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Barcelona, Spain – How Barcelona is banishing ghettos with its collaborative ethos and open planning system

A message to transform urban futures: ‘everything fits here but not everything goes’

In spite of its reputation in recent years as a magnet for drunken tourists, much has happened in Barcelona since the days of the 1992 Olympics, which kicked off an intense upgrading of its infrastructure. This culminated last year with a shiny new south terminal at the international airport designed by Ricardo Bofill, the first stretch of the L10 metro line, as well as the expected completion in 2012 of the TGV station connecting the city to France.

Over the past 30 years Barcelona has transformed its fortunes from isolation under Franco, endowing itself with impressive economic weapons, visionary mayors, a powerful municipality and a collaborative ethos shared by institutions and firms. These mechanisms to support and improve civic quality of life made it an obvious case study at LSE Cities and the Alfred Herrhausen Society’s latest international conference, Global Metro Summit. Held in Chicago at the end of last year in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, the event focused on the performance of 150 cities in the wake of the global recession.

Barcelona was one of three European cities singled out for special attention, with particular interest in how Jordi Hereu, the city’s mayor since 2006, is exerting his power to put architecture to best use. In 1988 mayor Pasqual Maragall initiated a vision to make Barcelona the capital of the Mediterranean, an ambition underpinned by a highly participatory planning process. Today, it appears that the critical element in cementing this emerging status is a balanced ethos that avoids the perils of ghettoised residential districts.

Significantly, the city’s establishment of Barcelona Activa in 1986 - a business incubator providing seed capital to local firms and investment in new science and technology facilities and infrastructure - has spawned the 22@BCN district at Poblenou, the formerly-industrial area which is now attracting global knowledge-based companies. This 200ha scheme on the east coast could not have been steered by private developers alone, as most have halted projects. Instead, a public company, El Consorci, has taken the role of creating the three corners of the city’s Economic Triangle (22@BCN, Llobregat and Besòs). Hereu, who acts as the company’s president, has singled out the recently completed zero-energy Media-TIC hub building, designed by Cloud 9, as ‘a good symbol for the city becoming the capital of the Mediterranean,’ with its geometric pneumatic facade a Gaudiesque nod to nature.

El Concorci aims to realize many community schemes. The project 22@BCN project is mixed-use, as is San Andreu, an 11ha former military barracks, nearly snapped up by the private sector, masterplanned by Manuel de Solà-Morales, a supergroup of award-winning Spanish architects, with a new hospital and social housing. ‘We worked with the locals to create a neighbourhood, to reallocate people’, says El Consorci’s CEO and chairman Manuel Royes. ‘We are making projects profit the city and region.’

Barcelona’s polycentricism was ignited by Herzog & de Meuron’s Forum conference centre in 2007. Now Enric Massip-Bosch’s new Diagonal Zero Zero tower for Telefónica is - like Nouvel’s Agbar tower - a potent signal of the eastern shift of urban attention, visible from almost everywhere in the city.

A few minutes in from the coast, three new social housing blocks (50 per cent of all is the norm), one each designed by Coll Leclerc, BOPBAA and Gustavo Gili explore new typologies with a mix of open plan features and balcony types. The first residents are there but the ground floor retail units are mostly still unlet since it is a stone’s throw from a former trouble-magnet estate, but improvements there have lent a calmer air to the whole area.

Hereu contests the idea that any of Barcelona’s districts are allowed to be silos. ‘Our battle against the ghetto is every day. The market creates ghettos’. Fortunately in Barcelona public space holds sway, influenced but not swallowed by commercial property and interests, but the tension is always just below the surface. Not yet built, Zaha Hadid’s Spiralling Towers - planned by El Consorc as a sea front building for universities, business and government to connect Sant Andrià, 22@ and the Forum at Diagonal Mar - has the chance to generate movement across the silos as well good quality public space around it.

At the Ramblas with its swaying masses will get a much-needed reprieve from its itinerant status. The old model does not work, and already to combat drunken tourists the city council launched a ‘sensitivity campaign’ with posters announcing ‘Everything fits here but not everything goes’. The nearby Avenida Paral-lel now hosts the El Molino theatre, converted by BOPBAA led by Josep Bohigas. Reopened after 13 years, the conversion gives locals feeling excluded space in which to mingle but more needs to be done. Elsewhere, one of the city’s most run-down areas and once one of the most densely populated areas in the world, El Raval has undergone an esponjament (mopping up), with blocks associated with drug dealing and prostitution demolished to make way for new squares.

‘We want to have a mix of use, with residents in every neighbourhood,’ Hereu explained. ‘We cannot and don’t want to abandon the centre. Living together is the essence of cities. Social cohesion is very important. We use good architects and urbanists for a better city. Architecture has the synthesizing capacity we need’, but it is all Barcelona’s other weapons that keep the discipline from being solely a product of the private sector ghetto.

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