The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1939] Immigration and public space in Barcelona


I. Immigration and social integration

Barcelona has traditionally opened its doors to immigrants, both due to its status as a port and its geographic location at the entrance to Europe. In the last century, migration to Barcelona, as happened in the rest of Spain, underwent significant changes. In the 60s, and to a lesser degree, the 70s, massive immigration was mainly from the depressed and predominantly agricultural regions of Spain. This movement came to a halt in the 80s when Germany became the main destination for immigrants. Since the 90s, Barcelona has once again received a high influx of immigrants, although they are now from outside of Europe: North Africans, South Americans and Filipinos. The geographic proximity of the former and the historical and cultural links with the latter two have been decisive factors for choosing Spain as a destination. These contingents have been joined by immigrants from Asia (mainly from Pakistan and China) and from Eastern European countries.

Contrary to all expectations, the main problem facing the NGOs working with immigrants in Barcelona does not lie in covering the basic needs of new arrivals to the city. This is a very important task and still presents many problems that take up many resources. Their goal, however, is that the integration of immigrants be such that they can reach as status of self-sufficiency. At present, the worst problems arise when this attempt at integration fails, and immigrants, in accepting their exclusion, become "institutionalised" and give up their fight against it. However, when immigrants become integrated, they not only become self-sufficient but they also become active agents in the integration of other immigrants.

Architecture and urban design are other areas in which the solution to the problem of immigration lies in integration.

Normally, when we speak of immigration from the perspective of architecture, we do so in terms of housing. Obviously, immigrants have needs in this respect. However, the price of housing in Barcelona has risen spectacularly, and now this is a problem that affects most of the population, young people in particular. The problem of housing cannot be ignored. Providing immigrants with emergency housing in the hope it will offer a solution to their exclusion is not the answer either.

Effective acts of intervention favouring integration must be global in two senses. Firstly, as regards areas of action -not just limited to housing, but focused on all aspects of city life. Secondly, as regards the kind of intervention undertaken -not based on isolated actions favouring integration, but by taking this factor into consideration when planning the city.

II. Lessons from the past

The degree of social integration is just one of the parameters that defines the city. The model for mobility, secorialisation and sustainability are other examples of these parameters, which all have an effect on each other. It is therefore necessary to reflect on what our city is like now, what it was like and how we would like it to be in the future.

As a Mediterranean city, Barcelona has been endowed with a rich social fabric, both because of the individuals in it and its interrelations. Intense use has always been made of public spaces in this city, both because there is a chronic shortage of such spaces and because of the high population density, which is the highest in Europe. Zoning has been traditionally low in Barcelona, where social classes, uses and a range of timetables combine with the high density to make Barcelona a particularly dynamic place. All of these factors, together with climatic and cultural considerations, have characterised the way public spaces are used in Barcelona. They have always served as a melting pot, and not just as a space for consumerism. The outdoors is where relations and social interaction take place. Furthermore, interaction is the first step towards social integration.

The successful and unsuccessful experiences with the waves of immigration in the 1960s, which occurred in far worse political circumstances than at present, should not be forgotten.

An initial analysis allows us to put forward two basic scenarios. The first consists in the creation of new housing estates, some of which are based on monolithic-type constructions. This model has taken a long time to become successful, and has only done so, insofar as the parameters involving social integration are concerned, because of the administration's subsequent intervention.

The second arose when immigrants settled in the traditionally receptive historical quarters of the city. These situations were devoid of any kind of support in the urban plan. Although the housing was often substandard, it was successful as long as conditions were not infrahuman.

In other words, not only were immigrants materially better off, but there was also a higher incidence of integration in neighbourhoods with a long-established social fabric. They became yet another addition to this fabric, which was missing in housing estates.

III. Immigration in Barcelona, today

We will now focus on the present situation of immigrants new to Barcelona, those from outside the European Community. It would seem that immigrants who group together according to their origin attain greater integration. This implies running the risk of "ghettos" forming within the city. However, it has been demonstrated that immigrants who have attained a certain degree of integration participate in the reception of newly arrived compatriots.

