The word city could be used to describe a decision taken by a more or less organized group of people to settle in a specific geographic location in order to live there. Cities need density; a critical mass of people who, through pressure, make things happen. Cities need to feed this critical mass of people and they need relatively clear routes for exchanging and enriching what they produce. This is how cities develop. This is what they thrive on. Thus cities – any city – are always positioned in a more or less strategic location, with control over routes, roads, ports and crossroads. They are generally protected or defined by a geographical feature: the course of a river, a mountain, etc. A city is always a boundary. And boundaries are always the most interesting of places; the places where things happen: parties in apartments always end up spilling into the hallways. Any city that might come to mind can be defined by one or more of these characteristics. London is located on the first piece of stable ground possible back from the Thames Estuary. Rotterdam and New York control enormous ports. Atlanta, apparently in the middle of nowhere, controls what was and probably still is the biggest railway hub on the whole East Coast of the United States: indeed, its first name was Terminus: the gateway to the West. Etcetera. There are as many etceteras are there are cities.
If we look at Barcelona, a city spread along a relatively flat strip of land bordered by the Collserola range, the sea and the Llobregat and Besòs rivers, we can easily see the natural and artificial flows (connecting pathways, essentially) that integrate perfectly in the urban layout. They can be traced with a pencil on a map without once lifting it or deviating or making any sudden movements on the paper. They can be travelled, therefore, in a single, smooth tracing. They tend to come together at the centre of the city. And this can also be scaled. Explaining it here would take too long. The short version entails printing off a map of the Old Quarter and realizing the number of natural flows that can be traced with an old-fashioned broad pencil in exactly the same way as on a large-scale plan.
Even the planning of the Ensanche district was based on a route that runs from one end of the city to the other, without a break, and connects transversally with the region via bridges across the rivers Llobregat and Besòs: the Gran Vía (its name says it all), planned precisely on a tangent point between the Old Quarter and the mountain of Montjuïc simultaneously. The transversal courses are not usually interrupted when following the lines that drain the plain of Barcelona. Nature was Cerdà’s big ally when it came to putting his plan onto paper. And when it didn’t fit, he twisted the layout so it would be absorbed.
The names of some of these streets that cross the geography of Barcelona change continuously along the way and this makes us forget their continuity. When this happens, the territory becomes deconstructed. For example: the course of the road from Barcelona to Tarragona, which today matches the course of the N-340, has been in existence at least since Roman times. It has never been cut, and never been lost. But until as recently as the first third of the 19th century it was abandoned, completely in disuse, apart from the odd military excursion. It was as if the road had never existed. It was used partially, usually to connect villages with their markets, as inter-county routes. Little more.
The Barcelona-Tarragona connection was usually done by sea, stopping off at Vilanova. It took centuries to recover people’s memory of the continuous flow between the two cities.
This loss of awareness of the continuous flows that structure regions has been catastrophic in the city of Barcelona. There is no metro line that extends the length of Gran Vía. It is covered in sections with no other connection than endless underground pedestrian tunnels between stations. There is no major infrastructure running along the length of the Diagonal Avenue, nor the Carretera de Madrid from Tres Tombs to Esplugues, nor Pere IV. And so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, someone made the following reflection(1): the city of Barcelona, viewed in its broadest sense, however dense it may be, only occupies 50% of its territory. The rest of the metropolitan geography, coinciding with mountains absorbed by the layout, water courses and the Collserola range, is completely empty. Up until now, in Europe, this would propitiate two scenarios: the over-densification of part of the city and the marginalization and oblivion of the empty areas. Bernard Summer, leader of the band New Order and guitarist with Joy Division, explains that he does not remember having ever seen a tree in the suburbs of the Manchester where he grew up until he was about ten years old. We think it’s serious if someone hasn’t ever seen the sea: imagine what it’s like to have never seen a tree. This empty land was ripe for shanty towns, the most extreme marginalization and uncontrolled worlds operating outside the system: you only need to read, for example, the wonderful novel Concrete Island by James Graham Ballard (pub. Minotauro) to understand what I’m talking about. Or remember that such a historically critical event as the French Revolution was made possible precisely because it was forged in those no-man’s lands on the city outskirts, where it was possible to set up large illegal printing presses, for example (as brilliantly recorded by Philip Bloom in his essay Encyclophèdie, published by Anagrama).
Becoming aware of this empty 50% of the city brings with it the positivization of these marginal spaces. Now they are spaces which, interconnected, structure the city. They provide its lungs. They energize its limits, oxygenate its citizens, provide comfort and open spaces. The first in Barcelona was Collserola. Then came the Llobregat (which Batlle i Roig called ‘the new Paseo de Gràcia of Barcelona’). Then came the connection between the two green zones. And in rapid succession, the Green Diagonal and now the Besòs green zone: river courses, natural flows to be cleaned, recovered, dignified and connected with the rest of the urban network. Courses that need to define and change the face of the city of Barcelona.
But this does not end here: this awareness of the empty 50%, about the natural flows that structure the city and are capable of acting as a mesh, has escalated. We have come to realize that this can be downsized and brought within the structured city: interventions (as yet timid ones) such as Avenida Mistral, now full of trees, or the first Meridiana or the brilliant action on Paseo de Sant Joan, which rises in phases from the Art de Triomf to (I hope) Travessera de Gràcia, re-naturalizing the space, even recovering grassy walkways, are indicative of the fact that these green flows are set to become a factor for structuring cities on any scale: a new green mesh on different levels – healthier, purer and just as urban as what preceded it.
(1) That’s what Enric Batlle told me.