BRISBANE 2032 OPPORTUNITIES FOR AN OLYMPIC LEGACY: ARTICLE 4. Barcelona 1992: The Olympic Games and a Paradigm Shift in City Planning Part II – New City Planning

Published: July 19, 2022Categories: Urban Design Policy & IntegrationTags:


This covers the period 1982 to date, concentrating on policy and project design and delivery. It includes the Olympic projects but also major city-shaping developments and the focus on public spaces.

About the Authors

John Montgomery is an urban planner, and urban economist, a strategic urban designer and an author.


Over the past 150 years, there have been four plans proposed for Barcelona –the Plan Cerdà (1859) discussed in Article 3; the General Metropolitan Plan (1976); the New Centrality Areas (1987) prepared by the Joan Busquets municipal team, and the Second Renewal of Barcelona (1998).  The shape of the city has during all of this time remained a compact rectangle, almost a square, delineated by the line of the shore and the beginning of the Collserola Mountains, and by the rivers Besòs and Llobregat.

Almost all of the urban planning interventions since 1976 –like the city beach, avenues such as la Diagonal and la Meridiana, ring-roads, bridges, tunnels and so on– can be understood according to this geometry of Barcelona and the corner of the square-shaped city. This included the plans for hosting the Olympic Games in 1992.

The Public Spaces Strategy

For Barcelona’s new economic, cultural and social city, a strong emphasis was placed on public space as an urban linking device, a celebration of Catalan culture and as a series of outdoor rooms. A key event was the arrival of Oriol Bohigas as planning director in 1980. Planning policy was changed from the orthodox long-term, single-use zoning of areas towards a more active approach to place making[i].  It was considered essential that each neighbourhood of the city should have its own “living room”, and each district – of which there are ten – a park, so that citizens could engage in everyday activities of public social life.  In the peripheral areas, the stated goal was “to put a face on the faceless” estates of the 1960s and 1970s.  Art and sculpture would play an important role and was seen as integral to the design of each space.  Many of the designs, such as the Parc de l’Espanya Industriel and Parc de l’Estació del Nord incorporated features that children can play on.

Bohigas it was who set up a group of recently graduated architects to design the programmes and projects. From fairly early in the scheme of things a space-typology was established to guide design and making of the spaces[ii].  This was set out as follows:

  • opening up of squares to promote the regeneration of degraded old centres (for example Pla del Raval);
  • appropriation of empty spaces or road infrastructure works to create high quality avenues in the periphery (Via Júlia, Rambla de Prim, Ronda del Mig);
  • rehabilitation of the inner courtyards of city blocks as public spaces (Eixample district);
  • creation of public spaces through private commercial operations (Maremagnum);
  • creation of city parks and walks by converting port and railway zones and rehabilitating obsolete facilities (sea front, Estació del Nord, Joan Miró/Escorxador Park)

Public Realm Strategy Diagram

Broadly speaking, whilst the spaces created or re-configured in the Old City tended to be under-stated in their design treatment – most of these are “stone rooms” designed to set off the old buildings, but also to act as meeting places – those in the Eixample feature much greater experimentation and are contemporary in layout, materials, public art and furniture.  There was no set menu of materials or lighting, but each space was designed individually in close discussions with local residents.  Although expensive, this means that one does not find the same light fitting, bench or litter bin everywhere across the city.  Spaces in the Old City which did not previously exist were created by demolishing dilapidated buildings, Placa de la Mercè or Fosser de les Moreres for example.  Existing spaces such as Placa Reial or the Placa del Sol were also renovated.  Several squares were created by removing the dominance of road traffic.  Other types of space included play areas, large recreational parks, pocket parks and “oases” – for example, Parc de Jaun Miro or Parc del Clot.  Promenades were re-designed as walking routes, with places to sit provided. This programme of works was well underway by 1986.

Formal traditional public space.

Example of a new public space.

The reclaimed beach at Barceloneta with 10m sculpture The Wounded Star by Rebecca Horn (LÉstal terit).

Planning for The Olympic Games

The preparations for the Olympic Games included a revamping of Barcelona’s sports venues, already mostly clustered at Montjuic. In addition, there was a major modernization of communications and urban infrastructure, notably the creation of a peripheral ring road, partly underground, connecting the Olympic sites, the redevelopment of the railway network and upgraded stations, expansion of the airport with new terminals, and a connecting train from the airport to the city. The old sea-side industrial area of Poblenou was identified for the new athletes’ village.

