Gentrification: the case of the Poblenou district in Barcelona

Backside of the former factory of Can Ricart, next to where initiative is located nowadays.

Backside of the former factory of Can Ricart, next to where initiative is located nowadays.


– In the Wikipedia it is defined as: “… any facet of urban renewal that inevitably leads to displacement of the occupying demographic. This is a common and widespread controversial topic and term in urban planning. It refers to shifts in an urban community lifestyle and an increasing share of wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values”.

– According to the Cambridge dictionary, to gentrify means: “To change a place from Being a poor area to a richer one, by people of a higher social class moving to live there”.

A "smart" building through the window of an abandoned building

A “smart” building through the window of an abandoned building


Taking into account the other definitions found on the Internet (the links can be found below), two fundamental conditions must come together to bring up this phenomenon. The specific area had to be previously inhabited by lower income population, becoming a so-called depressed area or slum (for whatever reason) and had experienced some changes due to the arrival of higher income population, displacing the original inhabitants. Therefore, it does not apply to areas which, although fashionable, always have had an upper-middle class population or, conversely, to the neighbourhoods that have undergone certain changes without that meant the displacement of its original population.

This process of urban morphology usually appears when an impoverished neighbourhood is located in a space with a clear economic potential, either by proximity to tourist sites, for being absorbed by the city growth and/or for having cheap land with speculating possibilities. All three cases arise in the Poblenou district. From an economic point of view, this process is a total win-win for those agents who have interests in the area. Companies are established on lands acquired at a good price and these areas get also re-populated by the young people with medium-high purchasing power that are working in those same companies.

Moreover, this trend is reinforced through art or design initiatives that attract bohemian groups such as artists, which in turn change the image of the neighbourhood. This flow makes the housing prices rise and foster the proliferation of businesses targeting this public, being usually more exclusive (either by designing, price or offer) and displacing the small existing local trade and forcing the former inhabitants to leave the area. This is a basic process of the free market by which an area is allowed to lose value, being then revalued by changing its productive activity, generally converted to services or financial sector.

From a global point of view, Berlin is probably the first city that comes to one’s mind if we are talking about gentrification (they have even launched a campaign about which states: “Berlin doesn’t love you”:, although we can find examples in every big city, beginning with the New York’s Green Village, the birthplace of hipster culture that has already become one of the 10 most expensive neighbourhoods in the US according to Forbes. From a local point of view, Spain has other clear examples as Lavapies in Madrid or El Cabañal in Valencia.

Truck on the Pere IV avenue

Truck on the Pere IV avenue


By coincidences, the first time I came to Barcelona I stayed in the Poblenou district for two weeks. From the beginning, it caught my attention because it was not consistent with the idea that one could have from a Barcelona’s waterfront neighbourhood. Perhaps for that reason I really liked it. Besides being next to the sea, there was a quiet atmosphere almost village-like, with local bars and empty streets. The entire crowd was concentrated on the main avenue “La Rambla de Poblenou”. That was in the lower part of the neighbourhood, full of petrol station, some old factories, recording studios, the cemetery and, bordering with the Olympic Village, the women’s prison.

Those two weeks I devoted myself to walk obsessively by the surrounding streets, discovering an amazing cityscape in every other route. Meanwhile, I was gathering more data about the industrial past of the area from the local bars’ clients and neighbours. It was hard for me to understand the lack of activity in the heart of the district and witness those empty streets in a city as densely populated as Barcelona, either by a shortage of both housing and business. But what really fascinated me was the mix of degradation and modernity, sometimes only separated by a small brick wall. Just with the street Pere IV there is material for a thesis and I am not kidding: ( This street is one of the few in the neighbourhood that defies the perfect grid planned by Ildefons Cerdá, crossing it in diagonal. Having been the old road to France it has acquired a special protection character. In their crosses and interior passageways connecting parallel streets (which used to separate the factories from the workers’ houses on the same block) opened during the industrial era, you can find the most authentic parts of the district.

