What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.
The civic vision that made Barcelona's Ramblas renowned is what Boston needs
By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, 4/9/02
BARCELONA - Josiah Quincy is everybody's candidate for Greatest Mayor of Boston. But if he hadn't built the Quincy Market complex, back in 1826, he'd be largely forgotten today by everybody except historians. It's when a mayor transforms the physical form of a city that he becomes a legend.
Case in point: Barcelona. In the years from 1982 to 1997, a mayor named Pasqual Maragall almost single-handedly kick-started this city into the 21st century. He brought the Olympics here in 1992 as a way of putting Barcelona on the international map. Then he used the games, and the money they brought, as a tool to reshape his city. He put a highway underground, and thus reconnected the city with its waterfront. On that waterfront he fashioned new beaches and new neighborhoods. Elsewhere in town he built new neighborhood parks by the dozen. When Maragall stepped down from office after 15 years, he was able to hand-pick his successor, who still serves and carries out the Maragall program. As just one indication of the worldwide admiration for this city, the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, always before given to an individual architect, was presented in 1999 for the first time to a city: Barcelona.
I went to Barcelona as part of an effort to look at what other cities do when they want to create great public spaces. The hope is to come up with some ideas and challenges for the people who, starting later this year, will be designing the stretch of new land that will appear in Boston when the overhead Central Artery comes down.
The Globe has joined with MIT and WCVB-TV (Channel 5) to encourage debate about the future of the artery land, culminating in a ''Town Meeting'' on May 30 at Faneuil Hall. In the coming weeks, we'll also be looking at San Francisco.
Why Barcelona? Everyone says the same thing: It has the best street life of any city you've ever seen. One historian writes about ''Maragall's conviction that citizenship is closely related to participation in the public space and the rhythms of the city.'' That's exactly it. To be a citizen of Barcelona is to walk its streets, to be part of the ebb and flow of public life. It's not unlike Boston that way.
The Ramblas (Map, photos)
The best known example of the public world of Barcelona is an older one, which preceded Maragall and established the urban character he later expanded. It's the famous street called the Ramblas. The Ramblas, which was a river before it was paved over, runs from the city's main square down to the harbor. It's worth studying because so many urban experts think it may be the best street anywhere.
Like our Commonwealth Avenue, the Ramblas is a boulevard with a broad pedestrian strip down the middle. The strip is about 40 feet wide, handsomely paved, and lined with trees for its entire length. On each side of the strip runs one or sometimes two lanes of traffic, plus a lane for parking and deliveries. The traffic never moves very fast. Barcelonans and tourists spend a lot of their time walking up and down the center strip of the Ramblas - although walking isn't quite the word, since in this setting it feels more like parading. This is the civic place to see and be seen, the place to be. Besides the people-watching, there's a lot to catch your eye. There's a flower section with many stalls, a bird section if you're shopping for parakeets, newsstands, and street entertainers. In good weather, restaurants in the buildings along the sidewalks move tables out to the center strip and set them up under canvas awnings. The waiters simply jog across the traffic to serve the tables. There's an insouciance about the attitude toward cars. Nobody feels intimidated.
There's plenty of action on the Ramblas's edges, too, helping to give it life. A spectacular glass-roofed public market, La Boqueria, opens off one side of the Ramblas. On the other side is one of the world's loveliest public squares, the Plaza Real (Royal Plaza), now the site of upper-end housing, with more outdoor cafes. A new museum of modern art, an opera house, a Picasso Museum, even Barcelona cathedral are not many steps to one side or the other from the Ramblas. And the ordinary buildings that line the street are endlessly varied with bay windows, awnings, and signs.
The Ramblas is often cited as a possible model for Boston's artery surface, and in a lot of ways it is. It has enough commercial life to keep it lively and interesting, but not so much that it's been privatized. It remains very much a public place that you feel you, as a citizen, own. It's also free of any class divisions. All elements of society, all kinds of visitors meet and mix here. And like other great public spaces, it's fed with life from its edges.
But there are differences, too. The Ramblas is only 98 feet wide from building face to building face, and the buildings are only five to seven stories. Commonwealth Avenue is twice as wide, and the downtown artery surface will, in most places, be wider yet, and lined in some places with skyscrapers. It will be far less intimate than the Ramblas. But the basic principles still apply.
Porta Vell (Map, photos)
It's when you get to the foot of the Ramblas, where it opens out into the harbor, that Mayor Maragall's world begins. Barcelona's waterfront, like Boston's a generation ago, played almost no part in anyone's perception of the city. You simply didn't realize the Mediterranean was there. The water was walled off by a long barrier of decaying warehouses and docks. Today all that has changed. The Ramblas explodes into the Porta Vell - the Old Port - where a graceful pedestrian bridge crosses a marina to a new development of restaurants, night clubs, parks, activities of all kinds. And a little farther up the waterfront is the even more impressive Olympic Village. Here Maragall pulled off a Herculean task. An entire neighborhood was built from scratch, initially housing the Olympic athletes, later becoming a new piece of the city. A ring road that separated the new neighborhood from the water was shoved underground, an action that required a major reorganization of the city's water and sewer lines. Then, at the edge of the sea opposite the Olympic Village, a broad new beach was created, one of the loveliest in Europe. Sand was imported, and it's still imported as needed to replace what washes away. Barcelona turned its face to the sun of the Mediterranean.
Parc Clot (Map, photos)
Maragall didn't stop there. He was a socialist and cared as much about the neighborhoods as the downtown; he salted them with innumerable local parks. They're all different because each responds to the particular needs of its site and the people who use it. But at the same time most of them boast at least one piece of creative modern art. In other words, you know they're local, but you know at the same time they're part of someone's vision of an international contemporary city. We spent some time wandering around the Parc Clot, in a mixed-income neighborhood. It was impressive in an unusual way. It made no special effort to be beautiful, but rather was shaped to satisfy the needs of all its very different users, from rambunctious teenage athletes to old folks sunning on quiet hilltop benches. At Parc Clot, there was a place for everyone.
Barcelona isn't paradise. You can certainly quarrel with some of the architecture of Port Vell and elsewhere, and with some of the landscape and the artworks. And as with Boston, there's a danger that, in the desire to join the international world and attract tourists and foreign capital, Barcelona may eventually turn itself into an attractive theme park, a kind of theatrical representation of itself and its past for the delectation of visitors and urban aficionados, while the real life of the city is driven out by high prices.
But that's a danger for the future. Barcelona today is an explosion of urban energy. During the long reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, from 1939 to 1975, Barcelona lived in a dark age. Franco hated the city and its liberal politics. He tried to crush its culture and erase its native language, a variant of Spanish called Catalan. When Franco finally died, Barcelona awoke with the special kind of energy that comes from being set free.
Maragall rode that wave to re-create his city as one of the world's great cultural capitals. He is a legend in Barcelona today and will always be so. The lesson for Boston and its artery is a simple one. You need leaders with a vision and the political will to make it happen.
Robert Campbell's e-mail address is email@example.com.