Urban space: Present and the future

Barcelona is a Mediterranean city, where public space plays a key role. I was born in the legendary eighties, when the first democratic city councils made a virtue of necessity; with very limited resources, and with staid perseverance, they addressed the deficiencies that had been pursued by residents’ associations during the dictatorship. There are different ways of relating the epic of the 80s: the first tells the tale of the specialists, and we know them by name, who took charge of the Urban Planning Department, and who developed a new methodology for action on the city, valuing small-scale interventions, urban acupuncture and prioritising “planning before design”. The second tells the tale of residents’ associations, where thousands of anonymous activists – the FAVB (Federation of Barcelona Residents’ Associations) had more than 70,000 members at the time – demanded a response to the glaring shortcomings plaguing neighbourhoods after years of stagnancy in the public sphere. Most assuredly, the convergence of political interest and social initiatives correctly identified the critical places for action and slowly but surely, with excellence, renovations began on the city which, twenty years later, would become a pilgrimage site for urban designers everywhere. As many as 145 urban projects completed between 1980 and 1988 are catalogued in previous instalments of this same series.

Then came the Olympic decade, when the approach to city was based on two new concepts: “polycentrism” (what were called the “new urban areas”) and large-scale infrastructures. The ring roads, the rationalisation of the subsoil, the sports facilities or the opening of the seafront through the Olympic Village. There was a qualitative leap in investment (the operations were very costly) and in planning (years went by between the project conception and the execution of the construction). It was a period of traffic flow studies, concern for the excessive motorisation of the city, and architects and engineers works together to streamline vehicle trajectories and to prevent traffic chaos. The infrastructures were carefully designed, with high formal, structural and executive quality, although the human dimension was overlooked.


Fully immersed in the 21st century, public space that was designed with large-scale urban systems in mind (road infrastructures, highways, cars) is shifting toward and urban space that is tailored toward sustainable mobility, funded by investments that are more spread out and well-balanced among all of the city’s neighbourhoods. In the same city, projects are designed which attempt to provide adequate space for every type of mobility and need for parking (foot traffic, bicycles, motorcycles, bus or car) taking into account the preexisting dimensions of each of the city’s arteries. Well aware that the future lies in clean transportation – whether public or private – the city is transforming in keeping with the aim of ensuring reversibility, flexibility and adaptability in the long term.


One of the most important challenges for the 21st century is sustainable urban development. Barcelona is reconsidering its future from an interdisciplinary perspective, which takes the territory into account as a unique and finite asset for generating opportunities without compromising the legacy of future generations: a point of attraction, an exporter of talent, an accelerator of the particles of intelligence, connected with the world and attuned to the changes of the future. Barcelona needs to become a city that breaks down barriers, that offers the best public space, housing and transportation for living, working and, above all, innovating to face the challenges of the future with stability.


For some years already, the territory of Barcelona has been saturated. The regeneration takes place from the inside: refurbishing, suturing or building new spaces within the limits of the existing city. The transformation of the city is understood from a comprehensive point of view where, beyond “design”, all of the dimensions of the urban reality: the generation of opportunities, habitability, design tailored to people, hyperconnectivity, energy self-sufficiency or urban resilience.

The Urban Habitat is reinvented as a process; it transcends construction, and its goal is “the day after” the work is finished; once the transformation is complete, it keeps learning from the process, it focuses on how the spaces that have been created are used; it provides services, a network and a connection and gathers information on everything that happens in the new urban space. At this stage new technologies, real-time information, and smart solutions all come into play. The urban space becomes a working space equipped with WiFi, a production center, and a place for exchanging information; at the same time, it serves as an information platform, which makes it possible to analyse, in real time, how we move, where we make stops and which consumption model we follow. One of the challenges for the future is using the data we generate, in real time, for the benefit of all the city’s residents. Beyond the technological revolution, the sensorisation of urban space and using applied technology in places where the municipal services don’t reach, constitute a way of democritising the knowledge of how we live in the city, in the most objective and transparent way possible.


We need to move beyond intuition; with the help of technology, today we can obtain real- time data on how people use public space, which lets us evaluation which places are more successful and why. This analysis, which was traditionally only carried out in the area of vehicle traffic, has allowed for such complex operations as the demolition of the Glòries elevated traffic circle. Using small-scale microsimulations, millimetric adjustments could be made to the traffic light cycles, congestion areas, or tram frequencies. Carried over into foot and bicycle traffic, it can help us understand the most comfortable routes, or the least used ones; for the moment, this can help improve the layout in every part of the city. And, in the future, it could even help to predict traffic. In this way, the transformation process becomes a momentary stage in the history of the city, which is conceived as an open and changing entity, which never stops. In this sense, “management in the meantime”, performance during all the phases of transformation – from the beginning of construction through to the initial operations – and making sure that other spaces aren’t marginalised or downgraded by the emergence of a new urban reality all become fundamental issues.


