Barcelona’s old waterfront on the Mediterranean was much like Philadelphia’s on the Delaware: old industrial land cut off from pedestrians by a highway. However, Mayor Pasqual Maragall changed the face of Barcelona’s shores in his 15 years as mayor from 1982 to 1997. Growth in the city was once focused away from the waterfront, exemplified by the placement of its highway near the water, cutting it off from the rest of Barcelona and making it a polluted site. The Citadel also made attempts to move Barcelona to the water quite difficult. However, the city’s plan for the 1992 Olympic Games changed all that. Maragall put the highway underground, thus reconnecting the city with its waterfront. On this newly-open land, he fashioned new beaches, parks, and neighborhoods.
Local officials had the insight to approach their Olympics plan as a major restructuring of the city: the Games last only three weeks, and its infrastructure improvements can be used to benefit the city in the long run. The possibility of the Olympics showed what sort of changes needed to be made to Barcelona’s waterfront, and the high-profile nature of the Games expanded the possibilities for transformation and urban improvement. Maragall used the money the Games brought to reshape the city’s form by forging an open, well-defined relationship to the sea.
The Ramblas, one of the oldest and most famous boulevards in the world, is the spine that connects the water to the city. Its broad 40-foot wide pedestrian strip down the middle, lined with trees and commercial activity, always has it humming with people and makes for a great entrée to Porta Vell (the “Old Port”), a new harbor development of restaurants, night clubs, parks, and other activities. Porta Vell connects to the Ramblas via a pedestrian bridge that crosses a marina. Further east is Olympic Village, a new neighborhood mix of public and private housing built from scratch: once the housing for athletes in 1992, it is now a new piece of the city. Integrating Olympic Village into the Barcelona fabric required reconstructing the highway so that it now ran underground, an arduous reorganization of railroad, sewage, and water infrastructure that proved incredibly valuable. Finally, at the edge of the sea opposite Olympic Village, the city built a broad new beach, for which sand continually must be imported.
Barcelona used public-sector funding to leverage private investment, a familiar technique today that was not common 15 years ago. The federal government spearheaded beach development and the suppression of the highway, which inspired private investors to partially support Olympic Village’s conversion into private housing. These projects spurred private development all along the waterfront, particularly at the Porta Vell development. The beaches, parks, and streets remain public, with a lot of civic involvement necessary to maintain them.
Spain’s centralized government makes it a difficult comparison with the United States, but Barcelona remains an interesting lesson in sound urban design and planning practices. Barcelona produced a city fragment well integrated in terms of urban development: architecturally innovative and socially diverse.