Barcelona’s rise to the top through urban regeneration via culture and tourism

Tourism regeneration more often than not only occurs when there is an obvious potential that a city, town or region could benefit from the injection of domestic or overseas travellers. The central authorities, along with the local councils will realise the potential and look to plan ways on how to inject tourism into the economy.

In 1958 – 6 years before Malta gained independence from Britain – saw the Maltese Government Tourist Board set up the sole aim of tourist attraction via a young but stable industry. This led to the exponential increase in tourism and convinced the authorities to continue to support and invest into the scheme. Thus, leading to tourism diversification and the building of hotels, ancillary services, airport extension and starting a yacht marina sector.

This supports the idea that urban regeneration is the comprehensive integrated vision and action which leads to resolution of urban problems and seeks to bring lasting change in the economic, social, physical and environmental condition. Today, Malta remains one of the leading tourist destinations for holiday islands in the world.

In terms of a more modern approach, if Paris was the capital of modernity and Los Angeles of post-modernity, then the likes of Bilbao and in this case Barcelona, have become meccas for urban regeneration, from industrial cities of a post-authoritarian regime to culturally vibrant cities. The Bilbao Effect is a key feature in modern tourism regeneration and can be seen around the world. An example relevant to this report and sculpted by Frank Gehry himself is the Peix Olimpic (Golden Fish Sculpture) in Barcelona. This effect originated from the Guggenheim museum transforming the poor industrial port city of Bilbao into a must-see tourist destination. This success encouraged other cities into hiring famous architects and giving them freewill to design buildings to repeat the Bilbao formula with the hope of bringing in tourism from the result.

Another technique that boosts regeneration significantly is event-led projects such as; The Olympics, The World Cup and music festivals. Does this suggest that every major event is an act of regeneration?

Although the 1992 Olympic Games and other major events helped shape contemporary Barcelona, other developed cities do not necessarily feel the maximum benefits from large scale events as would developing ones would. This argues that the main beneficiaries of event strategies are rarely the most deserving and needy candidates.

So – for future events – a conscious effort would be needed to make sure that instead of gifting them to major cities, it would be best to mitigate them towards areas that would benefit from the boost. Although it is part of London, Stratford is a prime example of a mega-event regeneration project. The authorities could have used pre-existing stadiums across the capital, but instead opted to rejuvenate a dilapidated part of the city. Thus, The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was born.

This suggests that the best way to regenerate a region through culture is to engage with the community that inhabits it, rather than the governing institutions. This statement supports the idea that the involvement of the local community in any country would enhance the final product. So, the key to tourism and cultural regeneration lays with the engagement of the local community in smaller developing regions. On the other hand, how does this narrative fit in with bigger cities that are already prone to tourism and may be suffering from over-tourism?

This is what makes Barcelona an unusual and fascinating concept as they have gone from utilising their cultural assets to benefit from tourism, to facing problems from tourism itself and even contemplating to shut out tourists.

The urban development of Barcelona started to take place in the 1980s and has some critics labelling it as a prominent example to other cultural regeneration approaches in the ways that it ‘took an urban design, cultural planning and creative quarter approach’ while integrating cultural activity.

Barcelona is a unique case when it comes to cultural and tourism regeneration as a means of re-branding the city. From a mutual perspective, the city identifies itself separate or independent from the rest of Spain and fundamentally despises the capital, Madrid. The Catalonians also speak a different language from the traditionally spoken Spanish like the rest of Spain, already offering an appealing cultural difference to inbound tourists.

Furthermore, in more recent years in terms of sustaining the cultural offering as a means of continuous development, culture has become a key driver in urban competition and has been co-opted to meet the social, economic and political objectives of the city. In conjunction, has the division and yearning for independence from the Catalan giants fuelled their urban cultural redevelopment over the years?

One could argue culture as an anthropological notion that refers to a way of life that has been expanded in contemporary capitalism by the culturalization of the economy. Simply meaning to benefit on the cultural differences Barcelona and the rest of Catalunya have to offer from the rest of Spain. The problem however, with a region with such togetherness and locality, can too much regeneration cause a problem with the high possibility of over-tourism? A certain possibility after the 1992 Olympic Games.

Catalunya was governed by a dictatorship under Francisco Franco and the freedoms of the residents were severely restricted during the Civil War in 1936. With the reinstatement of democracy in 1978, Barcelona regained its economic strength and the Catalan language was restored. Over the coming years the incentive to restore Barcelona and the rest of the region was of high priority and something everyone could look forward to.

The tipping point many would argue as the beginning of a new era and the Barcelona we see today would come from the 1992 Olympic Games. However, prior to the planning and construction of this event, Barcelona and Catalunya as a whole was a very different place.

