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  • Writer's pictureGloria



‘Legacy is our raison d’être. It ensures that the Olympic Games are more than meters and medals… Once an Olympic City, always an Olympic City. Wherever the Games have appeared, cities are changed forever.’

Jacques Roger, President, International Olympic Committee. (Doneliza, 2012)


Twenty-five years ago, the Olympic Games radically changed Barcelona urban reality, together with its image in the world. Their main anthem was to departure from an urban plan aimed at benefitting the city as a whole instead of prioritizing specific locations or external investors. The spatially balanced approach and its positive urban impact (Chen, 2012) have made The Olympic Games of 1992 a ‘Role Model’ (Essex & Chalkley, 2003) (Garcia-Ramon & Albet, 2000) for other cities hosting major sport events.

Major sport events are intimately tied with the urban alterations they bring upon their host cities. Consequently, they easily become models of positive and negative outcomes. On one side, Olympic Games have been connected for a long time with the possibility of becoming agents of urban improvement and a strategy to increment a city’s visibility and economic potential. On the other side, many cases, have challenged this image by displaying a panorama where only external companies are beneficed by the investment, while local communities cope with the drawbacks (Chalkley & Essex, 1999).

Urban interventions can be understood as a triad of process-outcome-legacy. Planning theory has already addressed the problematics of the division between process and outcome (Fainstein, 2005). The assessment of Barcelona Olympic Games as a successful role model seems to have been focused in the outcome, while the process is more contested. In addition, some outcomes considered positive seem to have brought problematic legacies in the long term. A more nuanced perspective should include an understanding of the context of the moment, the processes involved, positive and negative outcomes and how this impacted the long term legacy.

In the case of the Barcelona Olympic Games, legacy related critiques entail concerns in diverse aspects, the major ones being: lack of public transportation investment (Garcia-Ramon & Albet, 2000)(Doneliza, 2012), loss of public housing stock (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007) and gentrification as a result of successful city branding (Garcia-Ramon & Albet, 2000). The process, on the other hand, has both defenders and critiques. For some it is a reference of social inclusion while others point out a lack of participative processes, especially in the case of public housing and evictions. This paper elaborates in the latter and their explanatory context. The aim is to underline the importance of comprehending reference role models as a palimpsest of process, outcome and legacy, acknowledging their contradictions and complexity.


‘The idea that scientifically based knowledge about society could actually be applied to society’s improvement first arose during the eighteen century’ (Friedmann, 1987). The beginnings of planning as an acknowledged discipline are connected with a top-down approach, where planner was regarded as an expert firstly guided by an intuitive wisdom (Hall, 1988) and after following rational principles that would ensure controlled outcomes.

However, in the 1960’s, a general distrust of the expert expanded, which would shortly strip the planner off any superiority (Hall, 1988). This crisis of rational top-down planning brought, during the 1980’s and 1990’s new conceptions and ways to address the discipline (Healey, 1992). Incremental planning (Lindblom & Lindblom, 1959) and communicative rationality (Healey, 1992) introduced ideas of accepting different understandings and new conceptions of knowledge. Plural planning, which promotes the participation of different groups in the planning process in order to achieve more equitable results (Davidoff, 1965), started to be introduced not only as a theory but also as a practice in planning. These approaches placed a major responsibility on the process of planning, criticizing practices of the moment.

The dichotomy of process and outcome has been a subject of discussion within the field of planning theory. Fainstein argues that both are intrinsically related and their division has brought a distinction between urban theory and planning theory that does not hold intellectually. In addition, this division has implicated an separation between theory and practice that negative influenced the planning field. Her argument is that both process and outcome should be theorized and that the ‘what’ is as important as the ‘how’. She states that the “what” for urban planners is the ‘right to the city’ of Henri Lefebvre and, consequently, the final goal for planning has to be the ‘conscious creation of the just city’ (Fainstein, 2005).


