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Surroundings of Barcelona, 1855

Cultural Identities: Barcelona (Spain)

The Cerdà extension of Barcelona: urban structure, identity and civic values

Josep Bernis

1855 was the year when the Government authorized the demolition of the walls of the ancient city, and also when the engineer Ildefons Cerdà (1815-1876) drew up the blueprint of the Extension Plan of Barcelona. This was based on the excellent topographic map of the city and its neighbouring territory, drawn up under the engineer's own direction (fig. 1). We can find in it the broad surface, named 'Pla de Barcelona', placed between the overcrowded walled town and the pre-litoral chain of mountains, closing the area. This smoothly sloped plain was for centuries artificially kept free from any kind of urbanisation due to military reasons, only gathering by Cerdà's time some traditional towns (Sants, Sarrià, Gràcia and Sant Andreu, among other smaller ones), which today constitute the core of the different boroughs in Barcelona. The Extension Plan was basically conceived by Cerdà as an antidote to the extremely high density "that kills", of near 900 inhabitants per hectare, and the resultant unhealthy living conditions.

Dynamic process
The Cerdà Plan for the Extension of Barcelona, dated 1859 (fig. 2) -some 1300 hectares of rectangular blocks (113 x 113 m), covering 14% of the present municipal surface area-, has been implemented in different stages, from the start of industrialisation in Catalonia. It is seen by many scholars as a consistent framework which has conferred to the city not only an individual personality, but also a special ability to accommodate changes in social structure, economy or land use regulations throughout time . More than this, it has proved to be a framework able to produce dynamic impulses as well as be responsible for much stability in the urban system, while keeping its basic spatial functions. It makes the urban system develop as a coherent whole in the fields of productivity, competition and internal cohesion.
That has something to do with the creative forces emanating from the strong interaction between some crucial elements starting in the middle of the 19th century. We refer mainly to the birth of a new industrial bourgeoisie, the investment of profits both in building a modern commercial port, and the urbanisation of the 'Pla de Barcelona', following Cerdà's designs, beyond the demolished walls of the overcrowded ancient city.
We can trace in this context the theme of Catalan entrepreneurship, for instance, in the foresteps of utility networks closely related to the rectangular grid development. Yet we find today firms with international leadership in this field (AGBAR, Gas Natural). Anyway, the rational approach in the plan with respect to water, sewage, electricity and gas services, helped a great deal to guarantee equality of access to them: "what starts as being good for a few is going to be profitable for everyone"

Urban development issues and socio-cultural cohesion
The humanistic side of the engineer is reflected in the way, rather unusual by that time, Cerdà scientifically analyzed many theoretical aspects, for example urban and housing standards. A wide range of topics of this nature were developed in his comprehensive work 'Teoría General de la Urbanización' (General Theory of Urbanisation), where some find the very beginning of Urbanism as a separate branch in social sciences.
Among other meaningful aspects his holistic conception of the urbanisation process has to be stressed: coherent design of streets / blocks, public / private spaces, utility networks, public / private transportation, considering as well the subtle link between housing economics and issues of social integration. The Extension's implementation -mainly through legal and financial regulations linked to the development process- was done in such a way as to allow the different social strata to live together in the same building: quality flats on the first floor with back gardens for owners and high income families, upper level flats -more modest, but subject to the established standards- for workers. The point is that such a model implies equal access to the same neighbourhood and commercial facilities. This has been the case for many decades, and we can understand it as a fundamental part of an implicit social contract between the bourgeoisie and working classes, which has clearly contributed to smoother relations, the removal of radical conflicts and more room for dialogue.
This situation has been described also as being at the origin of the positive 'melting pot' pattern, in the way Giovanni Sartori (The multiethnic society) describes the delicate but consistent contrast between reaching interculturality -as a means for differences to coexist in tolerant respect- and becoming multicultural -a blurred mix draining the shape and breath from existing traditions, and, at the extreme, threatening democracy. There is a hope that urban structure always has some role to play. The fact is, anyway, that Catalonia's identity has not only resisted through history several migration influxes from other Spanish regions that are culturally different, but has come up with incentives to foster common aims. Figures are clear: from 1900 (1,95 million) to 2000 (6,05 million) Catalonia tripled its population, while that of the rest of Spain hardly doubled. A most amazing contrast we find if we consider that in 1855, the ancient city (2,35 sq km) was overwhelmed by nearly 200.000 people, showing no significant exchanges on a daily basis with its surrounding towns, while currently, we talk about a metropolitan area (3.200 sq km) with 4,2 million people, based on strong commuting interrelations.

