World-Class Walkability in Barcelona

La Rambla, a Barcelona boulevard so beautiful that it attracts tourists and sight-seers by the thousands.

by James A. Bacon

I have spent barely one day in the city of Barcelona and I can tell you three things that I dislike: the ubiquitous graffiti, the giant, ungainly recycling bins at many street corners, and the faint but unmistakable odor of sewage emanating from the city’s subterranean labyrinth. But if I tried to tell you everything I love about this place, I wouldn’t have the time or space.

Barcelona is extraordinary. My wife, son and I have the privilege of spending five days here not only to delve into the history and culture of one of Europe’s great cities but to get a sense of how the people here live. Rather than staying in a hotel, we are renting a small apartment on Carrer de Girona (Girona Street) in the center of the city.  So far, it has been an awesome experience.

The city of Barcelona proper has a population of 1.6 million but it is part of a metro region of 4.5 million, the sixth largest in Europe. With its thriving port, extensive manufacturing and growing service sector, Barcelona is the economic engine of Spain. According to Wikipedia, it has the fourth highest per capita income of any region in the European Union, making it, much like Milan, Italy, a highly prosperous urban region in a much poorer country. Indeed, in the estimation of our taxi driver, a heavily tattooed young man who could have passed for a VCU student, Barcelona is keeping subsidizing the rest of rest of the nation through  taxes paid to the central government. However, even Barcelona has fallen on hard times since the collapse of the Spanish real estate bubble and the euro crisis. While unemployment in Barcelona is lower than the 25% average for Spain as a whole, it’s still running in the 18% to 20% range.

As part of the Catalan region of Spain, Barcelona has a distinct language and culture. The Catalan language, which traces its origins to Latin, is widely spoken. And Catalans, as our tax driver assured us, are more creative and industrious — no siestas here — traits to which they owe their prosperity. After fighting for centuries to retain their cultural identity from Castillian Spain, Catalans would be perfectly happy to divest themselves of their economically lagging cousins.

It goes without saying that the Bacon family will visit must-see spots such as the old Gothic city, the Gaudi-designed cathedral and the Picasso Museum, but what fascinates me most is the everyday urban fabric off the well-beaten tourist track. I want to see how human settlement patterns affect the way Barcelonians live.

Barcelona is a mid-rise city. There are a few skyscrapers but not as many as I would have expected for such an important city. The standard on most streets is five to ten stories. The pattern creates a very human scale of development. No one feels dwarfed by the built environment yet mid-rise buildings yield a remarkably high level of density when applied uniformly, as has been the case for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The city proper contains 40,000 people per square mile on average. By way of comparison, population density is 3,000 per square mile in the City of Richmond, 8,000 in Arlington, 17,000 in San Francisco and 67,000 in Manhattan.

Another remarkable thing about Barcelona is the very different allocation of public space versus private space. This was immediately discernible from the air as our Lufthansa airplane circled over the Mediterranean Sea and approached the airport. The city consists of solid, wall-to-wall buildings, except where it is spliced with strips of green. The streets, you see, are all lined with healthy, beautiful trees. In the urban core, I espied little resembling the private back yards so common in urban American. Barcelona’s energy is focused on the street.

A plaza in Barcelona’s Gothic district. Barcelonians are masters at creating walkable communities.

Outside of the Gothic district dating back to the Middle Ages, the street system is a rigid grid with occasional diagonal avenues. The grid allows the use of one-way streets, which in turn enables the city to provide two lanes of vehicular traffic, a lane for bicycles, plus broad sidewalks. The sidewalks represent a transition zone between streets and the interior space of the buildings. Thousands of motor bikes are parked on the sidewalks, leaving ample room for people to walk. And almost every restaurant in the city spills into the adjoining sidewalk with tables and umbrellas. Thanks to the phenomenal Mediterranean climate — the current daytime  temperature is in the low 80s with low humidity — people are more inclined this time of year to drink, dine and socialize outside than in.

“Mixed-use development” is the development buzzword in the United States. Barcelona has no need for it. Barcelona is one big mixed use development. Retail and residential are mixed like salt and sea water — on every block, the ground-level floor consists of shops and small businesses, while the four stories above are comprised of apartments and condominiums. Many daily destinations are found within easy walking distance: drug stores, grocery stores, restaurants, shops.

