Barcelona and the limits of urban design

I was lucky enough to spend a week in Barcelona recently, presenting a workshop called “How to Use the Internet Mindfully” with Willa Köerner of The Creative Independent at IAM Weekend. Outside of the conference, I spent most of my time walking everywhere and looking around at how the streets work.

When life moves at a sane, Mediterranean pace, there’s a lot to notice between the coffee hour and the vermut hour. The trash cans all rotate on their stands, so sanitation workers can quickly dump out the contents. They have baby little garbage trucks to fit in the medieval alleyways. There are special paving stones to guide blind pedestrians to crosswalks and escalators.

Urban design as interface

I try not to let the phrase “design thinking” pass my lips, but I was really impressed by the consideration that goes into every part of the Barcelona streetscape. The chamfered blocks of the Eixample’s historic grid make room for neat clusters of recycling bins. Unobtrusive little bumps protect bike lanes from veering drivers. The aforementioned sanitation workers (of all ages) sweep the streets continuously with handheld brooms. There’s always somewhere to sit outside. The metro is clean and fast and ubiquitous.

The bus system is a good example of the overall approach. The city just rolled out a new network that reserves buses primarily for major arteries (so they can eventually pedestrianize 60% of streets). Within the more compact grid of Horizontal and Vertical routes, it’s easy to orient yourself alphanumerically like you would in a game of Battleship. Painted badges at major intersections direct pedestrians to nearby stops and destinations. Bus shelters display the same information in huge type, plus major stops along the route. Each one has a map of the closest bus and metro transfers.

I started paying attention to all this signage because my phone was useless without roaming data or WiFi. But as the week went on, I started thinking about the analog wayfinding as a “heads up display” of its own. I didn’t really need to reach for my phone, since the visual information posted in the street was usually a more convenient guide. It also helped me build a mental map of the city more quickly than I otherwise would have. It was nice to use a tool that helps you build cognitive capacity rather than outsourcing it to a device.

It feels important to think about urban design in terms of usability “features” because physical and digital environments increasingly function as related elements of a single system. The public transit “interface” includes these physical signs and bus shelters and pavers, not just apps and digital maps. As cloying as it is to talk about a city’s “user experience,” public servants now have to deliver services that work within the mixed reality of contemporary life. 

In BCN they say "reurbanization" instead of pedestrianization.

Municipalism and the limits of design

To a New Yorker, Barcelona is like a mirage of what a public-spirited city should look like. Around almost every corner is a park, a plaza, or a piece of street furniture. The city is quick to experiment with land use, and it has ambitious plans to cut car ownership and create new green spaces across the city. The whole experience makes you wonder, how do they make this happen? And then: who benefits?

As it turns out, Barcelona is an object lesson in the limits of design as a public policy framework. The city has long defined itself through its artful public spaces, boulevards, and buildings. The massive redevelopment undertaken for the 1992 Olympics — which sparked an economic boom in tourism — have fueled thirty-ish more years of continuous investment in transit and public works. But as in New York and many other world cities, the urban “placemaking” agenda in Barcelona has been both a miracle and a deal with the devil. (Not a metaphorical devil, but the global financial sector).

Without protections for affordability in place, the global financial crisis quickly eroded people’s savings and their right to the city. Evictions skyrocketed and investors swooped in to buy speculative properties. Airbnb and other rental platforms have contributed to rising rents. More and more hotels have sprouted up to serve a yearly tourist population the size of New York City, pricing out longtime residents and local businesses.

But the hopeful, and really interesting, part of this whole story is the municipalist political movement which has gained power in Barcelona in the last several years. In 2015 a network of housing activists formed a neighborhood-based movement called Barcelona en Comú, which put forward a progressive agenda and managed to elected a new mayor named Ada Colau. Her administration has since cracked down on Airbnbfined banks for holding vacant properties, fought to expand social housing, and attempted to municipalize the city’s private water supplier. The group is now trying to balance its fierce opposition to institutional politics with a reelection campaign and the need to negotiate with regional and national powers.

What Barcelona en Comú has started in four years is a frank conversation about the political economy of urban design and development. Everyone wants to live in a place with reliable transit and beautiful public spaces. But Barcelona’s new leaders are genuinely asking, how does a feminist transit system work? How do you prevent new parks from displacing neighbors? And most importantly, how do you bring the structures of social movements into the space of formal government?

In New York at least, we’re stuck with a Barcelona ‘92 politics that empowers technocrats to build their own urban visions in order to enrich real estate investors. The municipalist movement offers a different way to think about design, in which aesthetics and “usability” serve the political reimagination of the city and not the other way around.

If you’re curious about the municipalist movement in Barcelona, I made an channel where you can find lots of the articles I’ve come across so far. Thanks for reading :) 

Venga, adéu!