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Poblenou, from Barcelona's old industrial centre to new business, innovation and tourist district

In the last few years, tourism has boomed in Barcelona. In 2014, the Catalan capital was the 4th most visited city in Europe and 16th in the world, with almost 8 million foreign visitors that year. Especially during high season, visitors literally invade some parts of the city such as Les Rambles, Antoni Gaudí's main creations and the urban beaches. However, there is much more to Barcelona than just this. Indeed, the city has 73 different neighbourhoods, divided up into 10 districts, each one with its own particular soul and history. For example, inside the district of Sant Martí – just outside Barcelona's historical centre – the neighbourhood of Poblenou is located. Historically known as the 'Catalan Manchester' for its role as the city's industrial centre in the 19th and early 20th century, nowadays it is becoming a very attractive place to live for many young people. Strongly revitalised after the 1992 Olympic Games and currently characterised by a rich architectural landscape and vibrant artistic scene, it represents the city's new business and technology district, being also very interesting for tourists willing to step outside of the usual routes.

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07 August 2015 05:31 PM

by

Valentina Marconi

Barcelona (CNA).- In the last few years, tourism has boomed in Barcelona. In 2014, the Catalan capital was the 4th most visited city in Europe and 16th in the world, with almost 8 million foreign visitors that year. Especially during high season, visitors literally invade some parts of the city such as Les Rambles, Antoni Gaudí's main creations and the urban beaches. However, there is much more to Barcelona than just this. Indeed, the city has 73 different neighbourhoods, divided up into 10 districts, each one with its own particular soul and history. For example, inside the district of Sant Martí – just outside Barcelona's historical centre – the neighbourhood of Poblenou is located. Historically known as the 'Catalan Manchester' for its role as the city's industrial centre in the 19th and early 20th century, nowadays it is becoming a very attractive place to live for many young people. Strongly revitalised after the 1992 Olympic Games and currently characterised by a rich architectural landscape and vibrant artistic scene, it is the city's new business and technology district, being also very interesting for tourists willing to step outside of the usual routes.


Poblenou – a Catalan word meaning 'new village' – is an extensive neighbourhood of Barcelona, covering 1.5 km2 and with a population of more than 30,000 habitants (the district of Sant Martí has a much greater population). Although being embedded in a corner of the Eixample grid, its historic centre predates the urban reform of the second half of the 19th century. Poblenou was part of the stand-alone municipality of Sant Martí de Provençals until 1897 when – together with the rest of the neighbourhoods in the district – it was annexed to the municipality of Barcelona. According to Salvador Clarós Ferret, President of the local neighbours' association, "the neighbourhood is very young, being around 170 years old. Its development started – outside the city's walls – in the mid-19th century around four main streets: Carrer de Pere IV, Carrer de Marià Aguiló, Carrer Taulat and Avinguda Icària."

During the Industrial Revolution Poblenou became an industrial hub

"Before the Industrial Revolution", Clarós recounts, "this area was swampy and insalubrious due to the presence of the Besós river delta: people could not live here, it was mostly used for pasture". However, during the 18th century, things started to change. "So-called 'Els Prats d'indianes' (fields where fabrics were boiled, bleached and dried) appeared, due to the presence of extensive flat land and an abundance of water. It was the beginning of the textile industry as some industrialists started buying land here", he says.

During the Industrial Revolution, Poblenou played a central role, becoming the cornerstone of not only Catalan but also Iberian industry, particularly in the textile sector, so as to earn the nickname 'Catalan Manchester'. According to the President of the local neighbours' association, "in the mid-19th century, textile factories spread around the main streets. Among the factors promoting this change were: the presence of extensive and cheap land and the proximity to Barcelona's harbour. Poblenou became the industrial neighbourhood of the city and people started living here. A railway connecting Barcelona to Mataró was built" in 1848, the first railway in the Iberian Peninsula.

"The industrial boom kept going during the entire first half of the 20th century: the textile industry was soon flanked by the development of other sectors as well such as the chemical, metallurgical and food and wine sectors", Clarós explains. However, a century after the Industrial Revolution, "between 1960 and 1970, the presence of such an extensive industrial area close to city centre became a problem. Therefore, the local government decided to build another industrial hub farther away, in the Zona Franca neighbourhood", in a distant corner of the Sants-Montjuïc district, behind the hill of Montjuïc and next to the city’s port, the current airport and the Llobregat River. In addition, "in 1978 a new Metropolitan General Plan was approved, which designated the entire Poblenou area as industrial", Clarós says.