To get an overall idea of the neighbourhood to those who are not familiar with it, these are some of the elements that you can see today taking a walk around the place: whole blocks occupied by factories and warehouses; many petrol stations and repair shops; empty plots, usually covered by a wall of bricks or metal fences decorated with graffiti’s; old office buildings with fire escapes on the facade (which is quite an unusual image in Spain); and the Razzmataz building (one of the biggest clubs in Barcelona). But also: luxury hotels like the Holiday Inn, modern hostels like the TwentyTú or huge student’s dormitories as the Melon District; impossible buildings such as the Media TIC (ICT) or the CMT; art Galleries; design studios; trendy vegan restaurants, eco-stores and fair-trade boutiques; people with check shirts and horn-rimmed glasses; old commercial premises converted into vintage cocktail bars; multicoloured fruit shops; and the emblem of the area’s development, the Agbar tower.

Old industrial building renovated

Old industrial building renovated


To understand the profound changes of Poblenou during the recent years, we must go back to the late nineteenth century, when one of the most important industrial areas of Spain emerged there. There are many online resources that explain this development in detail (some of them linked below) so I will just describe it chronologically:

– In 1860, Ildefons Cerdà proposed a widening plan for the city. Once approved, it gives life to the grid-shaped structure that spans much of Barcelona. From 1897 on, the city absorbed most of the neighbouring municipalities in a process that lasted until 1921, including the current Poblenou, which belonged to the municipality of Sant Martí de Provençals.

– From the late eighteenth century and especially in the early nineteenth century a strong industry was developed in the area. That implies a great demand for workers, attracting a lot of people from other Spanish regions who moved to Barcelona to be employed in these factories. The growth was so large that the area became known as the “Catalan Manchester”.

– At the beginning, the established industry was mainly textile, but from the twentieth century, it started to be more diversified in areas such as metallurgy or automotive.

-The decline of the area began after 1960, when other areas of cheaper industrial land appeared, such as the “Zona Franca” that nowadays hosts most of the Catalonia’s heavy industry.

– Since that time, there was a progressive deindustrialisation. Therefore, a big amount of lots were released. Even so, in the following years there was a slight reoccupation of the area, especially by transport companies and to a lesser extent, by workshops and warehouses. Some of them remain active until today.

– Since the 60s, the city council tried to implement several urban development plans in the area such as “El Plan Ribera” (1966) or its evolution “Sector Marítimo Oriental” (1971), but both were held back by their clearly speculative intentions. Fostered from large companies, they were planning to build a complex of luxury residences on the coastline. These plans are very important to understand that the potential of the area has been in the spotlight of the tycoons for over half a century.

– In 1986, Barcelona learned that they were going to host the 1992 Olympics. On account of its organization, dozens of commercial facilities as well as streets and industrial spaces were demolished. It started in 1988 and affected mostly the area of “Villa Olímpica” (Olympic Village), in the southern part of Poblenou, where the residences for the athletes were located during the event.

– In the year 2000, the city council launched the initiative 22@District, which planned a complete conversion of Poblenou, devoting its large amount of industrial land to productive activities related to new technologies, innovation and knowledge. Specifically, these activities were divided into five strategic sectors: Media, ICT, Energy, Design and Medical Technologies. In turn, the plan specified that these areas act as benchmarks and stimulate the renewal of the rest of the territory by the private sector. In 2006, a parallel special protection plan for Poblenou’s Industrial Heritage Conservation was adopted including a total of 114 elements in its policy.

– The general plan was scheduled to last 10 year. However, since 2007 the implementation of the 22@District project has been declining due to the economic crisis and some companies have decided to go farther afield in search of cheaper rents. Another example of this regression are the common cases of whole block of building purchased by large developers that, after the demolition of its old factories, cannot find a buyer remaining abandoned because, due to the rise in land, enterprises have lost profitability.

– Then, in 2004, the Forum of Cultures was celebrated in Barcelona. It was international event intended as an intercultural dialogue that fosters sustainable development, the conditions for peace and cultural diversity, but it also served to change the urban landscape of hundreds of hectares with a huge urban operation in the area of Diagonal Mar, in the northern part of Poblenou District.

