2019 Fall External Programs IFSA Ritapa Neogi Spain

Barcelona and the Power of Public Spaces

The plaza organizes the city. It is a place of encounter, the living room of the city, where debate and civic thought develop.

Fernando Carrion

Just last weekend was La Mercè, the biggest local holiday of the year, and I felt the need to locate each and every plaza in Barcelona. From attending free indie-rock concerts at Plaça de Joan Coromines to circling Plaça D’Antoni Maura during a correfoc (“fire run”), there’s so much to do in these pockets of urban life scattered throughout the city. Living here, it feels like I’m constantly hopping from square to square.

On Saturday night, as I wandered down Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes looking for Carlos Sadness, a flood of teenagers began to cluster around Plaça d’Espanya. In the midst of the crowd, the landmark’s iconic star-shaped convergence became clearer, enclosed by restaurants, bars, towering pillars, and a bustling Metro station. Groups of people sat down around the concert, freely swaying to the music and chatting over drinks. Thinking of Portland’s smaller, quieter Pioneer Square, I began to wonder how the plaza became so vital to urban planning, especially in Europe.

Plazas as Sites for Socialization

Plazas today serve much the same purpose as they did hundreds of years ago. In Barcelona, the busiest roads of the city intersect Plaça de Catalunya, where there continues to be a constant flow of pedestrians. Throughout other parts of the country, plaza mayores (“main squares”) mark the location of town halls and festivals.

They’re a captivating characteristic of Spain’s various metropolitan areas. No matter if you’re in Madrid, Salamanca, or Seville, the plaza holds the same amount of importance as the marketplace. Spanish culture is inherently social, and Spain’s abundance of public spaces is a visual manifestation of that quality.

Plazas as Environmentally-Conscious Decisions

Here in Catalonia, where squares are already abundant, Barcelona’s planners are attempting to implement more public spaces with the creation of superblocks (superilles in Catalan, superillas in Spanish). The idea is to reduce pollution as quickly as possible. This has been completed in one neighborhood so far: Poblenou. A former intersection for traffic was transformed into a plaza, allowing Barcelonans to walk in the middle of the road. While most backlash against superblocks comes from owners of businesses, Poblenou has enjoyed higher property values, like communities that have undergone similar projects — i.e. El Born and Gràcia.

It’s interesting to imagine the kind of uproar this would cause in American cities. From what I’ve heard, Philadelphia’s public meetings on bike lanes can draw angry attendees demanding utmost protection for cars. However, the need for sustainable planning is growing. The conservation of historical plazas and the construction of new ones shows Barcelona’s commitment to both environmental consciousness and the production of thriving public spaces.

Plazas as Points of Reference

Over time, I’ve become accustomed to using Barcelona’s plazas as geographic points of reference. There are several Metro stations named after them; for example, Catalunya and Espanya. In fact, both mark large, bustling sites used for transferring lines on the subway, so they’re points of reference for any public transport user.

Running into a plaza in Barcelona can tell you as much about where you are as spotting iconic places like City Hall in Philadelphia. It’s a convenient place to duck under a tree and check Google Maps, but you probably won’t need to. Plazas help make a mental map of each neighborhood, especially because they often host popular bars and restaurants.

Gegants dancing in Plaça d’Espanya on the National Day of Catalonia.

Thinking about plazas has forced me to compare areas of public space between Barcelona and the American cities I’ve lived in. While squares are more common here, Philadelphia does possess an incredible number of parks. Like plazas, parks can symbolize gathering spots for socialization, environmental conservation, and geographic landmarks. It’s fascinating to consider the varying forms public spaces take on in different parts of the world, and I’m excited to see how I’ll continue to interact with these plazas as I grow to understand this city better.

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