The combination of high density and grid streets makes it possible to easily reach a wide range of destinations on foot. For longer trips, the city provides an incredible network of bus lines, a subway system and ubiquitous shared bike stands where, for a couple of euros, you can rent a bicycle, ride it to any corner of the city and drop it off at another stand no more than a couple of blocks from your destination. There are cars on the streets, to be sure, but traffic is always free flowing.  It is beyond the reckoning of Americans how little congestion is generated by so much density. (Catalonians say that traffic is better in August when everyone is on vacation.)

Admittedly, I know nothing of the finances of operating this transportation system. For all I know, the buses, trains and bikes represent a debilitating drain on the city treasury, an unaffordable luxury that will come crashing down when the rest of Europe can no longer afford to bail out Spain and its spendthrift regional governments. Indeed, this May Catalonia President Artur Mas warned that the regional government was running out of options for paying its bills, sending Spanish bond buyers into a tizzy. On the other hand, I would say this: It would be very easy to live in Barcelona without incurring the considerable expense of owning and operating an automobile. Your paycheck goes a lot further if you don’t need a car.

Not everyone in the U.S. would want to live like the Barcelonians do. The apartments are small. Many Virginians could not abide living in such modest quarters (no matter how gorgeous the architecture, which puts ours to shame) with so little space to put all their stuff. Some could not live without an automobile in their private garage. I don’t know if I would want to live like the Barcelonians. But to all appearances, Barcelona represents an urban model conducive to economic prosperity in the post-industrial knowledge economy, and it stretches the mind of a Virginian like me to see how differently a globally competitive region has organized itself.

Update: Many thanks to the two Catalonian bloggers who left lengthy messages critiquing my post. I have changed my unfortunate characterization of the Catalan language as a “mash up” of French and Italian to reflect its evolution as an independent tongue that can be traced back to Latin. As for the intricacy of Catalan politics and finances, I refer readers to the two commenters themselves.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. accurate Avatar

    So happy that you are enjoying yourself Jim, you’re suppose to enjoy when one is on vacation. Nice move to rent an apartment rather than a hotel. Since you like/love high density and mixed-use, sounds like you’re in heaven (or some version of it). Sounds like the kind of place I’d like to visit, just to say I’ve been there and cherish the fact that I don’t live there; or in any place that remotely resembles it. For me, it sounds like the old phrase, ‘Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’.

    Have fun.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Have you given the Catalans your hard-edged, Calvinistic advice about fiscal discipline? If so, how did they respond?

  3. Jim says they live in modest circumstances but at the same time we hear they have lavish benefits that they cannot afford and that’s why they are going bankrupt.

    so how about filling us in?

  4. Hi,

    As a Catalan from Barcelona and a person committed to make my city much more environmentally-friendly than it already is, I have read your post with a mixed feeling. I’m glad that you liked and enjoyed the city. But frankly, some of your comments (and also the ones following-up) are so condescending and full of the “I know what’s best for you” attitude that it just doesn’t bear with the fact that you spent there only a couple of days and talked with a couple of taxi drivers (shouldn’t you have walked, by the way?).

    In any case, just to correct some of the factual errors in your post:
    1. Apartments in BCN might be small compared to houses in Virgina, but they are average compared to cities like Paris, Milan or London. The fact that you lived in the Barri Gòtic, where apartments are very old and very small compared to the rest of the city might explain your wrong impression.
    2. The Catalan language is not “a mash-up of Spanish and old French”. The Catalan language is a latin-derived language, JUST LIKE French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and other languages. It belongs to the same subfamily as the Provençal, a language from the South of France now almost extinct because of French cultural pressures. Catalan is no more related to Spanish as it is to Portuguese or to Italian.
    3. Barcelona is a very heavily trafficked city, I am afraid, due to its density (it cannot grow because of the mountains that surround it) and very intense economic and demographic activity. I’m afraid you were visting in August, when many Barcelonians go away on holidays, either to the coast, to the mountains or abroad. Traffic in August is in no way comparable to the rest of the year.
    4. But I’m afraid that the most demeaning comments are the ones about the finances: “For all I know, the buses, trains and bikes represent a debilitating drain on the city treasury, an unaffordable luxury that will come crashing down when the rest of Europe can no longer afford to bail out Spain and its spendthrift regional governments”.