– In recent years there have been new initiatives to further modernize the area, as the Poblenou Urban District, an association formed in mid-2012 by a group of companies from the creative sector who joined with the aim of promoting cultural, commercial and business, and raise the district as the new centre of art and creativity in Barcelona. Another major project for the future is the Smart City Campus, an initiative that, as the pompous terminology of marketing aims, wants to attract talent and turn Barcelona into a Smart City. In other words, several companies will move their research departments to an old abandoned factory in Poblenou.

Hipsters know why...

Hipsters know why…


As I said before, to revalue a particular area first it has to be devalued. The process of gentrification is based on the difference between the value at a specific time and its true potential value. In the Poblenou case, the area suffered a progressive deterioration due to the relocation of industry. Obviously, its strategic location near the beach and within walking distance of the center had not changed.

Its centrality even improved, at least theoretically, considering the renewal of the coastline and the implementation of public transport, making the area even more accessible. Although, as claimed by several articles, the strong neighbourhood identity forged in labour struggles for a century, became even stronger at that time, maintaining a barrier between Poblenou and Barcelona.

Its centrality even improved, at least theoretically, considering the renewal of the coastline and the implementation of public transport, making the area even more accessible. Although, as claimed by several articles, the strong neighbourhood identity forged in labour struggles for a century, became even stronger at that time, maintaining a barrier between Poblenou and Barcelona. Initially, it was physical barrier, separating the district to the city centre by the rail tracks (they were dismantling in 1987), but then also a psychological barrier remained, intensifying the neighbourhood movement.

There is no denying that these successive transformations through the years have brought some clear benefits to the area as its connection to the centre, improved cleanliness, creation of jobs and, why not, a particular cityscape in a district that was clearly in decline. The industry in the area was outdated, annoying and harmful, in some cases pertaining to economic sectors in decline and whose ability to create new jobs and contribute to the economic growth of the city was very limited.

In addition to the abandoned industrial buildings, some areas still kept the last remnants of shanty towns resulting from the industrial era until they were completely eradicated in the forced face-lift for the 1992 Olympics. Some of these slum areas had become troubled neighbourhoods, which had provoked the indignation of neighbourhood associations which, despite these outbreaks of violence, were held together around its working class feeling.

To be fair, we cannot blame all the district changes to dark property speculation operations, although they have occurred. According to Wikipedia, the 22@District plan had created 56,000 jobs since 2001, doubling the number of shops in the area. It also says that since 2001 the 22@ area has increased by 22.8% its population, growing from 73.464 to 90.214 people.

However, major protests to the latest plans, such as 22@ come more from how things were done rather than from what has been done. Agreeing on the need for a renewal of the neighbourhood, many groups speak of an excessive conditioning in design and elitist aesthetic criteria, as well as the insensitivity that transformations have had with local populations. This leads directly to the concept of gentrification.

Another particular aspect of the plan 22@ which has been widely criticized is that, despite the improvement on some services, other promises as a major public housing stock and new equipment still have not materialized. In fact, a study conducted by a real estate revealed an increase of 86 percent in housing prices between 1997 and 2002 in the Poblenou district surpassing the average of Barcelona by several points. Even the City Council seems to have lost power against the businessman when they recognized the failure of 53% of the last Catalan Housing Plan (Plan de la Vivienda Catalán, 1998-2001) which regulates the construction of council flats. There is no doubt that the approach, timing and control of external agents could have been managed better.

Another aspect that should be taken into considerations is the fact that during the 80s the neighbourhood began to host numerous groups of artists, attracted by low prices and large industrial spaces. One of these pioneering artists was Pierre Roca, who already in the mid-80s, tried to create the first creative space in Palo Alto, a former tanning factory, which today is back in fashion. The project failed, but another designer and friend of him was installed in his place, Javier Mariscal. There, he would create legendary cartoon characters such as Cobi, the mascot of the 92′ Olympic Games, or Goya’s (Spanish equivalent of the British BAFTAs) winning films as Chico & Rita.

