The famous architect Richard Rogers wrote in July 2005, when the Olympics were awarded to London, that “the Barcelona standard is what we have to achieve”.
In the past 20 years Barcelona has become a city identified with stylish Mediterranean living and beautiful buildings.
The “Barcelona brand” – a heady mix of Antoni Gaudí’s surreal architecture, the medieval streets of the old city and George Orwell’s city of revolution – is sold in the world’s tourism bazaars.
Barcelona is now one of the great tourist cities, visited by the British as often as Paris or Florence.
It hasn’t always been so. Thirty years ago it was a run down, grimy dump, just emerging from 40 years of fascism.
After the end of General Franco’s dictatorship the Socialist Party won Barcelona’s first municipal elections in 1979. It had a unique opportunity to construct a green, egalitarian city.
The residents’ associations, which existed in every neighbourhood, drew up detailed proposals on how to overcome 40 years of neglect, made worse by huge property speculation in the 1950s and 1960s.
To house the numerous immigrants fleeing hunger in other parts of Spain, huge estates of tower blocks – without roads, transport or, in some cases, sewage systems, water or electricity – were flung up all round the city.
The residents’ associations were created in the final years of the dictatorship to fight for local facilities – public transport, health centres and paved streets. By 1979 the Barcelona Federation of Residents’ Associations had developed, on the basis of grassroots experience and participation, a thoroughgoing reform programme.
There was nothing controversial about this – parks, playgrounds, libraries, health centres, nursery schools and pedestrian areas, old housing repaired, demolition and rebuilding of the slums.
The proposals had mass support. Everyone wants decent housing and green, car-free public spaces – except for the private interests that own land and make money out of buying and selling it.
Narcís Serra, the first elected mayor of Barcelona since the 1930s, made his position crystal clear in a brutal comment in 1979: “The Socialists, not the residents’ associations, won the elections”. Serra and his advisers opted for the Olympic path to regenerate Barcelona.
Because of the contrast with the dictatorship, the Socialist Party enjoyed enormous goodwill. If it had stood up to the property companies and vested interests, it could have relied on mass support. It complained, with some justification, that it had no money. But again it could have used its popular support to raise taxes.
It had legal powers to take unused land into public ownership. It did not use them, except for a compulsory purchase to clear housing for the massive Olympics building programme that transformed the city during the 1980s.
Instead of implementing the proposals of the residents’ associations, the Socialist Party built its way out of the economic crisis of the early 1980s with stadiums, ringroads and new neighbourhoods.
It congratulated itself that because of the Olympics much of this was paid for by the Spanish state.
Many parks and new squares were also created, though not out of the goodness of Socialist Party hearts, but because the residents’ associations continued to fight and the Socialist Party sometimes had to cede to local demands if it was to retain power.
Barcelona is claimed by Rogers as a sustainable city for the 21st century. It is still a beautiful place to visit and to live – if you have money.
But the 1992 Olympics made house prices soar. Most young people cannot rent or buy flats. A recent survey found Barcelona was the most air-polluted city in western Europe.
The main (avoidable) reasons for this are the Olympic road building programme and the absence of any policy to take cars off the road.
The modern Olympic Games are not so much a sporting event as a property developer’s dream. London 2012 aims to “regenerate” east London, pulling it into London’s housing market. Already businesses, land and housing are being compulsorily purchased.
Richard Rogers is right that we can learn a lot from the Barcelona Olympics. The key lesson, however, is not to follow the Barcelona model, as he thinks.
It is that neighbourhoods will be destroyed, land prices will rocket and new roads will crisscross the city like ribbons on a Christmas parcel – unless local residents organise and fight.
Catalonia: A Cultural History by Michael Eaude is published by Signal, and is available from Bookmarks bookshop. Call 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com