Small Interventions to Structure the Great Metropolis

Ramon Torra

Introduction and presentation of the 6 sites of the competitions “Metropolitan Passages”  organized by the AMB – catalogue of results in English, Spanish and Catalan.

By Ramon Torra, architect and general director of the AMB

“The metropolis of Barcelona is characterized by being a highly diverse, polycentric territory, but one that also has a certain degree of compactness. Mobility infrastructures have been developed following a model that shadows the occupation of the territory, changing from a radial one that focuses on Barcelona to a road network configuration following and linked to the distribution of large and small centers alike.

Metropolitan mobility currently finds itself at a time of change, stemming from the transformation of public behavior and the way people move about the territory, as well as from the application of new technological solutions in metropolitan mobility. Although we are moving more and more, we are also doing so in increasingly different ways, and mainly for reasons of work or recreation. Trips through the metropolis have increased to an average of 3.73 trips per person per day, given a total of 11.5 million trips within the metropolitan territory, 53.1% of which are by foot or by bicycle and 22.7%, on public transport.

Over the course of the last 30 years, interventions by democratic councils have, in the absence of any metropolitan administration, been highly focused on developing urban quality within the municipalities themselves. Now, though, there is a need to aim future actions towards a more solid territorial structuring, continuity between municipalities, a relationship between free spaces and accessibility to different, often poorly connected, urban features.

A number of historical episodes show us how the shape of the metropolitan region has been defined in the search for relationships and contacts. At the beginning of the 20th century, the so-called Plan d’Enllaços (‘Linkage Plan’) led to the emergence of a new vision of a ‘large-scale’ Barcelona, as a global response to the problematic territorial expansion triggered by the industrial revolution and of a resolution of the different areas of contact and intermeshing between urban centers and the fabric of the central Eixample district. Later, in the 1980s, Barcelona saw the need to open itself up to the sea, with operations such as the Moll de la Fusta quay whilst, more recently, the Collserola Gateways Master Plan has resulted in a more direct link between the city and the mountain, by bringing the green spaces lower down and boosting the relationship between urban features and the Natural Park.

Today, the opportunity raised by metropolitan passages allows us to link different fragments of the metropolis and, at the same time, overcome a series of barriers that are difficult to overcome and that block urban continuities, accessibility to municipalities and permeability with other parts of the territory such as parks, paths, rivers and beaches. Passages are places of public interconnection, with the ability to integrate the region on the basis of areas of action of different kinds and sizes, located in peripheral areas with urban characteristics different to those of traditional urban centers.

Just as the Pla d’Enllaços was a global proposal that could be transferred to different areas of application, the Metropolitan Passages ideas competition encourages wide-ranging debate on the metropolitan conurbation from a local viewpoint, a more human perspective in line with current socio-economic needs, by means of actions that are more micro-planning in style, but from a metropolitan perspective. This new way of tackling urban planning takes into account the many different scales of urban relations and is able to ensure an impact above and beyond its area of action, whilst creating benefits both local and metropolitan in scope. Small, low-cost and easily implemented actions that, multiplied and spread throughout the territory, enhance the efficiency of the metropolitan system.

‘Inter-urban connections of a civic nature are a metropolitan structuring requirement and provide support, in a more public friendly use of what wheeled and rail access points to as a central place in the Catalan regional system.’

As Manuel de Solà Morales noted in his proposal for El Prat Nord in 2008, the requirement to structure a territory calls for a more civic, close-at-hand and everyday examination of the areas of urban interconnection. In this regard, the Metropolitan Passages projects stitch the metropolitan region together and, at the same time, enhance many, often poor-quality, urban spaces that are used day in, day out, whilst giving rise to new kinds of public spaces in which slow vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians can move from one urban environment to another, in fully urban conditions.

This is the issue upon which we have been working throughout a number of different projects carried out by the AMB, now boosted by the Metropolitan Passages ideas competition, which is focused on exploring new solutions for these highly complex, extremely tough spaces, to thus be able to extend this ‘stitching’ exercise to embrace different metropolitan situations, some greater in size and others, with small, simple paving or lighting work to provide us with a new urban landscape, colonize spaces with new uses or ensure safety.

