City of terraces and congresses, by Ramon Aymerich

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The loss of the industry in the 70s forced us to rethink the great American cities. Digitization is today the engine of a new metamorphosis. Tourist Barcelona watches these changes out of the corner of its eye.


Image of a center in a central neighborhood of Barcelona

Europa Press News / Getty

Tourism has returned to the city. There are no exact figures. But according to experts, the influx of tourists is practically at levels prior to the pandemic years, if not above them (and despite higher prices). It's May 1st. It's a splendid day in Barcelona and walking from the Plaza de la Catedral to the Eixample means doing it at the pace allowed by the tide, like any other foreigner,

Arriving at Consell de Cent street with Rambla de Catalunya, they ask us to please move forward glued to the wall. The cameras follow the mayoress in an animated chat with two neighbors. Ada Colau is shooting a campaign video and she is doing it in a distinctive space of her mandate: the Consell de Cent superblock.

In this area, ten years ago, there was a lot of traffic. Neighbors parked on the street and the busiest place was a Pakistani grocery store. There was only one restaurant. Today there are four and two more are planned. The area, according to the new urban terminology, has been "pacified".

"Pacify" is to restrict or eliminate vehicle traffic, gain green space and give pedestrians more room. "Pacify" has side effects. It triggers rents and rents from businesses, which cause gentrification (when newly arrived neighbors with more money displace the poorest). It also favors nocturnal activity. When the superblock is finished, it will give continuity to the lower part of Enric Granados, a terraced area very frequented by tourists, expatriates and local youth.

Edward Glaeser and Carlo Ratti have just proposed a new city model for New York ( New York Times, May 10). they call it playground city. They reason that mayors should think more about the pleasure of their citizens and less about productivity. If talent does not set foot in the city because it has been abducted by the internet and Netflix, the authorities must fill the streets with bars, restaurants, libraries, theaters, markets, grocery stores and shops pop up .

The mayors of big cities all ask themselves the same question: what to do with so many offices

New York is the city of metamorphoses. In the 70s, it entered a depression after losing the manufacturing industry. He solved it with the knowledge industry and finance. Those changes were important for Barcelona, ​​also dislocated by the loss of the traditional industry. Pasqual Maragall lived in Baltimore at the time and took note of all this. Post-Olympic Barcelona is partly the daughter of that vision. But unable to aspire to financial capital, he found a replacement in tourism.

The current transformation has to do with digitization. And the catalyst is the large number of empty offices that the pandemic has left. Economists compare those cities to a doughnut. In the center, those of New York, San Francisco or Chicago, are the empty offices. On the periphery, the residents.

The donut effect is combated with a center that is well connected to a nearby periphery, either by public or private transport and in a reasonable time. The second recipe is to change that center. Convert office buildings into homes. Make the streets more attractive with more cultural and recreational offer.

Glaeser and Ratti, the former an economist and the latter an architect, are regulars in global urbanism. The first knows the superblocks of Barcelona. The playground city The one they talk about resembles previous urban projects ( consumer city ). The difference is that now it is taken for granted that teleworking (in its absolute or hybrid version) will stay.

It is interesting to compare Barcelona with American concerns. The Catalan capital has no problems for people to go downtown. I didn't have them. But the lack of maintenance in the Renfe Cercanías complicates things a lot. The restriction to the car perhaps too.

Barcelona does not suffer from the donut effect. It has empty offices, but far from the center. They were designed to house technology companies, the ones that practice teleworking the most. But it is difficult to transform them into housing: the legislation obliges to reserve 30% of the promotions for social housing (for the population low cost that caters to tourism or for young people, who leave). Result, the promoters do not move. Like the big American cities, Barcelona has a serious housing problem, but it is more difficult to solve here. The city is already too small for that.

Gentrification may be the other side of Barcelona's urban 'pacification' policies

Barcelona has no problem filling the center. It has the tourists it wants (and the ones it doesn't). It is an ideal destination for “digital nomads”, the expatriates who inhabit more and more neighborhoods.

Finally, the great paradox. Barcelona's Eixample is getting closer every day to the ideal of playground city from Glaeser and Ratti. The Barcelona “pacification”, born from an “alternative” vision of the city, converges with the models of global capitalism. With effects contrary to those intended: more tourism and more inequality in the neighborhoods in which it operates.

Maragall's Olympic Barcelona did not obtain an absolute consensus in its day. There was response and nostalgia for the pre-Olympic city, especially in the world of culture. Today it has been idealized.

Colau's superblocks are born with less support. Time will tell if they are a success or if they will accelerate current trends (more tourism, gentrification). We will know if Barcelona is the global city of miracles. Where everyone wants to go. The one that combines hostels with digital nomads, congresses with social housing.

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