    Sorry, the buses, trains and bikes are an “unaffordable luxury”? First of all, the city of Barcelona is one of the least indebted cities in Spain. Its finances would be of course even better if the rest of the country (Catalonia) were not subsidising the Spanish economy by transferring (not willingly, but by the compulsion of the central state) more than 8% of its GDP every year (just to give you an idea, the richest region in Germany cannot be drained of more than 4% of its GDP by the central government by law). Catalonia is certainly very heavily in debt right now, but not because of it has been spendthrift, but because it has been assuming increasingly the services from the central state (health care, education, security) without being able to control its own budget.

    So when “the rest of Europe can no longer afford to bail out Spain and its spendthrift regional governments”, don’t worry that will not mean that we, Barcelonians, will have to start walking to work because we will have to close down our “luxurious” buses and subways. We have been bailing out Spain and its spendthrift regional governments for more than 30 years now (much longer than that, in fact) and we have had to manage with budget constraints that many US states would have taken as a rightful motive for revolution a long time ago. So neither Europe, nor anyone else has to give us any “Calvinistic advice”, thank you very much.

    As for the “lavish benefits that they cannot afford and that’s why they are going bankrupt”, as one of your commentators put it, let me just remind you that Catalonia is consistently the region in Western Europe with the lowest (and I mean, the absolute lowest) investment in public health care, public education and public transport infrastructures in relation to GDP. Is that because we like to live with “modest means” or because we are stupid? No, sir. It’s basically because we don’t decide much of those matters, as our budgets are more or less imposed by a government in Madrid that does everything it can to take as much resources from Catalonia as they can while keeping our country consistently underfunded (as I said, 8% of the GDP that live Catalonia every year and never come back, and that’s over and above the percentage that we should be paying for the central services of the state according to our population). I am sorry to say that, if you, Virginians, had a government in Washington, doing the same as the Spanish government is doing to us you would have seceded once more, and probably this time for good.

    Well, I don’t know what will happen in the next few months. But if I were you I would be looking for the birth of a new state in Europe, one that has been for too long supressed culturally, financially and politically. Thanks for visiting the city, in any case. Hopefully, next time you will try to get information from other sources than a taxi driver and wikipedia.

    As for the rest of the comments, from the Calvinists and the like, please inform yourselves before giving away your condescening advice. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I have corrected my description of the Catalan language and I appreciate your other comments as well. I would love a chance to talk to native Barcelonian but a 4-year-old speaks better Spanish than I do. We will be in town through Friday. Perhaps we could meet some time for a meal and a long chat. If you are available, you can email me at or call me at (804) 873-1543 (perhaps you need to add a U.S. country code, I don’t know.)

      1. Hi James,

        Thank you very much for the invitation. And I do appreciate the fact that you have corrected your post in regards to the Catalan language. Unfortunately, I am not in Barcelona right now. I have been living in South-East Asia for the past 9 months. I won’t be back until December. But keep in touch, if you want, I’d like to know more about your work on environmental planning in Virginia ( And I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay. It’s a great city, not without problems, certainly, but very open and with a lot of people interested in urbanism, ecology and politics, which seem to be subjects that you are also interested in. Anyway, I really hope you enjoy the rest of your stay. It’s an exciting moment for Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia. We might be on the verge of a historic moment. Talk with people and report it to your friends in the US. At this time, we do need the support and understanding of all freedom-loving people in the world, most especially in your country. Taking into account its own history, perhaps no other American state can understand us better than Virgina. As your compatriot, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”. We, Catalans, are on the process of doing just that.

  5. mstrubell Avatar

    I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay, and your tour of Gaudí buildings. Barcelona is one of the few large cities in Spain not crippled by debts, thanks to its austere councils. But Catalonia is grossly underfunded and indebted as fully 8•3% of its wealth is drained to the rest of Spain every year.. This crippling level of spoliation cuts any hope of economic revival. Over 20% are out of work. No wonder so many Catalans want Catalonia to be a free country!

  6. Hi James, I’m happy that you are enjoying yourself in Barcelona. You may already know that it is the capital of a country called Catalonia and regarding the language we speak here it is no “mash-up of Spanish and early-Medieval French”. It is a language derived from latin and spoken in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and the Valencian Country, Andorra and the Northern Catalonia by around 10 million people.

    It is the language number 13 in amount of speakers in the European Union, and ranked by Google one of the 10 most active languages in the world.