In short, it could be said that the largest groups of immigrants have settled in the Ciutat Vella district. This area has undergone great changes. Formerly an area of low birthrate, it is now the area of the city with the highest birthrate. It was the first place where open spaces reflected these changes. The immigrants, who come from cultures with a long urban tradition, have put public spaces to great use. The telephone exchanges and Islamic butchers, as well as other business concerns, which are used by both new and long-standing inhabitants, have changed the face of the Carme and Sant Pere districts.

This has not solely implied increased activity. Immigrants are no longer seen as delinquents but as workers, which has made it easier for them to be accepted. Immigrants set up networks amongst themselves and with the pre-existing social fabric. As well as offering a setting for these activities, public spaces facilitate interaction and enable immigrants to identify with their new city. This is a much more difficult goal to achieve, but it is much more satisfactory. The use the Filipino community makes of Sant Agusti church, and the lunches the Dominicans organise on Saturdays in the square in front of the Macba museum illustrate this. The mechanism involved in feeling as if one belongs to a city is complex. However, this feeling of belonging can only be achieved if there is a personal implication and involvement in activities. This is a society in which rights are not associated to territory but to individuals. The emotional tie with public spaces is unique and, at the same time, the strongest that can be established. We all remember where we kissed for the first time.

However, this apparently optimistic panorama hides some of the model's greatest contradictions. Immigrants arrived in the Ciutat Vella district because of the existence of a large area of substandard housing. The lower prices were a prime factor in attracting immigrants. The administration's involvement has consisted in knocking down the most dilapidated buildings and cleaning up public spaces. The latter together with the progressive rise in house prices have led to the curtailment of these price differences. The risk now facing us is that the improvements made to the neighbourhood ends up by its present inhabitants, whether long-standing or newcomers, being replaced by people with greater buying power. This phenomenon, known as gentrification, has happened in the Rivera district. Recent cases of property mobbing are an example of this. The effect this would have on the social fabric would not go unnoticed.

IV. The city we want, the integration we get

As in the 60s, the success or failure rate of immigrant integration has not been directly due to architectural contributions, which have been built well after immigrants arrived. In looking to the future, we have to ask ourselves what model of city are we proposing to adopt. It seems that just the opposite of what was analysed above in connection to density and intensity. The majority of new developments in the metropolitan area are based on the extensive use of infrastructures and land. We often come across neighbourhoods that are destined exclusively for housing, and often low-rise constructions, in which the socialising role played by the public space is lost. This is well understood by shopping malls, with their right to admission, private security guards and fixed hours of opening. When the shopping mall closes, the public space disappears and the neighbourhood becomes deserted. This is obviously not a sustainable public space, and neither does it promote integration.

More ambitious plans for urban renewal, promoted by the administration, do not seem to favour integration either. Not even those associated with the 2004 Universal Forum, an event that has immigration as one of its central themes!

How can a public space foster integration? The answer to this question is not in the specific design of elements, but rather in general guidelines that the space should comply to:

It should have a flexible design. The use the public makes of spaces and the population change. An excessively rigid design renders the space useless for non-programmed uses. An undefined space, however, such as the square in front of the Macba museum, has its present uses and will possibly have new ones in the future.

Things should happen in a public space. The activity in a public space is an indication of its success. Proof of the adaptability of a public space is demonstrated by ongoing activity, which changes by day and by night. Activity in the public space is not merely one more element in the urban landscape; it promotes interaction and consolidates the links between its inhabitants.

The public space should promote exchange. A bench in a play area near a school can do a lot to integrate, for example, the mothers from a Muslim background who will come into contact with local mothers.

The public space should be the setting for everyday events rather than exceptional occurrences. Recognising others and identifying with the place helps us to share what belongs to all of us.

There are recent examples of public spaces promoting integration. One such example is the area around the National Library in Paris. By setting up ordinary activities and services on the ground floor in contact with the public space, the latter has become a prolongation of private space. Thus fashioned, it has become a place where individuals interact, not simply a "non-private space": emptiness.

There is also a much older and greater example: the Mediterranean city. There is possibly no need to invent anything new. It is possibly just a matter of remembering?

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