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THE METROPOLITAN NETWORK OF CITIES
by Josep A. Acebillo
Director, Barcelona Regional

A territory’s functional capacity has long been defined by its infrastructure. Elements of infrastructure, such as transportation facilities, determined the location of new activities, and conversely, a territory lacking such elements (usually owing to topography or urban layout) also lost functional capacity.
But the panorama of infrastructure is now changing. Elements of infrastructure are becoming lighter and more powerful. (...) Some new infrastructure elements based on minimal physical media are vastly powerful, meaning that functional selectivity on the basis of territory is disappearing, to the extent that new infrastructure elements, owing to their drastically reduced dimensions, are not rejected because of conflict with existing structures, and can reach practically everywhere, thereby generating new productive activities. In short, the territory becomes more isotropic.
(...) The possibility of equipping protected urban centres and untouched rural areas with infrastructure without damaging them opens new horizons for urban expansion. (...)
Contemporary town planning culture, moving progressively away from geographical and economic considerations, has given rise to new, very low-density urban systems. (...)
The problems arising in these spread-out urban systems (low mobility, unfeasible investments in transport infrastructure, deficient urban life, excessive use of land, etc.) have underlined the need to rethink them, since they are in fact loss-making systems that place too heavy a burden on the central area, owing, among other reasons, to the fact that tax systems are not applied in sufficient detail to allow the fair redistribution of deficits. It is obvious, for example, that, in the Barcelona area, a greater portion of the growing cost of metropolitan mobility is borne by residents of the central area than by those who, in their legitimate movement to and from residential areas on the outskirts, increase the cost of transport. (...)
In areas such as Barcelona, with a rich network of medium-sized cities, the formation of new population centres should not be encouraged, except where the potential of the existing centres has been exhausted. The most rational, economical and best way of preserving our natural and urban heritage is to concentrate new activities in existing cities.(...)
Cities such as Sabadell, Terrassa, Mataró, L’Hospitalet, etc. will have to take on a greater degree of metropolitan centrality in relation to their size, vocation and characteristics, in order to create a complex network of cities consistent with their historical and socio-economic circumstances.
(...) For historical, political and economic reasons, the metropolitan area’s rich multi-centred structure of urban centres must take into account and defend Barcelona’s position as capital. What is good for Barcelona is good for Sabadell, and what is bad for Terrassa is bad for Barcelona. This is not just because of Barcelona’s status as capital city, but also due to the fact that in such a multi-centred structure as ours, different degrees of centrality must be identified between larger and smaller cities, and this process culminates in identification of the system’s nerve centre, without this involving any loss of autonomy for anyone, in the same way that data transmission systems, along with their various centres, also have a central server.(...)
This makes it very risky to embark on the design of infrastructure networks that do not ensure access to all of the centres involved nor guarantee the reliability of the whole system. In our case, there are two very clear examples of this sort of issue. The installation of telecommunications networks has been carried out following a model process that divided Catalonia into three zones, with installation radiating outwards from Barcelona, which has acted as the driving force behind the network. (...)
This is what makes it so difficult to comprehend why, with the coherence of telecommunications systems, the order in which the high-speed rail system is to be implemented is still under discussion. Can anyone really believe that the new high-speed rail system in the Barcelona area is workable without having the central station at La Sagrera from the very start? If we can all agree on the installation of a European-gauge rail line with stations in the Lower Llobregat area (serving local areas, the airport and the Port of Barcelona), another in the Vallès region (which would have to be located to make it accessible particularly to Sabadell and Terrassa), and its central station in Barcelona at La Sagrera, why this insistence on starting with the Vallès line in the initial phase, an anti-economic proposition and one that goes against all of the principles developed to date in the rest of Europe, where stations in the initial phase of high-speed rail development have been located as centrally as possible (Paris-Lyon, London-Waterloo, Madrid-Atocha, Frankfurt, etc.)?
Taking into account that the high-speed rail line has a substantial impact on state investment, if the complete system cannot be built in the first phase, it is obvious that it will have to be staggered very carefully, and it highly recommendable for the first phase to connect the Port, the airport and La Sagrera, via the Llobregat-Litoral line, in order to prevent these centres from becoming dead ends, which is what would happen if the first phase of the line were built through the Vallès region. It is also important to bear in mind that the first phase through the Llobregat-Litoral line is far less costly than the Vallès line, since it uses the existing tunnels between the Estació de França and La Sagrera, built in 1992, as well as the necessary areas in the Can Tunis-Morrot stretch, where, as at La Sagrera, there is a substantial amount of land available for rail development. It is quite another matter if, once the first phase has been completed, the subordinate lines are built to join up the whole metropolitan area. In this sense, in the same way that Paris opted for Lyon, Charles de Gaulle and Disneyworld, in Barcelona we must opt for La Sagrera, the Lower Llobregat and the Vallès (in that order).
However, Barcelona’s central core has a further particularity that must be taken into account. A closer look at this area shows that there is a very heavy concentration of activity in certain sections. Along the sea front, the most strategic infrastructure, not only in metropolitan terms but in terms of Catalonia as a whole, is located in the fourteen kilometres between the delta of the Llobregat and the mouth of the Besòs. If we were to let our guard down in dealing with the issues connected with European-gauge access to the airport, or with energy supplies, we would be squandering the benefits of a concentration that already exists and that is the envy of many other regions.
It is a rather sensitive issue, since it involves the convergence of two barely compatible spheres. The appeal of our coastline for public use should not interfere with the possibility of setting aside substantial portions of the sea front for infrastructure and productive uses.(...)
It so happens that the expansion of the port and particularly the airport is compatible with their surroundings, if it is planned with imagination and quality.(...)
The two and a half kilometres that the Llobregat will be diverted towards the southwest, to make way for the new logistics and port facilities, have their counterpart on the Besòs, for completion of the organisation begun in 1992, and to allow continuity and new potential outside Barcelona proper. The reclamation of an area from the sea is no more than a continuation of our forebears’ line (Barceloneta, La Llacuna, etc.) in ensuring sufficient coastal space to take advantage of the proximity of the sea. The Besòs energy complex must not only be maintained, it must also be strengthened on the basis of new technologies.(...)
This, in short, is what is being proposed for the Besòs region for 2004. The extension of the Diagonal as far as the sea will be futile if the area where it ends remains as degraded as it is at present, and the proposed improvement is necessary if the new residential zones of Poblenou and Diagonal Mar are not to be suffocated by infrastructure elements. This is also an appropriate framework for efforts at solving endemic problems, such as those posed by La Mina and La Catalana, neighbourhoods that are at once central and marginal, next to the sea and far removed from it.
Many will wonder whether these infrastructure proposals are appropriate, necessary, or even possible. The studies carried out by Barcelona Regional and those currently under way allow us to assert that the proposed infrastructure programme is on the right scale for the Barcelona metropolitan area, if we do not wish to fall well behind the regions that we must measure ourselves against and compete with.(...)