    Catalonia has a national conflict with Spain. Catalonia is struggling to become a European State while Spain is using the crisis as an excuse to Spanishify Catalonia by amongts other things: closing down the few Catalan TV channels and declaring illegal the catalan immersion in schools (which has received international praise).

    Spanish is spoken in the world by hundreds of millions of people Catalan is only spoken in the Catalan countries, what are they afraid of?

    Why would we want to stay in a state that not only doesn’t respect our culture but attacks it? and why would we want to stay in a state that plunders our financial resources at the same time? Catalonia is self sufficient and Spain plunders 16 billion euros every year from Catalonia. Catalonia has not been living above its means. Not one cent above its means.

    There is a strong social movement to reclaim our sovereignty and become a new state within the European Union. Catalonia has had its national identity supressed by Spain during the last 300 years by the use of military force and now by the legal and political system in Spain.

    Spain denies it being a multinational state. This was the bad deal we got after coming out of a 40 year long fascist dictatorship in the 70s. But now that they cannot use the force to silence us the independentist movement is gaining momentum with already 51% of people willing to vote yes in a referendum of independence and only 18% opposing it. Things are moving fast and the crisis is only accelerating the events.

    You can read more in my site

    1. Thank you, too, for your comments. As I mentioned to Seli (above), I have corrected my description of the Catalan language. I would love learn more about the Catalan independence movement. My family will be in town through Friday. Perhaps we could meet some time for a meal and a chat. If you are available, you can email me at or call me at (804) 873-1543 (perhaps you need to add a U.S. country code, I don’t know.)

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    I hope you are a “night owl”. Maybe try Restaurrante Agua? Given your new-found interest in blogging about biking – I once took an excellent historical bike tour of Barcelona, arranged by the conference coordinator at the conference I was attending. If you get a chance, it is a great way to see the city.

    One thing I never understood was the basic economics of Barcelona. Back in the day, the price of either buying or renting an apartment seemed astronomical. I am sure those prices have fallen as real estate everywhere has fallen. However, the taxi drivers must live somewhere, the fares aren’t sky high and (I expect) the cost of living is still very high. So, how does this all work? People apparently don’t “drive until they qualify” in Barcelona so – what do they do?

    Finally, a side trip to the beach community of Sitges is worth the time – especially in the evening when you can walk along the beach and see the most elaborate sand sculptures that you can imagine.

    1. The Bacon’s are not by nature night owls, but we have become night owls here in Barcelona. We eat late dinners — around the time we’d normally be heading to bed at home — and we don’t hit the sack until midnight or later. There is so much to see and do in Barcelona that we’ve already concluded that five days is not nearly enough time — we’ll have to come back. One of the things we’d love to do is take a bike tour. We haven’t come across Restaurrante Agua yet — maybe next time!

  8. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Climate + Culture = Barcelona, Spain
    Climate + Culture = Houston, Texas

  9. ha ha ha… sounds like Barcelona is the Northern Va of Spain in terms of it’s relationship and finances with the legislators in Madrid!


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Yes, it is. A competent jurisdiction being bled dry by others who drain the local coffers.

      Interesting point about Germany having a legal limit on the size of the transfer payment made from one region to another. Perhaps Virginia should consider the same approach.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      You will also find separatist sentiments among the Basque regions of Spain.

      It seems the boundaries of modern day Spain don’t really constitute one homogeneous people.

      Meanwhile, Castilian Spain imposes its will on the Catalans and Basques.

      Many Catalans and Basques want to be separated from the Castilians so they can live their own lives the way they see fit.

      Basque = NoVa
      Catalan = Tidewater
      Castilian = Richmond and its surrogates across the state.

      LarryG – you have stumbled into the truth.

  10. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Yes, Barcelona is extraordinary. I have many positive memories.

    The first occurred the summer of the first landing on the Moon – Mine was not on the Moon but on one of those $3 dollar a day European summer walkabouts. Before I left the US, the advice was “guard your camera or thieves will steal it.” It was the first of many myths exploded the summer.

    It happened late at night, walking alone among the docks of Barcelona, to catch the late boat to Ibiza. Suddenly I heard a man yelling. I turned to discover him running toward me. I kept walking faster going the other direction to escape. Until I realized he was holding my camera high in the air, and had run several blocks to return what I had left in a cafe.

