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Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos Illuminates Core Principles of Sustainable Development in Revitalization

By Kay Scrimger
June 23, 2003

Barcelona, Spain Mayor Joan Clos i Matheu illuminated major principles of sustainable development in his case study of Barcelona's planning for the Olympic Games in 1992 and the resulting strong revitalization of the city's economy.

"At the time we were competing for the Olympic games, Barcelona was experiencing a heavy industrial crisis, with 22 percent inflation and 22 percent unemployment. Some cities that had hosted the games had gone bankrupt.

"We decided that we could use our being awarded the Olympic games to devise a strategy that would "do something big to transform the fabric of the city," he said.

Mayor Clos quoted the Greek playwright Sophocles (495-406 B.C.), who observed that human beings are possessed by two strong forces: 1) language and the desire to communicate, and 2) the passion for building cities.

Barcelona is an "accumulation of 2,000 years of history," Mayor Clos said. Its old quarter dates from Roman times as well as the Gothic period of the 13th and 14th centuries. Barcelona's City Hall was built in 1373.

Thus in the transformation of the city's fabric from 1992-2004, the goals were to:

  • "Keep the old and rejuvenate and mix it with very contemporary architecture," Mayor Clos said. Barcelona chose to carefully preserve the old walled city while performing "acupuncture, that is, intervention to improve public architectural spaces inside the old city," such as recovery of Cathedral Plaza. Throughout his address, Mayor Clos used a series of slides to dramatize the effect of the changes. Demolition of two sets of flats allowed two plazas to be opened up and connected.
  • "Identify and recover new spaces," the mayor said, within a city graced by such icons as sculptures by Joan Miro, preservation of the Chimneys of la Perdrara by Antoni Gaudi, and the memorial to Americans who fought and died in the Spanish Civil War.
  • "Understand the importance of mixed use," Mayor Clos emphasized. "We are very dense, with a mix of 22 countries in Europe, with close to 22 different languages. We are very dense and very different from each other," and thus it is critical to followed mixed-use principles in design.
  • Continue to develop and implement the carefully-constructed strategy to change the city's economy, to make, in the mayor's words, "Barcelona a viable, sustainable city for the twenty-first century," which would attract new investment, high tech industries, and be competitive with the other great cities of Europe.

To accomplish this, Mayor Clos said, "We had to change the scale of intervention," that is, Barcelona focused upon improving its airport, fortuitously located near the city; undertook significant harbor improvements; recovered 70 acres of land from the sea; improved the quality of its small places, regenerated two rivers, reconstructed a major brownfield, all the while carefully finding a mix of the architecture of the city — "keeping the old and rejuvenating and mixing it with contemporary architecture."

Sustainability of the city was also enhanced by two big train stations, connecting vital sections of the city with high speed trains, buses, and other forms of transport.

In terms of its urban plan, Mayor Clos pointed out that their overall urban plan today is "unfinished," with "lots of places open for the future. We do not utilize the traditional urban plan with everything planned for every space."

"The pace of change is so rapid for cities that we cannot plan for everything," he said, and thus we are leaving lots of room for this change. This plan is thus "not mathematical but stochastic, very open, with a mosaic aspect."

Mayor Clos noted that economic indicators of Barcelona today compared with 1992 demonstrate their successful revitalization strategy. Inflation has gone from 22 percent to two percent, unemployment has been reduced from 22 percent to 6 percent. Barcelona has a high standard of living for its inhabitants. The core city is 1.5 million, within a metropolitan area of 4.5 million. "We are on our way to becoming a city of five to six million," he said.

The city is attracting more tourists, having increased from about one million per year to 3 million each year at this time, with projections of 10 million a year in 2010. Barcelona has moved from being a declining city dependent upon its industrial and manufacturing base to a world-class city of the 21st century with a strong public-private cooperation and the political will to continue to strengthen its beauty and sustainability, a true example of Sophocles' observation of the human passion of building cities.

Mayor Clos concluded by expressing his pleasure that the U. S. Conference of Mayors is interested in the gathering of international mayors and stressed the importance of sharing experiences from cities around the world. "We will be very pleased to have you come to our city," he said.