The Evolving Urban Form: Barcelona


Among those for whom Paris is not their favorite European city, Barcelona often fills the void. Barcelona is the capital of Spain's Catalonia region. Catalonia has been in the news in recent weeks because of the rising a settlement for independence from Spain, or at a minimum, considerably expanded autonomy. In part, the discontent is driven by a concern about the extent to which more affluent Catalonia subsidizes the rest of Spain. Another driving factor is the interest in separating Catalonian language and culture from that of Spain.

Barcelona is nestled on the Mediterranean coast with mountains and valleys immediately behind. It would be easy to visit Barcelona without being aware of the huge expanse of suburbanization that has developed especially over the last 50 years.

The Core City

Like virtually all European core cities that have not annexed or combined with other jurisdictions, Barcelona's population had peaked well before the turn of the 21st century. In 1960, the city of Barcelona had a population of just below 1.6 million people. Today, after having risen to 1.75 million in 1981, Barcelona's population has dropped to approximately 1.62 million. Nonetheless, like other European core cities, Barcelona experienced strong growth before 1970, rising to nearly 7 times its 1890 population of 250,000.

At the same time, like some other European and North American core cities, the city of Barcelona has begun to grow again. Having reached a modern low point of 1.5 million in 2001, the city grew by approximately 7 percent by the 2011 census.

The city itself covers a land area of approximately 55 square miles/143 square kilometers, slightly less than that of Washington, DC. Barcelona's density is much higher, at approximately 40,700 per square mile/15,700 per square kilometer, as opposed to the approximately 10,000 per square mile/4,000 per square kilometer of Washington. Yet, other core areas are considerably more dense, such as the ville de Paris, which is at least 30 percent more dense and Manhattan, which is approximately 50 percent more dense.

The Metropolitan Area and the Urban Area

The metropolitan area is generally considered to be the province of Barcelona, which is a part of the region of Catalonia (Figure 1). Since 1950, the metropolitan area has expanded from 2.2 million to 5.6 million people. Since 1960, nearly all of the population growth has been outside the city of Barcelona. The city has added approximately 60,000 people, while the balance of Barcelona province has added approximately 2.7 million people (Figure 2).

The province of Barcelona is divided into comarques, which are the equivalent of counties. The core comarca (the singular form) is also called Barcelona and includes the city as well as other municipalities (or local government authorities), the largest of which is Hospitalet de Llobregat, with a population of 250,000.

Barcelona's urban area (area of continuous urban development) continues along the Mediterranean coast to the southwest into the comarca of Baix Llobregat, which includes the international airport. To the northwest the urbanization continues along the coast for some distance into the comarca of Maresme.

The urbanization then surrounds Tibidabo Mountain behind the city along freeway routes on either side. These roadways connect with the AP-7 autopista (toll motorway), which provides direct access between Madrid, Valencia, Andalusia and France. The large valley through which the AP-7 runs contains the largest suburbs of Barcelona, which are divided into two comarques, the Valles Oriental (East Valley) and the Valles Occidental (West Valley).

The Barcelona urban area covers approximately 415 square miles/1,075 square kilometers (Figure 3) and has a population of 4.6 million. At approximately 11,000 persons per square mile/4200 per square kilometer, Barcelona is one of Western Europe's most dense urban areas. It is approximately 15 percent more dense than Paris and among the larger urban areas trails only Madrid (11,800 per square mile/4,500 per square kilometer) and London (15,100 per square mile/5,800 per square kilometer).

The Barcelona urban area's high density is also illustrated by comparison to the Zürich urban area, with its reputation for high density. As defined by the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland, Zürich covers virtually the same land area as Barcelona, yet has less than one quarter of its population.

Between the 2001 and the 2011 censuses, there was seven percent growth in the inner suburbs surrounding the city of Barcelona within the comarca of Barcelona. Much greater growth, however, was experienced in the more peripheral parts of the urban area. The coastal suburbs of Baix Llobregat and Maresme grew approximately 17 percent and now have a population of more than 1,000,000.

Growth was even stronger in the interior valley, with the Valles Occidental growing at 19 percent and the Valles Oriental, which and with much more vacant land for development, grew 22 percent (Figure 4). Now the population of the Valles approaches 1.2 million.

However the largest growth was outside the urban area entirely, in the balance of the metropolitan area, where the population increased 27 percent (Figure 5), and now approaches 1,000,000.

Newer Development

Much of the most recent growth has been relatively unusual for large Spanish urban areas, which have largely experienced high density expansion, with multi-family buildings (often high rise), even in the suburbs (see top photo). However, considerable detached housing has been built in the Barcelona metropolitan area over the past decade.

Barcelona’s Dispersion

Thus, the Barcelona metropolitan area is generally following the trend of greater growth in the urban periphery and the strongest growth in the rural and smaller urban areas that are outside the continuous urbanization.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”

Photo: Residential area in Valles Occidentale (Barcelona suburbs), by author.