Barcelona, Spain

by Alex Walker and Bernardo Porraz


Barcelona, for legal reasons unable to expand beyond its medieval walls, became an intensely overcrowded city during the 19th century. After these restrictions were lifted, the old city gradually became an industrial district with many slums. During the 20th century, three major expansion bursts occurred in Barcelona:

The 1929 world exhibition brought about an urban boom, with an influx of immigrants without commensurate housing provision, leading to the creation of shanties around the town.

Industrialization from 1945 onwards created a new industrial ring around the town and drew a new wave of immigrants. Large quantities of poor-quality housing were built that rapidly developed into slums.

The 1970s saw a third ring of industrial and housing development at a metropolitan scale.

In Barcelona, there is no formal definition of a slum, as such areas ceased to formally exist. Nevertheless, there are areas in the city with higher indices of social inequality and there are marginalized people; but both are dispersed throughout the city and there are no ghettos as such.

There have been slums in the old city of Barcelona in one form or another for centuries, but the development of slum conditions with the typical degraded housing, lack of services and concentrations of social inequality in the old city date from the mid 19th-century expansion of the city, and the consequent out-migration of the high-income population from this area.

The shantytowns, which no longer exist, date from the rapid growth of the city’s population during the 20th century, which was not accompanied by an adequate growth in housing. They largely concerned self-built structures without urban services, in areas of wasteland around the then edges of the city.

The slum conditions in some of the new multifamily blocks built from the 1950s onwards resulted from attempts to re-house the shantytown dwellers, but without dealing with essential problems relating to their social exclusion, and, furthermore, by breaking up communities and mixing people from different communities in the same blocks. At present, there are temporary gypsy encampments in areas of waste ground in and around the city. The inhabitants live in lorries and the settlements lack all formal urban services. These encampments are of a recurrent and temporary nature.

Although there are no longer believed to be slum areas or ghettos as such in Barcelona, there are areas with higher concentrations of marginalized people. The whole of the old city, and a large part of the periphery, is considered to be – if not a slum – at best, a disagreeable area, with a few exceptions of neighbourhoods that have been gentrified. A significantly high proportion of the inhabitants of marginal areas are tenants (some 80 per cent), although reliable figures do not exist. Subletting is extremely common; especially in the marginal areas, the majority of tenants lack a written contract and have limited rights in the face of unscrupulous landlords. Tenancy with formal contract constitutes 26.5 per cent, while informal contracts constitute 47 per cent of the tenants in marginal areas.

Although Barcelona has lost population since the 1970s, it has not ceased to be an important destination for immigrants from other parts of Spain and, more recently, from overseas, mainly Latin America and North Africa. The populations of the different areas with slum housing share certain basic characteristics: low average incomes and relatively low levels of education. However, the populations of the different areas vary in a number of respects with regard to other indicators. Despite economic growth since the 1960s, the conditions in the slum areas improved very little until after the transition to democracy during the mid 1970s when, gradually, policies were introduced that were aimed at addressing the physical and social problems of the city. The following decades witnessed the eradication of all shantytowns, improvements in living conditions in the housing blocks, and, from the end of the 1980s, important improvements in many areas of the old city. Barcelona’s municipal interventions have been instrumental in improving physical and socio-economic conditions in many (former) slum areas. Key to these successes were the combination of wholesale urban renewal programmes in specific areas, combined with major social components aimed at combating poverty. In general terms, public institutions (central, regional and local level) tended to deal with the major urban redevelopments, while NGOs worked at the individual household or community levels. Policy commitment, careful planning, coordination among agencies and participation of affected groups determined the success of the interventions.

The policies that are still underway and that are planned for the future, although often contentious in a number of ways, continue to have important effects in
improving living conditions and reducing poverty.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.
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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh