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The Urbanisation of Barcelona

By Yara Taha

29th July 2022

ILDEFONSO CERDA WAS the mastermind behind the urban expansion of Barcelona that, though occurring in the 1860s, is what defines the grid-city that exists today. The project was accompanied by the naissance of his theory of urbanisation in 1867, looking at the history of humanity and of the individual within cities. His plans for the expansion of Barcelona during this period were influenced by the principals he established through his theory; that is, social development and individual wellbeing through the method of spatial development by forming a relationship between individuals and the city environment. The effects of Cerda’s plan can be seen defining Barcelona today, a century and a half later.

    Cerda’s theory was transformative in the way it invented a new perspective of targeting the layout of the city. Up until the time of his project, Barcelona had been constructed purely by priority of economic incentive and was comprised of a squalid medieval town built around an industrial port. His theory was oriented around social awareness, aiming to define the growth and construction of a city in the way which is now known as ‘urban planning.’


    Cerda attempted to develop a society resilient to the challenges of the modern day. The Barcelona of his era was built off the back of the industrial revolution which created concerns on the cultural, social, and economic spheres of the city – perhaps the most evident effect being that of density. As a response to these conditions, Cerda envisioned the necessity to redefine the notion and form of the city in order to accommodate the influx of people arriving from the countryside in a way that would not simply prioritise industry.

    The aim was to reform the city rather than implement a mode of pure expansion. Cerda’s theory provided a vision that placed society and the needs of the individual at the heart of urban development.

   Cerda designated the first portion of his plan to the ‘diagnosis’ of the city. His Proyecto de Ensanche (expansion project) was the first to introduce the idea of subjecting the urban environment to a general scientific theory. The purpose of this was to explore how the concept of ‘social order’ could be embedded into urban development. The population influx of the time could be largely attributed to Barcelona’s booming textile industry. This irrational growth had to be met with a rational solution: housing and the distribution of vital services.

    By conducting a living condition diagnosis, Cerda first acknowledged the relationship between material and intangible forms of the city. Additionally, by the solution became one bespoke to the city. It showed that the necessary approach would tackle specified social issues rather than providing a generic proposal that could have applied to any built environment.

    As urbanization theory suggests, a ‘shelter’ is a key component and has equal importance for any individual: “a man of any situation, whatever his position and circumstances, always needs a solid shelter.” Cerda’s plan manifested an approach devoid of any social inequalities, seeing those caused by a lack of attention to living conditions. The plan established minimal quotas of six cubic metres per person and room within residential buildings, and forty metres within the outside spaces in the city. This allowed for far greater airflow, aiding the prevention of disease which had previously struck Barcelona in the form of Yellow Fever in 1821 and led to several outbreaks throughout the century.

    It wasn’t until 1854 when a fourteen-year process began of demolishing the city’s medieval walls, where the urban expansion could open into the surrounding Catalonian countryside. Then, in 1859, it was only due to an intervention from the Ministry of Public Works in Madrid that Cerda’s plan was implemented.   

    Cerda created a map in 1861 for the ‘Urban Expansion’ which included information on the city’s buildings, and also the professions of Barcelona’s citizens. The result of his findings were a lack of “schools, teachers, physicians or hospitals”. In order to improve living conditions however, the very fabric of the city would have to change. For Cerda, the answer to this was in building new streets and in figuring out how the cost of property could be suited to the variation of wages within the city’s population.

    Cerda's plan involved an enormous expansion of the city, his grid being approximately ten times the size of the pre-existing medieval quarter, the function of which was to link the industrial centre with the surrounding settlements. He ensured his specifically measured ‘blocks’ were separated by streets twenty to thirty metres wide  - a revolutionary transformation from the width of streets within the medieval quarter which would often only be two or three metres wide.

    This also paved the ways for urban traffic a few decades later and which now lends Barcelona some of the worst traffic pollution in Europe. His proposal was however, effective in concerning the lack of the professional class within the city. Because of the previous social hierarchy which designated the medieval quarter for the industrial working class, the new space created attractive living conditions, and brought with it an influx of professions as well as other improvements. The buildings and the spatial development were not purely aesthetic constructions, but examples of an elevation of the entire society. Without the squalid conditions of the medieval quarter, the city was able to focus on new objectives, with less attention going towards fighting abject poverty and a lack of sanitation, new efforts could be put towards education and welfare.

    Cerda’s motivation regarding the welfare of citizens was directly correlated with the concept of the ‘social’ influencing the ‘spatial’. The grid system supplied a successful connectivity by introducing the idea of longer, parallel, and widened streets with a few major arteries such as Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and Avinguda Diagonal which still boast priority in the district today. This also ensured the absence of peripheral streets, and permitted the equity of connection to service buildings, thus providing a wider coverage throughout the city. By eliminating the idea of the peripheral street, Cerda disposed of the idea of the ‘centre’ which would perpetuate the pre-existing inequalities in living conditions depending on one’s proximity to it.