3.1. Context and plan. A successful outcome

In 1986, Barcelona was selected to host the Olympic Games, initiating new options for the city. The death of Franco in 1975 opened the possibilities for Spain to a democratic transition after 40 years of dictatorship. The beginning of this new period was filled both with fear and hope. The fast urban population growth of 1950 to 1970’s in Barcelona brought situations of both high density and lack of infrastructures to support it, especially in peripheral areas (Nel·lo, 1992)(SANCHEZ et al., 2007). In 1979, the first democratic Barcelona government was elected, welcomed with high expectations and daunting challenges regarding social inclusion. (Nel·lo, 1992) (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007).

In order to address these issues, a new urban plan for the city and its metropolitan area was developed, the 1976 General Metropolitan Plan (Pla General Metropolità- PGM). This project included Barcelona and its 26 surrounding municipalities addressed from a large scale “strategical” perspective. In addition, a second more specific plan was developed, called New Centrality Areas (Àrees de Nova Centralitat – ANC), focused on 10 interventions in problematic locations. (Nel·lo, 1992). These two strategies were applied in parallel in order to answer the needs accumulated during the dictatorship period.

The Barcelona Olympic Games plan ‘departed from policies and goals set up by the PGM and the ANC’ (Doneliza, 2012). The nomination of 1986 gave the city council a perfect frame to use the event as a catalyst of urban change (Garcia-Ramon & Albet, 2000) and a pretext for implementing the PGM (Nel·lo, 1992). The Olympic candidature, designed in line with the urban planning scheme, was an excuse to go ahead with the planned urban transformation’ (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007). Consequently, it is important to recognize that the urban transformation experienced by the city was not planned as a reaction of the Olympic Games candidature. The plan had already been developed before and the Games were the perfect pretext to give it a final push.

The objectives of the plan presented in the candidature were to focus the investment in Barcelona as a whole, benefiting its citizens not only during but also after the event (SANCHEZ et al., 2007). In order to do so, the main strategy was to re-use existing sport facilities, cutting down the expenditure in this section of the Games and re-direct the investment towards urban improvements (Gold and Gold 2007) (Doneliza, 2012). ‘Of the 37 sports facilities required in order to celebrate the Olympic Games, 27 were already built, five were under construction in 1985-1986 and five were being planned’ (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007).

In order to achieve these aims, three specific strategies were introduced (Doneliza, 2012). Firstly, the opening of the city to the sea, “recovering” the coast for recreational use. Secondly, the spatial distribution of urban improvements and new sport facilities around the city, instead of clustering all the investment in a single place. Finally, and in close relation with the dispersion strategies, the promotion of communication infrastructures connecting these new centralities (Doneliza, 2012). The objective was to integrate the local based systems implemented with the ANC plan with a general connected strategy (Nel·lo, 1992).

3.2. Evictions and Slum clearance. A top-down approach

‘The possibility of grandiose projects has seemingly blinded planners, urban designers, and architects to the consequences of their actions for people in the path of change’. (Teitz & Chapple, 2013). A common issue connected with mega events planning is the displacement of people in order to make room for new infrastructure. This type of eviction has produced severe social consequences in the history of urban planning. Often, the ‘poorest of the poor’ end up not having access to the offered housing allocations and both roots and sense of community is lost in the process (Vale, 2017). Another problem closely related is the need for rapid slum clearance to render a neater image. These processes tend to focus more on the rapid cleansing of blighted areas than helping people living in those slums (Vale, 2017).

A very specific example of the top down approach and lack of participation processes can be spotted in the evictions of shanty-towns and slum clearance that happened in relation with the Olympic Games plan. The shanty-towns had an important presence in Barcelona since the 1950’s, absorbing most of the population growth of the moment that did not find any public support in terms of infrastructure or housing. In the last years of the dictatorship, a slum clearance program was implemented that forcibly displaced entire areas of the city (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007) to newly completed public housing in the outskirts. This general trend was previous to the Olympic Games and, when the candidature was announced, most slums of the city had already been cleared.