Likewise, the transformation of the Urban Habitat is understood as a competence which extends beyond technical disciplines or political vision; it takes into account the leading role played by citizens, an increasingly diverse collective. Consensus, derived from different forms of citizen involvement, is achieved through the reasoned explanation of the different ambitions held by all of the agents implicated in the transformation of the territory. In this way, the Urban Habitat is transformed as the result of proactive citizen involvement; citizens present proposals, they offer informed opinions, they are a diverse collective and rise above strictly personal interests. Knowing when the best moments to participate are, planning them and organising them with solvency provides for generating spaces for deliberation, which makes participation much more than a mere aggregation of opinions and personal interests. In short, at a time when no one questions citizen implication, what we need is to make sure it is as effective as possible.


Drafting projects for transforming public space with never be linear again, and it won’t take place in a single office: from now on, it will be the result of an effort of collective intelligence which, in an operative way, looks for the best way to fulfill the aspirations of all the actors, and it satisfies the demands of specialists who provide the vision, the people who will have to build it and everyone who will be involved in maintaining it. The working sessions, the deliberations and the consensual solutions require rigor and patience to arrive at excellence. Training professionals who are dedicated to designing public space will be increasing- ly more transversal and the ability to negotiate and conciliate will be essential.


To the discouragement of certain professionals, who experience the mutation of “their” proposals as painful, the designs are enriched and refined through processes that are prolonged in time. Very often, between the overall vision, the City Council departments, the proposals from the design teams and the contributions from civic entities and residents’ associations, the process of drafting the project is altered. More than ever, the role of the public administration needs to be to guarantee the balance between ambition, an efficient process, the diversity of users, functionality and adaptability.


Between 2011 and 2015, both small-scale and large-scale interventions have been carried out. So-called micro urban developments emerge from the need to act quickly on empty lots, or land pending construction of facilities in a far-off future; it is a way of putting order into the remnants of public land in areas where they would otherwise have been closed off and fenced in until the investment came through for the definitive construction. During this legislature, 30 interventions have taken place, covering a surface area of 7.5 ha, with a total construction investment of more than €2.27 mn. Since these actions constitute an improvement to the present, and their expiration date is not far off, the urban development costs have amounted to roughly €45/m2, one tenth of the cost of a permanent development. The designers have undertaken an immense effort to transform the plots into places that can house spontaneous activities. Renaturalisation, energy efficiency and savings on street furniture have all contributed to making a virtue of necessity. With very few resources, key spaces have been opened for the benefit of residents, who have slowly been making the spaces their own.


Taking a qualitative leap, the BUITS plan (Urban Spaces with Territorial and Social Involvement) goes even further, with the aim of breathing new life into unused sites in Barcelona by transferring them to public or private non-profit organisations, promoting the involvement of civil society in the regeneration and activation of the urban fabric. There are currently 12 fully functioning locations, and the competition brief has been released for the second phase of the Plan. The total surface area of the sites involved in the first phase is equivalent to 0.8 Ha, and the second phase includes locations which total 1.6 Ha all together.


Taking a leap in terms of scale, during this legislation a very large number of interventions have been carried out on an intermediate scale, in every district of the city: the refur- bishment of the Parc de les Tres Xemeneies, the redevelopment of the Plaça del Centre, the final stretch of Avinguda Tarradelles, the new city block interior courtyards, or the carrer de Sant Gervasi de Cassoles are just a small example of the enormous work that has been done in every area of the city. Intervening simultaneously in all these places, drafting the projects, coordinating the construction and looking after their maintenance would not have been possible without the establishment of clear shared principles. All of the collaborators took up the challenge of making the city more productive, working on the human scale, with the aim of achieving a maximum of energetic efficiency and without losing the essence of the process of transforming the city.


The large-scale projects, like the Passeig de Sants, the Paral·lel, les Glòries, la Gardunya, the Passeig de Sant Joan or the renovation of the Diagonal have centered serious efforts. For the first time in years, the Urban Planning Department has taken back leadership in the transformation of public space. The team has taken over drafting the most complex projects directly and has managed the other interventions in the city. The ambitious task of giving guidelines, encouragement and support to the internal and external collaborators, though it has been exhausting at times, has been extremely satisfying and has set in motion a process that can’t be stopped. The result is tangible, and it represents a leap forward in the conception of urban space as the essence of an open city.
Finally, we need to highlight the new organisation. The executive structure of all the City Council departments which are directly related to the urban transformation of the city are reordered under the auspices of Urban Habitat: Housing, Energies and Infrastructures, Environment and Urban Services, Urban Planning and Networks, as well as specialised municipal companies work in a coordination to carry out transversal projects. The Directorate of Design is a transformative tool for achieving the goals set out by Urban Habitat, which takes advantage of the knowledge and experience of the people who have been participating in shaping the city for the past 30 years, with collaborations from young architects who contribute a fresh perspective and the experience of having grown up in a city that had already undergone its first transformation, a city that values its urban spaces like no other city in the world.