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Barcelona’s social challenges: A consequence of the city’s urban development?

As part of the 100 Resilient Cities programme, in recent years Barcelona has recognised the shocks and stresses it faces and has committed to taking proactive steps to increase the city’s capacity to deal with these challenges.  

Barcelona is a vibrant port city with thriving tourism and cultural industries; however, it also suffers from social challenges such as social polarisation and an unequal distribution of income. In 2015, the neighbourhood with the highest disposable income was 7.26 times that of the poorest neighbourhood. This income disparity is also reflected geographically across the city, with the richest neighbourhoods situated in the western districts of Sarrià – Sant Gervasi and Les Corts, and the poorest found in the north-east in the Nou Barris district.  

Map of family income inequalities, 2015. Source: Geography Fieldwork

Whilst the social challenges of inequality are now problems the municipality is having to address, they are in part the result of actions by the city, since it began its process of urban renewal in the 1980s and 1990s. These urban renewal programmes originally intended to reduce levels of inequality and deprivation in areas such as the Raval district – where culture was used as a tool for urban regeneration of an area struggling with crime and violence (as mentioned in this previous blog post) – have failed to achieve their social goals. Instead, the regeneration of central areas of the city, whilst contributing to the city’s success as a tourist destination and supporting its economy, has triggered both forced and indirect market-led displacement of vulnerable populations. As a result, these vulnerable populations, who are usually low-income, ethnic minority or elderly, have been pushed to the peripheries of the city due to a lack of affordable housing in the city centre, re-enforcing the geographic divide in income disparity.  

Barcelona also struggles with energy poverty – 170,000 residents have limited or no access to basic services such as electricity, water and gas due to an inability to pay. In 2016, 9.1% of the population could not afford to keep their home at a suitable temperature in the winter. The legal framework that governs the energy sector in Spain describes energy as “a service in the general economic interest”, which has resulted in further deregulation of the energy market, and an oligopoly that profits hugely from increasing household electricity prices – actions that have been supported at official levels for their contributions to the city’s economic growth. In recent years, the Alliance against Energy Poverty – an alliance of social movements, residents and NGOs – has brought the issue of energy poverty to the attention of Catalan officials, with action beginning to be implemented, although not at a fast-enough rate to help the hundreds of thousands of households in Barcelona who are currently living without basic services.  

Similarly, the privatisation of the Catalan water supply, justified by the unbearable level of debt accrued by the Catalan Water Agency, has led to a steep rise in the cost of water in the city. Today, more than half of the Barcelona water bill is comprised of unnecessary costs not directly connected to water service costs; with Barcelona water bills 91.7% more expensive than the closest municipalities under public management.  

These social challenges the city is struggling with highlight the problems with the much praised ‘Barcelona model’ of urban development and growth. They demonstrate the segregating effect that a city’s drive for growth and success can have on its urban population, with this development leaving behind and excluding a significant proportion of the population, reproducing existing inequalities and exacerbating power imbalances. These persistent social stresses also demonstrate that regeneration of the built environment alone will not create tangible social change; what is needed is government recognition of social challenges, and policy to be put in place to support vulnerable populations. Whilst these social issues are common in large cities, and so not entirely attributable to the rapid policy-led urban regeneration that Barcelona has achieved, they have been worsened because of the city’s development.

2 thoughts on “Barcelona’s social challenges: A consequence of the city’s urban development?

  1. Hi ! A really interesting post !
    Do you know why the municipality failed in such a great way to avoid social inequalities and instead accentuated them? Do you thing that its goals really comprised social ones and that the authorities just anticipated nothing? Or that gentrification was exactly what they wanted to attract more incomes and create more international stature?


  2. Thanks for another great post! It was really shocking for me to see just how serious Barcelona’s socio-economic inequalities are. My chosen city – Hong Kong – is notorious for its social inequalities, and reading about a Western-European city, I had been expecting a greater level of social equity. Your posts show that there is still a long way to go however, and demonstrate the significance of planning policies in the co-production of urban inequalities. Barcelona seems like a city to watch as it embarks on pioneering experiments with superblocks and grassroots smart-city urbanism, but you’ve shown that these glamorous campaigns shouldn’t be used to obscure ongoing urban injustices.


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