However, a number of families were still living in those shanty-towns and the Olympics Plan involved evictions of two types (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007). Firstly, people affected by the building of new infrastructures, impacting 147 families in the Olympic Village of Poblenou and 195 families due to the ring roads construction. Secondly, those affected by the “image cleaning”, involving 282 families.

The democratic government showed greater concern with social equity and attempted to learn from the errors of past evictions. Housing studies of the Games (SANCHEZ et al., 2007) show that there were no forced evictions (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) in the process. The system of rehousing offered different alternatives. Firstly, a state subsidized house with option to buy, rent or lease for life. Secondly, a rehousing in the secondary market. Finally, there were options of financial compensation.

However, although the system of evictions improved in comparison with previous cases, four main weaknesses have been spotted in the process (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007). Firstly, the lack of alternatives to the eviction. Secondly, the absence of mechanisms for participation or community involvement which ‘demonstrates a belief that the experts are those best placed to determine the design of the city and can legitimately do so’ (SANCHEZ et al., 2007). Thirdly, an individual based negotiation process that undermined the power of the collective, ‘interest fragmentation and the weakening of the position of the affected groups, which would have been stronger if negotiations occurred on a collective basis’ (SANCHEZ et al., 2007). Finally, although alternative housing was offered, it was not located in the same areas, forcing places to re-root in different locations.



The main critique of this process is related with the imposition of top down planning and lack of participation and community involvement. ‘No citizen participation was sought in this process of urban transformation, and was only later introduced in response to citizen demands during the construction phase’(SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007). These statements might seem contradictory with some connections presented between the plan’s success and citizens support and cohesion (Degen & García, 2012). It has been stated that ‘a unique governance model was created in which ‘participation became a subject of public policy’ and in which key actors of civil society were engaged in the city’s urban regeneration’ (Degen & García, 2012).

Nevertheless, the question, when specifically examining the evictions process is if these ‘key actors of civil society’ represented the pluralism of Barcelona citizens or focused on a specific segment of the population already organized in neighborhood civic movements. Although the model has been praised for using design as a tool for ‘democratization of urban space’ (Degen & García, 2012), when addressing public housing and evictions, ‘no participative processes were anticipated’ (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007). Consequently, even if the plan has been praised by some for its ‘social cohesion’ building governance model (Degen & García, 2012), it seems that this approach was restricted to certain aspects of the plan and certain sectors of the population. In addition, it is also difficult to disentangle if the final executed plan responded to community inputs or the participation becoming ‘a subject of public policy’ was more about achieving political compromise among different parties and activism leaders. It seems that actual decisions were lead to professionals re-interpreting the needs of those citizens and translating them into over-aestheticized designs (Degen & García, 2012). In this sense, the debates and communicative approaches were directed towards enabling the project to move forwards, building cooperation, instead of creating a project as a response to diverse needs.

However, the process should be understood in the frame of its context. Spain was at that moment a newly born democracy after 40 years of dictatorship, the most authoritarian form of governance. The previous top down political reality and the progressive transition to democracy stablished a departure frame for the first elected government. For most people, being able to vote the politicians that would decide urban plans was already a great leap forward.

Fainstein’s claim that ‘the failure of the theoretical model of democracy to empower and effectively give voice to communities’ (Fainstein, 2005) rests in the basis of a fully integrated democratic system. The transitioning moment of the political, and therefore social scene in Spain did not offer this frame of action. The practitioners involved in planning were not trying to solve ‘actual operation of planning bureaucracies’ (Fainstein, 2005) but the consequences of a lack of any opportunity of political participation by the citizen and a systematic accumulated underinvestment in social services.

On the other side, it could be argued that clandestine activist movements during the dictatorship were the basis of a democratic form of community organization. However, most of their leaders ended up in political parties, embedding them with the idea of already representing the community by themselves (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007).

