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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.


The Ramblas (La Rambla) is one of the world's great pedestrian streets. (Photos by Thomas Piper, AP, Dave G. Houser; map by Zhan Guo)

  * Map, photos, case study of Porta Vell
  * Map, photos, case study of Parc Clot

Buena Vista
The civic vision that made Barcelona's Ramblas renowned is what Boston needs

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 4/9/02

BARCELONA - Josiah Quincy is everybody's candidate for Greatest Mayor of Boston. But if he hadn't built the Quincy Market complex, back in 1826, he'd be largely forgotten today by everybody except historians. It's when a mayor transforms the physical form of a city that he becomes a legend.

Case in point: Barcelona. In the years from 1982 to 1997, a mayor named Pasqual Maragall almost single-handedly kick-started this city into the 21st century. He brought the Olympics here in 1992 as a way of putting Barcelona on the international map. Then he used the games, and the money they brought, as a tool to reshape his city. He put a highway underground, and thus reconnected the city with its waterfront. On that waterfront he fashioned new beaches and new neighborhoods. Elsewhere in town he built new neighborhood parks by the dozen. When Maragall stepped down from office after 15 years, he was able to hand-pick his successor, who still serves and carries out the Maragall program. As just one indication of the worldwide admiration for this city, the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, always before given to an individual architect, was presented in 1999 for the first time to a city: Barcelona.

The Ramblas
Location: The Ramblas is often listed among the world's greatest streets. It is certainly a paradise for walkers and strollers. The mile-long thoroughfare in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter begins at the city's main square, Plaza Catalunya, and ends on the waterfront at the foot of the landmark Christopher Columbus memorial. Rambla comes from the Arabic word for riverbed, which The Ramblas once was. The Ramblas is made up of five streets strung end to end: Rambla de Canaletes, Rambla dels Estudis (or Rambla dels Ocells), Rambla de Sant Josep (or Rambla de les Flors), Rambla dels Caputxins, and Rambla de Santa Mònica.

History: The Rambles was once a riverbed marking a border of medieval Barcelona. By the 15th century the city had expanded across the river, and the character of The Ramblas changed. By the end of the 18th century, a paved central promenade had replaced portions of the medieval wall. In 1856 the last remnants of the wall were torn down, and the physical layout of street has remained the same since.

Urban context and edge conditions: The Ramblas has been called Barcelona's most original contribution to urban design, though it developed completely unplanned. It's a boulevard with a broad pedestrian strip down the middle. The strip is about 40 feet wide, handsomely paved, and lined with trees for its entire length. On each side of the strip runs one or two lanes of traffic, plus a lane for parking and deliveries. It neatly reverses the urban relationship between pedestrians and vehicles.
The street is lined by five- to seven-story buildings with complex facades, textures, and ornamental details. The street width, building height, and landscaping work together to create a pedestrian-friendly scale well complemented by a dynamic mix of retail space and space for festivals, bazaars and live performers.
The central promenade is usually full of retail pushcarts, sales kiosks, and arts and crafts exhibitions. Benches and planters are used as sitting areas, allowing people to enjoy daily entertainment, conversation, and people-watching. Some of the paving was decorated by the artist Joan Miró.
The landscaping is defined by of London plane trees spaced less than 20 feet apart. They form a canopy of overlapping branches that filter light in the hot summer but let light through in the cooler winter. They also serve to separate the central pathway from automobile traffic.
Adjacent to The Ramblas are several interesting squares and plazas. Plaza Reial, located about the street's midpoint, is a beautiful square lined by buildings with five-story neo-classical arcades broken only by the entrance to The Ramblas. It was designed in 1848 and remodeled and renovated recently as a city project. Another significant neighbor is the city's largest market, La Boqueria, one of the best in Europe. It looks like a combination train station and warehouse, and is crowded, noisy, and filled with meat, fish and produce from around the world.
Residential property values in the area of The Ramblas increased 75 percent from 1995 to 2000, well above the city average.
Atmosphere: The Ramblas has a reputation as a gathering place for Barcelona's high society and intellectuals. Many nearby restaurants, museums, and monuments promote an atmosphere rich in urban diversity and social interaction. Lore says true Barcelonans must walk down The Ramblas and back at least once a day. In recent years, as the city has promoted itself abroad, The Ramblas has become a tourist attraction that some locals prefer to avoid. Tourists have also brought a rise in crime, especially pickpocketing. Nevertheless, the avenue remains unique and beloved.
Lessons learned: The Ramblas "is a street clearly designed for people to be on, to walk, to meet, to talk," writes Allan Jacobs, an expert on urban design and former San Francisco city planner, in his book "Great Streets" (1995, MIT Press). "The Ramblas ... succeeds so well that it would stand out anywhere." The buildings provide the street with clear edges, while the large number of windows and building entrances provides a sense of fluidity. Moreover, the street has defined its own program of events by permitting performances by local artists and musicians. This makes its visual and cultural landscape different with every visit.
Climate: Barcelona's location on the shores of the Mediterranean means it enjoys a warm climate with mild temperatures all year round. The average temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit, with monthly average temperatures ranging from 50 degrees in January to 77 in July and August. It often rains heavily, with total yearly precipitation approaching 40 inches.