This trend was expanded and more painters, sculptors and designers settled in the area as well as other bohemians groups who were attracted by the affordable prices, the abandoned factories, the old offices (perfect to build a loft) and the decadent atmosphere. It was a perfect place to let the imagination fly. In addition, the area became a reference in nightlife, especially among the streets in between Marina and Bogatell metro stations, where many rock music bars were concentrated, some of them as known as L’Ovella Negra. This is not entirely accidental, since some of the major recording studios in the country had their headquarters there.

Still, the district suffered a great depreciation at that time, as shown by its population data that fall from 62,000 inhabitants in 1970 to 42,000 in 1986, being its lower peak since before the industrial era. Since then, the population has increased again to reach 87,000 in 2012, the last data I could find.

In recent years, the high concentration of people with limited resources in some of the empty buildings has been another element of the district’s destabilization, also quite uncomfortable for its facelift. According to some of the articles linked below, they are usually people of sub-Saharan, Romanian and Galician-Portuguese origin that survives accumulating junk and cardboard for resale to recycling companies such product or hawking.

Many of these people were legally working in the era of the real estate boom, but lost their jobs with the advent of the economic crisis, having no enough resources to afford a rent. However, the positive aspect is that most of the neighbourhood associations have tried to support them during the frequent evictions that had taken place in the area lately. Another controversial aspect less understood by the neighbours is that, following the occupation of abandoned factories in this case by squatter groups, “rave parties” have been regularly organized in spaces near to their homes, causing inconvenience related to noise and dirtiness.

the different sides of Gentrification

The different sides of Gentrification


As I have tried to show so far, the idiosyncrasies of the neighbourhood movements of Poblenou are definitely not passive, being used to fight for their rights from the labour unions period, in the early 20s to the neighbourhood associations, in the end of the century. To all of this we must add the artist collectives that have contributed to the development of the district.

Therefore, and I will finally get to my final conclusion, much of the metamorphosis was achieved even with these lobbies against, or at least not in favour. Modernization is not bad in itself, if changes are made to the people who live in a place, rather than for those who “should” live there. After several attempts to conquer the area by the promoters, (crunching numbers not precisely about quality of life and integration), the change had to be done by the working class. Maybe working in better departments now, but still working class.

Throughout the creation of financial and research centres as well as universities, value is added to the neighbourhood, attracting a wealthy middle class. Then, the process of gentrification does the rest, achieving the promoters objective in a much more subtle and gentle way.

By this, I do not want to blame the neighbours or the thousands of young people working in the district of the rising prices. It is a totally normal flow, and if these young people can also party, going to dinner or take a frappuccino in a square without leaving the neighbourhood, they will do it all the same. These behaviours promote gentrification, but individually no one does it in bad faith, therein lies its strength.

What I want to point out is how clever the process is and yet, how hard it is to stop it. Gentrification is a perfect mechanism for those who have economic interests in the area because instead of huge cranes, the visible face is made of trendy cafes and exotic restaurants. Indeed, it makes the place aesthetically nicer, while excluding the sector of the population that is no longer useful in an almost invisible way.

Furthermore, to make the matter even more complicated, these young tech workers, artists and bohemians are, in many cases, opinion leaders, and the most active groups in the network. This gives them an enormous power from the point of view of consumption, influencing other sections of the population.

On the one hand, we have talented young people that want to enjoy a modern district and may pay an extra cost for more selected services. On the other, people who have lived throughout its entire lifetime in the neighbourhood with difficulties for paying the rent or, in extreme cases, threatened of demolishing their houses to build a boulevard.

Many people may think that this entire article does not make sense because these urban changes are natural, especially considering the benefits and possibilities that a city as popular among tourists as Barcelona can offer. They will be right, but only given the neoliberal scenario in which we find ourselves, where everything is justified if it can be quantified in terms of money and generates profits.

And finally, I have not spoken at any time of the sentimental aspect of the matter, which I consider is perhaps the most important of them all. It may happen that many elderly people who maybe had worked at one of the extinguished factories, and since then have seen grow two generations at the same place, can be displaced nowadays when the neighbourhood is finally acquiring the services claimed for years. However, this sentimental aspect cannot be measured in Euros. Therefore, I am afraid that, given the circumstances, no one will even consider this perspective.



















For sale:







New productive model:







Modern architecture:














Urban anthropology:


Journal articles:




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