In addition, the first strategical decision of the plan to re-use existing infrastructure and disperse the Olympic areas around the city highly reduced the scale of negative impacts. Accordingly, even if the plan might have carried out processes similar to cases labeled as unsuccessful, their negative consequences were dissolved. The dispersion of interventions might have also dispersed protest organization. Consequently, it could be argued that the Olympic Games masterplan fell into practices criticized nowadays but the scale, dispersion and context minimized their visualization.

Fainstein states that the transformation of city planning from a design based practice into a social science departs from the theories of Chicago and Pennsylvania universities, introducing rational approaches (Fainstein, 2005). The Barcelona tradition, however, still heavily relied in the design practice as the core for addressing urban transformations. The PGM was leaded by the architect Joan Busquets, while the city council architect, Bohigas, managed all Barcelona urban transformations. Accordingly, in this case, the division of process and outcome (Fainstein, 2005) was reinforced by the separation of architecture and social sciences. This situation is specially patent if we considered that Fainstein cites Castells (Fainstein, 2005), a Spanish sociologist, as central in the critiques to top down planning. His approach of the urban realm from a sociological background was not connected to the leading strategic urbanism taught and implemented in the architecture school.

This division reinforced the process vs. outcome dichotomy. Architects, as the group leading the Olympics Games plan, were majorly concerned with the outcome, specially focused on the built environment. On the other side, theorists like Castells were involved in the critiques of the planning process of the 1960s and 1970s (Fainstein, 2005).


The celebration of the 25 years of the Barcelona Olympic Games could be a good moment to review its legacy. Although the official vision is positive, several critiques have been highlighted in relation with the long term plan impact. The prioritization of private transportation over public transit in the 1992 plan (Doneliza, 2012) implied the recent needs for more investment in the latter. In addition, it has been considered that ‘the celebration of the Olympic Games has a negative impact in relation to the right of adequate housing in terms of its accessibility and affordability’ (SANCHEZ, Plandiura, Valiño, & DESC, 2007).

Nonetheless, one of the major current concerns of the city is the impact of tourism, especially in the center, and the subsequent threat of gentrification. One major aspect that characterized the plan as successful was its city branding strategy, that placed the city in the global spotlight. However, its long term consequences are indigestible waves of tourism. Most community groups and activist associations in the city center display great concerns regarding this issue, showing a palpable rejection to tourism in the city (see images in annex). Besides, major policies of the current city council are focused on reducing its impact and multiple studies are being carried out in order to analyze, understand and face this situation.

Although it could be argued that higher rates of tourism are intrinsically related consequences of city branding - a core objective of the Games - and that this has radically boosted Barcelona economy, the question is placed on who is benefiting from this tourism-based economy. When Fainstein addresses the division of process and outcome, she recognizes the need of a final goal, which, for her, is the ‘just city’ (Fainstein, 2005). The failure to recognize this aim in the process of shaping the urban transformations of the Olympic Games might be at the roots of the current image of the city, a cool, trendy urban center every day more suitable for a tourist destination but less as a place to live, especially for the most vulnerable (Garcia-Ramon & Albet, 2000).

This case shows the threat that excessive city branding can pose for local communities. Although with a different theoretical background, the result is very similar to what Florida praises when advocating for its creative class (Florida, 2003). Barcelona nowadays could be considered as the archetype of an ‘open, diverse, dynamic and cool urban environment’ (Florida, 2003). However, whether the elite is labelled as creative class or as boosting economy tourism, as Peck would point out (Peck, 2005), the fact is that the city ends up being shaped to serve some at the cost of many others.


The Barcelona Olympic Games of 1992 have been credited for creating the current image of the city and heavily influencing its tourism related economy. Although the outcomes of its urban plan are generally considered as positive, the process has been contested for its understanding of community participation, not involving the whole spectrum of Barcelona citizens. Top down-rational approaches are generally not open to different perspectives and the potential community-based knowledge, even if the intention is planning for all. The consequences can easily be that, although the intention is not exclusionary, the program ends up benefiting a specific minority. Twenty-five years later, the city inherited a successful plan of city branding that failed to respond to the needs of all citizens. It seems that, in Barcelona, the right to the city is currently being contested between the visitors and the low-income living communities.