A neighbourhood of Barcelona that generalises what the pre – knowledge and information capital of the Mediterranean looked like was El Poblenou. In the mid-20th century, the neighbourhood was nicknamed the ‘Catalan Manchester’, due to their industrial similarities. Due to Barcelona’s location – with Poblenou as an influence – it provided a great place for Spain’s industrial sector to use the city for imports and exports. The neighbourhood occupied a broad manufacturing base centred on textiles including oil, wine, machinery, paint, plastics and food.

Towards the end of the 19th century and up to the 1960s and 70s, Poblenou and Barcelona was the most heavily industrialised neighbourhood and city of Spain. However, the beginning of the 1950s saw the start in predominantly Western Europe’s switch from production to a consumption society, which could be labelled as the spark in Barcelona’s regeneration project – The Barcelona Model.

Furthermore, as the industrial boom was prominent throughout the entire first half of the 20th century, the textile industry started to decline due to the rise in more modern sectors such as the chemical, metallurgical and the food and wine industry. As times began to modernize around the back end of the 20th century, having the presence of an extensive industrial area posed a big problem in terms of touristic development, cultural identity and social and economic prevalence. Therefore, the local government built another industrial hub farther away to provide an opportunity to rejuvenate the Catalonian capital. The need for urban regeneration through culture, tourism and other factors was evident to the authorities – thus – bidding for the Olympic Games was pivotal and indeed, successful.

As mentioned earlier, the most prominent factor in Barcelona’s rise to the top as one of the most visited tourist destinations comes from it’s city boosterism approach. A consumerist movement that is aimed at ideally introducing a landmark, building(s) or hallmark event that will alter the city’s image. This approach will subsequently attract tourists, investment or even mega events that will help aid the process. One mega event that seemingly changed Barcelona forever and cemented itself as one of the top European tourist destinations was the 1992 Olympic Games. Also referred to as the catalyst of ‘The Barcelona Model’.

A feeling of ecstasy swept Barcelona in the summer of ’92 accompanied by unforgettable opening and closing ceremonies exploding with the Catalan culture. From the games of 1992, buildings and new infrastructure projects fully regenerated the coastline, transforming the city into a beach hotspot. An Olympic Village is always a good start to introducing tourism to a post-Olympic games site. Poble Nou Park was previously an industrial area – however – Barcelona authorities devoted the area to green zones for the event and is now a remnant of the great Olympic games over 25 years later.

The most profound infrastructure of Barcelona’s legacy from the Olympic games  that is still a key factor in today’s tourism of the city is its Passeig Maritim beach. The sand was imported from Egypt and stretches two miles up the coastline going north. These sandy beaches have become a symbol of the city and reflect Barcelona’s intimate relationship with the sea and is one the main pulling factors for tourism. The post-Olympic promenade connects the city to the sea attracting everyone from locals, tourists, runners and cyclists.

However, there is a new form of regeneration that is taking place subsequently from over-tourism. They are currently implementing environmental and social sustainability policies in the hope to reduce noise, water consumption and making public transport more accessible to the locals with the idea to create high levels of social cohesion and quality of life.

The City Council approved a Municipal Action Plan (PAM) to develop a strategy of tourism to benefit the locals and the tourists themselves. Highlighting the fundamental factors that this plan includes from; planning the city’s accommodation capacity for hosting tourists, correct marketing skills, to promoting cultural tourism based on the role of Barcelona as the Catalan capital. This plan aims to reduce the pulling factors from a beach holiday that encompasses stags and tourists with a lack of a moral compass to a cultural getaway with appreciation of Catalunya’s unique gifts.

The Barcelona Model was the engine behind this whole new approach to urban regeneration. The invention of out with the old and the introduction of the new while creating eye-pleasing public spaces to attract private development and tourism was the driving force of this post-industrial sea-side city. The positive impacts that rose from the model were; new sports facilities incentivised by the Olympics, Olympic Village, a promenade, 2000 apartments and more.

The Barcelona Model consists of three main characteristics. All three are an attempt at promoting civic identity in order to make the city a pleasant place to live and work. Firstly, the urban project which consists of maintaining the quality of architecture and public space and to improve the conventional urban planning at large following a technocratic pattern. The standard layout with essential zoning for any city claiming to be among the top in Europe

Secondly, an active attempt to enhance public space and improve leisure was used through an urban linking method. This highlights the importance of revitalising Barcelona’s re-connection to the sea via a man-made coast and promenade issued for the ’92 Olympic Games. Also, one could label this process as ‘eventalisation’ which is the process through which urban space is produced via the staging of events to provide distinctiveness, identity and quality of place. To which, all have been achieved through Barcelona’s iconic coastline.

The last main characteristic is the agreement between the public administration and the private sector. This essentially enables the public to have a foothold in the matters and suggestions supplied by the authorities. The ultimate goal in this model was to fundamentally implement ways in which both businesses and public funding could be used to regenerate the city into capitalism further enhancing the impact of clusters and quarters in local areas of the city.

