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Barcelona, and the journey of urban transformation

Peak inside: A view inside the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, in search of the ingredients for a successful urban


At the end of 2010, I found myself in Barcelona, jumping off a bus which had brought a group of us to the top of the Montjuic Hill, the site of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.

It was not too difficult to understand why, beyond the post-Olympic success,  the 17 days of the Olympic Games were a broadcaster's dream. The dramatic Olympic Park, perched on top of the Montjuic hill (to the south-west of the city) overlooks most of the city and the harbour, forming a dramatic site, possibly unrivaled in location and setting, until 2016, when Rio de Janeiro hosts the Games.

On that day, Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys was closed for stadium tours, but that didn't stop me from poking my nose through the iconic gates at the one end of the stadium; searching, looking for the special ingredient which catapulted a lesser known Spanish city into the upper echelons of global tourist destinations.

But the rise of Barcelona, was more than just physical, more than just an urban transformation made possible by spending. It one was borne out of a vision, and will, which found life, long before the Olympic flame was so dramatically lit in July of 1992. Perhaps the secrets and ingredients I was in search of, were to be found in the books, which documented the journey towards the Olympic Games, and not in the streets or inside the Olympic venues.

In a previous article of our Olympic Cities series,  we interviewed Guy Briggs, who highlighted political will and vision, as key components of London's Olympic Park. With this advice in mind, I find my nose in the books instead, in the form of the official Olympic Games report of the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. It comprises a series of documents which covers the preparation and hosting of the Olympic Games, from the bid to the Closing Ceremony.

Here, we highlight some of the important decisions and turning points, in Barcelona's journey towards urban transformation .

Public space as a symbol of a new democracy

The end of the Franco regime and the introduction of democracy into local councils made it necessary to provide an answer to the problems created by the lack of an urban planning policy: sprawl and the shortage of land for infrastructure and leisure activities in the city. Therefore, in 1980 a programme of constructing public spaces was launched.

The decision to bid

In mid-1980, the mayor of Barcelona, Narcís Serra, and the deputy mayors, Josep Miquel Abad, Josep Maria Cullell and Pasqual Maragall, began to carry out a study of the possibility of holding the Olympic Games in the city. On 31 January 1981, at a dinner to celebrate the awards for the sportsmen and women of the year organised annually by El Mundo Deportivo at the Hotel Princesa Sofía, Narcís Serra announced in public that he wished to offer the city as the site for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Kick-starting infrastructure

Despite the limited resources available, at the beginning of the nineteen eighties a series of projects designed to improve connections within the city were started. Some infrastructure work was resumed, such as the second ring road, which had been in abeyance for more than thirteen years, the connection between the first and the second ring roads through the Rovira tunnel, the area of the Vallvidrera tunnel through Tibidabo and the Valldaura -Llucmajor-Via Julia axis. These projects were accompanied by improvements in the use of the existing road system.

A new seafront

In 1987, the redevelopment of the Bosch i Alsina wharf -popularly known as the Moll de la Fusta- and its connection to the area of the old city was the first step in the renovation of the central area of Barcelona's seafront. It was the beginning of an extensive redevelopment of the old port of Barcelona with the object of turning it into a recreational and sporting area. This process of renewing the city's seafront was complemented by improvements to the district of Barceloneta and the conversion of the old industrial and warehousing zone of Poblenou into a residential area. The Parc de Mar Area, the proposed location of the Olympic Village for the Games, was undergoing a process of de-industrialisation; the beaches were in an extremely degraded state and railway lines separated the district from the sea. The redevelopment of the area changed all this.

The rings roads

In 1988, with the impetus of the Olympic Games, the construction of the ring roads was speeded up. This work followed the provisions of the 1976 General Metropolitan Plan, but abandoned the concept of "urban motorways", adopted when some sections were to be constructed during the nineteen seventies. The new ring roads were designed to facilitate entry and exit from the city and to improve the connections between the main road network and the various areas of Barcelona. The new ring roads would also be a fundamental element in the links between the different Olympic areas during the 1992 Games.

Communicating with the world

The economic upturn which took place in the second half of the nineteen eighties produced a sudden increase in demand for new telecommunications lines which greatly exceeded the provisions which had been made and quickly saturated the existing network. However, the most ambitious projects undertaken for 1992 are the Granada del Penedès Satellite Communications Complex, the Barcelona teleport in Castellbisbal and the Barcelona telecommunications tower situated on theSierra de Collserola. The tower, the work of Norman Foster, is complemented by a 7,500 square metre service building which has been placed half underground to minimize its impact on the surroundings.

The definition of the city centre

Over time the services district of Barcelona has shifted from the Ciutat Vella to the Eixample and more recently to the upper part of the Diagonal. For this reason, the large scale projects for 1992 have been concentrated in the peripheral and relatively inactive areas of the city to counteract the tendency for activity to concentrate in the south west of the city, starting from the Diagonal.

A new cultural infrastructure

As a consequence of Barcelona's designation as the site for the Olympic Games, a number of cultural projects were launched, some of which will be completed after 1992. These included the renovation of the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, the Municipal Auditorium, the National Theatre of Catalonia, the Centre of Contemporary Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the new Botanical Garden in the Parc del Migdia on Montjuïc.

And so, over a decade, a long term vision for Barcelona was delivered, brick by brick, day by day. The Olympic Games were merely a celebration point in this ongoing journey of improvement, investment, and urban transformation.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Watch Barcelona's urban transformation in 180 seconds