The Consell de Cent project is the most recent example of transformative urban greening and pedestrianization in Barcelona. The project eliminated three lanes of vehicle traffic and converted the street into a walkable, green and pedestrian environment, in the heart of Barcelona’s Eixample grid. The 4.7 km of new urban green space also provides residents with a sneak preview into what planners envision for the Eixample district if the Superblock Barcelona plan is rolled out to completion. In short, the Consell de Cent project is the green city of the future for Barcelona. Read this blog post to learn more about the evolving strategic approach of Superblock Barcelona and this Twitter thread to situate each of the Superblock interventions on a timeline allowing you to see how the idea has evolved.
Last week, the dust had not settled on the 26 million Euro Consell de Cent project when a judge ruled that the city followed improper planning procedures and the pedestrianized street should be reverted to a car-centric street that it was just a few months ago. The headline reads: “Judge orders the City of Barcelona to undo the pedestrianization of the green corridor on Consell de Cent” (7 September 2023).
The ruling is a shock to the system and a frontal assault on the innovative urban planning practices led by planners in this city. In this blog post, I attempt to unpack what this court ruling is about, the legal arguments, and who is behind it. Did the city really do something wrong? What will happen to the Consell de Cent project? Is it possible that the courts will force the city to undo a 26 million Euro investment? What are the implications for city planning in Barcelona? And might the ruling impact future pedestrianization? Let’s take a look.
First, who is the plaintiff against the city? Who is fighting to stop the urban greening and pedestrianization of Consell de Cent?
The plaintiff against the city is a business association, Barcelona Oberta, comprised of big-name retailers and firms in the tourism industry. In July 2022, the La Vanguardia newspaper reported that architect Antonio Acebillo brought the case to the courts, using the same legal arguments that have ultimately prevailed. In an interview with Acebillo you can read about his arguments against pedestrianization of Consell de Cent which might be summarized as: “local businesses are hurt by pedestrianization”, “the economy will be hurt”, “Eixample grid will lose its functions as a transportation network”, “the project is contrary to Cerdà’s vision for the Eixample”. I disagree with all those arguments, but it is important to document the contours of the debate.
And what are the legal arguments against the pedestrianization of Consell de Cent?
The legal argument is procedural, arguing that the pedestrianization of a “local road” (via local) requires the modification of the Metropolitan Master Plan, or Plà General Metropolità (PGM). The ruling is a 19-page document comprised mostly of text cut and paste from documentation submitted by the plaintiff and defendant, much like the mediocre student who cuts and pastes extensive quotes in their term paper to reach the minimum page requirement.
The judge does not enter any discussion about fundamental rights or obligations. There is no underlying jurisprudence. Instead, the judge takes us back to Barcelona’s Master Plan which is more than 40 years old.
Barcelona’s Master Plan dictates essential land uses. The planning system in Spain is explicitly hierarchical, in which subordinate plans (zoning, housing, climate action) must all be consistent with higher level plans. Sitting at the very top of the planning hierarchy is the Masterplan (PGM), which dictates basic land uses including transportation.
This ruling illustrates the extraordinary legal weight carried by the Masterplan (PGM). In that plan, there is a categorization of the road network: arterial roads (xarxa basica), local roads (via local) and pedestrianized areas (via civica). The judge argues that the pedestrianization of Consell de Cent was a de-facto recategorization from a local road to a civic road, and that this modification needed updating the Metropolitan Masterplan (PGM).
The City counters with various arguments. First, they make no changes to the land use outlined in the Masterplan and there is no design requirement for how local roads must be designed. Importantly, the city meets the basic obligations of a local road because there is still vehicular access and space for delivery. Furthermore, the City obtained written permission from the institution responsible for the Masterplan (the Government of Catalonia) to move ahead with the project without a modification in the PGM.
In short, did the city do something wrong? No, absolutely not. The PGM has been modified countless times, and in this transformation, Consell de Cent still is able to function as a local road or via local.
What are their real motives? Is it purely political?
This legal battle is merely one in a series of legal attacks against the former mayor and her administration. I am told that the lawyers used in this case are the same lawyers that have brought a dozen cases against former Mayor Colau, to smear her reputation, erode her credibility and push her out of power.
This legal battle certainly appears to be politically motivated. It appears as if powerful elite simply wanted to use whatever instrument they could to put a wrench into Ada Colau’s effort to transform the city.
What happens next?
The ruling is being appealed and most pundits believe that it will be overturned in higher courts. In fact, the plaintiffs in the case began to back peddle within 24 hours of the ruling. Gabriel Jené, president of Barcelona Oberta, declared that even though the judge ruled in their favor “it is not our wish that Consell de Cent is reverted to its previous state”. He added, “we are not climate deniers” and that they merely wanted “dialogue” with the city.
They give the impression that they merely wanted to obstruct progress made by their political opposition, but now that Mayor Colau is no longer in power, they really do not have a problem anymore. I have been told that the current Mayor Jaume Collboni has a strong relationship with Barcelona Oberta and the business interests involved. Had Mayor Ada Colau and her team remained in power, this conflict might have evolved into something more serious, but it now seems like it will just be an anecdote in the long run (assuming a higher court indeed does overrule the decision).
Meanwhile, several voices have come out to defend the Consell de Cent project and vision. Xavier Matilla, the city’s chief architect who led the transformation, clearly outlines the arguments in favour of the transformation here. The neighborhood association has also made a strong statement in favour of Consell de Cent, as did the research institute on health and the urban environment IS Global.
What are the lessons?
There is no turning back on the greening and pedestrianization of our cities, that over time, will continue to remove space from private vehicles in favour of public transport and bicycling. However this ruling may slow things down and emboldened pro-car interests groups.
The ruling also raises fundamental questions about the role of the Metropolitan Masterplan (PGM) that was written over 40 years ago, in a vastly different context, and the need to update this document. The problem is that administrative and legal procedures for such an update are so arduous, that no one has been willing to open Pandora’s box. In my view, this underscores the need to simplify procedures and streamline planning processes.
Finally, the politicization of the judiciary makes me, once again, question the integrity and credibility of Spain’s judicial system. While Spain is physically on the European continent, its legal system resembles what you may see in Latin America: politicized, flimsy, incongruent and ultimately unjust. One can feel unprotected in a legal system where the law can be bended at the whim of the most powerful. Anyone who followed the political prosecution and imprisonment of Catalan political leaders saw how the Spanish judicial system can be used as an instrument.
The Consell de Cent project is unquestionably an improvement for the city. It will not be returned to a car-centric urban highway. In the long term, the project will be appreciated as a major step forward for a greener, healthier Barcelona, even if the political opposition has yielded a short-term victory that gives the impression that something was not quite done right.