From the “Catalan Manchester” into an exemplary innovation centre: lessons from Barcelona’s 22@ district

Barcelona’s Poblenou district (Spain), which had once been dubbed the “Catalan Manchester” and was the face of Catalonia’s industrial revolution, eventually lost its relevance. Abandoned by both industry and business, no longer attracting investments, it spent several decades simply withering away on the outskirts.

In the late 20th century, Barcelona’s municipal government had the idea to return to this district and radically change its present; the ambitious project for the new innovation district was named 22@. Even though at first sight the Barcelona Innovation District may look like just a typical urban regeneration project, there are multiple ways to breathe life into no longer relevant industrial districts, and the method chosen by Barcelonians is interesting both because of the concept and its successful implementation. Naturally, the entire process involved many discussions and disputes by the stakeholders, but they were the ones who helped discover original solutions that later were adopted at the entire city level.  

From an idea to results in two decades

It took huge investments and a lot of time in order to turn the 22@ project into reality. It is one of the largest urban regeneration projects in Europe: during the two-decade-long process, new lease on life was given to no less than 115 city blocks in the area of almost 200 hectares that were transformed from an abandoned post-industrial area into a modern district of technologies and innovations with housing and leisure spaces. The regeneration covered the entire territory: more than 4,500 of already existing buildings, almost 4,000 newly constructed ones and more than 11 hectares of green areas. 


While implementing 22@, the Spaniards sought to preserve the industrial character of the district; therefore, they gave priority to businesses operating in the fields of knowledge and innovations. A model of compact and comprehensive city was developed, where various-purpose objects co-existed: housing units, public service centres, business development zones and green recreational areas. The district’s architectural and industrial heritage was also preserved. 

Since the project’s launch, about 4,500 companies have been established at the 22@ innovation district that have created more than 50,000 new jobs. In total, today there are about 90,000 people working in the district, while the number of residents has increased by 22.8 percent.  

Became an inspiration for cities of the world

22@’s template quickly gained followers: based on its example, similar projects were initiated by other large cities of the world – everywhere from Rio de Janeiro and Boston to Istanbul.

According to the data of Trinity College Dublin, 22@ has become an inspiration for more than 80 innovative districts all over the world, and hundreds of visitors from around the globe come there every year to gain experience.

“Looking at the districts whose changes were inspired by Barcelona’s case, two things have to be kept in mind. First, most of them are following the examples of not just Barcelona but also other successful cities of the world, picking and choosing what suits them best in the case of their particular city. Second, Barcelona sought the result of 22@, as it is today, for two decades. Urban transformation is a time-consuming process; thus, in order to evaluate its success or failure, one has to wait for the end result, and this wait may take decades”, says Prof. Ramon Ribera Fumaz from the Open University of Catalonia, who is working in the fields of urban transformations and economics and who devoted a lot of attention to the transformations of Barcelona as well as their analysis. 

Constantly shifting and living process

Prof. Ribera Fumaz notes that the decade-spanning process of the district’s regeneration is constantly changing and evolving: new activities are continuously suggested; the city’s government and its priorities are changing; finally, the stakeholders and their needs shifted as well over those years.

“Four phases can be observed in the 22@ project: in 2000–2011, the main decisions were dictated by the public and scientific institutions (universities, research centres) as well as companies operating in the city that sought better spaces for their activities and offices. This was the period when a lot of effort was put into attracting foreign talents. 2011–2015 was a pause: a less active period due to the global economic crisis and the city government’s turning to other needs. The period of 2015–2020 can be described as the time when foreign companies were successfully attracted and consolidated in both the digital and the hospitality business sector. However, gentrification caused many tensions for the local residents in the matters of availability of property and services, the district was flooded with tourists”, the professor singled out the stages of 22@‘s regeneration.  


According to him, the situation was slightly modified by the pandemic: on one hand, the regeneration is continuing and companies are willingly settling in the district; on the other hand, gentrification processes are smoothed over by the established practice of remote work as well as by reorganisations within the companies themselves that change the ecosystems of the businesses that operate here.  

