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CityFixer

Barcelona's Old Town Gets A Reboot

The city seeks to control the excesses of tourism without making its oldest quarters feel like an empty shell.

A nun walks through an alleyway in Barcelona's Ciutat Vella (Albert Gea/Reuters)

It’s no easy task to preserve the character of a popular historic neighborhood without turning it into an arid, open-air museum. Let the market run riot and any tourist area can quickly become a tawdry souvenir shop, retaining only the tatters of its former charm. If a city pushes too hard to preserve an area’s character, however, the neighborhood risks becoming a lifeless stage set, a Potemkin Village devoid of the humdrum daily life that used to exist behind the immaculate facades.

Between these two extremes is a careful balance, and it’s one Barcelona is currently trying to find for some of its oldest quarters. Referred to collectively as Ciutat Vella—Old City in Catalan—this intensely built, densely populated district at the city’s heart has been buckling under the pressure of intense exploitation by the tourist industry in recent years. In a pattern familiar to many inner cities, this pressure has displaced older businesses and the long-term residents who use them, while submitting residents who remain to a nightly barrage of street noise.

That’s why, starting this month, the city will carry out a “street by street, house by house” audit of the area’s 5,700 buildings to work out how Ciutat Vella’s different users, both permanent and temporary, can live in a little more harmony. To do so, the city will have to tackle three key problems.

1. Keeping the noise down

No neighborhood that experiences a massive influx of tourists has an easy time of it, but Ciutat Vella’s bar-filled streets have some local conditions that twist the screw just a little tighter. Until the late 1990s, the sense of confinement created by the old city’s dark, narrow streets meant that much of it was considered an undesirable, occasionally rough place to live. While sections of the area are grandly built, in many buildings the walls are thin and rooms poky. Light is often at a premium, partly as a way of keeping interior temperatures low, with skinny light wells offering the only illumination for some of the dingiest apartments. In these conditions, street noise is even more of a problem, causing friction that has spilled over into nightly summertime demonstrations by frustrated locals in some parts of Ciutat Vella.

The city’s likely response to this is to set up new low noise zones, a policy that has already had some success elsewhere in the city, but only covers one small strip in the old city. Within these zones, all bar and club sound systems have to be fitted with noise limiters that keep their sound emissions within reasonable levels, with acceptable decibel limits dropping as the night goes on. Extending these to new sections of Ciutat Vella could make sleep easier for locals, but it may also come at a cost. Not many people want to live against a constant backdrop of booming bass, but the center of a city shouldn’t necessarily be as quiet as a far-flung suburb either; patrons of nightlife need their amenities, too.

So far, Barcelona seems to be striking a decent balance on these issues, simultaneously working to cut noise in stressed areas and abolishing the need for live music venues to get a special license. In less residential areas, these venues can now operate curfew-free, so businesses ordered to pipe down in Ciutat Vella could still find alternative digs elsewhere.

A street in the Barceloneta area of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

2. Filling empty buildings

Ciutat Vella’s popularity with visitors doesn’t mean the whole place is in mint condition. In fact, some patches of the district are decidedly run down. Slip down alleys off La Rambla and you may be surprised to find crumbling buildings and empty plots. This dilapidation is not always an accident. Sellers can currently command far higher prices for empty buildings than occupied ones, because they offer a cleaner slate for investors who want to carry out luxury residential or retail conversions. Landlords can thus be tempted to leave property empty and encourage tenants’ departure through neglect in order to sell at a much higher price when the building is finally empty. In other cases, lenders have repossessed properties seized when occupants defaulted on loans, but then left the apartments untenanted after evicting the previous occupants. According to one recent count, there are 268 homes owned by lenders in Ciutat Vella currently without residents.

Spain already has laws to fight this neglect: landlords can be fined if they leave rundown buildings in misuse for over two years. The law is rarely put into action, however—while it’s not only private landlords who are the problem. Even some publicly owned landmark buildings lie vacant, such as the 18th century Canon Foundry at the foot of La Rambla, which has been un-tenanted for over a decade. Hopefully the city’s Old Town audit will identify all these rotten teeth and provoke legal action to get them back into regular use. Currently, there is some discussion of installing affordable housing in some of these reclaimed buildings—it will be worth watching very closely to see how fully this aspiration is delivered upon.

3. The fight against “visual pollution”

Thanks to its popularity with visitors, some of Ciutat Vella’s main drags currently look a little garish. Tourist T-shirts, sombreros, and low quality flamenco costumes dangle from awnings, brightly illuminated store signs scream, and pedestrians face a barrage of leafleteers in their path. This visual pile-up can make the narrow streets feel claustrophobic, but Gala Pin, a city councillor for the Ciutat Vella district, has vowed to have much of this visual clutter swept away.

“Our goal is to end this continuous commercial advertising that’s taken over the streets,” she told newspaper La Vanguardia, “along with this visual pollution that ends up saturating citizens without their realizing it… If we didn’t intervene in these streets with special determination, Ciutat Vella would end up looking like Las Vegas.”

If the city seems keen on the visual clean-up, it’s because it has already tried it out successfully. La Rambla, the beautiful but heavily-used central avenue that bisects Ciutat Vella, has already had an overhaul following an appraisal by Barcelona’s Municipal Institute of Urban Landscape. Over the past two years, the institute has inspected the avenue and requested 113 changes from landlords and traders, be they removing souvenir stands from the roadway or replacing garish signage. Now, La Rambla looks visually calmer and fresher without any notable sapping of its vibrancy.

These processes all seem positive, but will clearly require discretion. Tourist shops may look scrappy, but so do late night bodegas, cheap take out places, and numerous other businesses that form the not obviously photogenic backbone of a community. Barcelona seems keen to preserve its oldest quarters as genuinely livable, workaday neighborhoods that retain their current communities. Given the pressures on them, that will prove difficult. If they succeed, however, they will have created a guide which the rest of Europe can follow.

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