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To Cover a Beltway With Housing (Yes, Housing)

Barcelona.

Like many other cities in the world, Barcelona is being throttled by a beltway, La Ronda, which was constructed for the 1992 Olympic Games. Since then, this beltway has been strangling the city in at least three overlapping senses. First, is the tangle of viaducts, ramps, junctions and trenches which cut the city off from the Mediterranean, the Collserola range, and the Besòs and Llobregat rivers, four exceptional natural boundaries which are, at present, sadly undervalued. Second, there is economic asphyxiation. La Ronda took the lion’s share of the vast Olympic budget and, as with so many other grandiose public works in this heavily indebted country, all this collective effort exclusively favored the private vehicle. Public transport didn’t get a look-in, although all the money spent on expropriation and excavation could have been put to good use by building a circular subway line. Neither did social housing, which would have tempered the ravages of the Spanish property bubble in a city where only 1% of the houses are public.

The third and truly lung-clogging effect of La Ronda is the massively increased flow of private cars into the city. If it’s true that for the first two or three years the infrastructure brought about some decongestion of the city center, it very soon had the totally opposite effect of attracting cars, to such an extent that there are more private cars entering Barcelona every day than in Manhattan. The city presently has a ratio of 6,000 cars per km2, while the figure for Paris is 1,500 and London 1,200. This has helped to make Barcelona less just and less sensible. One injustice resides in the fact that, parked or in movement, private vehicles, representing only 15% of transport volume, occupy 60% of the city’s free surface. The folly of the situation is clear in pollution indices exceeding European legal limits and causing more than 3,500 premature deaths every year.

These are serious but not insurmountable problems. Indeed, La Ronda hoards many great opportunities. If it is accepted that Barcelona needs more public housing and fewer private vehicles, the obsolete infrastructure of La Ronda can satisfy both needs. This doesn’t require the incentive of prodigal Olympian fantasies or profligate global events. It can be done without any great outlay of public funds by stimulating small-scale economic flows instead of pouring more riches into the already-bulging pockets of construction tycoons. It means returning to a slow, discreet kind of urban planning, delineating outlines and letting the city fill them in, consolidating the work at its own pace and in keeping with its own capacities.

The first step is easy: taking cars out of the two central lanes of La Ronda to make way for a tramline. Without crossroads or traffic lights this tramway would work like a circular subway service. It’s as if the tunnel had already been dug and only the lines needed to be laid. Bridge-stations would be required, making use where possible of already-existing bridges to give access to a single central platform system which would be used for trams running in both directions. The consequent narrowing of the ring-road lanes would reduce the flow and speed of traffic and, accordingly, CO2 emissions. In the long term, these lanes could be used mainly for emergency services, taxis and goods transport. The aim is not to vex people who depend on cars but to prepare the city to start functioning again without a transport system which, sooner or later, is going to collapse under its own weight.

However, readying Barcelona to manage without private cars is not just a matter of providing better public transport. People also need to be able to walk to work, or to the baker’s. This means making it possible by means of compact, mixed neighborhoods, which is to say offering accessible housing in the city center. But how can this be achieved when the land here is astronomically expensive? Covering La Ronda with housing. More than eighty thousand new homes could be built along its forty-two kilometers even while preserving a good number of roads crossing it: 10% of the city’s housing stock, sitting on top of a circular subway.

Yes, let’s cover La Ronda with housing. Divide it up into smallish lots of some ten meters wide and put up low buildings of about five or six floors and, most important, semidetached. Why? Because, as pedestrians in Mediterranean cities are well aware, sidewalks come alive when they look like bookshelves, with narrow facades packed along them. Because connected architecture means mutual warming and better harmony with the urban fabric. Because neighborliness is easier in not-too-large communities housed in buildings with small businesses at street level. Because these modest constructions are within the reach of small and medium-sized companies and can provide work for the host of bricklayers, carpenters, metal workers, and plumbers who have been dumped by the crisis.

Benefiting small businesses and redistributing wealth and opportunities. And without expense for the Administration. All it would take is to give away lots—on subdivided public land—to small constructors and housing cooperatives. The beneficiaries would be asked in return to cede 40% of the newly built-up surface as public housing. This isn’t asking much as, in Barcelona, land normally accounts for 50% of the final price of housing. Moreover, there would be no large spans entailing extra major construction costs because the tramline below could easily accommodate new rows of pillars. More than 30,000 social housing units could be created “gratis”. Centrally located and mixed. The combination of public and private housing would contribute towards producing a more variegated city in which different social classes would share the same buildings, city blocks and neighborhoods. A lot of low-rent payers could then live in beachfront buildings, or near the woods in Collserola, close to the Besòs river park, or within walking distance of vegetable gardens along the Llobregat River. This is democracy. Quality public spaces should be for the use of people who most need them.

Yes, people need public space, but public spaces need people as well. Modern urban planning has forgotten that houses and streets also need each other. Many would prefer to cover La Ronda with public spaces instead of housing, as has already been done in some sections. But this requires extravagant work which would keep depleting public funds and concentrating wealth. Worse, this solution would only add more free space where there is already an excess. The two existing lateral roads along La Ronda are too wide and hence bleak, unsafe and difficult to maintain. What they need is residential solidity to breathe new life into them. With more population they could become two large, concentric and interconnected promenades, one blending with the neighborhoods it passes through, and the other giving access to the city’s natural boundaries. Like the typical nineteenth-century promenades. It’s no new invention.

There’s a lot of work to be done. It will require participation of the neighborhoods, consulting lawyers, urban planners, economists and engineers, bringing together public policy at different administrative levels and reaching agreement with the many municipal governments involved. It will mean enlisting the help of students at the public schools of architecture and engineering who could produce drawings of the innumerable details raised by a task consisting of so many different sections. After all, getting rid of our current urban expressways is as big a job as demolishing the old city walls. But, if so many cities could shed their walls in the nineteenth century, a lot more can do it in the twenty-first.

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David Bravo is an urban planner in Barcelona.

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