Barcelona, caught between the middle class and inequality

During the crisis, the number of very low-income neighbourhoods doubled while the number of richer ones grew, and differences within the city widened.

Albert Llimós
3 min
El Arrabal, Barcelona.

Barcelona"Barcelona is more unequal than before. Despite the periods of growth we've had, poverty rates have not gone down", says anthropologist José Mansilla. Most of the most vulnerable areas of Catalonia are concentrated in the metropolitan area, along the Llobregat and Besòs rivers, while in the center of the Catalan capital, with the exception of Raval and Barceloneta, according to Mansilla, there has been a process of gentrification that has driven many low-income residents to the outskirts of the city.

María José Calvo, head of statistics and data dissemination at the Barcelona City Council, who created a methodology to analyze inequalities in the city, argues that this "substitution" of population has nuances: "Many people are delighted that young people with more income come to the neighborhood because the housing is revalued and benefits are obtained".

Calvo argues that "Barcelona is a middle-income city", despite the fact that the 2008 crisis impoverished the population, especially the most vulnerable. Thus, in 2013, of the 73 neighborhoods of the city 38 had a low or very low income level. On the other hand, the richest areas, despite the recession, grew from 5 to 8. In terms of population, in the first two years of the crisis, the number of people living in low and very low income neighbourhoods doubled, representing more than 40% of the population of the whole city.

Ciutat Meridiana, Barcelona.

One example is Ciutat Meridiana, which in 5 of the 10 years analysed was the neighbourhood with the lowest income. Thus, if in 2008 a family in Ciutat Meridiana had an income 41% below the city average, a decade later the difference widened 20 points. It is one of the examples of the neighborhoods of the Besòs area, where the "peripheral nature of this space, full of large infrastructures that give discontinuity to the territory, along with geographical accidents, favor vulnerability", as sociologist Sergio Porcel points out. "It is the most fragile area of Barcelona, where housing estates were built to accommodate the people who arrived in Catalonia in the 60s and 70s, people who came dragging cultural dynamics that could prevent them from taking advantage of the social elevator. It is an area that cannot be gentrified, it is on the edge of the city and is not attractive to the middle classes. The Besòs area meets all the requirements for any crisis to manifest its fragility there, and now they are reproducing the same problems that the people who settled there decades ago brought", adds Mansilla. "It's the same with Torre Baró: they are poorly communicated neighborhoods, hardly attractive to a young graduate", admits Calvo.

The centre and the periphery

Barcelona is an example of a city that has acted on its historic center to "make it attractive to tourists", explains Mansilla, who believes that during the last thirty years, after a period in which Pasqual Maragall "made social democratic policies to distribute the facilities throughout the neighborhoods", "policies that have expelled" the residents of the old town were made. In the 1990s "the Macba and the CCCB were moved to create a positive effect on the neighbourhood, but not for the people who live there", adds the anthropologist, who explains that this broke with the attempt by the city council in the 1980s to take "actions, such as relocating residents, to prevent" people from leaving the centre. Thus, in the Gòtic, for example, in 10 years the family income rose by more than 25 points, until it was above the average for the city. "We have no data that can sustain that in Barcelona low-income population is expelled to other municipalities. They have moved within Barcelona" Porcel points out.

In 2017 the City Council promoted the Pla de Barris, with an endowment of 150 million to act in 16 neighborhoods, which represented intervening in territories where more than 210,000 people live.