Barcelona: an inspiration for urban design

By Claire Fletcher                          2nd December 2021

Barcelona: an inspiration for urban design

By Claire Fletcher

2nd December 2021

Over the last few decades, Barcelona has been an inspiration and example for urban planners, architects and urban managers.

Barcelona’s nomination in 1986 to host the 1992 Olympic Games meant a radical change in the city, and these were years of great urban transformation. Major infrastructures were built and improved, such as the construction of the ring roads, which facilitated accessibility inside and outside the city, the sewage network, and the transformation and improvement of the areas that hosted the main activities of the games; the Montjuic Hill with the inaugural stadium and other sports facilities, the Olympic Village, which housed all the athletes and later became a new neighbourhood on the Barcelona coastline, and the Vall d’Hebron, hosting journalists and sports facilities.

The old industrial port of Barcelona was recovered for the city, opening it up to the sea and the entire seafront, until then deteriorated and forgotten, recovering 5km of beaches for bathing and sport. This is currently one of the most used leisure areas in the city.

Perhaps most significant was the commitment to place public spaces at the forefront of the city’s landscape. Barcelona was able to recover the popular Mediterranean culture of outdoor living and socialising, where the street is seen as an extension of the home.

Urbidermis Arne lighting installed in Barcelona

Urbidermis-Santa&Cole is a publisher of urban elements, furniture, lighting and micro-architecture, based in Parc de Belloch, 30km north of Barcelona. Over the last 30 years, the company has spread its design and urban philosophy around the world, taking its involvement in the transformation of Barcelona as an example. They worked together with the architects responsible for the various city projects and the Olympic Games in the great urban transformation of Barcelona.

We caught up with Mia Serra, Urbidermis-Santa&Cole’s Editor-In-Chief, who explained:

“Barcelona was emerging from decades of dictatorship in Spain. It was a grey and depressed city, and the arrival of democracy and above all, the nomination of Olympic city gave way to the great transformation and the recovery of urban space for the city.

“Large urban spaces brought with them new designs and new elements. Santa&Cole took advantage of this opportunity by supporting the architects of the transformation, editing the proposed elements, and creating a catalogue of coherent urban elements with a strong Mediterranean character, which was later exported to other cities in Spain and the world.

“The urban design of these years has been an example of many urban transformations around the world and with them the elements that went to make up the catalogue.”

In 1999, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Barcelona its Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. This was unprecedented, as this award usually honours an individual architect, not a city.

This major transformation put Barcelona on the world map, making it a global tourist destination, and increased the number of visitors – 1.7 million in 1992, 7.4 million in 2011 and 8.3 million in 2015 (Source: This brought obvious economic benefits; it also brought some contradictions.

With 1.6 million inhabitants, Barcelona is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe (Source: The Guardian). Air pollution levels reach unhealthy levels due to the number of cars and delivery vehicles circulating in the city (in fact, it is the city with the highest density of cars in the European Union (Source: The Guardian), and despite the green spaces that were built at the end of the 20th century, the large commercial development, and the adaptation of the city to the growing tourist demand have not improved air pollution rates.

How is the city’s urban planning services now working to transform its urban landscape, to protect health and to improve the lives of its citizens?

A model of public space for people

Barcelona’s municipal government has an ambitious 10-year plan to “make the city a closer, healthier, safer, more sustainable and more humane place”. (Source: Ajuntament de Barcelona, press kit, 11 November 2020).

As part of the plan, six “superblocks” have already been created in the city, giving priority to pedestrians, removing private vehicle traffic, and creating green spaces where asphalt used to be, to encourage social interaction and leisure in outdoor spaces.

These superblocks are already showing lower levels of air pollution and, as The Guardian reported in 2020, citizens are witnessing the transformation of public spaces: “There was no life here, but now it’s hard to even leave these pacified spaces because there are so many people stopping to talk and chat. That’s the big change: the way we use the space and get to know our neighbours”.

The City Council now plans to expand the “superblock” model with citizen participation, creating a network of 21 green hubs and 21 neighbourhood squares, gaining 33.4 Ha of urban space for citizens and another 6.6 Ha of green space.

The design of these areas is key to creating the “more human spaces” so necessary in such a densely populated city. As in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city achieved its great Olympic transformation, urban planning services are once again focusing on the “extension” of housing into the busy streets of their city.

So how can public space encourage social interaction, and how do you make a resident appreciate spending more time in an urban outdoor area?

Urbidermis-Santa&Cole – for whom we are proud to be the exclusive supplier in the UK – has many inspirational ideas. They specialise in creating good, functional, and timeless design that promotes conviviality. Their elements are designed to humanise cities, giving them distinctive identities, while instilling a sense of belonging to the landscape and community. They also firmly believe in the enormous value that nature can bring to social spaces.

From the knowledge of the Forestry Division of Urbidermis, with more than 15 years of experience in urban reforestation, they are working on systematising pest containment through natural procedures, without pesticides and also designing self-managed urban planters, to minimise maintenance and manual watering.

The Forestry Division published in 2015 the “Canon de Belloch”, a catalogue raisonné of urban trees that offers criteria on the best choices in urban arboriculture, maximising services and functionalities and obtaining the best landscaping results in our streets.

See for yourself

Do you want to know more about Urbidermis-Santa&Cole and see their designs and projects for yourself, in their hometown, Barcelona? We organise an annual study trip to Barcelona, designed for landscape architects, architects, design professionals and lighting designers from the UK who are interested in specifying Urbidermis-Santa&Cole’s outdoor products in their projects.

You will travel to Parc de Belloch, 30km north of Barcelona, where Urbidermis-Santa&Cole’s headquarters are located and visit their projects in the city of Barcelona.

You can find more information about our study trips here.