The vulnerable neighbourhoods of Catalonia

The areas that 40 years ago concentrated most of the poverty now remain the same, with special emphasis on the Besòs area

Albert Llimós
7 min
The district of Gorg, Badalona.

BarcelonaThe Generalitat has identified 236 vulnerable areas throughout Catalonia. Many are neighbourhoods; others, specific areas of small municipalities that also require special attention from the administration. This list includes everything from the Congost neighbourhood in Granollers or Camp Clar in Tarragona, to the old quarter of Alfarràs, a municipality in Segrià with 2,800 inhabitants.

Since the arrival of democratic city councils and the recovery of the Generalitat, programmes have been developed to combat a vulnerability that has become entrenched in many of these neighbourhoods. Despite the efforts invested, most remain the same, with chronic poverty and structural problems that cannot be reversed. "Obviously living conditions have improved, because in the 70s and 80s cities like Barcelona were full of shantytowns, but these neighbourhoods that 40 years ago already showed a high concentration of social problems and urban deficiencies are the same as they are now," describes sociologist Sergio Porcel, from the Institut d'Estudis Regionals i Metropolitans de Barcelona (IERMB). In fact, between 1991 and 2011, during the period of greatest economic growth, the number of vulnerable neighbourhoods in large Catalan cities increased almost fivefold.

Although the Department of Territory has identified these urban areas of special attention throughout the territory (35 in Lleida and Girona, 32 in Tarragona and 134 in Barcelona), the vast majority are concentrated along the rivers Llobregat and especially Besòs, which brings together almost 70% of the most vulnerable areas of the metropolitan area. One example is Santa Coloma de Gramenet, where more than 50% of the population lives in very vulnerable neighbourhoods.

Vulnerability in Barcelona Metropolitan area

The migratory boom

What is the origin of this reality? Mainly, there are three types of origins. "Historical centres that have been degraded, overcrowded housing estates built between the 50s and 70s, and areas which came about through marginal urbanisation processes and self-construction," says Oriol Nel·lo, a geographer specialising in urban studies and land use planning, who led the law on neighbourhoods promoted by the government in 2004. "At the beginning of the 80s, when the Generalitat took over, they found large neighbourhoods, but also small municipalities, with sub-standard housing and structural issues, such as aluminosi, 40 sq. m. flats in size and a lack of housing, with up to 8 people living together", explains Territoy Minister Damià Calvet.

"They were places where the first Spanish migratory movements settled and, with the turn of the century, the international migrant population. The large social housing estates built during Franco's regime greatly increased their density. There were many homes in a small space and oriented to a very specific population profile, with few resources and who owned their homes because they were part of social housing and this gave them roots in the area," adds Porcel, who explains the process that took place at the turn of the century, when the housing boom coincided with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of foreigners with few resources: "Many workers who owned flats sold them to an immigrant population that took advantage of the fact that banks granted mortgages easily. The arrival of the crisis worsened the situation and there began to be many evictions". There was, therefore, a replacement of population in already vulnerable neighbourhoods. In addition, being urban areas where housing is cheaper, there was a concentration of "many people without work permits, workers in the informal economy who cannot access aid," said Enric Morist, vice president of social organisations' Bureau of Third Sector. This segment of the population was added to the people that were already there, "very old" people that could not move because of their small pensions and stayed in these areas where buildings have very serious deficiencies. There people, moreover, are hardest hit by crises such as the current pandemic, and thus councils are overwhelmed and unable to implement policies to improve the lives of neighbours.

Torre Baró in Barcelona
Badia del Vallès

The indicators

These vulnerable neighbourhoods are often bordering areas where people with a high level of income live, and huge contrasts are created. In Girona, according to the latest INE data from 2017, there are census areas such as the neighboorhood of Montilivi where the family income is close to 67,000 euros on average, while a few meters further away, in the neighbourhood of Font de la Pólvora, it is less than 14,000 euros. There are many other indicators. The percentage of unemployed people in Ciutat Meridiana, one of Barcelona's poorest neighbourhoods, is 16.5%, while in Pedralbes, the richest neighbourhood, it is 3.7%. School failure among Ciutat Vella students in the fourth year of ESO is six times higher than that of students in Sarrià. Life expectancy in these neighbourhoods does not differ so much from the rest, because very old people live there, but between Trinitat Nova (80.1 years) and Pedralbes (86.8) there is a difference of almost 7 years. In fact, to define the concept of vulnerability, the academics use data from a social dimension (poverty, ageing/loneliness and foreign immigration) and a residential dimension (density, old and degraded housing).