  • "The success of Barcelona's public spaces requires two kinds of people behind the scenes. Only sensitive and open-minded designers have the talent and the time for such probing explorations. And only enlightened politicians can recognize the meanings and effects generated by good urban design." -- Gwendolyn Wright.
  • "Barcelona's democratic sympathy towards planning also means that public spaces are being conceived as places where social variances are perceptible, with the visionary intention of serving social interaction and communication. They are meant to strengthen day to day social relations, as well as to function as stages for special events such as district festivals or political rallies. -- Claus.
  • Official Barcelona City Site
  • Barcelona Provincial Council
  • Barcelona On-line
  • Chamber of Commerce tourism site
  • Catalonian regional government
    This case study was compiled by MIT researchers Alex-Ricardo Jimenez and Zhan Guo, under the direction of Thomas Piper of the Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning.


    I went to Barcelona as part of an effort to look at what other cities do when they want to create great public spaces. The hope is to come up with some ideas and challenges for the people who, starting later this year, will be designing the stretch of new land that will appear in Boston when the overhead Central Artery comes down.

    The Globe has joined with MIT and WCVB-TV (Channel 5) to encourage debate about the future of the artery land, culminating in a ''Town Meeting'' on May 30 at Faneuil Hall. In the coming weeks, we'll also be looking at San Francisco.

    Why Barcelona? Everyone says the same thing: It has the best street life of any city you've ever seen. One historian writes about ''Maragall's conviction that citizenship is closely related to participation in the public space and the rhythms of the city.'' That's exactly it. To be a citizen of Barcelona is to walk its streets, to be part of the ebb and flow of public life. It's not unlike Boston that way.

      The Ramblas runs from the city's main square down to the harbor and fosters vibrant civic life all along its length. (Photo / David G. Houser)

    The Ramblas (Map, photos)

    The best known example of the public world of Barcelona is an older one, which preceded Maragall and established the urban character he later expanded. It's the famous street called the Ramblas. The Ramblas, which was a river before it was paved over, runs from the city's main square down to the harbor. It's worth studying because so many urban experts think it may be the best street anywhere.

    Like our Commonwealth Avenue, the Ramblas is a boulevard with a broad pedestrian strip down the middle. The strip is about 40 feet wide, handsomely paved, and lined with trees for its entire length. On each side of the strip runs one or sometimes two lanes of traffic, plus a lane for parking and deliveries. The traffic never moves very fast. Barcelonans and tourists spend a lot of their time walking up and down the center strip of the Ramblas - although walking isn't quite the word, since in this setting it feels more like parading. This is the civic place to see and be seen, the place to be. Besides the people-watching, there's a lot to catch your eye. There's a flower section with many stalls, a bird section if you're shopping for parakeets, newsstands, and street entertainers. In good weather, restaurants in the buildings along the sidewalks move tables out to the center strip and set them up under canvas awnings. The waiters simply jog across the traffic to serve the tables. There's an insouciance about the attitude toward cars. Nobody feels intimidated.

