It started as a breath, a wisp, emanating from the small squares and plazas, bubbling out onto the streets, through the neighborhoods and into the city itself, becoming its architecture and infrastructure, before finishing absorbed in the history, and becoming the culture of a country. With a formula that the architect Oriol Bohigas baptized as participatory urbanism and which was the impulse behind the motor, later known as the Barcelona model, forty years ago in 1976 this particular Olympic dream was born.

The municipal coffers were exhausted and it was difficult to find a model which started from a politically democratically acceptable point and which ideally would have as a partner the popular will of the people. Intense Political agitation from the era and the citizenry with its never-ending processions of street demonstrations and claims against the ruling state of the day -the addition of private initiative came later- were the key to the beginning of Barcelona’s profound change.

It was all made possible by the first democratic, municipal councils and the implication of a group of architects and town planners who were capable of looking beyond the restraints and worries of the election cycle (such was the idealism, or perhaps naivety of that era). Names such as Bohigas, Delegate of Town Planning (1980/1991) and Ambassador for Culture (1991/1994), Joan Busquets, Director of Planning Services (1983/1989), Jordi Borja, Deputy Mayor between 1983 and 1995 and Joan Antoni Solans Planning Delegate between 1977 and 1980. Previously, in 1973, Barcelona had purchased the huge unused industrial plots and brownfield sites from factory owners and businesses which had recently abandoned the city, as well as much of the obsolete railway installations, all of which totaled an injection of 126 hectares (more than 12 million square meters) to the project. Thus, the city could start to plan, project and build parks such as La Maquinista, Parc de l’Estació del Nord, the Parc de Joan Miró and the Parc de l’Espanya Industrial.


Parc de l’Espanya Industrial, La Maquinista, Parc de Joan Miró, Parc de l’Estació del Nord.

In the first years of the democracy, the planners moved to put in place the base for what they deemed necessary to do. They ‘Sponged’ the historic center, piercing through baroque and medieval neighbourhoods, removing entire streets and areas in order to open up the city, foment new neighborhoods, continually assessing so that the existing ‘barrios’ maintained a certain coherent dignity. Their gift was to endow the city with a powerful infrastructure and above all else, allow the citizens to look to the sea, because Barcelonians, for more than forty years could hardly more than see the coastline, much less enjoy it. It wasn’t until its designation as an Olympic headquarters in 1986, an initiative that started to move all the resources and bring together necessary agents, Public and Private, that it was finally possible to make the dream come true.

“We have in front of us a magnificent mobilizing project.” said the Mayor Pasqual Maragall in the book ‘Refent Barcelona’. The messy collection of lean-tos, huts and sheds which were falling down on the Moll de Fusta, mere meters from the waters edge, were demolished, and the industry which had hugged the coast for centuries disappeared. The project recuperated six kilometers of beachfront. From sea to mountain the city drew new bypasses, El Dalt and Litoral, and as an additional touch (which only adds to the beauty of the ideas which had flourished) the opportunity was not lost to improve and clean up the barrios that these new multi roadway giants ringed, among them Nou Barrisñ and Horta.

Parallel to this work the planners started to thin out the buildings in the densely overpopulated barrio of Raval, colloquially known as Chinatown for the huge number of immigrants who had installed their uprooted lives there. Although there was huge polemic regarding the demolition, spaces were broken open, justified by the application of pure hygienic theory, which at the same time gave the necessary space and artistic freedom to create potent cultural centers such as the Cultural Museum of Art of Barcelona (MACBA, 2005). This was followed later by the opening of the Rambla de Raval (2010), which in its turn was to be followed a few years later by several prestigous universities.


Rambla de Raval

The inevitable Olympic village arrived with the games and these were constructed on the seafront, while the opportunity was not lost to carry out another important reconversion. The industrial area of Poble Nou was modernized, into a new zone of mixed development, housing within an economic sphere, linked to technology and the communication industries. Like pieces in a domino race, so it was locked down, the opportunity for another huge transformation, that of the opening of Diagonal from Plaza de Glories right down to the sea.(1999) This in turn led (figuratively and physically) to the design of another grand zone with a brand new stamp forever marking the shore of the city, that of the Forum (2004). Not content with all this, these demons of change and refurbishment decided to put some order into the two (hugely polluted and neglected) rivers which run either side of the city, el Llobregat and el Besos. Yet what is perhaps the most spectacular thing about all these changes was the relative speed with which they were designed, implemented and finished, between 1986 and 1990.

No more that ugly grey city which had done nothing more than deteriorate tragically throughout the seventies and early eighties. Rarely did anyone visit. The transformation into one of the European cities with more attraction and charm than a great many others brings year after year millions upon millions of visitors to the City of the Counts. Irony of ironies, today Barcelona has serious difficulties managing what has now become the second more pressing issue for the citizens of BCN, an excess of tourism.

The Barcelona Regeneration Model

International events are used to enhance prestige, attract private investment and to focus and motivate the city’s workforce. Buildings and infrastructure constructed for the events are of very high quality and serve a double purpose: for short-term use during the event itself and as a means of regenerating a decaying area of the city in the long-term.

The use of low-paid immigrant labour and multiple sub-contracting in the construction industry.

The city is seen as the sum of its neighbourhoods, rather than comprising of distinct parts. This discourages a bit-meal approach to regeneration and instead emphasises the building of communities.

Public intervention is linked to the demands of the local community.

A reduction in urban density of 20%.

The radical transformation of the perimeters of the worst affected areas. It is easier to begin the transformation process where the deterioration is not so significant.

Careful planning of public building locations to encourage regeneration and prevent duplication.

Buildings of heritage value are conserved for public use such as schools, libraries, offices, cultural centres, etc..

The introduction of mixed new land uses into an area, including service industries, office and retail, private and public housing.

The encouragement of innovative architecture and thinking.

Investment in transport infrastructure to improve accessibility. This increases opportunities for economic and social activity.

A deliberate policy of introducing a new social mix into deprived neighbourhoods.

The creation of new communal open spaces in strategic areas to encourage social mixing. The open spaces are created well before new building development commences.

A flexible rather than rigid approach to planning.

A policy of spreading new retail and service industries throughout the city, particularly in central areas to retain vibrant communities.

A block on new out-of-town shopping centre developments.

Compulsory purchase of buildings in very poor condition in order to renovate them using public funds.

Building renovations completed to a high standard, both interior and exterior.

Tax incentives and grants to refurbish properties.

Strong political and local leadership to drive the regeneration process.

Education, job training, health, crime and leisure initiatives to help tackle the social problems of illiteracy, poor health, and high unemployment.

Collaboration between the Leisure and Social Services Departments to tackle social exclusion amongst the disaffected young. Leisure amenities in schools are kept open until late into the evening.

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