The problem of stigmatisation

Another indicator associated with these neighbourhoods is crime and the high presence of drugs. It often aggravates the stigmatisation of the neighbourhood and causes many people to avoid living in or even passing through the area. "When you ask which is the most dangerous neighbourhood it is always the same: Raval, La Mina, Sant Roc... And these are not necessarily the ones where more crimes take place or which are perceived as the most insecure by its inhabitants," explains Marta Murrià, head of the area of coexistence and urban security of the IERMB. The stigma grows and fight against it is one of the big problems that many of these neighbourhoods have. "The fear of suffering a crime makes people feel safe or not. If you stop going, a place becomes empty and that can lead to petty crime," argues sociologist and criminologist Roger Mancho.

Moreover, when vulnerability becomes entrenched, part of the associative fabric is lost, which is vital in order to talk "with the administrations to improve the neighbourhood", says anthropologist José Mansilla: "The city has the potential to create networks, which are only maintained when people have the capacity to survive". "Organised neighbourhoods resist the crisis better," concludes Nel·lo.

Social housing, renting and €1.8bn of European funds

If so far the number of vulnerable neighbourhoods has not stopped growing, what needs to be done to reverse this situation, which is entrenched and repeated throughout the territory? For Oriol Nel·lo, "we have to prevent large differences between the price of land in different areas by increasing social housing throughout the territory. There has to be affordable housing distributed throughout the country, we have to move from the current 3%-5% to levels in other European countries where it can be 20% or 40%. This is the only way to avoid the concentration of vulnerability because until now the "tendency of the wealthier population is to segregate themselves from the rest, and those with higher incomes, to enjoy the advantages of living among themselves, stay together" and this generates more contrasts. They are two expressions of the same problem: "Why do we not see as a problem that people with more resources gather in one place?", asks Nel·lo. In fact, both he and Sergio Porcel agree that the issue must be addressed from a supralocal perspective with a metropolitan view in the case of Barcelona and its area, since the concentration of population with lower income levels where prices are lower has meant that these municipalities have a lower tax base and, therefore, those who require more intervention have less capacity to act. "Poverty in these neighbourhoods is explained by structural factors that go beyond the reality of the neighbourhood. Therefore, they do not only need neighbourhood policies, but also an improvement protection policies in general terms," says Porcel.

Minister of Territory Damià Calvet also moves in this direction. He was in the Generalitat before the Nel·lo promoted the law on neighborhoods, which involved more than 1,300 million investment in 117 municipalities and more than 4,000 actions. "We warned that physical remodelling was not enough, that social policies were needed, more action on people. When the government passed the law on neighbourhoods it was an improvement on what we were doing, a more holistic view that we did not have," Calvet acknowledges with a hint of envy. Calvet saw how the economic "containment" of 2010 slowed everything. In fact, this March the last of the actions awarded in 2010 will end. Before then, the Generalitat had promoted a neighbourhood redevelopment programme that involved more than "500 million to build 8,800 new homes" in places like Sant Cosme, Sant Roc, Torreforta, Via Trajana or Polvorí. "In post-Olympic Barcelona there were still women washing clothes in communal laundry rooms", says the councillor to give an example of the complexity of the issue.

Bellvitge, in Hospitalet de Llobregat
Sant Ildefons, in Cornellà

However, after a decade without being able to invest large sums, the European Next Generation funds may represent a window of opportunity. "Europe's main objective is to improve the existing housing stock, it is the green agenda, the fight against climate change and better energy efficiency. If you rehabilitate, you occupy less land," says Calvet, who points out that one of the projects that Catalonia has presented to the funds is the Urban Agenda, with 1,800 million on the table. He says the housing policy cannot be left in the hands of the free market, the administration cannot continue building social housing for sale, everything has to be aimed at renting.

On the other hand, the anthropologist José Mansilla remarks that the key to improving the situation in these neighbourhoods is precisely to prevent the "people who live there from having to leave": to avoid gentrification. Bringing in people from outside, with a higher purchasing power, does not improve the situation of the people who have lived there all their lives, because these two segments of the population do not end up relating to each other. "The people with more money appropriate the territory. It is believed that the wealth of those who arrive will end up helping the less fortunate, and this is false. People end up displaced. It generates a process of waves of gentrification," Mansilla remarks. "This type of policy does not seek to solve the problem, but to dilute it. It does not attack the real problem, which is poverty," summarises Porcel.

Urban maps of special attention