To provide a little more detail, part of the mountain of Montjuic was reconfigured as an ‘Olympic Ring’, designed by Carles Buxadé, Joan Margarit, Federico Correa and Alfons Milŕ, Existing sports facilities were remodeled, such as the Montjuic Olympic Stadium or the Piscinas Picornell. The Olympic stadium had originally been completed in 1929 as the host venue for the 1936 Olympics, which were moved to Berlin. New facilities were built, such as the Palacio de Sant Jordi and the Barcelona Sports Palace. The Olympic stadium in particular is used for concerts.

Montjuic Pool

The building of the Olympic Village of Poblenou was a major urban change, combined with the later Front Marítim, a 5km stretch of the coast reclaimed from industry. This involved the complete remodeling of Barceloneta and Poblenou. Under plans conceived by Martorell-Bohigas-Mackey-Puigdomčnech  the coastal railway had to be buried, a new port (Olympic Port) was built, a new neighborhood was built and roads were made.  This resulted in the recreation of beaches of the city, seen ever since as a key transformation of Barcelona, opening up the city to the sea and bringing it closer to the people of Barcelona. Today Poblenau is a fashionable modern hub and has since been rebranded as 22@ Barcelona. It is now home to Barcelona’s knowledge economy.

The new Atheletes’ Village in the Problenou was one of the built elements that allowed Barcelona to open up to the sea. It is now a successful quarter of Barcelona.

The remaking of the coast extended to the construction of the new Port Vell, which included a large cruise terminal. This area is notable for the Maremagnum, a retail and hospitality area, and a pivoting footbridge, the Pavilion of the Beautiful Sea, Polideportivo Estació del Nord and Frontó Colom Vall d’Hebron The neighborhood of the Vall d’Hebron was remodeled to combine of green areas, large axes and new sports facilities, for example the  Field of Archery, Pavilion of the Vall d’Hebron, and the tennis stadia.

Across the city as a whole new parks and gardens were created, amongst others, the Mirador del Migdia park, the Poblenou park, the Carles I park, the Cascades park, the Nova Icŕria.  These have added to the city’s array of green spaces. Many include impressive water features, ponds and fountains, including Barcelona’s most iconic fountain, Font Màgica de Montjuïc. A campaign was embarked upon, “Barcelona, ponte guapa“, to restore building facades.

The Magic Fountain of Montjuic

As far as infrastructure is concerned, two large telecommunications towers were built: the Communications Tower of Collserola, designed by Norman Foster, and the Communications Tower of Montjuic, by Santiago Calatrava. These were accompanied by the installation of 150 kilometers of underground optical fibre.

The city’s ring roads, known as the Rondas, were specifically designed and implemented during the 1992 Olympics in an effort to reduce congestion and facilitate movement through the city. The Ronda de Dalt connect around the perimeter to the rest of the city, while the Ronda Litoral crosses the coast. Some 78km of new roads accounted for 95% of investments created for the Olympics in transport and infrastructure, including improvements on outer Olympic sub-host cities.

Ronda da Dalt

In the case of Barcelona, the Olympic Games brought the opportunity to transform run-down, derelict and industrial areas. The ambitious strategies to redevelop and regenerate Barcelona were heralded as a model for delivering urban renewal across other cities. Acting as a catalyst to deliver necessary infrastructure required to regenerate the city, Barcelona’s Olympic Games investment programme included: the renovation of the Olympic stadium and the construction of a sports pavilion; building a motorway ring and highway infrastructure; delivering 4500 new housing units; extending the airport; delivering new cultural facilities; renewing 110 hectares of parks; and connecting the city to the sea.

All of this has helped position Barcelona as a leading tourist destination, a stated objective dating back to 1984. Prior to the Olympics, there were approximately 1.7 million tourists in 1990, increasing by over six million over the next 14 years. While tourism has its downsides, the economic boom and important infrastructural changes to cater to larger numbers have seen a transformation of the city as an economy and as a place. The Olympic Park is now a popular tourist destination, the waterfront and Poblenou areas too.


Over several years now: Charles Landry, Will Cousins ,Jordi Ferrando, Paul Skelton.

Notes & References

[i] Busquets, J. Barcelona Revisitied: Transforming the City Within the City in Charlesworth (ed) City Edge: Case Studies in Contemporary Urbanism, (London:  Architectural Press, 2005).

[ii] See Public space development in Barcelona — some examples, Jordi Borja, Zaida Muxí, Carme Ribas and Joan Subirats, Jaume Barnada, and Joan Busquet. Chapter 9, Transforming Barcelona, Marshall, T. 2004, Routledge, London.