A district that turned into a place for testing pilot initiatives

The international project T-Factor, which analyses the activities of Barcelona’s 22@ innovation district and shares the good practices, draws attention to the temporary urbanism practices that have been applied in the district: i.e. the temporary activities and temporary urbanism projects that help increase the attractiveness of the location and its social and economic potential until permanent infrastructure is created there. 


Interestingly, temporary activities were not considered during the 22@ project’s initial stages. They came “from the bottom-up”, when it was decided to demolish, clean up and reorganise the spaces that the local communities had voluntarily occupied for their own needs (e.g. gardening or an alternative art centre).  

“Of course, such decisions received strong opposition and pressure of public opinion, so [we] had to think about what to do. That’s how the practice of temporary activities was remembered: [only] in the @22 district at first, and in the entire Barcelona later on, abandoned plots of land or unused buildings were permitted to be used by handing them over to the communities, which can operate there in ways they find acceptable or necessary”, Ribera Fumaz explains. For instance, this is how one of the initiatives, ConnectHort (Connecting Gardens), emerged, which permitted the temporary use of the city’s wastelands and abandoned territories that had grown in number following the 2008 financial crisis. In this way, after the project-initiating architects, urbanists, landscape specialists and neighbourhood resident associations came together, city garden areas were set up where educational gardening workshops are held and spaces open to visitors are available. 

Another pilot project, which was tested in the @22 district and resulted in big changes for the entire Barcelona, was called Superilles (Superislands). Its main goal was to turn car-dominated districts, where everything is overshadowed by traffic and parking spaces, into playgrounds and green spaces where people can exercise, spend time pleasantly and gather together.

At first, the first “superislands” were developed using simple tools: mobile street furniture, trees planted in pots, columns, street signs; one-sided traffic was introduced. With time, various measures and solutions were tested; some of them gradually became permanent, some of them were proposed by the specialists who were forming the city’s urban face, others by the residents themselves.

Such islands can now be found all over Barcelona; there are plans to create green pedestrian axes that would make it possible to expand this concept to most areas of the city.  

Different perspectives and the searches for compatibility of interests

Naturally, during the project, there were discussions between opposing groups: the latter consisted of the residents of surrounding districts whose streets saw increased traffic and the businesses who lost their clients due to the changes. Some of the residents were angered because the changes were implemented while they were away on vacation and without their knowledge. Others disliked the overall gentrification process in the districts that were undergoing renewal.

As observed by Prof. Ribera Fumaz, the Barcelonians’ opinions on the changes of the Poblenou district are not unanimous: “Those who see the glass as half-full look at 22@ and claim (not without reason) that Barcelona is a highly important European centre of IT economy, which is capable of attracting talents and investments, and assembling one of the most dynamic and driven ecosystems of IT innovations in Europe. Those who think that the glass is half-empty (once again, not without reason), see 22@ as a district where gentrification, unsustainable tourism and unstable forms of employment have set in”.

While seeking dialogue over the recent years, focus has been increasing on the involvement of the residents in decision-making and change-planning, which would contribute to more sustainable development of this district. For instance, the city council created the Rethink 22@ initiative, which continued for multiple months: workshops and debates were organised, more stakeholders from the local community were sought to be included. In this way, the people living in the district and the community’s movements were not only heard but also their ideas were considered when changing or modifying the district’s development plans.

Barselona’s advice to Lithuania

When asked to give advice to a city that wishes to follow in the footsteps of Barcelona’s 22@, Professor Ramon Ribera Fumaz said: “Looking at 22@ and other examples of innovative districts in the world, e.g. Kendall Square in Boston (USA), King’s Cross in London (United Kingdom) or Ruta N in Medellin (Colombia), one may very clearly see what Professor Sharon Zukin has described in her latest book while discussing New York’s innovation complex: “The more successful the innovation complex, the less lively the city becomes”.

In Barcelona’s case, the changes to the district’s everyday life caused a lot of dissatisfaction for the local residents. Thus, the first lesson from Barcelona: take the locals into consideration and include them the way Barcelona did with the Rethink 22@ initiative. This means that it’s important to not only attract businesses and companies but also to ensure the property market is affordable, and services are accessible to all people living in the district. And the last, but no less important point: don’t forget that changes in the city require time: not a single year, but, often, even decades”. 

Media-TIC building (architect Enric Ruiz Geli). Photo by Karim Asrim
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