clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Barcelona’s remarkable history of rebirth and transformation

How the city grew, from pre-Christian Romans to Cerdà to the 1992 Olympics.

The Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona.
The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The story below is a brief history of urban planning and transformation in Barcelona, Spain. It provides background and context for a five-part series about the city’s current comprehensive urban plan, which would reclaim more than half the streets now devoted to cars for mixed-use public spaces, or “superblocks.” You can find part one of that story here. This project was supported by the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, where the author, David Roberts, is a senior fellow.

Barcelona is in a perfect place for a city.

On the northeastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, in the Spanish Levante, it sits on a plain of land about 5 kilometers wide, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the east, the Collserola mountains to the west, the Besòs river to the north, and the Llobregat river to the southwest.

It is a neatly defined and easily defensible area, with fertile soil, and it serves as the easiest passageway from the rest of the peninsula into Europe. Humans have been settling there, according to archeological remains, as far back as 5,000 BC.

The city’s origins trace back to the Romans, who settled in the area in 15 BC and, in the first century BC, built the medieval city of Barcino. It was small, surrounded by a wall roughly 1.5 kilometers in circumference, with the characteristic Roman grid of perpendicular streets.

Barcino, sketched in its original location over a map of Barcelona’s current Gothic Quarter.
Barcino, sketched in its original location over a map of Barcelona’s current Gothic Quarter.
De Enrique Íñiguez Rodríguez (Qoan) - Barcino/Bcn (2010). Museu d’Història de Barcelona. Ajuntament de Barcelona, CC BY-SA 3.0, Enlace

In these modest beginnings are already visible two characteristics that would define Barcelona’s development over the years.

First, it began, and has always remained, a bounded and compressed city, dense from its founding. First physical walls and then the limits of geography have hemmed the city in and ensured that its residents are crammed tightly together.

And second, it has always been an intentional city, closely conceived and constructed by central planners. There have been very few periods of unplanned growth in Barcelona history. Unlike so many newer cities, it has not sprawled. Each new burst of growth has been on purpose; there has always been a plan.

Over the centuries, the city has been transformed again and again at the hands of visionaries, mostly notably architect Ildefons Cerdà, still considered one of history’s great urban planners.

Exploring that history can help illuminate the promise and perils that face Barcelona’s modern-day visionary, urban planner Salvador Rueda, who is now attempting to transform the city again, to prepare it for the coming rigors of climate change by making it less noisy, less polluted, and more walkable and sociable — all of which involves pushing back the tide of cars. (Read more about Rueda in part one of the five-part series on superblocks.)

Rueda’s plan would mean radical change — but Barcelona is used to that.

How Barcelona’s walls finally fell

After the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century CE, the years saw a series of conquests — Visigoths, Arabs, what have you — but they all reused the existing city.

In the Middle Ages, the city grew and became more complex, the center of a region known as Catalonia. An extended wall was built in 1260, and then in the 15th century, the wall was expanded again to encompass the new Raval neighborhood. The part of the plain outside the wall was used for agriculture to provision the city.

15th century Barcelona walls, with the original medieval walls in the center and the current city in the background.
15th-century Barcelona walls, with the original medieval walls in the center and the current city in the background.
Servei d’Arqueologia de Barcelona

In 1714, the War of the Spanish Succession ended and Barcelona (having backed the the Habsburg rather than the Bourbon claimant to the throne of Spain) was on the losing side. Upon its surrender, in order to suppress any future challenge, Philip V abolished many of the city’s institutions and charters, built a fortress citadel to keep an eye on it, and forbid Barcelona to grow beyond its medieval walls.

Remarkably, the wall around the city stayed in place — hemming in a growing population and almost completely separating the city from the sea next to it — for two more centuries. By the middle of the 19th century, population density was the highest in Spain, working conditions were miserable, sewage was out of control, water was dirty, and the city was struck by a series of cholera epidemics and riots.

Barcelona near the turn of the 19th century, hemmed in by a wall and watched over by a citadel.
Barcelona near the turn of the 19th century, hemmed in by a wall and watched over by a citadel.
Public domain; Wikipedia

By 1854, when the Spanish government finally gave permission to take the wall down, it was one of the most hated structures in Europe. Townspeople immediately went at it with crowbars and pickaxes; it took 12 years to completely remove it.

Barcelona’s original medieval walls are still visible in several parts of the city; this is next to Sant Antoni Market.
Barcelona’s original medieval walls are still visible in several parts of the city; this is next to the Sant Antoni market.
David Roberts

Then came one of the most extraordinary and underappreciated chapters in urban design history — a chapter that, though 175 years in the past, contains many omens and warnings for Barcelona’s current efforts.

