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Barcelona invents urbanisation

Constricted by its medieval walls, Barcelona was suffocating – until unknown engineer Ildefons Cerdà came up with a radical expansion plan. Rival architects disparaged him, yet his scientific approach changed how we think about cities.

In the mid-1850s, Barcelona was on the brink of collapse. An industrial city with a busy port, it had grown increasingly dense throughout the industrial revolution, mostly spearheaded by the huge development of the textile sector.

The city was living at a faster pace than the rest of Spain, and was ready to become a European capital. Yet its population of 187,000 still lived in a tiny area, confined by its medieval walls.

Demolition work would finally start a year later. Now the city and the Spanish government had to design and manage the sudden redistribution of an overflowing population. It was a controversial and highly political decision – which ultimately led to the then unknown Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà’s radical expansion plan for a large, grid-like district outside the old walls, called Eixample (literally, “expansion”). In the process, Cerdà also invented the word, and study of, “urbanisation”.

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By the early 19th century, the old walled city of Barcelona had become so crammed that the working classes, bourgeois society and factories all co-existed in the same space. “Everyone was suffering the consequences of an Asian-level density.”

Traffic  in those days, horse-drawn carts – was problematic too. This, combined with residents’ Mediterranean way of life (which meant being on the street whenever it was light – and in the case of some artisanal professionals, working there too), worsened an already severe lack of hygiene in the city.

Barcelona’s epidemics were devastating: each time they broke out, 3% of the population died. Cholera alone killed more than 13,000 people between 1834 and 1865.

Into this came Cerdà. His plan consisted of a grid of streets that would unite the old city with seven peripheral villages (which later became integral Barcelona neighbourhoods such as Gràcia and Sarrià). The united area was almost four times the size of the old city (which was around 2 sq km) and would come to be known as Eixample.

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This unknown engineer was revolutionary in what he envisioned – but also in how he got there. Cerdà decided to avoid repeating past errors by undertaking a comprehensive study of how the working classes lived in the old city. “He had thought he would find all these urbanism books, but there were none,” Permanyer says. So he was forced to do it himself.

Cerdà’s eye was as careful as it is fascinating. His was the first meticulous scientific study both of what a modern city was, and what it could aspire to be – not only as an efficient cohabiting space, but as a source of wellbeing (not a straightforward concept back then).

In short, Cerdà invented “urbanisation” – a word (and discipline) that didn’t exist in Spanish or Catalan, nor English or French, and which he codified in his General Theory of Urbanisation in 1867. His work is still studied in Catalan schools to this day. “The high mortality rates of the working class population, and poor health and education conditions, pushed Cerdà to design a new type of urban planning,” wrote Pallarès-Barberà in a recent paper about the district.

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Gardens in the centre of each street block; rich and poor accessing the same services; and smooth-flowing traffic were among his then revolutionary, even utopian-sounding ideas – many of which materialised to at least some extent (although not the central gardens).

Eixample remains a prominent part of Barcelona’s image today: the octagonal blocks, chamfered in the corners, were his unique idea to deal with traffic, allowing drivers to see more easily what was happening to the left and right. Cars hadn’t even been invented yet – but when Cerdà discovered railways: “He realised there would be some sort of small machines moved by steam that each driver could stop in front of their house.”  Even today, this design makes traffic circulation infinitely easier in Eixample.

Cerdà’s plan, though, was a “liberation for everyone”, the engineer was a utopian socialist – and at the centre of his urbanism was a deep sense of equality and a populist ideology.

He had created a neighbourhood without class divisions where, both for ideological and public health reasons, the population would be spread out equally, and there wouldn’t be exclusive areas for the rich or poor. Over the following decades, Eixample grew with magnificent modernist buildings standing cheek by jowl with artisan homes demanding much cheaper rents.

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