Jerom Theunissen Photography


July 25-29

City in Context - History

In the 1854, conditions in Barcelona were deteriorating. The population density, with 856 inhabitants per hectacre, was among the highest in Europe (Paris had less than half the density) and yielded about 10 square meters per person. This density, coupled with the lack of a sewer system and bad water supply led to atrocious hygiene conditions. Life expectancy had dropped to 36 years for the rich and 23 years for the working classes. Four different epidemics broke out between 1834 and 1870, each time killing about 3 percent of the population. About a century earlier, the city had built a wall around itself since the Catalan city came under the rule of Spanish Philip V. This wall literally and figuratively checked the civic expansion and industrial development of the city until a twelve year long demolition process began in 1854.

With the destruction of the wall came the question of how to design the extension and manage the redistribution of the overflowing population. The controversial and highly political decision involved the city council, the Spanish government in Madrid, civil engineers, architects, and the powerful landowner class. In the void entered the relatively unknown Catalan engineer, Ildefons Cerdà, who was appointed when the Spanish government stepped in by creating a new ministry of public works. Many Catalans were wary of directives from Madrid, and was one of many points of tension between Spain’s central and Catalan administrations.

Despite the politics at play behind Cerdà’s appointment, his plan was one rooted in a scientific approach to urban planning.  Extensive data collection on his part included social scientific research to produce studies on topographic and working-class living conditions. The central part of his proposal was the provision for a grid-like district called Eixample (Catalan for expansion) which served as mixed-use blocks. Research he had done on the city’s hygienic conditions justified their size (a precise 113.3x111.3 square meters) and the width of streets (35m). Cerdà was also visionary in predicting a steam-engine automobile as the main form of transport, and thereby chamfered the corners of intersections to facilitate turning of these vehicles.

Indeed, mobility was very much at the core of Cerda’s plan for Barcelona, as informed by his background in engineering. By implementing the grid system, people, goods, and raw materials were able to move quickly through the streets. Large avenues, which were as much as 50 to 80 meters wide, eased the communication between the port in the southwest and the two main geographical gates of the city. All streets made space for vehicles and pedestrians alike. Cerda’s plan for Barcelona liberated the city from class divisions typical in the old city center, and was visionary in how it set up mobility development in the city for years to come.

City in Context - Present Scenario

Barcelona City has a population of 1,620,809, but its metropolitan region counts for 5,474,482 people. In 2011, the city generated 7.8 million trips per day, 64% of which were internal, and the remainder being connection trips with the city and municipalities in the metropolitan region.


Pedestrian conditions are excellent in Barcelona, as reflected by its high mode share of 32%. Recent developments include accessibility improvements for people of reduced mobility, “30 zones”, and the “Cami Escolar” project that is a network of paths to encourage active mobility for children traveling to school. However, more improvements can be made to improve pedestrian safety, especially by increasing the length of green signals at crosswalks (even a young person like me had trouble making it across some intersections!)


Mobility via bicycle is a mode of transport that has slowly but surely grown in the city of Barcelona, with a mode share of about 1.5% in 2011. The city offers 181 kilometers of bike lanes, with 72% of the population living within 300 m to a bike lane (the goal is 308 km and 95% by 2018). “Bicing,” the public urban bike sharing system, was introduced in 2007 and currently counts 34,000 trips on an average weekday. Amazingly, the system account for 44% of all bike trips in the city. Areas of opportunity for bicycle mobility is to ensure connectivity and continuity to different sections of bike lanes, promote cycling and public transport intermodality for medium distance trips, and to provide secure bicycle parking too prevent theft. On the latter issue, my host Elena said that the reason she doesn’t bother buying a bicycle is that she fears hers will be stolen.

Public Transport

Collective mobility in Barcelona is also quite good, with several operators providing metro, tram, bus, funicular, taxi, and rail services. In 2011, approximately 40% of trips were made by public transport. Barcelona has an extensive, high quality public transport network  that connecting neighbourhoods, districts and nearby towns with more than 3,000 stops and stations.

One of the main advantages of this network is that all the modes of collective public transport are integrated into a metropolitan fares system. One innovative project is the implementation of an orthogonal bus network for the city, which seeks to improve efficiency through increases in speed and higher frequency service.

