Barcelona 1992: Barcelona’s Olympic facelift

  • Written by  Ann Varley
  • Published in Cities
Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, Barcelona, Spain Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona’s staging of the Olympic Games has provoked a rush of domestic and foreign investment into the city which, its authorities hope, will enable it to become a model European metropolis at the heart of the western Mediterranean economy

This is an archive story, published in the July 1992 edition of Geographical magazine. All facts, figures and statistics were accurate at the time of original publication.

Can it be coincidence that a Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki, designed Barcelona’s new indoor sports arena for the 1992 Olympic Games? The Catalan authorities have been assiduously courting Japanese investors since Spain joined the European Community in 1986 and it has paid off: 85 per cent of Spanish jobs recently created by Japanese investment are located in Catalonia, with 87 Japanese firms in Barcelona – ideally placed for penetrating the European market.

The Olympic Games are the latest in a long series of international events that have brought fame to Barcelona. However, the world fairs held in the city in 1888 and 1929 were both followed by periods of economic stagnation and decline. Will the energy and money that Barcelona has invested in preparation for the Olympics bring it increasing prosperity in the years to come? Or will the Games prove, as some fear, an expensive white elephant for the city?

At first glance, the prospects for Barcelona look good. The city is Spain’s leading industrial centre, with over a fifth of the country’s industrial jobs – double its share for the size of the population. The boom in Spanish industrial investment and output in the late 1980s was reflected in Barcelona’s economic fortunes. Output grew dramatically and unemployment plummeted to below the national average. Meanwhile disposable family income increased to above the average.

But a number of question marks hover over Barcelona’s future. The Olympics take place during the final stages of the establishment of the European Single Market. Spain still has a long way to go in dismantling the tariff barriers protecting her industries. Barcelona’s industrial mainstays – metal products, machinery and chemicals – are less competitive than their counterparts elsewhere in Western Europe. The city’s labour-intensive textile and food industries, on the other hand, have a strong competitive position within Europe because of Spain’s relatively low labour costs. Unfortunately, they are sectors in which European demand is growing slowly and which are vulnerable to competition from developing countries.

barcelona stadiumThere are fears that large developments such as the Olympic stadium will destroy the ambience of Barcelona’s seafront. But the authorities have sought to assuage any criticism by making the Olympics part of a city-wide development plan

Technological advance, particularly in the high-tech categories, is essential if Barcelona’s industrial competitiveness is to improve, and foreign investment and co-operation are likely to play central roles in securing this. The spectacular growth in foreign investment in Spain over the past few years has favoured high-tech industries, with most investment being attracted to Barcelona. But Madrid, and some southern Spanish cities which lack a traditional industrial base, are becoming increasingly attractive to investors. This is partly because of government incentives. But it is also due to the fact that the service sector and property development are becoming more popular targets for foreign investment than industry – a considerable worry for Barcelona.

Doubt has been expressed over Barcelona’s ability to enter a post-industrial world dominated by the service and information sectors before its industries have secured their place in the international economy. The city is keen to see itself as the centre of a ‘Euro-region’ of 15 million inhabitants, stretching along the Mediterranean from Valencia to Montpellier. But there is uncertainty as to whether it can achieve the economic dynamism to sustain such a role.

Pascual Maragall, Barcelona’s socialist mayor since 1982, made bringing the Olympics to the city a crusade, designed to stimulate a programme of investment in its future. But the municipal authorities are also concerned about what happens after 1992 and are taking steps to ensure that Barcelona does not leave the world stage the day the last Olympic athlete goes home. Under the Strategic, Economic and Social Plan for Barcelona, or ‘Barcelona 2000’, three main lines of action are identified. The first is to improve transport and communications. The second includes measures to improve the urban environment and the skills of the workforce. The third will promote industrial and service growth, with emphasis on new technologies. The hope is that the Olympic Games will contribute to these objectives.

Whether or not the Games make a profit, they will bring great change to Barcelona. Some 400 billion pesetas (approximately £2billion) have been invested in new amenities and infrastructure. Sports facilities account for only a sixth of this expenditure. The rest of the funding is being spent on projects that should make a substantial contribution towards achieving the many other objectives of Barcelona 2000. Transport and communications provide the clearest example of a link between Olympic expenditure and the plan’s economic strategy. The city’s airport has been enlarged and modernised; parts of the metro system have now been extended and a ring road, on the drawing board for the past 40 years, has been completed in time for the Games.

The new roadway connects the city with regional motorways and allows traffic from the port to head north without passing through the city centre. Movement along the seafront has also been improved by linkage with the ring road. More has happened in the city centre. Barcelona’s main square and its surrounding streets were dug up to extend the metro and to upgrade the sewage system. Buildings have been given a facelift as part of a municipal urban renewal programme tagged Barcelona posa’t guapa or ‘Barcelona puts on a pretty face’ – an initiative linked with Barcelona 2000.

But the main focus of expenditure has been on the Olympic Village on the seafront. Like many other waterfront developments, the Village has replaced old industrial and warehousing activities. Once the Games are over, the village will provide over 2,000 flats for the city, a hotel, office blocks, shopping malls and a conference centre. Sensitive to criticism that it will become a playground for the rich, the town hall’s socialist administration stresses that it will create around 7,300 jobs and establish three new parks – in a city where open space has long been in short supply. The construction of the 44-floor, 395-room hotel will expand Barcelona’s accommodation by a third, providing a remedy for the acute shortage of five-star room space in the city.

