Barcelona, Spain

Parc Central de Nou Barris

City of Barcelona

June 27, 2011

Creating new spaces in old cities

In Barcelona’s Nou Barris district, an award-winning park on the former grounds of the Santa Creu Mental Institute transforms the feeling of isolation created by disjunctive streets, high-density housing, district boundaries and the physical limitation of the site to create a green community for one the city’s more diverse neighbourhoods.

From rural institution to urban zone

The former Santa Creu Mental Institute, located in Barcelona’s Nou Barris district, sits on a large centrally located property in what was once the rural outskirts of the city. An artifact of late 19th century modernism,  the complex was once the 2nd largest of its kind in Spain, its grounds part of a man-made site spread across a number of terraces built into the hilly terrain.

Although the institution and its grounds had become derelict with disuse by the 1950s, for the first wave of worker immigrants arriving from the south of Spain during this period the rural settlement provided inexpensive housing. As a result the area underwent sudden, disorderly and large-scale urban development over the next generation.

In the 1990’s the site was formally taken over by the municipality of Barcelona to house administrative offices for the rapidly expanding city. The district now experienced a second wave of immigration of people from Romania, Ukraine, Ecuador, Pakistan and the Philippines who were attracted by the district’s lower housing prices in comparison with other zones of the city.  Like the earlier wave of immigrants,  these newcomers would once again transform the ethnic composition of the district but also the sprawling, heterogenous design of an area increasingly dominated by the network of small businesses that multiplied through its neighbourhoods.

Sprawling settlements

While the site possessed a history centuries old, the rapid growth of high-density housing had transformed the area radically. The site’s original rural topography was now dominated by a disjunctive pattern of streets, and a chaotic mix of spatially unconnected high rise and low rise buildings. Aggravating the situation was the fact that the area had no underground car parks. Over the years,  the area’s remaining public space had been exploited for parking –not for the parks or green spaces that local residents could enjoy.

Also problematic was the sense of physical isolation experienced by residents. While transportation to Barcelona’s city centre, less than two kilometers away, had been  improved by the building of a ring road for the 1992 Olympics,  communication with central Barcelona remained weak and left residents feeling detached and removed from much of what the city center had to offer.

Neighbourhood renewal

In 1997, Barcelona’s city council recognized an opportunity for action.  It embarked on a project to create a new urban plan for the Nou Barris district that would integrate both the sprawling character of the urban site and the  social needs of the area’s diverse population. The project included demolishing old buildings to create new public space, improving sections of the road system and creating 1,750 new parking spaces, almost all of them subsurface. The Council also recognized in the old psychiatric hospital an ideal home for the district’s new civic centre. Its size, position, historical significance and architectural quality made it the perfect site for what is today one of the biggest public libraries in Barcelona, as well as being home to the Municipal Council of the Nou Barris District and its Municipal Archive.

The Council plan also included designing an urban park that integrated the area spatially by linking new open spaces to older and  derelict grounds. Marked by both its style and function, the park was to serve as a playground where residents could spend their leisure time in more spacious, healthy and pleasing surroundings. The inspiration for the park design came from the early cubist and very colourful pictures of Pablo Picasso, which the young artist painted in 1909 at La Horta de San Juan (in Catalonia). Aside from arching sculpture, geometric walking platforms and cubist inspired benches, the park features a traditional Mediterranean gardens with trees, lawns, ponds, paths and tiled walls.


In 2007, the work of Barcelona architects and landscape architects, Andreu Arriola and Carmen Fiol, was recognized when the Parc Central de Nou Barris won the International Urban Landscape Award (IULA), receiving a EUR 50,000 prize. The jury felt that the Parc Central performed an important “integrative task in a rapidly expanding and multi-ethnic quarter of Barcelona.”Bernd Knobloch, Chief Executive Officer of Eurohypo, said: “Near-to-nature spaces laid out in the middle of cities are islands of recreation and places of encounter. In an age of increasing urbanization of the world, they also make a major contribution to protecting the climate.”

These findings would also appear to be corroborated by the  Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and its Community Green report:

“Green space has a proven track record in reducing the impact of deprivation, delivering better health and wellbeing and creating a strong community. The simple presence of green space is related to a reduced risk of serious problems like depression and lung disease. Living close to green space reduces mortality, which can help reduce the significant gap in life expectancy between rich and poor.”

Today, the Parc Central Nou Barris is the second-largest urban park in Barcelona, and is fully embraced as a public commons, recreational facility and meeting place that successfully tells a story of historical transformation, neighbourhood revitalization, social integration and  good living in a multicultural urban society.

Making it Work for You:

  • Infrastructure support like transportation is an essential means to integrate diverse neighbourhoods and communities.
  • Revitalizing historic properties and older community institutions provides anchors to the past and new spaces for community engagement
  • Are there neglected or derelict urban spaces in your neighbourhood that can be reclaimed for public use and recreation?
  • Economies of scale can be achieved when a building project serves many community stakeholders - and works to serve, to please and to delight