Private Vehicle

The use of private vehicle is declining in the city, and decreased from 29.1% in 2007 to 26.7% in 2011. This has also corresponded with a decrease in vehicle kilometers traveled. The largest purpose of trips made via private vehicle are trips from outside the city to the center. The management of parking availability and prices via the establishment of the “Green Area” parking policy in the city has decreased traffic circulating for free parking and is acting as a deterrent for the use of car in the city center. Street space for private vehicle use is 57%, but private vehicles represent a smaller share of total trips. A paradigm shift in reallocation of space to for other uses has been called for by the city.

Superilles ("Superblocks")

The 2013-2018 Urban Mobility Plan recognizes the important relationship between mobility and provision of public space in order to promote positive communal relations between people and promote social cohesion, wellbeing and public health. Today, the compact city Cerda set up has yielded numerous indisputable social and environment advantages: more local approaches and citizen participation, minimal use of land, economies of scale in services and public transport, and less energy waste. Unfortunately, Cerda did not anticipate that the streets would become places where traffic congestion, noise and air pollution proliferated. The city’s compactness has a limit, where more density decreases city residents' quality of life and the city's quality of public spaces. Barcelona’s urban planners believe the city has reached this point and a comprehensive vision is needed to solve this multifaceted problem.

Back in 2003, the District of Gràcia is an area subject to many urban pressures, with a population density larger than the rest of Barcelona. With so many people in such a small space, Gràcia has seen an influx in the presence of private vehicles and a subsequent loss in the availability of pedestrian space. The 2003 Mobility Plan for Gràcia helped to launch the first Superblock in Barcelona. Superblocks are defined through a set of basic roads which form a polygon or inner area, and contain within them a public space geared toward the citizen. This inner area is almost entirely closed to through vehicles.  Essentially, a superblock is a mini neighborhood around which traffic flows, delineated by a 3x3 block. Streets were identified that had to channel road traffic and public transport, with changes made in several sections of the other streets, changes of direction for traffic and the introduction of physical obstacles to access points to limit access to private transport. The project focused on returning the city to the citizens, overcoming the current dichotomy between the driver and the pedestrian. This project ultimately increased movable spaces for pedestrians, restricted access to private vehicles, introduced collective parking for cars, motorcycles and bicycles, and established multifunctional, pedestrian-friendly areas. Today, the District of Gràcia boasts a comfortable public setting that promotes social cohesion, ensures mobility and accessibility, and reduces environmental impacts.

An excellent explanation of Superilles by Vox.

The example of Gracia has seen massive success, and, has been proposed to seek implementation city-wide in the 2013-2018 Urban Mobility Plan. I saw the pilot project in Poblenou, which has involved some minor physical changes, also known in the urban planning world as “tactical urbanism.” This concept promotes soft measures that are often low-cost and easy to adapt, and treats the city as a living laboratory. In this manner, citizens can interact with proposed changes in their daily lives, and can provide feedback during the implementation process. Overall, the Superblock has allowed the reorganization of the city to be integrated with the needs of the pedestrian, while at the same time, improving the efficiency and capacity of parking and designated loading and unloading areas. Public transport has increased in popularity and bicycles now have their own network. The space dedicated to private vehicles versus the pedestrian has finally been reversed. Green spaces and pedestrian oriented areas have doubled, improving mobility and alleviating the feeling of confinement in the urban space.

Rambla de Sants

The arrival of the high speed railway and expanded use of subway routes in the Sants region of Barcelona divided neighborhoods and disrupted the urban fabric over the course of the last century. The 30 meter wide and 800 m long stretch of track was reimagined, and had potential to be repurposed or reimagined. In 2002, the city administration decided to begin a complex process involving three public administrations and civic associations of the Sants district. The results saw the proposal of a structure covering the railway to improve environmental conditions by limiting noise and vibration and making the new roof into an 800 m long elevated garden. This proposal also linked adjoining spaces, small plazas and underpasses, totaling 33,740 square meters to be landscaped.

