Mixed Up In Barcelona

We spent the 2022 Thanksgiving week in Barcelona visiting new family and seeing the sights of a city we have always wanted to visit (tip: we have found the US Thanksgiving holiday the ideal time to visit European cities!). In general, it exceeded expectations with all of the interesting aspects of any large European city but with it’s own unique twists; excellent walkability, good transportation options with a great public transit system (although it is still heavily dominated by automobiles and it’s bike network is less than average), great cultural amenities, interesting architecture (of course Sagrada Família), and oh the food (the subject of Lisa’s heart)! Because of my interest in urbanism, it’s always fun to experience a new city through that lens, especially one that has been written about extensively in urbanism circles. But, of all of the possible facets of city planning to observe, the one that really jumped out for me was the extreme mixture of uses and how it manifests in the city.

We stayed in a multi-bedroom apartment (an ~800 sq ftAirBnB sorry, I probably come off as a hypocrite) solidly in the Eixample district of the city. This area – “eixample” means “extension” in Catalan – is immediately surrounding the Gothic Quarter (the “old city”) and makes up a bulk of what is now considered the core of Barcelona. There is a lot written about the history of the urban planning of Barcelona especially the Eixample which was designed by Ildefons Cerdà in the late 1800s. This plan appears to me to be essentially a form based code and regulating plan in modern planning parlance. It has all of the necessary elements, street layouts, including the infamous “chamfered corners“, building placement, mass and form, parks and other civic amenities and was also aimed at providing a livable area for all classes of people:

Cerdá’s project was quite innovative for the time, especially with regard to the delimitation of green spaces and service areas, taking into account both functional, recreational and welfare aspects. The buildings were to have a height of 16 meters (first floor and four floors), and a depth of 10 to 20 meters. The distribution of the Eixample was to be in sectors of 20 x 20 blocks, divided into districts of 10 x 10 and neighborhoods of 5 x 5. Each neighborhood was to have a church, a civic center, a school, a day care center, a nursing home and other welfare centers, while each district was to have a market and each sector a park. It also had industrial and administrative facilities, and in the suburbs there was a slaughterhouse, a cemetery and three hospitals.

Wikipedia on Barcelona Urban Planning

No doubt Cerdà’s book General Theory of Urban Planning 1867 would be a good one to read! One of the hallmarks of this kind of plan is mixed use. For districts like the Eixample to function, especially in the era before the mobility we have today, commerce had to happen at a local scale. ie you had to be able to walk to get the things you need for everyday life: food, clothing, entertainment etc. The area we were staying is solidly middle class (we could hear kids practicing instruments in the building!) and most people don’t use cars for their everyday needs even though many people do own and park them in the city, but fortunately there is no free parking, you have to purchase parking spaces that are tucked in everywhere. What I saw was virtually any use you could think of as first floor retail: mini marts, grocery stores (Aldi was the largest), motorcycle dealerships, car repair shops, parking entrances, podiatrists, restaurants/bars, pet grooming, bike shops, gyms, mattress stores, novelty sex shops, and pretty much anything else you think of. Many of these images were taken in the same block as our apartment. All of these were on the first floor below ubiquitous residential on the upper floors.

Restaurant/Bar – Most of these were very small and had outdoor seating in addition some minimal indoor seating.
Mostly fresh fruits.
A Ford dealership – This was the only two story retail I saw. Big surprise, eh?
Car repair shop.
A smaller car repair shop.
A bike shop.
Art store.
Organic market – also had prepared foods.
Motorcycle shop.
Mattress shop.
Convenience store. Amusing they call the convenience stores “super”.
Yet another car repair shop. They do like their cars.
Dog grooming shop.
Specialty bakery.
Podiatrist office.
Sewing supply store.
Fitness center.
Hardware services and restaurant.
Nail salon on the other side.
Key Shop and Tobacco Shop.
Personal Care Establishment.
Plant store.
Copy/Print center.
Frankly, I’m not even sure what this is!
One of the (many!) “Sex Shops” next to a convenience store, in an 1800s era building no less.
No photo collection would be complete without a shot of the “Dick Waffle” shop. It’s exactly what you think. I find it amusing that it is in a tourist area (La Rambla) so clearly they either don’t care or it’s more some kind of joke.

