The expansion of Barcelona in the mid 1800s was a necessary step to improve the quality of life of the citizens. The services and spaces lived inharmonious, and the city was characterized by density, congestion, terrible water supply, poor sanitation, non-existent sewage systems, and disease outbreaks. The rising mortality rates were higher than those in Paris and London at the time, and life expectancy dropped to 36 years for the rich and 23 years for the working class. The people of Barcelona were being suffocated by the walls that were enclosing them, becoming a health risk. With a density of 856 inhabitants per hectare, there was a sudden need for the government to manage and rework the distribution of the overflowing population. Homes extended out into the street as they rose up,and some of the streets were as narrow as 1.10 to 3 metres wide. With the city thriving at a faster pace than the rest of Spain, there was no more land left inside the city walls.
In 1841, the Barcelona City Council held a design competition to expand the city beyond confinement by the medieval walls. After studying many different proposals for the city plan, in 1860 the central government approved the plan by the Catalan engineer and urban planner Ildefons Cerda, which is known as the Cerda plan. His radical expansion proposal to develop the city into a grid-like district would unite the old city with seven peripheral villages. This united area, now referred to as L’Eixample (Catalan for The Expansion), was almost four times the size of the old city, and took almost a century to complete.
Ildefons Cerda, born in 1815 in the rural area north of Barcelona, Spain known as Catalunya, graduated from a school in Madrid with a degree in Civil Engineering. He specialized in a new type of engineering which focused on roads, canals and ports. He wrote and published several theories on the structure and development of cities, as well as inventing the concept and term of urbanization. He created a science out of the study of towns and cities. This science emphasized the need for the collection of data and statistics when planning and designing each function in the economic, social, political, and environmental elements which compose cities. Cerda had also immersed himself into the political arena, which later impacted the hand he was dealt regarding the Expansion of Barcelona.
Although Cerda’s ideas were mainly products of his own mind, there were many external factors that shaped his thoughts and influenced him. One factor in particular that helped to influence his planning was the train. I 1844 Cerda witnessed the capability of trains as both technology and a form of transportation, and he connected this idea to the development of a town. He specifically “viewed trains as bridges between old and new settlements”. (1) Although other planners noted the significance of the trains, the influence of them on Cerda’s plans was to a degree not found in other plans done at this time. As to be discussed more in depth later, Cersa based the width of his proposed streets on the incorporation of trains within the transportation systems of cities and towns, as well at other transportation that had not even been invented yet. He planned for not only the fundamental basics of a city, but also the most precise of details. These fundamental bases included political, legal, economic, and administrative. Only with the understanding of these basic principles did Cerda believe that one could create realistic or useful plans for city development.
The grid system exemplified by Cerda in his plan was described as a “non-hierarchical access to all parts of the city, thereby preventing differences in the urban condition”. (1) Cerda based his grid on a strategic components such as wide streets, ample intersections, mobility, and large spacious blocks. He made sure to keep in mind the city’s capacity to grow and the ability of this grid to provide for that. This grid determined the development of land values, property values, availability of services, health, housing, and open spaces. Cerda calculated the volume of atmospheric air one person needed in order to breathe properly, collected data on professions that the population might do, mapped out needed services.
A-1 (Map above shows boundary of Cerda plan represented by the light green, street grid represented by the blue lines, and schools represented by the green circles.)
Cerda’s grid planned for a highly effective and efficient distribution of resources and services, which coexist together to create a better environment for the people of Barcelona. “He proposed an even distribution of “33 schools, 3 hospitals located on the edge of the city for hygienic conditions, 8 parks, 10 markets, and 12 administrative buildings.” (2) When designing this grid, Cerda educated himself in the distance and location of services in relation to the residents. He carefully designed the plan so that there would be adequately large streets. The streets would be built with a width of 20 metres wide, with 5 metres dedicated on either side to pedestrians. There are also main streets such as Gran Via which would be 50 metres wide, and Passeig de Gracia which would be 60 metres wide. Districts were defined as 20 manzana blocks together, with access to shops, markets, services and schools. He made it so that whether of wealthy or working class, each resident has equal access to these services. He studied the desired maximum distance each service should be from another, capping the distance at 30 minutes away. He truly planned to create socioeconomic equality with his grid.
Another significant aspect of the Cerda plan was the development of the Manzana Block. The manzana is a city block structure that Cerda created. This idea evolved from public to private, or from more of a garden, to a courtyard. Cerda desired a square block to solidify his equitable distribution of services, maintain traffic flow, and eliminate the association of the size of land with socioeconomic status. As explained later on, this was unfortunately not avoided as Cerda had hoped.These square structured blocks were originally to be built up only on 2 or 3 sides, 20 metres deep, and at a scale of four stories, indicating a human level structure. Each side would measure 113.3 metres, and in between the sides would be a recreational green space that A-2 would allow for the maximum amount of sunlight and ventilation into each unit in the block.
