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Industrial Graveyard To Hot Innovation Center

Neal Peirce / Oct 23 2009

For Release Sunday, October 25, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce BARCELONA — How can a city resuscitate an entire depressed, old inner city district, many of its blocks marked by the skeletons of abandoned factories?

Even more challenging–how to transform the same area into a high-powered knowledge hub that adds jobs by the thousands and draws dozens of high-powered national and international firms?

The “free enterprise” American approach might be to bring in the bulldozers, create an industrial park that displaces the old residents, and maybe offer companies public subsidies to move in.

Not Barcelona. Ten years ago this entrepreneurial city decided to build a modern “knowledge economy” close to downtown in its old waterfront Poblenou district, once a leading cotton mill center, renaming it “22@Barcelona, District of Innovation.”

Barcelona’s then-mayor, Joan Close, took the initiative. But an extraordinary political consensus–ranging all the way from the city’s capitalist right wing to socialist-oriented left–came together to design 22@Barcelona and set it in motion.

Their central idea: Talent is the gold of our time, crucial to build thriving new economic clusters. Talented people (and cutting-edge firms) want lively urban environments. Instead of the isolation of corporate campuses, they’re anxious to brush shoulders with other gifted people from companies, universities and the artistic realm.

So 22@Barcelona has been consciously shaped to include attractive green spaces, restaurants and entertainment, bike lanes, and plentiful public transit both within the area and between it and greater Barcelona.

But to create that environment–and not force out the families and workers living there–the Barcelona politicians decided on an ingenious but highly controlled form of real estate redevelopment.

Each of the district’s 100-square meter blocks–rather than individual land holdings–were made the basic unit for regeneration. Once 60 percent of landowners in any one of the 115 blocks agree to act collectively, they can–as a community–increase the value of their property by getting city permission to rebuild with greater height (more stories) than allowed in the past.

But there’s a tradeoff. In return, owners must agree to release 30 percent of their land holding for new public investment. Of that 30 percent, the city takes a third each for shared green space, for publicly subsidized housing, and for knowledge-based activity such as a technology center or university facility. The land parcels can also be exchanged across blocks–for a larger park, for example.

One can imagine American property owners screaming “property rights” and “eminent domain abuse” at any such proposal. Not to mention another “taking”: 22@’s owners are obliged to pay 50 percent of street infrastructure improvements.

But look at what they gain, notes Josep Miquel Piqué, Barcelona’s forceful CEO of 22@ operations. There’s revitalized public space to lift the spirits of residents and workers. District heating and cooling, plus fiber optic connections are provided. There’s actually a pneumatic underground waste disposal system (with colored bags to make recycling easy). Plus a system of underground “galleries” for cables and pipes and future needs, avoiding the need to keep digging up streets for improvements.

And 22@ isn’t shy about defining and shaping the economic environment. It’s defined five top “innovation clusters” –information technology, media, design, medical devices and energy efficiency. And, says Piqué, “We are managing the ecosystem for innovation. We’ve grown to 1,441 companies, many international, in nine years. If we need university talent, finance, or information technology, we promote the connections to make it possible. We incite artists to work with the companies, for inspiration. We work together with the private firms, the universities, to create a critical mass to compete in the world.”

The physical result is an amazingly eclectic neighborhood. Technology centers and new apartments are cheek by jowl with old lots and housing still in transition. Government offices, television and radio studios, cultural centers, social service agencies–they’re all there, and much more.

Yet Piqué claims “We don’t forget the people living here beforehand. We are including social housing. We recognize residents’ children as the new generation of talent we want right here. We invite students for internships in the firms, the activities we have. That’s the difference between the Silicon Valley model and ours.”

An American can’t visit 22@ without wondering: Could U.S. cities ever find the left-to-right political consensus, muster the faith in a government-chartered organization with 22@-like powers, to remake our lagging neighborhoods with parallel stem-to-stern remedies and approaches?

For our dawning back-to-the-city era, what better? But I’m not optimistic. Barcelona-style collaboration (and trust in government) just isn’t in our political DNA.

But what if a talent-focused economic era, marked by keen global competition, requires intensely entrepreneurial and rule-setting city government on the 22@Barcelona model? It will be a tough shift. But we Americans can’t keep saying “no” and “can’t” forever.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

2 Comments

  1. Beth Humstone
    Posted October 24, 2009 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Neal, I am headed to Barcelona in November and look forward to seeing this! Thanks for a fascinating piece. Beth

  2. Neal Peirce
    Posted November 1, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Message from Robert MacLean:
    This column was a compelling a reminder both of what enlightened city planning can be and of my own experience with Poblenou.
    In 1998 I took a group of architecture students to Barcelona for a Summer Design Studio. We engaged in a project in Poblenou with the guidance of the city’s Planning Department. The students each designed an individual building for the district but were asked to think collaboratively toward creating a better community. Ideologically we were guided by the writings of Oriol Bohigas, especially Reconstruccion de Barcelona. In his book Bohigas provided a set of design theories that emphasized citizen participation, that promoted the role of design professionals as the appropriate interpreters of popular culture and emerging technology, and that demanded the active role of local government to oversee development.
    It is indeed gratifying to read, eleven years later, of the progress in Poblenou which is a fitting tribute to the early planning guidance given by Bohigas. He championed the concept of “benign metastasis” which reasoned that well placed and well conceived urban interventions would regenerate their entire surroundings due to their positive influence.
    American city planning entities could profit greatly from understanding Bohigas’ city rebuilding strategies.

    Robert MacLean
    Professor Emeritus
    College of Architecture
    University of North Carolina Charlotte