    There's plenty of action on the Ramblas's edges, too, helping to give it life. A spectacular glass-roofed public market, La Boqueria, opens off one side of the Ramblas. On the other side is one of the world's loveliest public squares, the Plaza Real (Royal Plaza), now the site of upper-end housing, with more outdoor cafes. A new museum of modern art, an opera house, a Picasso Museum, even Barcelona cathedral are not many steps to one side or the other from the Ramblas. And the ordinary buildings that line the street are endlessly varied with bay windows, awnings, and signs.

    Chronicle Watch clips from WCVB's Chronicle show on Barcelona.
  • The Ramblas
  • History
  • Future
  • The Ramblas is often cited as a possible model for Boston's artery surface, and in a lot of ways it is. It has enough commercial life to keep it lively and interesting, but not so much that it's been privatized. It remains very much a public place that you feel you, as a citizen, own. It's also free of any class divisions. All elements of society, all kinds of visitors meet and mix here. And like other great public spaces, it's fed with life from its edges.

    But there are differences, too. The Ramblas is only 98 feet wide from building face to building face, and the buildings are only five to seven stories. Commonwealth Avenue is twice as wide, and the downtown artery surface will, in most places, be wider yet, and lined in some places with skyscrapers. It will be far less intimate than the Ramblas. But the basic principles still apply.

    Porta Vell (Map, photos)

    It's when you get to the foot of the Ramblas, where it opens out into the harbor, that Mayor Maragall's world begins. Barcelona's waterfront, like Boston's a generation ago, played almost no part in anyone's perception of the city. You simply didn't realize the Mediterranean was there. The water was walled off by a long barrier of decaying warehouses and docks. Today all that has changed. The Ramblas explodes into the Porta Vell - the Old Port - where a graceful pedestrian bridge crosses a marina to a new development of restaurants, night clubs, parks, activities of all kinds. And a little farther up the waterfront is the even more impressive Olympic Village. Here Maragall pulled off a Herculean task. An entire neighborhood was built from scratch, initially housing the Olympic athletes, later becoming a new piece of the city. A ring road that separated the new neighborhood from the water was shoved underground, an action that required a major reorganization of the city's water and sewer lines. Then, at the edge of the sea opposite the Olympic Village, a broad new beach was created, one of the loveliest in Europe. Sand was imported, and it's still imported as needed to replace what washes away. Barcelona turned its face to the sun of the Mediterranean.

    Pasqual Maragall Pasqual Maragall, Barcelona's mayor from 1982 to 1997, left a mark on his city that few mayors can match.

    Parc Clot (Map, photos)

    Maragall didn't stop there. He was a socialist and cared as much about the neighborhoods as the downtown; he salted them with innumerable local parks. They're all different because each responds to the particular needs of its site and the people who use it. But at the same time most of them boast at least one piece of creative modern art. In other words, you know they're local, but you know at the same time they're part of someone's vision of an international contemporary city. We spent some time wandering around the Parc Clot, in a mixed-income neighborhood. It was impressive in an unusual way. It made no special effort to be beautiful, but rather was shaped to satisfy the needs of all its very different users, from rambunctious teenage athletes to old folks sunning on quiet hilltop benches. At Parc Clot, there was a place for everyone.

    Barcelona isn't paradise. You can certainly quarrel with some of the architecture of Port Vell and elsewhere, and with some of the landscape and the artworks. And as with Boston, there's a danger that, in the desire to join the international world and attract tourists and foreign capital, Barcelona may eventually turn itself into an attractive theme park, a kind of theatrical representation of itself and its past for the delectation of visitors and urban aficionados, while the real life of the city is driven out by high prices.

    But that's a danger for the future. Barcelona today is an explosion of urban energy. During the long reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, from 1939 to 1975, Barcelona lived in a dark age. Franco hated the city and its liberal politics. He tried to crush its culture and erase its native language, a variant of Spanish called Catalan. When Franco finally died, Barcelona awoke with the special kind of energy that comes from being set free.

    Maragall rode that wave to re-create his city as one of the world's great cultural capitals. He is a legend in Barcelona today and will always be so. The lesson for Boston and its artery is a simple one. You need leaders with a vision and the political will to make it happen.

    Robert Campbell's e-mail address is camglobe@aol.com.

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