Constricted by its medieval walls, Barcelona was suffocating – until unknown engineer Ildefons Cerdà came up with a radical expansion plan. Rival architects disparaged him, yet his scientific approach changed how we think about cities
In the mid-1850s, Barcelona was on the brink of collapse. An industrial city with a busy port, it had grown increasingly dense throughout the industrial revolution, mostly spearheaded by the huge development of the textile sector.
The city was living at a faster pace than the rest of Spain, and was ready to become a European capital. Yet its population of 187,000 still lived in a tiny area, confined by its medieval walls.
With a density of 856 inhabitants per hectare (Paris had fewer than 400 at the time), the rising mortality rates were higher than those in Paris and London; life expectancy had dropped to 36 years for the rich and just 23 years for the working classes. The walls were becoming a health risk, almost literally suffocating the people of Barcelona – who were addressed directly in the following public statement of 1843:
“‘Down with the walls!’ has said this province’s council, and ‘Down with the walls!’ has no doubt answered your town hall, which knows the importance of making this girdle disappear that is squeezing and choking us.”
Demolition work would finally start a year later. Now the city and the Spanish government had to design and manage the sudden redistribution of an overflowing population. It was a controversial and highly political decision – which ultimately led to the then unknown Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà’s radical expansion plan for a large, grid-like district outside the old walls, called Eixample (literally, “expansion”). In the process, Cerdà also invented the word, and study of, “urbanisation”. […]