Other issues of influence
The standard parcelling displayed in the plan lays pace to diversity -a wide variety of land uses quite close together-, allowing efficient locations for fluid inner transformation, as successive changes, induced by alternatives in economic cycles, are imminent. The playboard results both simple and complete, notwithstanding the enormous variety of architectural styles in place: a single urban structure for the wide variety of architectural styles that use to amaze the growing array of visitors. A new tourist culture demanding more than sun, beaches or landscapes. Even at the risk of occasional congestion, diversity and compactness bring proximity - a large number of closer contacts over a limited time- and a continuing occupation of public spaces -which so become more efficient and safe.
The large urban facilities in Barcelona have to find a way of fitting into the grid, allowing easy access for everybody, without interfering with the functionality of the whole. For more than a century they have systematically adopted the trend to embrace complete block units into a range from one (several goods markets, the old seminar), two (prison, Central University, Hospital Clínic), three (Antoni Gaudi's Holy Family sanctuary, for instance), four (ancient poly-technic university, the old slaughter house turned into urban park in recent times) to nine (Sant Pau hospital).
It is also easy to see the influence of the urban conditions provided by the character of Cerdà's Extension on socio-cultural aspects, as deep rooted associationism (music, literature, sports, different scientific fields), coming very often from spontaneous private initiatives. Also to mention the undisputed leadership of Barcelona to figure out the peculiar pattern of the cultural identity of Catalonia: 'seny' (a steady attitude of 'common sense'), discretion, cooperation, which one can notice during traditional mass celebrations (the patron saint St. George holiday -a book and a rose for the best loved friends-, the building up of human castles, or the popular dance of 'Sardana').
So a certain atmosphere of unity underlying the different city visions makes the urban playground resistant to segmentation, with sufficient strong attractions for a significant majority of newcomers to feel easily caught up in the common project. Why then if not, ghettos (prostitution, crime) have been banished until very recent times to the nuclear ancient city, which successive municipal administrations have failed to restructure in the physical dimension that Cerdà himself was proposing (more radical renewal to ensure continuity, only very partially implemented, of some inner streets with the Extension grid) (fig. 5).

Present day opportunities
Time has proved those virtues some 150 years after the beginning of the whole process. This part of the city maintains traffic circulation and compact diversity for living and activity, in spite of relentless densification, if we compare with the rest of the districts, even those more recently developed (figs. 3 and 4). A chain of successive permissive building regulations - only broken in 1976, thanks to the land use metropolitan plan still applying today - have brought the Extension density far beyond Cerdà's initial perspectives. On the other hand, recent physical proposals such as the Olympic Village or the industrial restructuring on the Extension's east side, to TIC new economy, are shown to be able to be easily fitted into the same scheme (fig. 6). So there is a possibility of urban sustainability in a grand sense. Both examples constitute indeed radical transformations - a modern housing neighbourhood which was once a slum, and third wave clean industry able to be mixed with housing- that have become compatible with the opening of the city to the seafront, now rediscovered for the benefit of urban quality, by just lengthening the grid axis to its natural limits.

Plan of the Extension Plan, 1859 The Extension Plan contrasted with the real town today The real town today The westside Extension area and the Ancient City today The eastside Extension area and the recent and current developments