The Catalan Manchester
The renewal of the industrial neighbourhood of Poble Nou in Barcelona.
The neighbourhood of Poblenou in Barcelona, a key industrial area in the Catalan region until the mid-sixties, has been facing an ambitious urban renewal project for the last years, the Plan 22@. This project is turning said area into a new district of information activities, communication technologies and cultural venues.
Poblenou (Catalan for “New Town”) is an area located in the city of Barcelona, within walking distance from the sea, and is popularly known as the Catalan Manchester as it was a notable industrial area ever since the beginning of the textile activity in the middle of the 18th century. In 2000, the City Council of Barcelona approved a new urban planning ordinance aimed at transforming the old industrial area of Poblenou into a nerve centre for the knowledge industry: the 22@, named after the traditional designation of the district as 22a.
The neighbourhood’s history
Poblenou was traditionally characterized by its isolation and peripherality condition with regards to Barcelona. Its first remarkable period began with the 19th century industrialisation: the area was ideal due to its proximity to the harbour and the excellent communication provided by the coast train. Over time, the first car factories, such as Hispano-Suiza, Ford and General Motors, established in Poblenou, reaching its historic splendour in the early 20th century, and the once-rural area thus evolved into a landscape of smoking chimneys.
A period of industrial decadence began in 1965, on account of the promotion of more peripheral new industrial estates and the restructuring of the concept of industry. The tertiary sector (services) started playing a more significant role, a number of factories were abandoned and the chimneys stopped fuming. The Olympic Games in 1992 represented a turning point for the neighbourhood, which abandoned industrialisation definitely to become an area for new creations. One of the most important measures taken was the creation of the 22@ innovation district.
The 22@ Plan
This project aspired, on the one hand, to reconnect the area with the centre of Barcelona; on the other, to give the district a mixture of diverse uses (as opposed to an industrial only usage). Hence the 22@ is building a new compact city, allowing more construction, more public spaces and green areas (114,000 m2) and housing (4,000 new subsidized residences), while the previous industrial activity is replaced by offices or other business services and equipment related to new technologies and knowledge.
Regarding the urban landscape, the neighbourhood does not only conserve the old chimneys: the city has committed to a wider conservation of its heritage, and is also increasingly adapting to new forms of architectural and urban development. Many old industrial buildings continue to stand and have been renewed and given different uses; a good example is Ca l’Aranyó, the classic textile building based upon Manchester’s industrial model, currently housing an audiovisual Campus. Another similar case is the old chemical factory Massó y Carol, popularly known as Vapor Llull, which has been transformed into a non-conventional space combining residencies and cultural venues. Furthermore, along with this renovation, many private residences for artists and co-working centres have emerged and settled down in renewed old industrial buildings.
Resistance and opposition to the plan
The implementation of the 22@ project, however, caused some dissatisfaction among the neighbours, afraid of the danger of gentrification and the destruction of the area’s patrimony under the pretext of renewal. Poblenou, as a working class neighbourhood, has a long history of self-organisation and activism: they currently criticize the lack of citizen participation in the taking of important decisions, the presence of powerful business interests and the housing prize increase within the neighbourhood. The neighbours also accuse the city council of being disrespectful towards the urban fabric and constructing towers of up to 24 stories, which are hostile with the area’s heritage. According to them, the excessive importance of design on the renewal, as well as the aesthetic criterion, are creating a chic and elitist neighbourhood.
Poblenou is indeed a district of contrasts nowadays: last week, an accidental fire in an abandoned lot killed four Romanian people who were living in a occupied are transformed into a homesite. These kind of events stress the contradictions of a city where shacks and skyscrapers coexist in the technological district of Barcelona.