Barcelona: Urban planning’s forgotten birthplace
October 5, 2011
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I have been fascinated with the layout and design of cities for years, and always assumed that city planning had been an integral part of urban settlements for thousands of years. While planned cities have certainly been around that long, I recently learned that the first model of urban planning, as we understand it today, was completed for Barcelona in the 1850s. The mastermind was Ildefons Cerdà, a Catalan architect who designed the expansion of Barcelona after its medieval walls were torn down. The medieval city had been contained for centuries in order to repress the Catalan separatist spirit, but increasing densities pushed citizens to revolt and Cerdà’s design was accepted in 1859 to fill the completely open land outside the old city.
This seems much too recent, right? That was my first impression. It turns out that Cerdà’s plan to create the Eixample (literally meaning extension in Catalan) was the first expansion planned all at once including everything from sewage systems to intersection design. Unlike previous cities, which had either grown organically or in stages, Cerdà’s plan was comprehensive and all-encompassing. Even cities like Hippodamus’ Alexandria and L’Enfant’s Washington D.C. did not have the degree of research and planning specific to their site that the Eixample did. Cerdà had intensively studied the relationship between density and mortality in Barcelona’s old city and planned for a new urban space to solve these urban problems. He didn’t simply set down a grid because he believed in its efficiency of form, but instead diagnosed, one might say, the region with particular problems that he could prescribe urban policies for. The resulting standardized—and unfortunately boring, in my opinion—plan truly was unprecedented and is still seen in Barcelona’s grid pattern surrounding the old city that remains today. And, get this: Cerdà’s plan even included cut-off corners!
Cerdà had planned for relief of the monotony of the grid by including open green spaces on the inside of every block, with buildings built only on the “sea and mountain” sides of the block. Developers, no less conscious of maximizing land value as those today, did not comply with this desire and built both higher and more densely than he had designed. More problematic was the lack of relationship that the Eixample had with the Ciutat Vella, or old city. As you can see in the bottom left corner of the map of his plan, the old Barcelona seems out of place and disconnected from the vast swaths of land covered by the Eixample (reminding me, actually, of Greenwich Village within New York’s grid system).
Also intriguing is Cerdà’s most famous quote: “Rurizad lo urbano, urbanized lo rural,” or “ruralize the urban, urbanize the rural.” This mentality, more than any of the specific principles of his design, is a lasting legacy seen everywhere from Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities to every post-war suburb in the United States. For such a little-known planner, he had some big ideas.