Cerdà’s utopian plan for Barcelona

As soon as the wall’s demolition was announced, plans began for an expansion of the city. In 1855, the central Spanish government approved a plan by architect Ildefons Cerdà.

Cerdà is a legendary figure in urban planning circles, farsighted and progressive even by today’s standards. (Among other things, he is credited with coining the term urbanización.) Trained as a civil engineer, over time he developed a range of skills, from mapmaking to surveying to public health analysis. He was eventually involved in virtually every area of the city’s planning.

Cerdà was horrified by the conditions of the working class in Barcelona and set out to make his extension of the city — the Ensanche in Spanish, or in Catalan, as the district is still known today, the Eixample — a model of orderly, clean, safe, hygienic urban living.

Architect and humanist Ildefons Cerdà.
Architect and humanist Ildefons Cerdà, whose accomplishments include an amazing mustache.

Two things are worth noting about Cerdà’s plan.

First, he took what was, for the time, an exceptionally holistic view of urban quality. He wanted to ensure that each citizen had, on a per capita basis, enough water, clean air, sunlight, ventilation, and space. His blocks were oriented northwest to southeast to maximize daily sun exposure.

And second, his plan embodied what is — then and today — a striking egalitarianism. Each block (manzana) was to be of almost identical proportions, with buildings of regular height and spacing and a preponderance of green space. Commerce was to take place on the ground floor, the bourgeoisie were to live on the floor above (rather than in mansions at the edge of town), and the workers were slated for the upper floors. In this way, they would all share the same streets and public spaces, exposed to the same hygienic conditions, reducing social distance and inequality.

Each 20-square-block district was meant to be largely self-contained, with its own shops and civic facilities. Hospitals, parks, and plazas were to be spaced evenly throughout the city, to maximize equality of access.

Excluding the already developed Old Town and the two diagonal avenues intended to bisect the plain, the pattern of regular rectilinear blocks (exactly 113.3 by 113.3 meters, for 12,370 square meters, with at least 800 square meters for gardens) was to be replicated all the way to the borders of nearby settlements. The streets were to be wide enough to allow for the free flow of pedestrians, goods, and commerce (in the original plan, 35 meters wide).

In 1859, in response to criticisms, Cerdà released a modified version of the plan, with narrower streets no more than 20 to 30 meters wides and somewhat deeper buildings, with more room for commerce. The plan was approved by royal decree in 1860.

Cerdà’s original plan, as of 1859.
Cerdà’s modified plan, in 1859.
Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat, Barcelona

One of the plan’s most crucial and enduring features is its reliance on short, regular blocks. As the Romans knew, and city planners have since rediscovered, the hypodamic plan (or hippodamian, named after the ancient planner Miletus), with its short blocks and orthogonal streets, encourages walking, mixing, and vibrant street life.

A regular grid is comprehensible and easily navigable. There are multiple routes to any destination and regularly spaced choices. Because almost all streets are the same, it promotes the dispersion of foot traffic and street life.

Though Cerdà’s manzanas were (and are) criticized for their uniformity — the sameness is said to leave no room for great monuments or idiosyncratic artistry — it is just that underlying uniformity that has proven so endlessly adaptable.

The repeating structure of the blocks means that as social and economic circumstances change, old buildings can be shifted in use or ripped out, or multiple buildings combined. “You can change a building to introduce housing, a school, a hotel, or offices; you just need to put a building between two others that exist,” says Miguel Corominas Ayala, a professor at the Barcelona School of Architecture. “It’s very rigid geometrically, but it’s very flexible in use.”

Like Legos, the blocks have been built and rebuilt many times, for many different uses. (In the US, perhaps only Manhattan and Washington, DC, have similarly long experience with similarly regular blocks.)

Originally, each of Cerdà’s blocks was to have buildings on just two sides (sometimes three), occupying less than 50 percent of the total area, with the bulk of the interior space devoted to gardens and green space. The buildings were to be low enough (no more than 20 meters tall and 15 to 20 meters deep) to allow for almost continuous sunlight in the interiors during the day.

The goal was to combine the advantages of rural living (green space, fresh air and food, community) with the advantages of urban living (commerce, culture, free flow of goods and ideas).

A plan for two of Cerdà’s blocks, from an 1863 booklet.
A plan for two of Cerdà’s blocks, from an 1863 booklet.
Public domain; Wikipedia

Though Cerdà designed the city before automobiles, he included wide streets and his famous chamfered (45-degree) corners in anticipation of urban steam trams distributing goods and people. They would need lots of room to turn. (Seriously.) The design has, to Barcelona’s current dismay, proven extraordinarily accommodating to motor vehicles. Many of the areas created by the chamfered corners are now used for parking.

