2019 Fall External Programs IFSA Ritapa Neogi Spain

Not Just Beaches and Tapas: Urban Issues in Barcelona

Since hosting the Olympic Games in 1992, Barcelona has built a glamorous reputation, boasting its standout cuisine, thriving nightlife, warm weather, and clean, beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean. It’s now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

It’s also a place that 5.5 million residents call home. Regarding Barcelona as a mere tourist destination detaches it from the real, pressing issues it faces. There are too many students who complain about protests over the independence movement, or the cultural implications of speaking Spanish instead of Catalan.

It’s important to understand the history, politics, and current events of the region you’re staying in, so that situations like these aren’t a shock. Knowing the state of your host city gives you more insight into the landscape and culture around you. And 99.9% of the time, it’s simply a good thing to be aware of your surroundings.

So what are the problems Barcelona is facing right now?

Tossa de Mar, an hour and a half outside Barcelona by bus.

1. Domestic Violence

Domestic abuse isn’t just a problem in Barcelona: it’s a major social issue all over the country. According to the General Council of the Judiciary, 158,217 women suffered domestic violence by men in 2017 alone. Only 23.7 million women were recorded living in Spain that year.

Throughout the Franco dictatorship, women were unable to vote, work certain jobs, and open bank accounts without written permission from a husband or father. In 1975, after Franco’s death, sociopolitical attitudes shifted dramatically, reflected in progressive laws and leaders.

However, there is still the subtle tone of inequality under the surface of Spanish society. There has been a strong, ongoing movement against this, but it has been rivaled by the rise of Vox, a far-right party that claimed legislation against domestic violence needs to be restricted.

2. Political Polarization

If you’ve been following the Catalan independence movement, it’s not news that Catalonia is divided. Support for independence has fallen in the past few years, but there still exists an even split between separatists and anti-separatists. This has caused a recent wave of tension in Barcelona, where public transport and roads have been overtaken by dissent at unpredictable intervals.

Meanwhile, Vox has garnered traction from the heated debate, capitalizing on nationwide disapproval towards Catalan independence. Fiesta Nacional de España, a holiday sponsored by the Spanish government and military, brought forth crowds of Neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Barcelona.

Though they represent a fringe group, there are no national laws banning white supremacist demonstrations, even when affiliated symbols are displayed. And in the election that took place earlier this month, Vox became the third-strongest force in Congress, jumping from 24 to 52 seats.

3. Scarcity of Green Space

Barcelona does have an impressive system of urban forestry, which is commendable. However, its parks are sparse, inaccessible, and often found on the outskirts of town. Most neighborhoods are built up to an extreme, hardly allowing for street trees, thanks to historical Romanesque planning.

Then there’s the case of Park Güell, a formerly public park that turned gated and private with the rise of tourism in the area. Now, only locals with a permanent Gràcia address can visit for free — with an ID they must obtain through an application. But if you reside in a different part of Barcelona? Unfortunately, you still have to pay the entry fee.

View from the highest point in Barcelona, Tibidabo.

4. Pollution

Barcelona’s physical geography poses a problem for its environmental well-being. It is trapped between the mountains and sea, and the location’s lack of wind doesn’t help.

The majority of Barcelonans are subject to levels of particulate matter far above those recommended by the World Health Organization. This puts them at a higher risk of asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory conditions. If Barcelona adjusted to work with WHO recommendations, they could raise average life expectancy by 14 months and reduce annual hospitalizations for cardio-respiratory diseases by 1,800.

Fortunately, the Ajuntament is taking immediate action to do just that. Superilles, or superblocks, are just one of the moves being made to acknowledge the effect of car-based planning, and the idea has been mimicked internationally. Diesel vehicles manufactured before 2006 have been banned, and motorcyclists will face similar legislation starting 2021. The best part is that anyone who offers up an old car to a scrapyard receives a free three-year transit pass.

FGC train in the municipality of Sant Boi de Llobregat.

5. Drug Abuse

Drug abuse is not an uncommon phenomena in urban centers. Compared to American metropolitan areas, Barcelona’s version of the story is entangled with segregation and immigration.

El Raval is a notorious neighborhood because of its proximity to La Rambla, a famous landmark. It’s home to many narcopisosdrug flats — but it’s changing, and the government has taken action in revamping the area since the early 90’s.

There is also La Mina, located slightly outside Barcelona, in the municipality of Sant Adrià de Besòs. It’s known for its large population of Romani people, a historically marginalized group of migrants from North India. Though Spain possesses a higher social mobility than the United States, it takes an estimated four generations for a low-income family to earn the nation’s average salary.

As a result of dedicated community efforts, both areas are improving in safety, though El Raval faces an ongoing battle with gentrification, encouraged by its closeness to tourist attractions.

A beautiful evening at Búnkers del Carmel, at the top of Turó de la Rovira in the Carmel neighborhood.

Barcelona deals with a multitude of local challenges that are as important to learn about as any museum or work of Gaudí. Different neighborhoods have their own individual problems: in the Ciutat Vella district, you might be more worried about tourism than in Sarrià-Sant Gervasi. Walking a daily commute in Gràcia or El Raval, you’ll be knowledgeable about squatter houses compared to someone from L’Antiga Esquerra de l’Eixample.

It’s fascinating to get a more comprehensive perspective of what everyday experiences are like for permanent residents. And if you immerse yourself immediately, it makes your host city seem real from the start, rather than a change of scenery or a getaway from the average semester.

Urban issues define cities just as much as their accomplishments. As outsiders, we’re often aware about this in our own hometowns, but don’t pay as much attention to it while traveling. Whether you review location-specific urban issues in classes or on your own, they provide an insight to what life is really like across the globe, and that is part of the adventure in studying abroad.

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