    The last memory of Barcelona hangs on the wall of my kitchen. A sparkling color Photo taken two summers ago – A cornucopia of fresh fruits nestle in a fruit sellers box in one of Barcelona’s many fabulous open air markets.

    I you want to see how poorly we live in most American cities, and how much humanity we have lost and lose daily in our cities, then by all means visit Barcelona.

  11. Hi James, thanks for your quick reply. I would love to meet you if I was in Barcelona but I am currently working in England so maybe next time. BTW, I really enjoyed your article.

    My girlfriend has a Masters in Urban studies and made her dissertation about the Bicing system in Barcelona. She’s originally from Canada and she likes the Barceloma lifestyle.

    As a Barcelonian I was never aware of all the nice things of my city until I started living abroad and while there are many things I love about northamerica my favourite lifestyle is a mediterranean city made of flats of a moderate height with all services mixed up with the areas where people live so that you can walk, bike or take the metro. I think the car in Barcelona is a nuissance. I have only needed it to get out of the city.

    Enjoy our country and come back!

  12. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Seriously, I think you should quit blogging since you’ll only get into more trouble. Take a break! Take some time to reflect and actually TALK to people! Learn some things. Quit these off-the-cuff “mash up” comments. How the hell can you know about a place when you’ve been there a couple of days?
    I spent SIX YEARS in Russia and know how much I don’t know.

  13. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    When reading James Bacon’s initial article, consider all the options that Barcelona offers its residents as they go about their daily lives.

    Note all the offerings that the City opens to its residents as they go about the various tasks of their daily living. No matter what the task at hand. Note all the variety, efficiency, and convenience that the city affords them.

    It is as if the City were seamlessly and constantly tailoring itself to the particular needs of each particular individual on that particular day at that particular hour. How and why does this happen? From where do all these layered options, their amazing complexity and subtlety, arise?

    One insight might be found on a road leaving the Mediterranean Coast.
    A friend and I once followed it, bicycling up its steep climb for hours without once having to shift gears. We were fit back then. But the road was also that perfectly engineered for foot travel. Built over millennium by travelers afoot – goats, mules, horses, and people – adapting its slopes to all sorts of combinations best suited to the tasks and tools of their times – who also passed under a Roman Aqueduct spanning a gorge they climbed.

    these earlier travelers were successfully dealing with the world they lived in. I wonder if our technologies far too often now blind us to many realities that are still with us. Realities that plague and delight us, yet are invisible to us. Ones we no longer see or feel with the clarity or urgency needed to enjoy & harness or avoid & otherwise deal successfully with them.

  14. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Above Post escaped before it was edited. Jim please feel free to delete it in lieu of the following:

    When reading James Bacon’s above article, consider all the options that Barcelona offers its residents as they go about the various tasks of their daily living. No matter what the task at hand, note all the variety, efficiency, and convenience that the city affords the people living in it.

    It is as if the City were seamlessly and constantly tailoring itself all day long to the particular needs of each individual on each day at that particular hour. How does this happen? Why? And from where do all these layered options, their amazing complexity and subtlety, arise?

    Sure answers are not easily found. One insight, however, might be gleaned by biking a steep road up an escarpment behind the Mediterranean Coast. A friend and I once biked such a road, up its steep climb for hours, without once having to shift gears. We were fit back then. But the road was also perfectly engineered for our task, our feet turning wheels carrying us up.

    Why and how? I was told the road was shaped over millennium by travelers afoot – goats, mules, horses, and people – whose moving feet turning wheels adapted its slopes to the tasks and tools of the travelers using them.

    An old road, it also passed under a Roman Aqueduct spanning a gorge it climbed. Surely there are lessons here too, positive and negative perhaps.

    In any case, these earlier travelers afoot learned how best to deal with and adapt to the world they lived in, or quickly passed from the scene forever.
    Now I wonder if our technologies often blind us to many realities our predecessors were forced to confront head on. And so give us a false sense of security against many realities that are still with us. Realities that plague or delight us, even if we longer see or feel them with the clarity or urgency we need to enjoy and harness them, or avoid their harmful consequences.

    I suspect Barcelona is wise about many things many of us have forgotten.

  15. […] but to get a sense of how the people here live. Rather than staying in a hotel … Read more on Bacon’s Rebellion ← FC Barcelona – Messi hoping to get even better – Barcelona Video […]

Leave a Reply