Along with his design, Cerdà also developed a strict set of economic principles and building bylaws governing the construction of the manzanas, to ensure that his vision was implemented. But when the Spanish government selected his plan in 1860, it did not ratify his principles and bylaws. That turned out to be significant.

Cerdà’s original design was a humanitarian marvel. If it had been built as conceived and survived to the present day, it would count among the world’s most progressive urban plans.

But that was not its fate. It was (eventually, mostly) implemented, but not as Cerdà envisioned. In fact, he was shunned by the city and his work fell into virtual obscurity.

What happened? The fate of Cerdà’s plan is a cautionary tale about the dangers that await Salvador Rueda’s.

Cerdà’s original plan fell victim to greed and politics

Though in many ways, Cerdà’s plan won in the end — its legacy is still clearly visible in Barcelona’s Eixample — it was compromised by commercial and political considerations from the outset.

In its initial form, it won approval from the (progressive) Spanish government and Barcelona city hall. But in 1856, a conservative shift in government led to the appointment of a new city council, which ignored the plan and held a competition to select its own plan.

Even as, in 1859, the royal government was approving Cerdà’s plan, the city government announced the winner: a plan by architect Antoni Rovira.

The urban plan of Antoni Rovira y Trias.
The urban plan of Antoni Rovira y Trias.
Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat, Barcelona

The Rovira plan reflected the conservative tastes of the city’s wealthy and powerful. It was more traditional, built around the Old Town center, with a hierarchy of wider to smaller streets. It made room for grand monuments and architecture. And it segregated the bourgeoisie in the center from the workers on the periphery.

The Spanish government ignored Rovira’s plan and pushed forward with Cerdà’s, but in Barcelona, the Catalan-friendly city government and the working classes alike saw it as an imposition from outside. They resented it.

(For a nice account of this chapter in urban planning history, see 1997’s “Constructing a City: The Cerdà Plan for the Extension of Barcelona,” by Eduardo Aibar and Wiebe E. Bijker, then of the universities of Barcelona and Maastricht, respectively.)

In part due to local resistance, Cerdà’s plan was implemented slowly. It was 20 years before 250 square acres were built, 50 before one of the main avenues went in (the other never did). Cerdà’s plans for reform of the Old Town, requiring a great deal of expropriation of wealthy people’s land, were largely discarded.

And the implementation was poorly regulated. Few of the blocks followed Cerdà’s guidelines; in 1872, some 90 percent were estimated to be in violation. Commercial pressures meant that blocks set aside for schools and other civic facilities were given over to commerce and industry.

Buildings were often built on all four sides of the blocks’ interiors, rather than two. By 1890, the buildings occupied an average of 70 percent of the block’s area. By 1958, the total volume of space on the manzanas occupied by buildings had grown from Cerdà’s envisioned 67,200 square meters to 294,771. The blocks have only been built up further since.

The interiors of the blocks, which became somewhat gloomy and closed off, were often turned over to parking or shopping, or simply neglected (though many are among the city’s landmarks and many more are being revived today).

The infilling of Cerda’s Manzana (block). The built--up space in the average manzana increased from 67,200 square meters in the Plan Cerda (top left) to almost 295,000 in 1972 (bottom right). (Source: Construccion de la Ciudad, No. 0, 1972)
The infilling of Cerda’s manzana (block). The built-up space in the average manzana increased from 67,200 square meters in the Plan Cerda (top left) to almost 295,000 square meters in 1972 (bottom right).
Wynn, 1979

Nonetheless: The Eixample got built. And though it has become crowded, loud, and paved over, it remains one of the most in-demand and expensive areas of the city. The basic system of manzana Legos that Cerdà envisioned has proven incredibly adaptable and resilient.

The Eixample, from the air, in 2007.
The Eixample, from the air, in 2007.
Alhzeiia, Wikipedia

Urban transformation in Barcelona after Cerdà

Cerdà’s plan laid the groundwork for the Barcelona that exists today, but subsequent events made the city into a global tourist destination and led to its current congestion.

In 1888, Barcelona (which by then was home to 450,000 people) hosted the Universal Exhibition, a celebration of Catalan culture and the city’s growing influence. The event prompted urban upgrades throughout the city, including a new sewage and water system, and ushered in the architectural era of modernism, with several grand new structures built throughout the city.

Buildings erected for the Universal Exhibition of Barcelona in 1888.
Buildings erected for the Universal Exhibition of Barcelona in 1888.
Public domain; Wikipedia

Held in a park on the grounds that once housed Philip V’s citadel, it was a huge success, drawing more than 2 million visitors and helping to cement Barcelona’s reputation as a premier European city.

(The architectural works of Antoni Gaudí, for which the city is famous, date to roughly this era and through the turn of the century.)

