Is there too much outdoor seating for bars and restaurants in Barcelona?

2 min

During the pandemic, everyone who had a balcony or a terrace in Barcelona discovered discovered how lucky they were. Later, when it was possible to start going out, we all rediscovered the value of silence, of public spaces and green areas, the joy of being able to go for walks or runs, of cycling or using a scooter through cities with fewer noisy and polluting vehicles. With tactical urbanism, Barcelona City Council took lanes away from conventional traffic and gave them to pedestrians and cyclists. It also took advantage of these new spaces gained in the street to give bars and restaurants a break, which were allowed to serve more clients outside while restrictions banned clients from the inside of bars. Thus, during the pandemic, 3,688 bars were allowed to open new outdoor seating. If we factor in those who set up more tables than they are allowed, it has a clear impact. Barcelona was already historically a city of bars; with the tourist boom of the last two decades their number has skyrocketed; and now, as a collateral result of the pandemic, this has become even more visible. Today it's hard to find a street, both in the centre and in the suburbs, where there isn't at least one (but most likely a few) bars with outdoor seating.

Is this a change that is here to stay? The decision, yet to be taken, will mark day-to-day life in the city over the next few years. Mayor Colau's team has a lot at stake on this dilemma. On the positive side, outdoor seating takes advantage of the good Mediterranean climate and makes the city attractive and dynamic. It is also, without doubt, contributes to avoid the spread of covid (which, let's remember, is still here) and future viruses that may arrive. They are also a sociable environment. And they have been, and can continue to be, a vital source of income for the catering sector, in addition, of course, to an injection of income in the form of fees for the City Council.

On the other side of the scale there are also weighty reasons, with two main elements that force us to look for solutions. The first and most obvious is noise: neighbours of areas that have a large amount of outdoor seating argue that they have lost the peace and quiet. Streets such as Enric Granados in Eixample or Blai in Poble-Sec had the privilege of being for pedestrians, but over time they have become increasingly unlivable. The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem of coexistence. The other element is that, in these environments over-occupied by restaurants, traditional and varied commerce has disappeared, driven out by the rise in the price of renting premises. If the situation, now that tourism has not yet recovered, is already critical, how will it be when visitors return en masse once the covid crisis is completely overcome?

Therefore, it is time to weigh up the pros and cons. Surely enforcement needs to step up to avoid abuses. But it will also be necessary to pass regulations to prevent leisure activities linked to the hospitality industry from taking over future pavements or pedestrian areas.