Saturday 22 October 2016

The right moves: Many ideas from Barcelona

Paul McNeive

Published 07/05/2015 | 02:30

Old Town: The Poble Espanyol in Barcelona, traditional architecture in the heart of the bustling city.
Old Town: The Poble Espanyol in Barcelona, traditional architecture in the heart of the bustling city.

I spent last week in Barcelona city centre and it struck me that there are many similarities between Barcelona and Dublin and many lessons that our planners, designers and government can learn.

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Barcelona is heaving with visitors and a central theme to its growing success as a tourism and business destination is heavy investment in infrastructure, public facilities and culture.

I soon noticed that there are a dozen cranes working in the city centre. That poses a mystery as that's more cranes than Dublin and both countries suffered economic and property market collapses. There are noisy reminders of banking collapses as several closed bank branches host groups of chanting protestors. Furthermore whilst the Barcelona city administrative area has a population of 1.6m people, 19pc are unemployed, better than the Spanish average of 23pc but nothing like Dublin's 8pc. So where is the development funding coming from? The answer may lie somewhere in Barcelona's autonomy as the capital of Catalonia.

There is a high level of investment in infrastructure, which is driving Barcelona's growth. A new airport terminal has been built and the city boasts a metro system and enormous underground car parks. Great attention is paid to restoring public buildings and streetscapes and whilst Dublin has improved on this front our integration of retailing and leisure activities in, for example, Temple Bar, compares unfavourably with locations like Barcelona's "gothic quarter."

This reverence for conservation is paying off as Barcelona boasts a bewildering array of places to visit which draws tourism from many sectors. Dublin too is rich in culture but what on earth was Dublin City Council doing when they allowed the recent demolition of Windmill Lane recording studios in the docklands, which was already a tourist attraction? That building should have been converted into a music museum and would have paid for itself by adding to Dublin's "brand".

Both cities are on the coast and another unusual similarity is that both ports are in the city centre. This presents huge opportunity and each city has modern office schemes with views over water. Barcelona has done a fantastic job in renovating the old port which is a thriving tourism destination hosting museums, galleries, retailing and restaurants, set amongst busy moorings. Whilst the regeneration of Dublin docklands has been a great success, perhaps the authorities should look at incorporating more of the port area into public uses.

Another great success for Barcelona has been the targeting of cruise ship business and I saw maybe half a dozen cruise ships bringing thousands of tourists into the city centre. We need to stop the endless debating and allow Dublin Port to develop whatever deep water facilities they want. As a welcome legacy of the standards required to host the Olympic Games, Barcelona is superbly wheelchair accessible.

Catalonia's legendary architect, Gaudi, would have had interesting views on the debate over Dublin's future housing. In the early 1900's he was commissioned by wealthy families to develop city centre apartment blocks. The families would live in one of the apartments and finance the development by renting the remaining apartments to other families. I visited the most famous of these, the seven storey "La Pedrera". Gaudi's solution to Dublin's "triple aspect" debate was to build large apartments around a central void. Gaudi also forced the skyline upwards, breaching height regulations by paying heavy fines and Dublin certainly missed opportunities to improve our housing crisis, by imposing low building heights.

Barcelona's wide main streets are a confident mix of high quality retailing, offices, restaurants and public buildings. That is a sharp contrast with the cheap tackiness of O'Connell Street. How successive governments have failed to tackle this national embarrassment is beyond me. One can only marvel at the strategy which thought that arcades, fast food outlets and low end retailing were appropriate for our capital's principal street.

Radical action is needed on O'Connell Street starting with a programme of compulsory purchase orders in the public interest and a plan to bring appropriate uses. By investing in our infrastructure, life will improve for both citizens and visitors.

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