"Gradually, local factories and plants became empty and started being used for other purposes, as depots or studios for example. In this phase of decline, the neighbourhood entered a period of urban degradation. The fact of having being designated as industrial soil impeded the development of the necessary urban infrastructure, such as housing units, schools, hospitals, green areas. The population started declining and Poblenou became a peripheral neighbourhood", he concludes.

The 1992 Olympic Games triggered Poblenou's rebirth

After a period of decay, Poblenou underwent a further dramatic transformation, with the 1992 Olympic Games being the main trigger for this, recovering the area and opening the entire city to the sea. Most of the factories and train lines next to the seafront were torn down while those in good shape and located throughout the district were mostly preserved. Many new areas were developed such as the Vila Olímpica (the residential area for the athletes during the Olympics), and new artificial beaches were built. The Vila Olímpica also became the first residential area built next to the city's coastline, besides the old fishing neighbourhood of Barceloneta. Also, in 1999, the Diagonal Avenue, which previously stopped at Glòries Square, was stretched to the sea and the new Diagonal Mar and Fòrum areas.

According to Antoni Luna, Professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), "The Olympics represent a key moment which changed the image of the entire city. They were a project to which Barcelona has aspired since the 1930s and especially after the end of the dictatorship, considering it an excuse to carry out important infrastructural works". "When Barcelona finally succeeded in hosting the event, the City Council mostly promoted the construction of small buildings and infrastructure. The Olympics had a positive impact: they allowed the creation of a maritime front and artificial beaches", Luna said. "Before the Olympics, there was just a small stretch of beach: the sand and the water were dirty and small restaurants were on the sea front, blocking access to the sea. Prior to 1992, Barcelona was a city with the sea at his back. After the Olympic Games, it became a city which looks towards the sea and which is very attractive for its coasts", he added.

The neighbourhood's revitalisation continues with the 22@ Plan

Poblenou's revitalisation continues with a new plan – called 22@ – aimed at reviving the entire area through the creation of a two-hundred-hectare technological and innovation district, which was definitively approved by Barcelona’s City Council in 2000. The aim was to attract local and international companies, mostly working in the technology and creative sectors, along with the development of residential and leisure zones. After a decade and a half which included seven years of economic crisis, which slowed down the project, the area has already changed significantly. However, the transformation is still in progress and, according to Clarós, has still not reached the results initially expected.

Last spring, the University of Barcelona (UB) launched the first phase of its Humanities and Social Sciences Park in the 22@ district: its project will be located inside the old factories of Can Jaumandreu and Can Ricart The former has already been restored and the latter will be re-converted in the years to come. Furthermore, multinational companies and other universities have also moved to this area of the city, such as UPF with its communication campus in Ca l'Aranyó, and Cisco Systems and Schneider, currently renovating Can Alier's old factory in order to build offices and a research centre. In addition, companies such as Mediapro, RBA, Ogilvy, RTVE, Indra, T-Systems already set up important offices there years ago.

"Here a process of gentrification took place but in a more controlled manner than in other parts of the city, such as Raval for example", Clarós says. "The 22@ plan was done with a certain social conscience and under the control of the neighbourhood associations. It tries to maintain equilibrium and contain speculation. This did not happen with the construction of the Vila Olímpica in 1992, when everything was swept to the ground and built again: then, people were expropriated and relocated in other parts of the city", Clarós concludes.

On the same note, Luna thinks that "eventually Poblenou will become the most appreciated area of the city. At the moment, the former inhabitants live with the changes: the very old ones finally leave, some that owned properties have sold them, making some money. There is not as much social conflict such as in other neighbourhoods like Raval or El Born".

Tourism is increasing in Poblenou

Social conflict in Barcelona's neighbourhoods is linked to a number of factors: the rising price housing units due to gentrification, immigration related-issues and, lately, problems deriving from the booming of the tourist industry such as night-time noise. According to Marta Laurent, founder of Foreverbarcelona.com and a private tour guide in the city since 2000, "Poblenou is still not very affected by the impact of tourism".

