The city of Barcelona has witnessed an extremely successful period of regeneration and revival in the recent two to three decades. There is no doubt that the city’s planning experience has set an enviable example. However, there has also been debates on the concept of so-called ‘Barcelona Model’ (Balibrea, 2004). It is doubtful whether the way in which Barcelona has achieved such success can as well work in other cities in different countries.
With the knowledge and questions from the preliminary research, we started our busy journey in Barcelona. This critique will reflect on the Barcelona fieldtrip and relevant resources, and explain my opinion upon the experience and possibilities of the ‘Barcelona model’ with a focus on the preservation and regeneration of urban historic environment.
The Catalan capital city was once recognised as the “Catalan Manchester” as an industrial core of northern Spain. Being similar to many British cities whose glorious memories were left in the industrial time, Barcelona experienced significant decline in the decades before 1980s (Pareja-Eastaway, 2009). The particular political environment in Spain within the 20th century made it worse. The Ciutat Vella (Old Town), the historic centre of the city, suffered most from a series of problems including dense landscape with limited open space, lack of urban facilities, ageing and decreasing population, and many other social issues. (Via, 2015)
I believe that the success of Barcelona’s urban regeneration is a result of well organised planning systems with specific policies and efficient implementation. The politic reform and improvement provided the ideal ground, and the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games acted as an important initial catalyst.
I was quite impressed by the street views of the El Raval and El Barri Gotic districts. Although the blocks of high density are kept and some of the households still look relatively poor, it is quite obvious that the facilities there have been improved in the recent years and the streets appear to be very active and energetic, resulting from the dramatic growth of tourism in the city since 1990s.
There are continuing discussions on whether the British cities can imitate the “Barcelona Model” in their effort of achieving successful regeneration. In my opinion, the so-called “Barcelona Model” means certain ideas and essence that definitely should be learned from, but not a simple formula that could be copied. A city could never be copied by another. I believe that every city has its unique characteristics and soul. The objective environment, in terms of natural, social, political, and economic conditions, can also be significantly different (Degan and Garcia, 2012).
Manchester, as the city that we have always been comparing with Barcelona, does not have the Mediterranean warm weather, the sunny beaches, or the Sagrada Familia, and failed to become a host city of the Olympic Games. However, this does not necessarily mean that Manchester cannot learn from the Barcelona experience and develop itself into a city with growing international influence and competence. On the one hand, Manchester benefits from the identity as the second city of England and gains natural connection with the English-speaking and globalised world. On the other hand, Manchester also has the potential to become a more attractive tourist destination with football, music, Victorian architecture and other features defining the identity of the city. Meanwhile, Manchester is surrounded by other major cities including Liverpool and Leeds, as well as natural beauties of the Lake District and the Peak District, which make up a better contextual situation of tourist consideration compared with Barcelona. More opportunities can be created when we consider Manchester as a core of northern England and make plans from a regional viewpoint.
As for the regeneration efforts of specific districts, the situation of Manchester is again quite different from Barcelona. Although not having a Medieval district like Ciutat Vella in Barcelona, Manchester’s city centre is rather smaller, and is made up in the building form of the Victorian time. Other urban districts out of the city centre are filled with brownfield sites and low quality residential blocks. There are issues including the traffic pressure in the city centre, lack of open spaces, economic transformation, brownfield renewal, etc., of which many were or still are the same problems that Barcelona faces.
Another impressive example of urban renewal project is the reconstruction of the Santa Caterina Market. What impressed me most was not only the beautiful architectural design, but the fact that the market was planned as a complex project in association with a neighbouring residential area for senior citizens, an underground car park, and other facilities. Meanwhile, the area is provided with good accessibility towards the major tourist and commercial districts. The success of a planning effort can only be assessed in the context of a neighbourhood, instead of individual buildings. You can feel the strong sense of vitality from the traditional marketing environment, which has been declining in the metropolitan lives around the world.
One of the keys of Barcelona’s success, I believe, is the way the authorities on different levels work together and ensure the right decision is made and the plans are well delivered. Certain consensus is well created between different groups, local communities, as well as the governments. Equally importantly, they have managed to acquire adequate funding. One of the examples is the integrating recycling system in the El Raval. The reason why such high technology infrastructure system could have been set up within this old, dense, yet poor urban area is that the expense is covered largely by the national budget and funding from the European Union. On the contrary, we know that many proposed infrastructure projects in Manchester have been limited or stopped because of the absence of funding. Meanwhile, it is argued that the current situation in the UK where the central government forwards the duties of assets management and development towards local authorities and communities has made the local bodies lacking the resources and willingness of conducting such projects. (Fernandez, 2014) However, the recent political changes that gives more power to the Manchester City Council will probably help Manchester find more solutions to support their future plans.