If the locals have a say in the economic and social impact of their borough, then the place becomes recognisable to not only them, but to tourists and cements meaning within the clusters.

The role of culture and tourism plays a huge part in the Barcelona we see today especially with the rise in the accommodation and hospitality sector over the last decade. Barcelona has a population of 1,620,343 inhabitants across 73 neighbourhoods comprising of 7 awarded European Blue flag status beaches, 66 museums, 8 UNESCO World Heritage monuments, 2 UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritages and 27 Michelin Star restaurants. It is the fifth most visited city in Europe with over 19 million hotel overnight stays in 2018.

Continuing, Barcelona is a prime example of the change in tourists behaviour over recent years looking for a more authentic experience and interaction with the local population. With the spike in Air BnB cornering the accommodation market and providing that ‘authentic’ local experience, has been labelled the ‘sharing economy’ and has brought a new form of private short-term rentals.

Subsequently, this lines the pockets of the residents and provides tourism as a direct contribution to the economic welfare of the locals rather than big chain hotels and resorts. This provides residents an easy way to earn money by renting their own accommodations.

Barcelona is known to the rest of Europe as the knowledge capital of the Mediterranean. Culture and the ‘knowledge economy’ started to play a big role in the city’s urban policies and the private sector began funding cultural flagship projects after the Olympics to keep the flame alight.

Culture has been redefined in the city to its widest sense to encompass symbolic production, social dialogue and the participation of citizens, highlighting Barcelona’s strategy to make the residents part of their projects.

Furthermore, in 1996, a new institutional body, the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona was born which provided further incentive for overseas travellers to visit Catalunya and in 1999 – after success at launching Barcelona’s culture among the world – culture was given a specific function in the development of the city; Launching Barcelona as a knowledge economy. After the allocation of culture’s role, it was directly linked to an increase in public spending on culture, thus sustaining the development project.

After the aid of public funding and some years of development specific to sustaining cultural activities, the city councillor of the Culture, Education and Social Welfare Commission, Ferran Mascarell stated that:

“It is safe to say that today Barcelona is culturally strong and dense, thanks largely to the fact that it has placed culture at the centre of urban development through cultural policies that are committed to values, innovation, creativity and co-existence”

The pivotal moment in Barcelona’s rise to the top as a tourist hotspot stems from the urban regeneration project surrounding the ’92 Olympics. Since the mid-nineties, the growth in tourism supply and demand has generated significant economic and cultural benefits that have directly and indirectly affected the city’s citizens, institutions and economic sectors.

It is learned that the Barcelona Model encompassed a strong positive influence on the city and data from surveys measuring the public’s perception of tourism has given positive results over-all. Economically speaking the surge in tourism expenditure saw exponential growth between the years 1990 and 2019 with over 9 million tourists in hotels last year. To summarise, there was 3.7 million bookings in 1990 as appose to the 31 million bookings in 2016. So, with the surge in tourism and the implementation of their strategy as a whole, some social and economic urban liberal plans in the city of Barcelona, have successfully transformed various neighbourhoods into tourist destinations.

However, some might argue that the strategy worked too well with it now being the fourth most visited European city, but not the biggest. Therefore, Barcelona has become a city exploited by tourism and air traffic over the last decade with still impulses of tourism waves specific to the Olympics. If anything has changed from the ecstasy that swamped the city in the nineties, it is the overall perception and struggle against processes which have brought about the growth of mass-tourism and caused a variety of social conflicts.

It is thought that the exceptional planning and urban management based on interventions in public spaces and the introduction of social dignity helped shape contemporary Barcelona into the tourist hotspot it is today. However, the lack of management adaptation over the years in order to make it ‘work’ for the majority if the citizens to prevent challenges such as over-tourism needs to be reviewed.

Barcelona has a lot to offer and shows a prime example of how a city can go from practically nothing to a high calibre tourist destination in a matter of 30 years. It supports the Olympic Game legacy to have lasting effects on a city and supports the idea that event-led tourism can be a strong factor in any urban regeneration project and most likely poses the better advantage in terms of catapulting a city to the top.

Moreover, to have exceptional plans in city rejuvenation is one factor, but to have contemporary management plans is another. Barcelona is also a prime example of the negative impacts too much of a city boosterism approach can have if not mitigated correctly. The next item on Barcelona’s impeccable launch to success are plans to limit tourism and introduce ways to spread the hotspots. North of Barcelona there is another sea-side town called Girona. An ideal strategy would be to mitigate tourists there through the correct marketing approaches in hope to suppress the tourist waves.

Lastly,  in conjunction with Ferran Mascarell, placing culture at the centre of urban development including the well-being of it’s citizens is fundamental for co-existence with the tourists and of course, the tourist experience. Failing to do so could result in tension between the two, which may halt future projects and plans.

Credit: William Wand – The Figure Head

Author: The Figure Head

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