Brent Toderian

Lessons from one of the world models for vibrant urban living.

Spain may be facing significant economic and political challenges these days, but Barcelona's city-building remains one of the best models in the world. Few cities inspire my thinking more.

Thus it was a fitting location for the second Global Smart City Expo/Congress, and my invitation to speak was a good excuse to return, and share some of the best "steal-able" lessons. The Congress may have talked a lot about urban technologies, but Barcelona reminds us how smart the fundamentals are when it comes to making great cities.

1. Don't think like a city planner, architect or engineer. Think like a citizen.

For Barcelona's architects, city-building is as much about the public realm, of "civitas" or the public life well lived, as it is about buildings. With a more holistic view of disciplines, planners live less in silos, and their results show it. This might stem from the continued reverence for Ildefons Cerdà, who certainly wasn't limited by his civil engineering training. Cerdà functioned as city planner, architect, even health specialist - in other words, as a holistic city-builder. At a time when silo thinking still seeks to break down urban thinking into disciplines and specialties across North America, Cerdà’s and Barcelona's holistic approach is something we should all aspire to.

2. Architects, quit complaining about rules!

Whenever I hear North American architects complaining that regulations or requirements "constrain architectural creativity," I think of Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia boulevard. Like other beautiful streets that regulate their height, street width and other pattern-makers (Paris' Avenue des Champs-Elysees), strong powerful patterns still allow for great architectural beauty and nuance.

Photo by Brent Toderian

The easiest example is Gaudi's La Pedrera, which acts as a “typical” chamfered corner building (required 45 degree oblique cuts, which marvelously make every intersection a versatile, open, breathable "plaza" of sorts) within Cerdà’s brilliant block plan - and yet there's nothing typical about Gaudi's design.* Beauty, creativity, and contribution to the city pattern.

Gaudi's La Pedrera. Photo by Brent Toderian*

It's true that every city has rules that are both smart and dumb. Great architects know though, that genius often arises out of constraint.

3. Make walking (and biking) irresistible.

Like most European cities, trains and transit have been mainstays in Barcelona, with long-running systems expanded whenever there's a good excuse, like the Olympics. However they aren’t the only basket for mobility eggs.

Barcelona's subway. Photo by Brent Toderian

The wide avenues and boulevards of Cerda's Plan give ample room for multi-modal infrastructure. Walking has long been a priority - as illustrated by five centuries of "rambling" on La Rambla, one of the best people streets in the world. Cerda's l'Eixample (Expansion) plan made walking enjoyable almost everywhere - 50 percent of all street space is dedicated to walking space, with the other 50 percent for all other forms of 'traffic.'

La Rambla. Photo by Brent Toderian

Urban biking is growing fast in Barcelona, spurred on by the locals-only bikeshare system, and very simple bike-lane approaches (some separated, some not) to improve bike safety. When the city has incorporated separated bike-lanes, it’s taken from the 50 percent that's for the rest of traffic, not from the walking half.

A biker in Barcelona. Photo by Brent Toderian

Barcelona is one of those cities where you have many choices in how to get around, and the urban form facilitates those choices. Because of the densities and mix-of-use, walking, biking and transit are always viable options. The "power of nearness" with everything compact and close, facilitates a multi-modal city.

4. Small, tight streets work great, and so do wide streets, if designed right.

Walking through the Gothic Quarter, one can't help but think of everything we see in terms of scale. The tight streets and alleys with high, enclosing building heights that, combined with the street widths, create an excellent "urban room," would be illegal almost everywhere in North America. We've scaled our cities for cars and trucks.

A street in the Gothic Quarter. Photo by Brent Toderian.

At the same time, the city's main streets can be very wide. Beautiful street-scaping and mature trees define "sub-areas" of the street and create a sense of scale, and the consistent building scale within and across blocks still works to enclose the "urban room." The street doesn't feel wide or have any of the usual weaknesses of wide streets.

Barcelona reminds us that the values and choices that shape our streets, and the design details, can matter more than the specific width.

5. Tall buildings aren't evil - but don’t put them just anywhere.*

Barcelona is generally a mid-rise city. A key part of Cerdà’s plan was a consistent scale of seven to nine stories throughout the pattern. Despite this, the city has embraced strategically located towers in recent decades. My favorite example is Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar, beautifully terminating many views across the city on the Diagonal.

Torre Agbar. Photo courtesy of ArquiWHAT/Wikimedia Commons

Many European cities continue to debate height restrictions, with London's Shard being a recent attention-grabber. For me, Barcelona shows the important question isn't if, but where. Putting taller buildings in locations that "do no damage" to the prevailing pattern, and terminate a view or help mark our way-finding "mental map" in a Kevin Lynch inspired way, can add value. In Vancouver, I called this approach "pattern and punctuation," inspired by Barcelona.

The key is to pick the smart locations for height, and to demand a beautiful building and public realm interface. Don't let a starchitect or flashy design dazzle you into putting tall buildings in the wrong places.

6. Even Barcelona can learn from Barcelona

Like any city, Barcelona isn't perfect. In recent years I've worried they've forgotten many of their own lessons around pattern and people-focused urban design. Some public spaces seem designed for architectural magazines, and are empty of people. Many recent buildings seem like flashy objects in space, with unsuccessful scale and dead spaces surrounding them.

A prime example is the ironic location of the Smart City Congress itself - an essentially suburban environment (although better than average, if you grade it by a suburban standard) with a convention centre, hotel towers, a massive Ikea, and residential tower blocks. Although underground parking and wide sidewalks help make it more walkable than those uses might suggest, it's still big buildings with wide, often cold spaces in between.

A suburb on the outskirts of Barcelona. Photo by Brent Toderian

Even where Barcelona is less successful though, it stimulates great discussions. And generally the city is still an urbanism success story constantly in the making.

I've often remarked that the eight most frustrating words in the English language are "we could never do that in our city." You may think that Barcelona, like many great European cities, is just too different to teach us anything. Many lessons though, are transferable, scalable, and universal.

* An earlier version of this piece misspelled La Pedrera. Additionally, these sentences have been updated for clarity.

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