You definitely get the idea. Three of the defining attributes of these shops are the small size (the Ford dealership being the exception as well as other “big auto” dealerships not shown, but not that big), the niche businesses and the ubiquity of these examples in all periods of architecture. The sizes are mostly one unit or sometimes two units wide and fairly deep. The design of these blocks has mostly open middles with all kinds of things happening in them (no doubt that could be an entire blog post and is part of the history of Cerdá’s design). There are of course some chain stores (the Supermercats for example) that are, I assume, owned by a large corporation, but outside of the glitzy tourist areas, you don’t see any multinational chains. And lastly, no uses were limited to what we consider “bad” v. “good” architectural buildings (like 60s/70s blocky v. original 1800s ornamented facades). Everything was everywhere.

So why did the widely varied uses this jump out at me? This mix would be rare in almost any American city, perhaps with the exception of New York. As a “planning professional” – I use that term loosely as my experience in the field is very practical and not academic – I am always interested in the incentives that the rules and regulations we have produce, chiefly the consequences of our almost maniacal fetish with use based zoning in the United States in general and Annapolis in particular. There are several incentives here: smaller shops no doubt are cheaper to rent/own, specializing in one genre makes it easier for a small business owner to focus on something they know, and specific uses are not shoveled into certain areas which tends to denigrate some neighborhoods in the US. I think all of these minimize barriers to entry and promote competition. We used to do that, but of course we threw all of that out the window when we went all in on autocentricity and it has caused innumerable problems with our built environment. It has spread everything apart, requiring lots of driving and that is a wasteful and fragile built environment, and created places that are not worth caring about.

But when I look around a place like Barcelona, which by anyone’s measure is a pleasurable city (assuming you don’t detest cities), it really works and the lessons here are as applicable in a city of 1.6 million people as they are in the greater Annapolis area with 70 thousand people. Our implementation of mixed use is really limited to some specialty and food shops as opposed to shops we need to patronized for much of our daily activities and we get our panties in a bunch about anything we think is “inappropriate”. This has furthered the idea of class segregation. The retail spaces in newer mixed use areas like in Parole tend to be big and out of reach for a small business owner, so we end up with chain stores. The “Wall Street Real Estate Industrial Complex” is one thing that really promotes our “faux” version of “mixed use”, the subject which has been written about by Strong Towns for years. In reality even with that kind of “Town Center” misses the mark because it is just an inside out suburban mall.

One of the things the regulations in Barcelona appear not to do (I have not looked at any specific current codes) is strictly regulate architecture, something US city regulations typically do. There is traditional architecture from the late 1800s, Gaudi designs, blocky mid 20th century and even contemporary “Developer modern” designs, but regardless, they all function the same with the almost any use over residential. For sure, the different architectural styles will have an effect of the residential and commercial costs of rental or ownership, but fundamentally, people of many different strips can can live similar kinds of lives because of the way the area functions. This allows for incremental development as places are renovated as long as they conform to the proper form.

Our apartment building. Entirely unremarkable.
An ornate design sandwiched between what looks like 1800s reproduction and developer modern.
A design by the local hero Gaudi.

I’m not saying we need to “build Barcelona” and we do need a better mix of transportation options, but we need to emulate the ideas here and not worry so much about all of the really prescriptive junk in our zoning code that has all kinds of perverse effects. My main lessons are we should be much more interested in form and function, as opposed to use and architecture. For Annapolis, I get the architectural history of the city that needs to be respected, but let’s not be so wrapped around the axle about uses everywhere, especially in the historic district. I said as much when the Planning Commission discussed tattoo parlors last year (who’s to say what is “appropriate” for the historic district?) and my favorite absurd example of a “Personal Fitness Studio” being allowed in West Annapolis, but not a “Pilates Studio”. I keep coming back to my Ignite talk from 2019 because it sums up all of these ideas in 5 minutes and 20 slides and this trip was yet another affirmation of these ideas!

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