The structure of the building is made up in prefabricated concrete with diagonal Warren beams (a nod to the heritage of old railway bridges), allowing the vision of the train passing through the city while minimizing noise pollution. The roof of the building ranges in height from 4-12 meters from street level, and offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding neighborhood. The gardens above are delineated into two linear paths: one on the north side of the deck (shaded by trees) and another on the south side (constantly exposed to sunlight) The creation of the roof garden and pedestrian paths created public space out of thin air, and simultaneously improved mobility for local residents wishing to access adjacent spaces. I enjoyed seeing the project and immediately drew similarities to New York City’s High Line project. It’s amazing how a piece of infrastructure that once divided the community can be converted into one that brings people together from neighborhoods running transversely and longitudinally along existing rail lines in the Sants neighborhood. 

“Good Karma” - Campaign to Encourage Etiquette on Public Transport

Underground, lurking in the metro, I found a mysterious figure leering at me from various places: trashcans, turnstiles, ceilings, and billboards. Named Karma, the figure popped up on the seat across from me, saying “ei, seient reservat...” Catalan for "the seat’s taken." I noticed this figure in many modes of public transport during my time in Barcelona.

TMB, one of the major public transport operators in Barcelona, engaged in a campaign with ad agency BUM (Blasi Urgell Morales S.L.) to make users aware of the importance of showing respect and consideration while using public transport. The face of the campaign is Karma, a lanky, wide-eyed, black-and-white cartoon character, essentially telling users, “Don’t be a jerk”; get up and give up your spot to those who need it more than you, don’t make the subway car your lounge, and pay for your fare. The campaign and its new mascot rely on the concept of karma-based justice: what goes around comes around. TMB chose the campaign’s because BUM’s research has shown that many Barcelonans not only recognize karma but also believe in it.

The character appears on TMB screens in six short spots. In the first clip, Karma rewards a passenger by gifting flowers for giving up a seat. In the other shorts, Karma punishes poorly behaved Metro riders by maiming and/or killing them with catapults, carnivorous plants, flying saucers, and falling coconuts. It does save a particularly foolish teenager from falling, but seems largely unhappy about it.

Karma’s vengeful tendencies still show a relatively optimistic gaze. TMB stressed that there were no particular trends that prompted the campaign. In fact, fare evasion on the Metro has actually decreased. Instead, the campaign was focused on the small things that make travel by public transport more amenable for all, including fare evasion.

I found it humorous that TMB engaged in a project of this nature. Operating on a small budget of 350,000 euros, the accupunctural campaign can have a large effect given the number of passengers that ride on TMB's metro and bus cars. Sometimes, one realizes that riding public transport as frequently and without thought as normal citizens do, it might slip your mind that, actually, you’re interacting at extremely close proximity with people you cohabit a city with. This is what I find so beautiful about public transport. It brings people together with those who are tired and in a hurry with those who aren’t. Likewise, people who are struggling, and those who are on top of the world. I lke this campaign because it emphasizes that, no matter what mood or point in life you're in, remember Karma, and do the right thing. It's campaigns like these that reinforce our shared experience of getting from A to B as a city, together.

Parting Thoughts

Upon my arrival, my wonderful host Elena showed me the Poblenou neighhborhood and the pilot Superille in the area. I met Elena in an anthropology course we took together at Vanderbilt, titled "Theories of Culture and Human Nature." After spending time studying abroad in Hong Kong, Elena relocated to Barcelona upon graduation last year. She has since worked as a software developer and project manager at ThoughtWorks, a technology consulting firm with offices around the globe. Visiting her was a huge part of what made visiting Barcelona so special, not only showing me around her neighborhood but also the best tapas restaurants in town!

Barcelona is blessed with amazing landscapes, backed by mountains and flanked by two rivers and with a horizon stretching across the Mediterranean Sea. Within these natural morphologies, it is increasingly evident that plans by Cerda had enormous impact on the city's development in a dynamic way. Over time, Cerda's blocks served as a template ripe for repurposing, adjustment, and realization of new kinds of urbanism, a term he himself coined to describe the science of cities. It is fitting then, for me to visit the city and trace how the city of Barcelona started as a small town on the Mediterranean to one of Spain's most vibrant and lively cities, filled with history, tradition and culture. The city also has a record of being ahead of the curve in terms of technology; Cerda foresaw the arrival of the automobile, the Metro began being built in 1924, and today Barcelona is considered one of the world's leaders in terms of "smart city" development. This spirit of innovation and acknowledgement of urban problems made visiting Barcelona an absolute treat to visit and experience firsthand. 

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