Since this plan lacked profitability, the majority of the blocks became built up on all four sides becoming car parks, and further exceeding the original planned height. Instead of green, ventilated, publicly accessible neighborhoods, the blocks began to resemble a more Soviet block-brutalism, developed without regard to the plan to include public facilities into the blocks. The plane tree was chosen as the ideal species for planting in the city, and was planted with a gap of 8 metres between each tree. The most unique aspect of the manzana was in fact the 45 degree chamfer given to each corner of each block. Cerda did this because he believed that there would be “some sort of small machines moved by steam that each driver could stop in front of their house. The chamfered corner allowed for the driver to see more easily what was happening to each side. Even though cars hadn’t even been invented yet, when Cerda discovered the railway, he quickly realized the kind of technology that the future held, and accommodated for it in whatever way he could without knowing specific detail about it. A-3 Today, this design definitely improved traffic circulation in the city. Not only did Cerda plan to accommodate for mobility of the pedestrian, carriage, steam tram, and future car like machines, but he also worked to optimize the infrastructural works such as gas supply lines, rain sewers, and waste disposal lines. His efforts went beyond just transportation planning to include planning for the movement of goods, energy, services, and information.
Being a civil engineer as well as an urban planner, it is not out of character that Cerda developed empirical formulas to create and justify his plan for Barcelona, along with all of his planning. Within this formula he sought to answer to questions that addressed urbanism. “…how building new roads, sanitary infrastructure and municipal equipment could be financed and…how housing prices could be adjusted to different wages?” (2) These questions show his awareness of the social, economic, and political factors that affect a city, and he used these factors to shape is formula. Cerda “found a way to calculate block lengths, street widths, land size occupied by a
single resident, and even the number of people per household. His formula therefore, enabled him to quantify his plans and to more accurately design the layout of his cities.” (1)A-4
The Cerda plan is barely cited in any books about urbanism that are not either written in Spanish or Catalan to this day. Cerda did not attract praise and recognition for his work internationally until around the 1980s and 90s. Something that was surprising to find was that with the outburst of modernism following the Cerda plan, there began an urban competitiveness among the people of Barcelona. Even though Cerda planned his grid so that there would be equality among everyone regardless of socioeconomic status, property owners and architects could not get rid of that competitiveness and class divisions completely. They each wanted to build the biggest, tallest and best house on the block. This is a prime example of why there is so much diversity in the architecture in the city. Families were commissioning architects such as Antoni Gaudi to design their homes and create a unique, organic structure to stand out among the rest. However, if not for these wealthy families supporting and providing financial benefit to Cerda and his plan, it could have not been as successful. There were many people, as well as architects, who turned their back on his plan. Since his approach was different from the others being on an egalitarian grid, an economic proposal, and having a comprehensive circulation plan, it was understood that his design intention was not only functional but was a response to the society’s conditions and needs. But because of this radical proposal, his plan was not well received by the central government, and it took decades for Catalans to applaud and accept Cerda’s work. Even so, there were many oppositions to Cerda and his plan, which aided in facilitation of the appearance of certain parts of the plan. For example, Cerda designed a wider street every five, in order to make mobility easier, and to help escape the density of the city. An argument was made that if the streets were 20 metres wide then the depth of the buildings could be enlarged so they are proportional to the larger street. This is the opposition which eliminated the first block idea as mentioned before and shown in diagram (A-3), and how the manzana became completely closed off on all sides. Another argument was about the construction of each block, and how the size of the street could influence the height of the building, making them 20 metres tall and not the 16 metres as planned. There were many anti-hierarchical and rationalist essences of the plan, which created conflict with the new city that was the vision of the bourgeoisie.
The fortunes of Barcelona are clearly linked to the work of Cerda which propelled it. Barcelona went from a provincial town with limits and living struggles to a modern, urban success story. Although in the beginning Cerda’s vision was not understood by everyone and was criticized, his plan became one of the most ordered and structured urban plans of all time. His success was due to his knowledge and outlook on the old city and the problems it held. Cerda was able to think ahead and plan for issues not only present at the time, but as well as for the future, and he allowed room for the city to expand even more. His theories, analysis, and research allowed him to plan and design every shape, function, and issue brought about, and allowed him to bridge the gaps present in each service and space so that they could work cohesively. This highly effective planning became the forefront for urban planning and the evolution of many cities to come with urban challenges to solve.