Pedestrians stroll down Las Ramblas in Barcelona in 2015.
Pedestrians stroll down Las Ramblas in Barcelona in 2015. Albert Gea/Reuters

Understanding Las Ramblas, the historic street targeted in Thursday’s van attack.

Thursday’s terrorist attack in Barcelona struck the heart of this city: Las Ramblas, a pedestrian street that connects the port and one of the main squares of the Catalonian capital.

Historically, this has been the epicenter of city’s social life; it’s often packed with hordes of tourists come there to stroll, shop, and eat. Those ever-present crowds also made it a target for a vehicle ramming attack—the same technique used by terrorists against residents of Nice, London, Berlin, and other European cities in recent months. Along the tree-lined thoroughfare of Las Ramblas, 13 people were killed, with scores more injured. Several are in critical condition. The attack was part of a series of violent incidents carried out by suspected Islamist militants on the Catalan coast during the day and evening.

To better understand the role this space plays in the lives of the city’s residents, and how it might be changing in its aftermath, CityLab spoke with Eduard Cabré, consultant in Housing and Urban Planning who is also Head of the Barcelona-NYC Virtual Housing Office. This interview was conducted over email in Spanish, translated, and edited.

What’s the significance of Las Ramblas as an urban space in Barcelona?

It dates back to Roman times. Las Ramblas of Barcelona is one of many “ramblas” that exist in Cataluña—spaces where a flow of water went by, so they weren’t apt for construction. Originally, Las Ramblas was just the space that water used to flow in an irregular way from the outsides of the walled city.

Later on, with the construction of the Raval neighborhood, Las Ramblas became a public space, although one with a limited use because of the flow of the water during rainy days. Nonetheless, it acquired a great importance for commerce and social life in general. With the expansion of the city beyond its medieval walls and the urbanization of the Eixample district, the city built canals and Las Ramblas became the only axis that crossed the old city, connecting the new center of the city with the portside. It’s also one of the few wide streets in Barcelona, alongside the Via Laietana. Since the end of 19th century, many artists concentrated there, with specific areas specializing in particular commerce, something that persists with the flower stands in the central area of Las Ramblas.

How has this area evolved in more recent decades?

Nowadays, Las Ramblas is a tourist destination, a place to eat paella and take photos and get the Barcelona theme park experience. It’s also an area for drugs and prostitution in the darkness of its side streets. Barcelonans don’t recognize it today as the bohemian street full of artists and picturesque characters of the last century. The tourist-intensive use has expelled many of the local stores and residents, and Las Ramblas evolved from being the favorite street of Barcelonans to a street many avoid.

Urban planners have been watching Barcelona’s efforts to promote pedestrian-only streets, what is known as “superblocks.” What’s the relationship between Las Ramblas and this initiative? Was the street a precedent?

The origin of Las Ramblas as a pedestrian space came first from the waterway, and later from its intensive social and commercial use. It is true that Las Ramblas was the first great thoroughfare that was mainly for pedestrians, but Las Ramblas still allows traffic on both sides of it.

The progressive pedestrianization that the superblocks promote has its origin in the experience of the old city—Gòtic, la Ribera, Sant Pere and Raval neighborhoods—and of other historical areas of the city, like Gràcia, Sants, Les Corts, and Sant Andreu. It’s trying not only to create more public space in the city, but also to reduce traffic and pollution created by vehicles. The Ramblas model that allows traffic of vehicles and commercial kiosks is right now in crisis, and Barcelonans have a bad opinion of it.

Crowds along Las Ramblas in 2014. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

In cities like New York, public spaces are being redesigned with special safety measures, with incidents like yesterday’s in mind. Has this been part of the conversation in Barcelona?

After the attacks that have happened in the last months in Europe, the city of Barcelona installed temporary barriers in public spaces where many people congregate for specific events, such as street markets and concerts, for example. But there were no permanent barriers constructed in areas like Las Ramblas, because this would have prevented the flow of vehicles as a whole in the historic center, creating problems for neighbors and businesses. You can add some safety measures with design changes in the public spaces, but it is impossible to implement them in all cases. Some people will ask for these kind of measures to avoid things like what happened in Las Ramblas. But I don’t think experts will agree with them.

We are very close to the tragedy and it may be difficult to weigh on this, but, do you think that this attack will permanently change the design and the dynamic of this street?

The city, the neighbors, and Barcelonans as a whole have been talking for a while about the need of introducing physical and regulatory changes to Las Ramblas. More specifically, some months ago Barcelona launched an idea contest to redesign Las Ramblas—without a lot of success, according to what I’ve read.

It is a street where a lot of economic interests converge, and there’s daily social tension between neighbors and tourists. I think this attack and the likely reduction of visitors in this area due to what happened may give the city more reasons to start rethinking Las Ramblas, including its physical design, its commercial model, and the flow of people and vehicles. But I doubt that the attack will lead to the installation of permanent physical barriers, or the total eradication of vehicle traffic along Las Ramblas.

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