A Trip from Theory to Practice: The Redevelopment Roadshow of the Barcelona Model

I booked a trip to Barcelona for my winter break. I didn’t have a particular reason to visit, other then it was my last extended holiday for the foreseeable future. The city never came up in any of my classes; no close friends or relatives live there. So I decided to turn a class project into a study of Barcelona’s contemporary planning methods. Because I knew nothing about Barcelona, it was an opportunity to exercise my library privileges and contrast what I was able to pull from the literature to what I would see on the ground. In a planning journal, I found an article critiquing the “Barcelona Model.” Without any knowledge of The Model, I understood its relevance. Joan Clois, former mayor of Barcelona, recently began his tenure as head of UN Habitat. It was clear that his experiences as mayor were the frameworks upon which UN Habitat’s work was based. I knew that because I worked at UN Habitat and had experienced the changes that took place within the institution. I sat in meetings with Joan and was impressed by his insight into various cities but also put off by his emphasis on commodification.

The Barcelona Model                                                                                       

In 1992, the Olympic Games came to the port city of Barcelona, Spain. The city council used it as an opportunity to refashion the shoreline and industrial neighborhood, Poblenou, making room for the "knowledge economy" and tourism. Knowledge economy is defined by the OECD as a shift towards economies with a greater dependence on knowledge, information and high–level skills. The result, in Barcelona, was a shoreline divided into three sections. The southern edge of the city's waterfront would remain a robust working port; the central area became a marina/tourist area and the northern edge, the former industrial neighborhood would house their expanding tech, research and design sector. The shift was defined by planners as turning the “Catalan Manchester” to a European “Ideopolis.”

Planners rebranded Poblenou “22@ Barcelona.” Their presentations cite the work of Tom Cannon, a Professor at the University of Liverpool and the Chief Executive of Ideopolis International, and are riddled with knowledge economy jargon. The rebranding focused on the change from an industrial to an innovation district. Hence the name change to 22@ Barcelona, a play on the old industrial land use designation, 22a. The @ symbol, laden with futuristic technological undertones, talk of social cohesion and sustainability litters the marketing and planning material.

That kind of presumptuous marketing was off-putting. But as I read more, I found impressive positive impacts. Over the last twelve years, just in this neighborhood, the city has developed 8,000 new and refurbished homes with 25% of new construction set aside for affordable housing; 4,500 new companies have entered the area amounting in 56,000 new jobs. Innovative land use and financing models have appropriated former private land into public amenities with landowners agreeing to pay for half of the infrastructure improvements. Through a multimedia project, students interview elderly people to capture the historical memory of the neighborhood; parents can freely access multimedia classrooms and a digital literacy program to help them navigate the school system. Additionally, the city provides educational programs for primary school students and internships for secondary students in the fields of health, energy, media, design and information technology services. Poblenou is also home to almost all of the contemporary buildings Barcelona is known for.

Reading about Poblenou or 22@Barcelona, I was quite impressed but there were also a lot of critiques. The critics pointed to planning being used as a tool for urban commodification; privatization resulting in heavy land speculation; cultural activities centered on the “brand” of Barcelona; the tension between an authentic interest in social justice and entrance into the global market; a focus on dangerous employment stratification resulting from the service-based knowledge economy. But the criticisms left out any information about the jobs that were created or the grandmothers that were interviewed. Even as I agreed with the problems, I got that stiff feeling of the ivory tower, unwilling to join the party.

Up Close and In Person

I came to Barcelona with these ideas swimming through my head. I decided to stay in another part of the city, El Gothic, which turned out to provide a great contrast to Poblenou, showcasing the difference between an area transformed slowly over time and one that was flattened and built from scratch. I loved the natural beauty that emerged from the chaos of the mundane and the way the street art made the neighborhood a public art gallery.

By the time I got to Poblenou, I was well-acclimated to central Barcelona. The wide streets and giant modern buildings sat in stark contrast to the central city. Aside from the vacant plots it was hard to get any sense of what this place had been before. More importantly, the neighborhood, in form, felt oriented around the buildings, not the people.

In looking back at my film roll, I realized how much I was looking up rather than at the street. Walking from one activity area, like a park, to another felt like an interminable stretch. The main commercial street, built like a multimodal dreamscape, was wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic, two streetcars, two bus lanes and a wide pedestrian/bike median. It felt as if the planners forgot how to create spaces for the old men to sit on benches and see the kids across the street, playing ball.

But, across the city I could see how redevelopment had been integrated in the fabric of the city. All was not lost in the specter of redevelopment. The entrance to the Caixa Forum, in Poble Sec, was turned into a place for dance rehearsals; La Boqueria, a market with tourists abound was still a local market for the residents in El Gothic and back in Poblenou artists took a construction site as an opportunity to showcase their work and spread some love. The experience of being in Barcelona animated the documents I read and highlighted holes in each. Clearly, the planners were able to meet both their social and economic development goals, but in doing so missed opportunities to build from the strengths of the old industrial core. The academics meanwhile, displayed the problems of becoming tangled in a global corporate web but buried any gains that were made for the residents. I took plenty of lessons from the experience. For the planner in me, it was really clear that our expertise may build the bedrock for change but the success of the place hinges on a more complicated back and forth, between our plans and a reinvention by the people who live and work there. And for academics in me, our critical hype machine can stop the party before the guests start to dance.

Allison Allbee is a second-year Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. Born and raised in San Francisco, she now lives in Oakland. She is photographer and wing suit jumper.  You can find her at thevisualfield.net and alliebird@berkeley.edu