In 1929, the city, which had since grown to encompass six smaller settlements around it, hosted the International Exhibition, which brought more improvements, like public toilets and the complete replacement of gas lights with electric.

Then, after a series of political convulsions, the Spanish monarchy fell in 1931. That led to another fascinating episode in Barcelona urban planning history — a path not taken.

The modernist transformation of Barcelona that never happened

In the early 1930s, a group of architects called GCATSPAC (Catalan Group of Technical Architects for the Solution of Problems of Contemporary Architecture) conceived a new plan for the city that would have meant a thorough transformation. The group was led by architect Josep Lluís Sert, a follower and eventually colleague of the famous French rationalist architect Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier helped GCATSPAC develop the Macià Plan, which reconceived Barcelona along grand modernist lines, as a political and cultural capital.

The plan contained all the aspirations and flaws of modernism. In its way, it was humanitarian, with great attention paid to the hygiene and green space needed by workers. In fact, it was in large part conceived to preempt a revolution of the working classes.

The residential district of the Macià Plan.
The residential district of the Macià Plan.
Fondation Le Corbusier

But it also would have imposed a rigid artificial order on the city, with all uses separated into distinct areas: residential, industrial, civic, and leisure. Everything was to be huge — the new roads, the skyscrapers, the monuments. A proper, “rational” modern city.

City planners have since come to rediscover what Cerdà knew in the 19th century: Part of the strength of a city is in mixing diverse uses and people together. Cities that separate their functions into distinct areas, the urban equivalent of monocrops, tend to render them all lifeless, as suburban American cities have discovered again and again.

Regardless, the Macià Plan was never implemented. Instead, a civil war arrived, which ended in 1939 with the ascension of Gen. Francisco Franco, a fascist dictator who would rule over Spain, violently suppress Catalan culture, and largely neglect Barcelona until his death in 1975.

The period was anomalous in the city’s urban history, characterized by mainly unregulated construction using cheap materials, often in suburbs at the periphery of the city, to quickly accommodate workers moving from other parts of Spain.

The end of dictatorship and the arrival of democracy set off a series of small, locally focused, often self-funded urban improvements, which bolstered the city enough to win it the 1992 Summer Olympics. And the Olympics led to the biggest urban transformation since Cerdà’s.

The 1992 Olympics made Barcelona a global tourist destination

Barcelona’s strategy around the Olympics was so novel, progressive, and successful that it has been studied ever since. (London explicitly looked to the “Barcelona model” when preparing for the 2012 Olympics.)

Rather than focusing on a few large sports venues — which often become “white whales” when events are over — Barcelona spread new investment across the city, funding structural upgrades that would outlast the event.

Barcelona’s Olympic Village.
Barcelona’s Olympic Village.
Wikipedia (User:SergiL)

Most notably, where the Poblenou district met the water, rundown industrial facilities were removed and replaced by an Olympic village, with new residences that became market housing afterward. The beach on Barceloneta was extended two miles north, across Poblenou, opening a huge stretch of renewed waterfront to city dwellers and tourists. A new port (the Olympic Port) was built to accommodate increased tourism.

Ring roads (rondas) were constructed around the city to enable smooth transportation between venues and reduce congestion. Montjuïc, the mountain at the southern end of Barcelona, got the Olympic stadium and an iconic Olympic pool overlooking the city.

The Olympic swimming pool on Montjuic, in Barcelona.
The Olympic swimming pool on Montjuïc, in Barcelona.

Along with a range of other projects and new green spaces, the 1992 Olympics transformed Barcelona into a fully modern global city and a hugely popular tourist destination.

In 1999, the Royal Institute of British Architects took the unprecedented step of awarding its Royal Gold Medal for Architecture not to an individual architect, as in years past, but to a city: Barcelona, for its “ambitious yet pragmatic urban strategy,” which has “transformed the city’s public realm, immensely expanded its amenities and regenerated its economy, providing pride in its inhabitants and delight in its visitors.”

In recent years, Barcelona has been grappling with the consequences of its spiraling success, familiar to many growing cities: It is overrun by tourists, real estate prices are rising due to foreign speculation, gentrification is pushing out longtime residents, and there are too many cars, bringing with them noise, air pollution, and congestion.

In a city as compressed and crowded as Barcelona, these problems are no longer tolerable. The task for urban planners now is to harness the city’s success in service of yet another transformation, into a model for the 21st century, designed around people and public spaces rather than motor vehicles.

Can a modern city really take back most of its streets from cars? It seems far-fetched, but Barcelona has been through major changes before. The current city administration is in the midst of implementing an urban plan that is a successor to Cerdà’s — if anything, even more ambitious. If it is completed (a very big if), every single resident of the city would have direct access to walkable, mixed-use public spaces. Every resident would live in a superblock.

Read all about it in our five-part series.