The Visionary Urban Design of the Eixample District, Barcelona

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In 2008, when I first moved to Sant Antoni, a neighborhood in the Eixample district (pronounced ‘eshampla’) of Barcelona, I was overwhelmed by the endless blocks and blocks of buildings. And on each block, everything looked the same – fruit stands, bakeries, supermarkets, banks, then more fruit stands, more bakeries, more supermarkets, and more banks. Barcelona urban planning seemed boring.

Barcelona urban planning

Barcelona Urban Design

I didn’t think much of the fact that I could buy my groceries, make a bank deposit, select a decent public school, or have my kids play at a park all within a five to 10 minutes’ walking distance. But that’s just it. The proximity of community shops and services is just one of the genius elements of the city grid that makes urban living convenient and easy in Eixample. But there’s more…

Barcelona Urban Planning History

Barcelona city Planning: The Modern-day city.

Modern-day metropolitan Barcelona. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid-1800s, Barcelona was a smaller, very dense area surrounded by walls (Ciutat Vella). With rabid congestion, increased epidemics and a high mortality rate, it was time to create urban solutions for healthier, more livable conditions for the people.

City developers were looking to create the “Eixample” of Barcelona, which in Catalan, translates to “extension”.

The godfather of Eixample’s city grid is urban planner Ildefons Cerdà. He believed in healthy everyday living through basic needs — among those are sunlight, ventilation, greenery, and ease of movement.

Elements of Eixample’s Urban Design

1. Eixample is 520 city blocks of parallel and perpendicular lines.

The uniformity and continuity of squares were designed to eliminate segregation of all neighborhoods. Cerdà believed in sanitary conditions for all social classes.

Eixample aire

It didn’t transpire that way — an aristocratic residential space was emerging around the Passeig de Gracia area, and a hierarchal structure was being set. Today, Passeig de Gracia continues to be expensive real estate.

Barcelona Urban design of Eixample, Barcelona, Spain

Critics of Cerdá’s plans claimed the uniformity was too monotonous. Buildings look identical and no outstanding structures as a landmark existed.

Barcelona city design: Eixample from La Sagrada Familia

Same. Same. Same? Photo by wererabbit via Flickr

2. Each city block has chamfered corners, or xamfrà.

These quadrangular blocks with shaved-off corners serve a purpose. The 45º angle was determined by the degree that a steam tram was able to turn. It also eases fluidity of traffic as cars don’t need to slow down as much and allows a more comfortable turn for drivers.

Eixample

Eixample city blocks: Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the disadvantage is for pedestrians. The placement of crosswalks obliges the walker to zigzag a street instead of going down one straight line on a street.

Barcelona city Plan: chamfered buildings

Rush hour traffic can be annoying for pedestrians. Photo by annamcodina via Flickr

Today, drivers take advantage of these chaflanes to park (and double park) their vehicles. A few chamfered buildings makes interesting angles:

lacarboneria

EckeModern livingTemplo Can Paco

3. All the blocks are oriented northwest-southwest for maximum solar access.

The buildings are faced in a way to get excellent exposure from of the sun. Below, the images in the two columns on the right represent street intersections in the winter and summer and how the sun hits the buildings.

You can see they gets more sunlight than on the left-hand images, where the intersections lie north-south.

Street-orientation

Columns 1&2 = little sunshine. Columns 3&4 = lots.

Below, the yellow parts in the image below represent sunlight and how it moves in a counterclockwise position during the daytime. Twenty meters between the blocks also provide ample space for light to pass through.

Eixample01

How sunlight rotates around a building throughout the day

The benefits reaped in the winter are more light for daily activities and insulation of buildings, which means energy savings. In the summer, shadows are cast into all the streets, cooling down the city. And let’s not forget the psychological benefits of the glorious sunlight.

4. The buildings were supposed to be as tall as 16 meters in height as to not block the sunlight for other buildings.

Eixample07-ca

Originally, buildings were supposed to be constructed until the height of the yellow square as shown above. The sunlight would penetrate all the buildings, including the bottom floor.

Cerdà’s plans were ignored. Buildings rose up to 24 meters, blocking the air and sunshine that was supposed to circulate.

5. The original plan was to have two parallel sides of the block built up.

As seen in the first image, the block was supposed to be built only on two sides. Having this space ensured ventilation and sunlight, enabling more than 800 meters of green area in between.

EvolucioMansanaM3

Throughout time, you can see the constructed development of the city block — many became completely enclosed.

6. And the interior of the blocks was supposed to have an inner courtyard.

These would have served to be shady, intimate, recreational open space for the neighbors. Today, the interiors consist of workshops, shopping centers and car parks. There exists a few surviving interior garden community areas and swimming pool such as Jardins de la Torre de les Aigües and Casa Elizalde.

TorredelesAigües

Jardins de la Torre de les Aigües is a fantastic urban public pool and oases open in the summer.

Casa Elizalde - pati

Casa Elizalde is a cultural centre with an ideal public outdoor space.

