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Precinct or Neighborhood? How Barcelona Keeps Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Global Capital

Barcelona’s Montjuïc fairground occupies twenty-seven hectares of municipal land, an area equivalent to twenty-one blocks of the city’s Eixample district. Its centrality is enviable, its installations obsolete, and its use is discussible, to say the least. Is today’s Barcelona using this public land in a way that best fits its needs? There’s plenty of time before December 2025 to talk about this calmly, rigorously, and democratically. This is the expiry date for the extension that former Mayor Xavier Trias granted to Fira de Barcelona, a fortunate tenant that pays a peppercorn rent of just 25 euro cents per year for each of the built-up 140,000 square meters of the precinct. But it doesn’t look as if this debate is going to happen. On February 19, 2019, the present mayor Ada Colau, and Quim Torra, President of the Government of Catalonia, announced the signing of an agreement which, with the slogan “One Fair, Two Fairgrounds”, envisages an investment of 380 million euros for renovating the Montjuïc fairground and extending that of the adjoining municipality of Hospitalet. Given the enormity of this announcement, it is surprising, not to say shocking, that journalists and activists haven’t asked to see the text of the agreement or plans of the “Univers Montjuïc” renovation project, which is to be inaugurated at the centenary celebrations of the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Without any debate being thrown open to the city, the City Hall has simply taken it for granted that this huge closed precinct will remain at the foot of Montjuïc.

The word “precinct”—from medieval Latin precinctum (enclosure or boundary line)—is relevant. Barcelona has kept this space closed for exclusive and excluding uses that are not exactly in tune with the general interest. Although facing such serious threats as air pollution, the climate catastrophe, gentrification, and the disruptions caused by digital corporations, the city is uncritically hosting, in municipal installations, mega-events that will swell the coffers of the motorbike, automobile, real estate, tourist, and mobile phone sectors. A good example of the contradictions involved was the last Mobile World Congress. A few days before the big feminist demonstration on March 8, it was revealed that the Congress was paying hostesses in accordance with their body measurements while, at the same time, right at the peak of what one newspaper called a “perfect storm” of air pollution, it filled the streets with chauffeur-driven cars taking many of the 109,000 participants all around the city. A hundred and nine thousand tourists, in the name of innovation and entrepreneurship, come to Barcelona for four days and the city’s precariat serves them tapas and drinks, makes their beds, and washes their towels. A hundred and nine thousand tourists, all coming by plane, inspired the fairground president Pau Relat to call for extensions to the airport with a fourth runway so that Barcelona can become a “top-ranking” city (whatever that means). Relat doesn’t seem satisfied with the City Hall’s efforts to endow the city with congress infrastructure, even though in 2007, it funded the construction of the city’s second fairground in Hospitalet—of more than 240,000m² and one of the ten biggest in Europe—and, just one year ago, it ceded the Barcelona International Convention Centre (75,000m²) to Fira de Barcelona until 2050.

No one can say, then, that Barcelona lacks infrastructure that can serve as venues for big events. Although some people are still dreaming of organizing new Olympic Games or another World Fair, the fact is that the city has plenty of tourist, real estate, and economic attractions for “competing” on the European scale. What Barcelona does suffer from, by comparison with other European cities, is a deplorable lack of affordable housing. More and more people in this professedly hospitable city are having difficulties paying their rent. All of a sudden, around the time of the recent municipal elections, the various political groups seemed to acknowledge the (already well-known) fact that Barcelona’s public housing stock is ten times less than the European average and started saying that it must be expanded. This has opened up a debate about the lack of available land in a very compact city limited by its geography so, on the one hand, there was a whole array of fanciful proposals like allowing taller buildings in the city, adding attics on roof terraces, and even constructing an artificial island near the coast. On the other hand, they all opined that the housing problem “must have a metropolitan dimension”, the unstated underlying idea being that public housing should be constructed on the city outskirts, leaving the central neighborhoods for the tourist industry and real estate market.

In fact, what metropolitan Barcelona needs to do if it is to be more just and sustainable is to uphold the social and functional mixture of its urban fabrics. Reluctance to accept this idea became evident with two recent clashes. The first was about Via Laietana 10, a huge 18,000 m² building of municipal property where the PSC (social-democrat) party councilor Jaume Collboni wanted to house a center for “digital entrepreneurs”. Local grassroots movements very sensibly opposed the project, arguing that what such highly gentrified neighborhoods like the Gothic Quarter and El Born need are not more metropolitan-scale facilities but the 160 public housing units that the building could accommodate. In the end, the conflict was resolved when the City Hall promised to use the property for housing. The digital entrepreneurs will serve Barcelona better if they go to animate some hyper-passive part of the city. The second, still ongoing conflict is that between the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) and the Raval-Nord Primary Health Care Centre (CAP) over the abandoned Misericòrdia Chapel. The MACBA wants to expand into the chapel while the CAP wants to move there and thus remedy the precarious state of its facilities in the neighborhood. Once again, local movements have argued that the Raval district has too much metropolitan-scale infrastructure and too few local facilities. Any extension to the MACBA would be better for the city if it were located in another less central and less pressured area. This was the choice made by the MoMA in New York when it opened its new center in Queens instead of Manhattan.

Perhaps new economic attractions would benefit peripheral dormitory towns, which only have housing. In the center-city neighborhoods, damaged by gentrification and hyper-activity of the tertiary sector, there is a need for public housing and local facilities to strengthen the neighborhood fabric. Big events shouldn’t be held in the city center. The 1929 Barcelona International Exposition venue was in what were then the outskirts and now the site of the Fira de Montjuïc. It wasn’t held in the site of the 1888 World Fair, which had, by then, been integrated into the city after being turned into what is now the Ciutadella Park. Now that Fira de Barcelona includes the Hospitalet fairground, the Montjuïc precinct should be opened up to the city. It could hold a typical Mediterranean neighborhood the size of Barceloneta. A compact neighborhood of smallish apartment buildings with party walls, squares on a human scale, and transversal corridor streets connecting the surrounding mixed neighborhoods. A neighborhood opening into a linear park, rather than the current densely-trafficked Avinguda Maria Cristina which (on paper) is designated a green zone. A neighborhood of mixed uses, small local businesses, and productive spaces for an economy rooted in the territory and coexisting with the Font Màgica (Magic Fountain) and the National Palace as background heritage. Above all, it should be an affordable neighborhood that can embrace between five and ten thousand public housing units that would help to combat the city’s spreading gentrification. An open, diverse neighborhood and not a uni-functional closed precinct.

Translation by Julie Wark.

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David Bravo is an urban planner in Barcelona.

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