textiles, have declined in the face of foreign competition. The surviving companies have closed their factories in the city or along the rivers, leaving industrial wastelands or abandoned workers' colonies. In many cases, these industries have moved to Zona Franca, an industrial free-port, which has developed across the flat land of the Llobregat delta between the city and its airport to the south. This tariff-free zone has also attracted a wide range of transnational manufacturers, particularly Japanese.
The Logistics Park at Zona Franca is one of the largest projects drawn up as part of Barcelona's complex and wide-ranging renewal programme. The park is envisaged as an advanced industrial area and contains probably the most comprehensive logistics requirements in the southern Mediterranean. Besides rail and container hubs, the zone will have trailer and road-and-rail intermodal services. Its air services carry wide-body container capacity and there is room for an inland waterways terminal.
A coastal area of de-industrialisation within the city, Poblenou, is being developed as a high-tech incubator zone (22@), and also as the site for the Universal Forum of Cultures planned for 2004. The Poblenou district has attracted a steady stream of other investment, including a new shopping mall and hyper-community at Diagonal Mar.
Students from Parliament Hill and William Ellis Schools with the Agbar Tower, the focal point of the 22@ High-Tech Barcelona inner city redevelopment, in the background.
In addition to its manufacturing base, the Barcelona economy has diversified into a full range of service activities, particularly tourism. As part of the modifications to the city for the 1992 Olympics, new beaches were constructed in a post-industrial zone close to the city centre; it was only then that Barcelona began to realise the full tourist value of its coastal location. Its port acts as the key point of embarkation for Mediterranean cruises and the city is close to a number of very popular coastal resorts. Furthermore, the city has an exceptional architecture and art cultural heritage, particularly in Gaudi and Picasso, which attracts increasing numbers of higher-echelon high-spending visitors from around the world. It has a reputation as a fashion Mecca rivalling Milan or Paris and is a key destination for low-cost airlines such as Easyjet/Go, thriving in the aftermath of September 11th.