Luckily, an organization called Proeixample has taken charge of trying to recover green interiors. When a new part of a block is free, they take the initiative to convert the space into a green public space, where children and elderly people would most benefit. It’s a slow process to wait for an opportunity to arise.

7. Today, in 2019, Barcelona has superblocks, designated spaces almost exclusively for public use.

An urban pilot project, a “superilla” is a 9-city block in Barcelona. It’s a 3×3 block closed off to through-traffic (freight trucks, buses, etc.). Cars can drive through it with a speed limit of 10 km/hour. It’s meant to minimize car pollution and noise pollution, foster more walking, outdoor events, and day-to-day neighborhood activity like ping pong tables, benches, and race tracks on the street.

The first implemented Barcelona superblock is in Poblenou. Not everyone was on board because cars have to drive around the perimeter of the superilla, making it inconvenient and annoying. It’s pretty quiet too. You never know what you run into sometimes in the city.

 

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Eixample is an emblem of the city: easy mobility where there are schools, hospitals, marketplaces, adding up to a high quality of living. And while much of Cerdá’s original ideas were quashed, his layout prevails. And that is enough for people to call it an urban design model.

Sources

I originally wrote this post in 2014 because I was fascinated with the city and just updated it for 2019. Why did you check out this article? Tell me in the comments!

About the Author Justine Ancheta

California native, churro aficionado, and mom of 3, Justine Ancheta writes fervently about Barcelona and Spain. Since 2008, she's been eating burnt onions (calçots) and tripping on cobblestones in the Gothic Quarter. She shares tips on popular attractions, exposes offbeat non-touristy spots, and gives insight on exploring Barcelona with kids. Her next Catalan culture challenge: top level of a human castle (castellers).

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Leave a Comment:

12 comments
Cat of Sunshine and Siestas says March 11, 2014

I learned about Huasmann’s Paris in college. Fascinating article, Justine!

Reply
rogerevans says March 18, 2014

Wonderfull piece. By the way, I believe that the Catalan word for a chamfered corner is xamfrà (Castilian: chaflán).

Reply
    Justine Ancheta says March 18, 2014

    Oh didn’t know that! I’ll change it in the post. Thanks!

    Reply
Montserrat says November 19, 2014

Hi Justine,
Thanks for citing my article: Cerdà and Barcelona: The need for a new city and service provision.
Montserrat Pallares-Barbera
You might be interested also in:
Barcelona Cerdà Expansion: http://worldmap.harvard.edu/maps/Barcelona_Cerda_1860/CRD
This is a study about the benefit to population social wellbeing obtained by implementing the Cerdà’s Urban Expansion of Barcelona.
This is a map recreation of the urban evolution of Barcelona since 1860.

CITATION:
Pallares-Barbera, M. and Duch, Jordi (2012).Barcelona Urban Evolution from 1860. Harvard University: WorldMap. Read more:http://scholar.harvard.edu/montserrat-pallares-barbera/links/barcelona-cerd%C3%A0-expansion

Reply
    Justine Ancheta says November 20, 2014

    Interesting to see how few schools, parks, and markets there were and how they’ve just filled in the gaps as the population has exploded. The grid system must help in planning. Thanks for sharing your work!

    Reply
7 Places for Breathtaking Panoramic Views of Barcelona - Latitude 41 says October 8, 2015

[…] got the Mediterranean waters to the South, manic city blocks in Eixample, and the steeper hills of Montjuic to the […]

Reply
KELLY KNAPE says May 3, 2016

I have been trying to find any information about the designs on many Eixample buildings. Some appear to be stencils – but some of those are actually reliefs (very difficult to paint). Do you have any info or sources about that?

Reply
    Justine Ancheta says May 6, 2016

    Hey Kelly, unfortunately no, I don’t have any sources on that. I do notice there are stencils, but most seem to be reliefs. At least that’s what catches my attention. 🙂

    Reply
      Aimin says March 18, 2017

      Thank you,Justine, I am from Shanghai.
      The Eixample, Barcelona is a good example for high-dense development, especially for Shanghai China. But I don’t think the deep-plan flat buildings in Eixample are suitable for the Barcelona climates, the depth of the buildings reaches 22m-24m. The day-lighting and ventilation are problems, and over-hot inside in summer..
      Do you think so?

      Reply
        Justine Ancheta says March 18, 2017

        Hi Aimin, I’m not an expert in urban design but I can say – yes, the flats get very hot in the summer. I lived in Eixample and I found it to be true. Not enough ventilation. You don’t get that Mediterranean breeze. Good luck!

        Reply
rosemary343 says November 1, 2016

Thanks for a great article! I just returned from a trip to Barcelona, staying in the Eixample neighborhood and loved it. I’m in the process of writing about it on my own blog “Live Cheap and Make Art USA” and will link this blog to mine on this post for folks to come for this lovely detailed explanation of this area! Gracias!

Reply
    Justine Ancheta says November 2, 2016

    Hey Rosemary, Awesome! Eixample is so lovely. Even though everything looks the same from far away, there’s so much uniqueness when you look closer. I look forward to see the article on your blog!

    Reply
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