2019 Fall External Programs IFSA Ritapa Neogi Spain

Mapping Barcelona: The Story of Ildefons Cerdà

In early August, somewhere between the 405 and the 101, I leafed through pictures of my future apartment. Reading over my new address, I didn’t have much of a reaction. After all, I could barely sound-out my neighborhood’s name.

Now, being placed in Eixample (eye-SHAM-pluh) feels like an aspiring planner’s dream. It isn’t perfect, and it hasn’t aged the way its maker intended. But it’s an interesting place to start learning about Catalonia through an urban studies lens.

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Photograph of a street near my apartment on Consell de Cent. While there is an abundance of trees lining the roads, there’s a noticeable lack of parks in the neighborhood.

With its square grid and octagonal crossings, Eixample is a well-known location in Barcelona’s planning. Its existence stems from the destruction of the city’s constricting medieval walls, which were struck down in 1844. And Eixample’s engineer, Ildefons Cerdà, is a significant part of Catalan history. Despite creating one of the most distinct areas in Barcelona, his name isn’t often heard outside Europe. In fact, throughout the mid-1800’s, he was ridiculed for his progressive ideas.

Cerdà believed that all socioeconomic classes should receive the same services, and that no one should live outside the reach of basic necessities — for example, hospitals and marketplaces. While Spanish architects drafted towns meant to pool affluence in the city center, Cerdà pursued the concept of a diverse metropolis that would destratify existing hierarchies.

In fact, Cerdà coined the term “urbanization” — or, in Spanish, urbanización. This refers to periods of time when large groups of rural workers move to cities, which in turn must adjust to exponential populations. In preparation for his project, Cerdà invested in a dedicated interdisciplinary study, examining how factors like narrow streets could affect mortality rates. He even calculated the volume of air one would need to breathe adequately.

During construction, this should have been addressed through manzanas: blocks built around a courtyard on two or three sides, maximizing sunlight and providing green space in every direction. However, as the neighborhood was established, this was not considered a profitable move. Housing was quickly built upward and out.

Today, walking through Eixample, you witness roomy intersections that guide vehicles through passages once plotted for a railway system. Coffee shops, clubs, bars, and restaurants line each block, surrounding a practical array of corner stores. Everything you could need is available at small, local shops within a 10-15 minute walk. And let’s not forget — Eixample is home to Barcelona’s very own Gayborhood, Gaixample.

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Most flats have verandas and terraces, which residents often decorate with potted plants and flowers. There’s quite a bit of shared space involved. Unlike older neighborhoods, there is room to breathe without sacrificing the convenience of short blocks and dense housing. It’s still a beautiful place to observe the factors that shape livability, albeit bittersweet to imagine what Eixample could’ve been if its original goals were fulfilled.

Cerdà once proposed a radical district that would stretch beyond the ancient borders of the city. Despite procuring little fame throughout his life, Cerdà is renowned by Catalans for developing some of the most revolutionary concepts of his time. If you ever want to commemorate his achievements, you can always stop by his railway station namesake!

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