Barcelona is known around the world today as a city of design. Its urban grid, buildings, parks, squares, streets, benches, street lighting, traffic lights, and even trash receptacles are objects of design. In the last few years, however, and especially since the onslaught of Covid-19, large swaths of brightly coloured paint have started to appear on Barcelona’s asphalt, often in conjunction with traffic elements such as jersey barriers, bollards, traffic cones, and construction fences. The intention, as in many other cities, is to enable physical distancing in public urban space while at the same time reducing motor traffic, thereby encouraging greener urban mobility options such as walking or cycling. Barcelona not only has the highest population density in Europe, but also the highest motor traffic density, with all the noise and air pollution that this entails. “The attrition of automobiles”, as Jane Jacobs prescribed in her 1961 book, is exactly the idea behind all the paint and barriers, and the way planners have decided to go about it is quickly, using readily available elements that can —in theory— be readily undone or redone if need be. “Tactical urbanism”, as this modus operandi has come to be referred to, is essentially “pop-up” urbanism: quick, cheap, and temporary.
But temporary until when? How long until the city gets around to implementing these changes permanently, with solid, long-lasting materials that don’t fade, crumple, or wear out? That is the theory, but based on recent experience, practice could be something completely different. Some of Barcelona’s pop-up urbanist interventions are already showing wear and tear, and much of the paint applied in groovy, colourful super-graphics reminiscent of Archigram is already fading, leading me to fear that these temporary interventions could be here for years to come. They’re tolerable as long as they’re temporary, but hideous if allowed to age. There has to be a plan to make them permanent and yes, beautiful, however you want to define that. Otherwise, growing political opposition to them may eventually lead to their undoing; a reversal to the way things were before.
Most citizens of Barcelona don’t actually object to the creation of more sidewalk space at the expense of traffic flow, for the simple reason that most don’t drive much, if at all. Going for leisurely walks and sitting at a sidewalk café is a favourite pastime here, so if done with some care, there is widespread support for traffic reduction. The only opposition is from a minority of motorcycle wingnuts who want to be able to noisily ride the streets at breakneck speed, and from suburbanites who feel it is their God-given right to drive an SUV into the middle of the city (disclaimer: I own a compact automobile).
It is the seemingly non-designed, improvised and haphazard aesthetic of tactical urbanism that has people upset; not its aims. Brightly painted surfaces with clunky concrete jersey barriers or flimsy plastic bollards just isn’t most people’s cup of tea. This is a city with more architects, interior designers, and fashionistas than you can shake a stick at, and many are voicing criticism of how unsightly Barcelona’s streets have become. Yes, unbelievably, architects and “the people” are united in their aesthetic sensibility for once!
The other issue, leaving aesthetics aside for a moment, is the absurdity of some of the interventions. What is the point of widening a sidewalk by less than a meter with kilometers of plastic bollards while bicycle lanes remain absent, thus leading to confusion over whom this narrow space is actually for? Nothing has been done to calm Barcelona’s busiest car sewers, many of which, after years of promises, still have no bike lanes. Makes you wonder about the criteria employed in determining where to intervene. Lottery? Pulling straws? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?
Meanwhile, Barcelona has other streets that have recently been permanently improved without addressing problems such as unusually narrow sidewalks that can’t handle pedestrian demand and abnormally high kerbs that make them impossible to navigate in a wheelchair. Once a permanent “improvement” like new black top is decided upon by city hall, isn’t that the moment to redress a long-standing deficiency? Not very tactical, let alone intelligent.
The poblem, then, is not tactical urbanism per se. It’s when tactical interventions that don’t work are not corrected, or when permanent interventions do absolutely nothing in the way of improvement, thereby wasting a perfect opportunity. It is this that has me worried: if the city is incapable of making a half-decent permanent improvement to a narrow, short and busy commercial street, maybe all those tactical, supposedly trial-and-error interventions are not in fact temporary, but permanent. That’s the scariest scenario as far as I’m concerned.