In my view, the streets in Barcelona are not suffocating with traffic. I was only in Barcelona for a few days in April, but the roads in the business districts are amazingly wide, and we were never slowed in our travels. When I walked the narrow paths of Gracia, a cozy neighborhood in the middle of Barcelona, I never felt squeezed by cars. I lived in Bangkok for 11 years. I know what bad traffic looks like.
But of course it is all relative. While Barcelona is no where near as hot, congested or polluted as Bangkok, for citizens of Barcelona, conditions are not as good as they should be. According to this VOX article by David Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania, Barcelona is the fourth-most population-dense city in Europe, is well under the World Health Organization’s recommendation for 9 square meters of green space per resident at 2.7 square meters, suffers from urban heat island effect at 3 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than the region around it, and is considered one of the noisiest in the world.
One of the reasons for this poorer quality of life is due to decades of negligence by former totalitarian leader, Francisco Franco, After the generalissimo passed away in 1975, development in Barcelona began again, peaking with financing sparked by the Olympics, which may be another reason for the state of Barcelona today.
According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, the planners for Barcelona were essentially taking advantage of global trends, including the desire for large cities to invest in urban renewal, and to also brand Barcelona as an exciting destination for tourists and global financing. In fact, Rosenthal explained that planners shifted attention from “publicly planned, small-scale infrastructural improvements to larger schemes funded by private investors.”
This is not unique to Barcelona. The organizers leveraged the Olympics to realize long-held plans for the development of Barcelona as would any other city. But as I wrote previously, these Games were so successful economically that it is often held up as the gold standard for an organization of an Olympiad, cited as The Barcelona Model. But one can argue that the Olympics triggered inflows of private capital that brought both benefits and detriments to Barcelona, as Rosenthal explains.
…this largely positive appraisal of the Barcelona Olympics belies the negative consequences of its planning strategy that have become evident in succeeding years. The regeneration of the waterfront, while touted as a positive outcome of the Games, has increased housing prices across the city, forcing many longtime residents to leave. Additionally, following the Barcelona Games, inflation in the city increased and unemployment rose. And on a larger scale the city branding approaches used for the Barcelona Olympics have increasingly placed control of the city in the hands of private agents. Generally, post-Olympic city planning in Barcelona has become less focused on the improvement of the lives of the city’s residents, and more attuned to strategies that seek to maximize the attraction of capital.
Part of the woes of urbanization and increased emphasis on development is a diminished prioritization of the working class. Economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of the fascinating book, Circus Maximus – The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, quoted Josep Maria Montaner, an architectural critic, in explaining how old housing and factories, landmarks of a different age, were demolished, and new development lacked any environmental or sustainability standards. Zimbalist then went on to explain how inflows of private capital led to gentrification.
Barcelona’s new urban zones were redeveloped with improved public services and, in some cases, direct access to the sea. These parts of the city became gentrified, and hand in hand with gentrification came higher prices. Higher prices meant that lower-income people had to relocate, and, more generally, plans for public housing were underfulfilled. One study noted the following impacts:
- Strong increases in the prices of housing for rent and for sale (from 1986 to 1993 the cumulative increase was 139% for home sale prices and nearly 145% in home rentals)
- A drastic decrease in the availability of public housing (from 1986 to 1992 there was a cumulative decrease of 5.9%)
- A gradual decrease in the availability of private houses for rent (from 1981 to 1991 the cumulative decrease was 23.7%)11 Thus, like the experience with mega-events elsewhere, hosting the games in Barcelona was accompanied by a redistribution of living standards to the detriment of lower-income groups.
One can argue that the decrease in supply is being driven by a Silicon Valley start up called Airbnb, which is highly popular in Spain. For those who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects you with people who are offering accommodations in their own properties. The original premise of Airbnb was that you could rent out a person’s room, and you could spend time with the owner. Today, people and companies run businesses renting out apartments and houses to people who are looking for alternatives to hotels.
I spent a week in Madrid and Barcelona in April. In Madrid, I stayed in a room the owner lived in. He was out of town, but a guest occupied another room. It was a great experience as we got along well with the other occupant. In contrast, our Airbnb accommodation in Barcelona was owned by a couple who managed three properties, none of which they lived in. Overall, both experiences were great for us. But while Airbnb is a boon for tourists, it is to the detriment of local residents, as explained in this New Yorker article.
Nearly half the Airbnb properties in Barcelona are entire houses or apartments. The conceit of friendly locals renting out spare rooms has been supplanted by a more mercenary model, in which centuries-old apartment buildings are hollowed out with ersatz hotel rooms. Many properties have been bought specifically as short-term-rental investments, managed by agencies that have dozens of such properties. Especially in coveted areas, Airbnb can drive up rents, as longtime residents sell their apartments to people eager to use them as profit engines.
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