    While the grid system and identical street widths provided social equity, they simultaneously failed to allow the user from forming a distinct environmental image of the city, formed by three main components: identity, structure, and meaning.

    By designing this expansion (Known as Eixample) as a single urban entity, it made it distinguishable from other surrounding areas but failed to create a sense of individuality within it. As a result, no meaningful relation was formed between the user and the city. The squares created as a result of the chamfered corners of the blocks had no individual identity or diverse arrangement that would be used in relation to various community groups.

    The five spatial elements, (paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks) that form a city image are lost in the Eixample which had no street hierarchy in paths, clear end or beginning in its edges, particular dominant districts, designed squares, or distinct landmarks in different zones.

    The grid unit consisted of two parallel buildings (built form took 40% of the total block) with 10-20 meters distance between them designated as green space. Additionally, by using chamfered corners on the blocks, Cerda provided small squares between the buildings that could be used as social hubs and act as a buffer zone from the denser occupied blocks. With Cerda’s intentions being based on spatial development, this component of the plan was an effective proposition because it provided social areas that did not exist in the compact medieval quarter. These spaces, open to all, also reduced the social hierarchy and remained available for trees and other plant life, laying the foundations for future environmental insertions. Through this, Cerda also entertained the notion of nature being an integral part of the city by creating opportunities for it to develop.

    While the application of the urbanization theory supported the notion of building a socially and environmentally resilient city, it wasn’t sufficient to ensure the technicality of implementing it. For Cerda, 'a demonstration of the convenience, necessity, and even the technical possibility of carrying out a work of any importance are worth nothing if not accompanied at the appropriate time by an indication of the positive, effective means, and resources required to achieve it'.

    To prevent the plan from remaining solely ideas on paper, Cerda considered four essential points that drove his plan forward: legal, administrative, political, and economic. Having established the fundamentals of the points, Cerda was capable of convincing the authorities for the proposal’s effectiveness. This was an essential part of the success of the proposal because it gave a rational estimate as to how the plan can meet the city’s pre-existing planning standards.

    However, following the council’s approval, the plan was immediately modified. The objective became optimising space and increasing the built form to accommodate as many people as possible. The first modification allowed a 100% increase in the construction area, converting the parallel-building design into a fully built block with almost no open space in-between. The housing blocks were no longer compatible with Cerda’s design proposal, and the total built area of a block changed from 13,520 square meters to 101,497 square meters.

    The plan failure was due to lack of purpose for the open spaces on Cerda’s behalf. By not providing specific usages of these spaces, it made their preservation process unattainable. Additionally, the absence of any building regulations, and laws surrounding preservation of public spaces, resulted in a deterioration of the city. The social awareness that defined the urbanization theory and influenced the vision of Cerda’s plan was completely abandoned. All buildings were extended to twenty meters width with no attention to the society’s configuration and significance in creating an ‘egalitarian city’.

    The plan’s engagement with technological progress of the time such as vehicular consideration in the 19th century also resulted in long term environmental implications that still affect Barcelona today. While designing for vehicular streets was a revolutionary perspective, it contributed to the modern environmental crisis. The urbanization of Barcelona formed a platform for heavy traffic flow as a product of accessible street design. The Eixample carried on developing rapidly and has become one of the most congested areas of Europe. Most of the traffic travelling between the upper and lower areas of the city is channelled through the neighbourhood, which, during busy periods, absorbs around 76,000 vehicles per hour.

    Current initiatives such as the 'superblock' proposal are trying to address the congestion issues through limiting vehicular access to blocks and increasing foot and bicycle access. The perimeter of the superblocks is where the motorised traffic circulates, while keeping the interior free from motorised vehicles. The aim of this model is to organize the city around social interaction and prioritizing pedestrians  and to recover from the effect that Cerda’s plan had on the city.

Traffic is an unforeseen result of the fact that the plan needed more focused development on the individual experience in the city to succeed. Although the living conditions were examined, culture was studied through the lens of social classes rather than reinforcing the individual experience in the city environment and embracing the meaning and character of the city’s streets. The effectiveness of the plan lay mainly in Cerda’s objective in elevating the population from a medieval design into a modern, dynamic city. The plan’s engagement with the city as a single entity and envisioning the adaptability and change of future developments make it transformative even today. The plan set one example of the challenges that arise in aspiring for an effective urban layout, but most significantly it made us question the meaning of urbanization.

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