Ravelejar: The Art of Neighborhood Branding (1/4)

Part 1: The Barcelona Model

Barcelona. To many, the name of this cultural capital conjures up images of beaches, ornate architecture, tapas, and wine. It is a city whose reputation precedes it. While its reputation can be, in part, attributed to the city’s world famous soccer team and representations in popular media1, Barcelona’s ascent to global city status is also the result of innovative urban planning and design strategies. These strategies combine social policy, cultural production, and urban redevelopment in order to construct and manage a city brand. Often referred to as the “Barcelona Model”, the city has created a unique method for city branding that is now followed by city planners and designers worldwide2.

Photo Credit: PHP Barcelona Conference '15
Photo Credit: PHP Barcelona Conference ’15

The Barcelona Model emerged after dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 and during the 1979 local democratic elections when the relationship between culture, governance, and urban transformation in Barcelona began to shift. In the years that followed, the city underwent massive urban redevelopment projects including the creation of new public spaces and the restoration of the waterfront area. First, the city created a new governance model that prioritized engagement with, and participation by, members of civil society3. By allowing citizens to influence decision making, the city not only encouraged an engaged political culture, but also an identity of “Barcelonity” that transcended socio-economic class and encouraged a sort of city-wide pride. Through this governance structure, the city addressed deficits in education, health services, and public spaces that were the unfortunate remnants of the Franco years4.

Photo Credit: Barcelona Through Contemprary Art Museums
Photo Credit: Barcelona Through Contemporary Art Museums

A major part of this identity construction involved the development of public spaces that promoted social cohesion and allowed for political participation. These urbanization projects, called “PERIs” (Planos especiales de reforma interior, or Special Plans for Interior Reform) were implemented at the neighborhood level as part of Barcelona’s Comprehensive Plan5. The city created a program to acquire old industrial land at low prices in Ciutat Vella (“Old Town”) and in working-class neighborhoods in order to build higher-quality public spaces and collective services.

When Barcelona was chosen by the Olympic committee to host the 1992 Games, the influx of national and regional public investment helped finance additional public works projects, such as the construction of the Olympic village, new sports facilities, and the immensely renovated waterfront6. In a sense, the Olympics provided an opportunity for Barcelona to present its shining achievements to the world: the transition from dictatorship to democracy and the parallel transition from city to cultural capital.

Photo Credit: Design Applause!
Photo Credit: Design Applause!

As is often the case for cities competing for an Olympic Bid, Barcelona generated both public and private investments in preparation for the 1994 Games. The city used the funds to renovate the cultural infrastructure of existing museums, particularly the iconic Gaudí architecture7. With the input of globally renowned architects, the Casa de Caritat project helped improve the city’s image and attracted tourism and investment dollars8. Richard Florida’s conception of the “creative class” policy agenda suggests that cities should develop a culture of openness and cosmopolitanism by way of small-scale music and performing arts venues, art galleries, and trendy nightclubs in order to attract workers in an emerging professional class. Anticipating this theory, Barcelona’s 1994 Strategic Plan for the City included not only the development of cultural institutions, festivals, and conferences, but also a stronger knowledge-based economy based in design and media arts.

While the revitalization of Barcelona has many supporters, it has also received criticism for its disparate impact on impoverished communities. For instance, Barcelona’s revitalization has led to the implementation of new public policies that focus on improving cultural amenities for the purpose of community development in marginalized areas9. However, critics of the knowledge-based economy model argue that, because of its emphasis on attracting creative class workers, the policy became increasingly fragmented, leading to a relaxation of planning regulations, a decrease in public participation, and a move towards a top down approach to large infrastructure and redevelopment projects10.

Nowhere has the effect of the Barcelona Model been so polemic as in El Raval, traditionally a working class neighborhood, that is now a gateway community for multiple immigrant groups from North Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Barcelona El Raval 060
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Barcelona El Raval 060

As a result of Barcelona’s cultural urban revitalization, El Raval has experienced increased spatial segregation of demographic groups and social activities within the neighborhood. While some areas enjoy high income levels and a large concentration of new businesses, others are characterized by low-income immigrant communities and high unemployment. Social issues such as drug abuse and vast informal economic markets are prevalent within these communities – issues that have been inherited from Raval’s history as a working class area within the city of Barcelona.

While these issues have always been, and continue to be, characteristic to the area, perceptions of the Raval as a neighborhood of poverty and vice have been largely exaggerated. Historically, a mythology about the neighborhood was perpetuated by the political and economic elite in order to justify the city’s redevelopment efforts. Part two of this series will examine the neighborhood’s history, and unpack the pejorative discourse used to characterize and rebrand El Raval.

1Most recently, Woody Allen’s highly successful Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008) packaged the city and all of its exaggerated charm into a cinematic guided tour. More popular in the EU, L’Auberge Espagnol (2002) similarly portrayed Barcelona as cosmopolitan metropolis of debauchery.

2Evans, G. (2003). “Hard­Branding the Cultural City­ From Prado to Prada”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Studies, 27:2, pp 417­440.

3Blakeley, G. (2010). “Governing Ourselves: Citizen Participation and Governance in Barcelona and Manchester”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 34:1, pp 130­145

4Degen, M. and Garcia, M. (2012). “The Transformation of the ‘Barcelona Model’: An Analysis of Culture, Urban Regeneration and Governance”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36:5, pp 1022­38

5For “Las Normativa Urbanística” of the Plan General Metropolitano de Barcelona, see http://www.numamb.cat/

6García, S. (1993). “Barcelona and the Olympic Games” in H. Hauuserman and W. Siebel (eds), Festivalization of urban policy, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag

7Subiros, P. (1999). Estrategies culturals i renovacio urbana. Barcelona: Aula Barcelona

8Subirats, J. & Rius, J. (2008). Del Xino al Raval. Barcelona: Hacer Editorial

9Institut de Cultura de Barcelona (2006). Nous Accents 2006: Elements per una revisio del Plan Estrategic de Cultural de Barcelona. Barcelona: Institut de Cultura and ICC Consultors Culturals SA

10Degen, M. and Garcia, M. (2012). “The Transformation of the ‘Barcelona Model’: An Analysis of Culture, Urban Regeneration and Governance.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36(5): pp 1022­38

About the Author: Brady Collins is a Doctoral Candidate at UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, specializing in spatial justice and cultural planning. A strong believer in the power of ethnographic methods, his work not only aims to provide insight to urban planners and designers, but also community organizations and social movements. Brady is also a member of the Urban Humanities Initiative at UCLA, and thus draws from multiple disciplines in his work, including history, sociology, and architecture. His current research examines neighborhood branding in multi-ethnic, multi-racial urban areas.