One recent example of this is the reclaimed connection passage along the River Llobregat, between Martorell and Sant Andreu de la Barca, thanks to a new access point to a heritage itinerary that leverages the inherent cultural landscape of the Llobregat.

The sites proposed by the competition can be broken down into three differentiated categories. The first call for ideas involves sites where the challenge is to overcome infrastructure-based barriers between urban fabrics (in Badalona and Montcada i Reixac) and, at the same time, solve the issue of connectivity with metropolitan green spaces, by offering new accesses.

The second call for ideas seeks to improve urban connectivity between municipalities using civic thoroughfares or metropolitan avenues (between Cerdanyola del Vallès and Ripollet and between Sant Cugat del Vallès and Rubí).

Lastly, the third call for ideas involves an exercise in accessibility and intermodality, with the presence of metropolitan stations, between municipalities and city districts, and of different modes of transport (between Molins de Rei and Sant Vicenç dels Horts and in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat).

Overcoming barriers

In this kind of situation, passages require special attention with regard to the contact between hard infrastructure and natural spaces of landscape value. These are the cases proposed for the tender for the passage under the C-31 road in Badalona, between the districts of La Morera, Bufalà, Casagemes and Dalt de la Vila, a fairly central and fairly fragile environment due to the contact with the green corridor of the Torrent de la Font stream, and for Montcada i Reixac, which involves a connecting element between the district of Mas Rampinyo and the center of Montcada i Reixac whilst at the same time solving the issues of crossing the River Ripoll, the under-viaduct space of the C-33 road and the railway routes.

The project for the reclamation of the Rambla Lluch and access to the passageway under the tracks in Gavà implemented by the AMB in 2012 resolved the issue of continuity between urban fabrics beneath a railway line, whilst creating new public access to a site of historical interest, the Spanish Civil War underground shelter.

Moving between towns

Although countless interventions have been carried out to improve public spaces in urban centers, sometimes, as you move further away from these centers, the feeling of comfort is lost. Some towns, although they may be close to neighboring towns, have problems of connectivity. One example of this is the close relationship between Cerdanyola del Vallès and Ripollet, via the walkway over the River Sec and the C-58, a very contrasting, fragile landscape. The competition called for consideration of the option of a civic thoroughfare, a metropolitan promenade, with good access to neighboring urban centers, to shared services, to natural spaces of scenic interest. The case of the old Rubí road, as it crosses under the AP-7 toll motorway, is suggested as an interurban promenade that reimagines this section of the road to guarantee urban continuity for pedestrians and cyclists.

One example implemented by the AMB technical team is the small building project for the ford over the River Llobregat in the town of Sant Boi de Llobregat, which has bolstered the connection between the two banks of the river and guaranteed connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists between the municipalities of Sant Joan Despí and Sant Boi de Llobregat.

Metropolitan interchanges

When one single space features a variety of accesses to different modes of transport, the passage as a metropolitan interchange requires special attention and is strategically located within the metropolitan system to become a space bringing together many urban flows, with the coalescing of opportunities for centrality and urbanization.

The competition called for a study of the connection between the towns of Molins de Rei and Sant Vicenç dels Horts and the Quatre Camins interchange station, overcoming the infrastructure-based impediments to define a node of centrality as a key point of this metropolitan region of great urban complexity. The second case called for consideration of the connectivity between the districts of El Gornal and Bellvitge, in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, whilst posing the issue of new accessibility for the future interchange station for transfers between the railway, metro, buses and bicycles.

It is in this regard that passages can be seen as a key challenge for the future, as elements that link the different modalities of the metropolitan transport system with the urban fabrics and which provide the public with a top-quality urban experience.

One of the main goals of the next Urban Master Plan is to strengthen and re-link the region whilst improving the structuring of the metropolitan system. The metropolis of Barcelona must be seen by the public as a single large unit that has overcome the central preponderance of Barcelona.

After years of hard infrastructures, it is now time to consider more amenable urban planning that provides a response to the direct needs of the local public and that creates comfortable, sustainable and healthy environments. From the perspective of the multiplicity and diversity of ways of moving around the metropolis, we are at a point in history when we must continue to identify and consider these small public spaces, sometimes lacking in defined limits, that form part of people’s everyday lives and that have the advantage of creating a refreshed image of the place, introducing new programs and creating an impact that is as important as it is necessary”.

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