Understanding the past is key to be able to build a better future. As urban planners we construct our decisions in the realities we find today, which are based in choices of the past. We can learn as much from successes as from failures, from positive and negative outcomes. However, it is important to be careful to not transform role models in archetypes, losing their nuances and complexity in the way. The danger is that we attempt to replicate an ideal case without completely comprehending it and ‘the mere transfer of actions and formulas to different realities may eventually be a failure’ (Garcia-Ramon & Albet, 2000).

The Olympic Games of Barcelona are one of those models every Olympic city looks up to when facing the organization of the event. There is general agreement about its positive outcomes but the process displays certain aspects that have been contested. Are the current displaced communities in touristic areas of the cities a failure of reaching for pluralistic community involvement in the process of planning the city? Is a top-down process at the roots of a trendy but exclusionary city?

This case shows us the importance of maintaining a balanced view between process- outcome-legacy. It also displays the tendency that certain professions or backgrounds can have to address urban plans from a specific perspective. Consequently, interdisciplinary becomes key when aiming at a comprehensive approach.


Chalkley, B., & Essex, S. (1999). Urban development through hosting international events: A history of the Olympic Games. Planning Perspectives, 14(4), 369–394.

Chen, Y. (2012). Urban strategies and post-event legacy: the cases of summer Olympic cities. AESOP 26th Annual Congress, (11–15 July), 1–25.

Davidoff, P. (1965). Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 31(4), 331–339.

Degen, M., & García, M. (2012). The Transformation of the “Barcelona Model”: An Analysis of Culture, Urban Regeneration and Governance. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 36(5), 1022–1038.

Doneliza, J. (2012). Olympic Transportation Planning : the Legacies of Barcelona and Beijing. Master of Science in Urban Planning Thesis. Columbia University.

Essex, S., & Chalkley, B. (2003). Las transformaciones urbanas a raíz de la celebración de los Juegos Olímpicos Lección universitaria olímpica. Centre d’Estudis Olímpics (UAB) Cátedra Internacional de Olimpismo (CIO-UAB).

Fainstein, S. S. (2005). Planning Theory and the City. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25(2), 121–130.

Florida, R. (2003). Cities and the Creative Class. City and Community, 2(1), 3–19.

Friedmann, J. (1987). Two Centuries of Planning Theory: an overview. Planning in the Public Domain, 51–85.

Garcia-Ramon, M.-D., & Albet, A. (2000). Pre-Olympic and Post-Olympic Barcelona, a “Model” for Urban Regeneration Today? Environment and Planning A, 32(8), 1331–1334.

Hall, P. (1988). the City of Theory. In Cities of Tomorrow (pp. 320–341). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Healey, P. (1992). Planning through debate: the communicative turn in planning theory. Town Planning Review, 63(2), 143–163.

Lindblom, C. E., & Lindblom, B. C. E. (1959). The Science of “ Muddling Through .” Public Administration Review, 19(2), 79–88.

Nel·lo, O. (1992). Les repercussions urbanístiques dels Jocs Olímpics de Barcelona ’ 92. Barcelona: Centre d’Estudis Olímpics. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Peck, J. (2005). Struggling with the Rise of the Creative Class. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29(4), 740–770.

SANCHEZ, A., Plandiura, R., Valiño, V., & DESC, O. (2007). Barcelona 1992 : International Events and Housing Rights : a Focus on the Olympic Games. Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights.

Teitz, M., & Chapple, K. (2013). Planning and Poverty: An Uneasy Relationship. In Policy, Planning, and People: Promoting Justice in Urban Development.

Vale, L. (2017). Public Housing in the United States: Neighborhood Renewal and the Poor. In Policy, Planning and People: Promoting Justice in Urban Development, Philadelphia.

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