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Catalonia’s future coast in the hands of the government, builders, and society

Three urban development plans to review and regulate housing projects

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15 January 2022 07:22 PM

by

Gerard Escaich Folch | Barcelona

The Catalan coast stretches up to 580 km from the French border in the north to the River Sènia in the south. From beaches to islands and forests, the coast is one of the reasons Catalonia is so well known internationally.

Tourists come every year to enjoy the sun and the sea, to visit museums and natural protected areas along the coastline.

And it is not only tourists who get to enjoy the Catalan shore. According to data from the government, there are 3,338,285 inhabitants along the coast, representing 15.5 inhabitants per hectare; compared to inland Catalonia with 4,442,194 and a ratio of 1.5 people per hectare.

Coastal Catalonia has several areas with suburban communities, cities, nature, or even nothing at all. And the government is now deciding on the future of these zones, whether they should remain undeveloped or become new housing areas.

To do so, the Catalan executive is implementing several "Plans Directors Urbanístics," urban development plans, along the coast.

"The urban development plan is a tool to rethink planning, and is the highest rank of urban planning decision-making in Catalonia," Agustí Serra, Catalonia’s Urban Planning director-general tells Catalan News.

A decision in one of these urban development plans is final as it will overrule any other plans designed by local councils.

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Three urban development plans along Catalan coast

Since January 2021, one of the plans is already in effect. It affects the Costa Brava coastline, stretching from Blanes up to the border with France. It stopped the construction of up to 15,000 houses.

Meanwhile, the executive is currently preparing a new urban development plan from Malgrat de Mar, in Manresa, to Alcanar in the very south part of Catalonia. In this case, authorities are expecting to stop the construction of around 110,000 homes.

A third plan is expected to affect only the Barcelona metropolitan area although "everything is more than consolidated so there is not much to review," the Urban Planning director-general says.

Urban development plans are mainly focused on sustainable development as current decisions will have a strong impact on the future of Catalonia.

"We want to preserve the beauty and the nature of Costa Brava. You think globally, you act locally. Climate change affects us all," Dirk Ewers from International Friends of the Costa Brava tells Catalan News.

Agustí Serra explains that recycling is a really important part of these urban development plans.

"We believe that we have to recycle, especially urban recycling to improve the quality of people’s lives and of urban areas," the director-general said, adding that society has to take "advantage of everything already built to avoid building more things as much as possible."

Recycling affecting local workers

As opposed to what Serra believes, the recycling he mentions is affecting local workers such as "suburban communities promoters, constructors, carpenters, metal workers," Daniel Gracia, manager at Torres Gracia Constructions tells Catalan News.

His business is based in the center of Sitges and is specialized in the construction of suburban communities but it has been hugely affected by the new urban development plan.

"We already had plans to construct 16 single-family houses," explains Gracia.

Sitges is one of many seaside towns in Catalonia. It is only a short 30-minute ride from Barcelona.

Internationally it is well known in the LGBT community and it hosts one of the most famous film festivals and carnival parades in Catalonia.

Along with 40 other towns and cities, Sitges is waiting on a decision by the Catalan government regarding their urban development planning options. There are 13 areas in the city under review.

Some zones "could be developed," Eduard Terrado, councilor for urban planning, tells Catalan News, adding that it "would completely ruin the coastal landscape."

In order to avoid any further development, the government announced the urban development plans along with the suspension of construction licenses in the areas under review to prevent rushing new constructions.

Between Malgrat de Mar and Alcanar, these restrictions came into effect in September 2021. They are supposed to be in place "for a year," Gracia says, although it could be extended as the goal is to have the urban development plan ready by "mid-2023," Agustí Serra told Catalan News.

Opposition to urban development

Visitors to Costa Brava "see little by little how parts of nature are being destroyed, pine forests that used to be at the coast, now everything is being paved," Dirk Ewers, a German-American living in Platja d’Aro, warns.

He leads the group International Friends of Costa Brava, part of SOS Costa Brava, a civil ecological organization that has opposed urban development along Catalonia’s north coast for almost four years.

Residents might imagine that the government has acted after concentrations led by the ecologist group, but Agustí Serra disputes that.

"SOS Costa Brava was created after all these urban development plans had started," Serra explained to Catalan News. It is in fact, "the most revindicating voice," he acknowledges, and celebrates society uniting in associations such as this one.

"We have always tried to listen to them," says Serra but these urban development plans are not in response to environmentalists.

Tourism, a curse starting everything?

Spain did not see a lot of national or international tourism until the late 1960s. Until then, the coastal landscape in Catalonia was still wild with forests and not a lot of suburban communities.

But as people traveled more often, areas started developing to host all those visitors. As an example, Begur, a town in Costa Brava, today has up to 40,000 inhabitants during the summer season, while during the off-season it has just 4,000 residents.

Sitges saw an "excessive growth" with a lot of "urban development" during the last years of the 20th century, Eduard Terrado says. Especially in "areas that distort the landscape," he adds.

To protect these natural areas after years of development, Spain’s government passed a coastal law in 1988 forbidding any construction within 100 meters of the sea. After these 100 meters, the building of hotels, homes, restaurants, or any facility was permitted.

Now, years later, the Catalan government is reviewing all areas inside the first 500 meters from the sea.

Catalonia’s future shores

With the urban development plans, the government wants to stop a trend of damaging natural environments.

The areas affected are currently under review "regarding current sustainability criteria," Terrado says.

The local council in Sitges is, with the appeals of residents, coordinating with the Catalan government to study on a case by case basis the development of some zones. They consider that some "areas are already part of the urban zone, so it does not make any sense to change the areas to protected spaces," Sitges’ urban planning counselor says.

Some others, however, are part of the natural reserve "Parc del Garraf, and we believe we have to try to preserve it as much as possible," Terrado adds.

The Catalan government, however, is using the urban development plans as a first step. It is only one of the many actions the executive has taken, as Agustí Serra tells Catalan News.

Down the line, there will have to be some form of "restitution" to preserve the environment for future generations.

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  • Area in Sitges under review in the Urban Development Plan, January 12, 2022 (by Gerard Escaich Folch)

  • Area in Sitges under review in the Urban Development Plan, January 12, 2022 (by Gerard Escaich Folch)

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