It is estimated that total private investment resulting directly or indirectly from the Games will be more than double total public expenditure. But the Games also have a vital symbolic function – selling Barcelona as a Mediterranean metropolis for the 21st century. Who is this image aimed at? The overseas businessman staying in one of the new five-star hotel rooms, or the residents of Barcelona itself? There is one important element of the Barcelona 2000 plan which the Olympic strategy has failed to address: the need to iron out some of the marked physical and social inequalities in the city. As the plan’s general co-ordinator has argued, the persistence of ‘radical, conspicuous social inequalities’ in Barcelona will undermine its pretensions to become the model European metropolis of the western Mediterranean.

The Barcelona Olympics may be judged not just as a sporting event, but as a springboard for the city’s ambitions for the 21st century

An area singled out for particular attention is that of social housing – state subsidised accommodation for low-income families. The Olympic Village flats will be way beyond the means of many. This has already provoked public protest. More worrying still is the probability that the Olympics has exacerbated the city’s already critical housing problem.

In spite of a construction boom in recent years, a growing section of Barcelona’s population still has great difficulty finding somewhere to live. In recent years, land and housing prices have been rising in the order of 40 to 50 per cent a year, with interest rates higher than in the United Kingdom. There is next to no possibility of buying subsidised housing because private builders have almost ceased to build this type of property. Even small flats in the older properties in the cheapest parts of the city are commanding prices far beyond the average pocket.

The overall increase in prices is also reflected in rent levels. Since the government reforms in 1985, which permitted short-term contracts, evictions have become common too. The situation is causing many young people to leave the city- although substantial numbers of good quality homes stand empty for want of someone who can afford to rent or buy them.

It is feared that the urban renewal programme in central Barcelona is aggravating this situation. The construction in the 19th century of Barcelona’s celebrated extension, the Eixample, left the Old City to house the poorest urban residents. Over the past few years, however, there has been a dramatic expansion of office space in central Barcelona. Foreign investment in commercial property has played a large part in this expansion. Much of it has taken the form of purpose-built blocks in Las Corts, an up-market area in the south-west of the city. However, the Eixample and Old City have also been affected, with many mixed-use or residential properties being converted into offices.

Barcelona’s Olympic facelift will surely have accelerated this trend. Service sector expansion and the demand for office space will make further inroads into the housing stock, forcing property prices upwards. More and more residents will be left with no option but to leave.

There is particular concern for the future of Barceloneta, a traditional working-class area between the harbour and the new Olympic Village. Barceloneta has been isolated by the development of new roads through the area that used to be the docks and warehouses, but it occupies a key position near the waterfront. It seems an almost certain candidate for redevelopment or gentrification.

So, far from helping to bring about greater equality between different parts of Barcelona, the Olympics seem likely to achieve just the opposite. The urban renewal programme will do nothing to improve the desolate areas of tower blocks that grew up on the city’s periphery under General Franco, or the squatter housing. But it may well help fulfil the prediction of the local newspaper La Vanquardia: ‘To live in Barcelona will soon be the prerogative of the rich’.

Population movement away from central areas of Barcelona to outlying municipalities and beyond will add to congestion on the main traffic corridors into the city. It remains to be seen whether the new roads under construction will be able to cope with this demand.

barcelona mapLess than 20 per cent of the 400 billion pesetas being spent in Barcelona for the Games was for sports facilities. The bulk of the expenditure has gone on infrastructure and accommodation projects which, the city authorities argue, will benefit the whole population (Image: Gary Valey)

The Olympic Games cannot be expected to solve the accumulated problems of their host city. They were not intended as a profit-making exercise, or a magic wand that urban planners might wave over the city. Barcelona has shown that the Olympics can be used to mobilise an impressive amount of investment in the city’s future, but the Games cannot remove the structural and institutional constraints on urban development.

Not the least of these is the continuing post-Franco competition between national, regional and municipal authorities over who should decide what is best for the city. The Catalan geographer Jordi Borja wrote in La Vanquardia: ‘The metropolitan issue should not be an institutional battleground over “who rules”.’ Borja cites the right-wing Catalan government’s refusal to get involved with the left-wing municipality’s Barcelona 2000 plan. The regional government is promoting its own plan, the Territorial Plan for the Barcelona Metropolitan Region, supervised by a commission on which the municipality was given only token representation (one seat out of 18). The problem is not simply a question of different ideologies or the regional legacy of Spain’s troubled political history. Barcelona accounts for two-thirds of Catalonia’s population. If the city becomes too powerful as the ‘capital’ of the western Mediterranean, the Catalan government could be left as little more than an appendix to the city authorities without a clearly defined role to play. Not a position many politicians would relish.

Nor are relations with Madrid all they could be. An El Pais survey of Barcelona’s residents found that while 90 per cent applauded the investment resulting from the Olympics, virtually no one was aware of the scale of the financial contribution that came from central government. The infrastructure changes are largely credited to Mayor Maragall.

Wherever the money came from, it is clear that the 1992 Olympic Games have attracted investment to Barcelona on a scale far in excess of what could have been expected without them, and in sums which go beyond the immediate requirements of the Games themselves. It is for this reason that the Barcelona Olympics may be judged not just as a sporting event, but as a springboard for the city’s ambitions for the 21st century. But so far it looks as though it is the economic goals of Barcelona 2000 that will be best served by the Olympic Games. The social goals seem to have had no place on the agenda.

Ann Varley is a Lecturer in Geography at University College London

This is an archive story, published in the July 1992 edition of Geographical magazine.
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