La Rambla, Barcelona

I’m always inspired by Barcelona, the city that virtually invented urban regeneration. The way they harnessed the Olympics to clean up a post-industrial wasteland, which separated a port community from its own waterfront, was a game-changer for the city and for place makers everywhere.

Big events like the Games can indeed show off or show up a city. Barcelona’s determination that it would do the former hugely motivated those of us working on the London Olympic legacy. Indeed, on the transport front I think we surpassed Barcelona because as far as I remember we never left any more roads than we inherited in East London while Barcelona unfortunately put in some seriously disruptive highway capacity, which will need some sorting out – taking out – in future years.

It’s still doing the good stuff, though. In the last dozen or so years it – and “it” means a highly empowered and skilful city council and mayor getting the best out of private sector partners – has taken the renewal of Barca forward again, and into the digital era.

I was able to see this first hand recently on a trip from Sydney to Barcelona to attend the World Mobile Congress as the guest of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. The conference was focused on smart cities and the Internet of Things, of which the Committee for Sydney has written much.

Headline from that work: smart cities need smart governance. No amount of technology will do you any good as a city if you have dumb city governance or institutions. Sydney, with its 41 small councils and no metro governance structure, is not smart in this sense, though I am optimistic that the new Greater Sydney Commission – which the Committee for Sydney helped create – will provide that metro scale coordination required.

Barcelona is smart because it already has one big council for its 1.6 million inhabitants and a governance structure for coordinating the wider metropolitan area with its 4.5 million people. Being a smart, empowered and resourceful council, the City of Barcelona created a new innovation district in a former industrial slum called Poblenou, which is now exploding as centre both of economic innovation and urban living. And that’s what I came to see.

I wasn’t disappointed. Jobs? They have 90,000 jobs in the 8000 enterprises that have moved into the 220-hectare regeneration area, mostly in the knowledge industries and the clusters the council is promoting – med tech and digital and creative industries.

But they also have thousands of new homes and a pleasing supply of new social housing right at the heart of the district. And while I don’t think the urban design and architecture are perfect, there has been a serious commitment to public and active transport here with complete streets that value and protect pedestrians, put the car in its place – at the edge of streets like La Rambla Del Poblenou where the widest part of the street space in the centre of the road is allocated to walkers and cafes – and there is an effective mix of uses, so the neighbourhood is lively in the evening. The private sector was brought on board by density bonuses and easy rezoning to add value to their holdings as long as they played ball with the public sector on design and use. What’s not to like?

Can we emulate this in Sydney? The good news is that UrbanGrowth NSW, which has some of the powers and role of, say, English Partnerships, has control of a big 80-hectare site in Sydney called the Bays Precinct – and they have similar ambitions to those being realised in Poblenou: a mixed-use innovation district about three miles from the city centre. The challenge will be that cross-government collaboration required to make great places in any city.

Barcelona has that. Manchester is getting there via the new city deals process. And Sydney? Getting the degree of cross-government collaboration required to make a great place of the Bays will be the first big challenge for the Greater Sydney Commission in collaboration with UrbanGrowth – and the key to success will be transport.

At the moment in Sydney we have European-style ambitions for urban renewal confronted by American levels of both public transport and residential densities – and an erroneous belief that highways help solve congestion. If the Bays Precinct is indeed to be another Poblenou – or even better – you need to be able to get there via a 21st century public transport network. Even in the US, they don’t drive to innovation districts.

Tim Williams is chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.

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  1. I stayed in Poblenou about four years ago, and was impressed with the placemaking and subsequent streetlife in a once dangerous area. It seamlessly integrated with the more upmarket el Forum neighbourhood and waterfront development. One thing Barcelona, and many other medium sized cities in Spain have is a metro system, which has required significant investment and nearly sent some cities broke (not helped by the GFC). It is good to see the investment is now paying off.