"Currently, people who decide to visit the area are mostly interested in industrial and contemporary architecture, or maybe tourism related to cemeteries", she said (the neighbourhood hosts the first cemetery built outside the city's walls, containing many sculptures). Besides "someone may have heard of some restaurants, bars or cafes in the area. At night, young people are attracted by the club Razzmatazz", she highlighted, which is a large-size night club and concert hall. For Luna, "the booming of the tourism sector in Barcelona represents a recent phenomenon, having taken place during the last 4 or 5 years", although the city has always welcomed many tourists. "However, tourism is concentrated in some specific areas of the city while the rest stay quite empty. On the peripheral neighbourhoods, it does not have any impact", he stressed.

According to Clarós, "in Poblenou, tourism is increasing and – especially in the area affected by the 22@ plan – new hotels have been built. However, because of the extension of the neighbourhood, the density of hotel beds is far inferior to that in other parts of the city such as Ciutat Vella". "Tourism landed here with the construction of big hotels, but I think now tourists are beginning to discover this part of the city, especially people interested in urban landscapes and culture", he adds.

"The attractiveness and appeal of the neighbourhood", Clarós says, "lie in a number of things: firstly, its industrial patrimony, made up by some of the factories which in the past constituted the main Catalan industrial hub; secondly, the historical centre, with its two main streets, La Rambla del Poblenou and Carrer de Marià Aguiló; thirdly, the Pere IV street, the oldest in the neighbourhood, linking the city to France and an incredible site for urban archaeology; fourthly, the beaches, representing the most modern area and opening up the city to the sea; and, finally, the artists' workshops which are located in many of the abandoned factories such as the 'Centre for Arts Production and Research Hangar' and the 'Creative Centre La Escocesa'", the  President of the local neighbours' association explains.

For Laurent from Foreverbarcelona.com, tourists should also have a look at: the famous cafeteria 'El Tio Che' where people can taste 'orxata' ('horchata' in Spanish), a traditional beverage made of earth almonds; Casino de l’Aliança, a theatre and traditional meeting place located in the heart of the neighbourhood's historical centre; Can Felipa, a leisure and sports centre that hosts many local associations inside an old factory; and, the Poblenou Cemetery.

Local neighbours' associations strengthened with the beginning of the crisis

According to Clarós, the Poblenou-based associations currently have three main objectives: impeding the densification of the area, maintaining its economic nature and preserving the industrial patrimony that represents the identity of the neighbourhood. Here, as in all of Barcelona, neighbourhood-based associations play a very important role, he stressed.

For Professor Luna, "just after the fall of Franco's dictatorship, local neighbours' associations were very active in Catalonia as, until 1975, political parties were banned". "From 1978 on, these groups helped to design the city but gradually surrendered their share of power in favour of political parties", he explains. "During the 2000s – and especially with the economic crisis – a lack of confidence in institutional politics started spreading and municipal activist groups strengthened again: the most famous case being Ada Colau, now mayor of the city, which shows how – to a certain extent – the spirit of democracy's early years came back", he continues.

Gràcia, San Andreu and Sarrià are some other interesting and little-known neighbourhoods

Besides Poblenou, there are many other interesting and little-known neighbourhoods worth exploring in the Catalan capital. Among them are: Gràcia, San Andreu and Sarrià. Like Poblenou, they initially developed separately from the city. "Originally they were standalone villages, located outside of Barcelona but very close to the city walls. They started growing bigger and bigger especially from the 18th century, when a Spanish Government prohibition imposed a construction ban within 1.5 km of Barcelona's walls", said Luna.

According to Luna, the Catalan capital's development unfolded through three key moments: the first, during the 18th century when the building construction prohibition promoted the growth of these little villages outside the city's walls. The second, in the mid-19th century, with the destruction of the city's walls and the creation of the Eixample grid (literally meaning 'widening' or 'extension' in Catalan, and consisting of wide orthogonal streets interrupted by the Diagonal Avenue) which connected these villages to the city. Finally, at the end of the 19th century up until 1921, all these villages were gradually incorporated into the municipality of Barcelona.

This peculiar historical development allowed each of the city's neighbourhoods to preserve to the present day its own spirit and flavour. From elegant and posh Sarrià in the upper part of Barcelona, to lively Gràcia in the middle, up until San Andreu in the north of the city and Poblenou by the sea, every corner of the Catalan capital has a different and interesting story to tell to the short-term visitor willing to abandon the overcrowded routes of the tourist masses.

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  • Construction work in the 22@ business and technological district, in Poblenou (by ACN)

  • Construction work in the 22@ business and technological district, in Poblenou (by ACN)