What Boston can learn from Barcelona’s post-Olympic transformation

Story by Dylan McGuinness

BARCELONA–It’s still spring in Barcelona but the hum of early summer is already apparent throughout the city. Tour buses line every block and corner of Plaça Catalunya, the city’s center square, readying to depart to various destinations. An eclectic mass of people packs La Rambla, the avenue that connects the city’s square to its Mediterranean coast. Beachgoers saturate the coastline as well, taking in the maritime views and casually passing by the old Olympic Village.

The main Olympic stadium, Lluis Companys, located on Montjuic, Barcelona. It was renovated in 1989 for the games and overlooks Barcelona's seaport.  Photo by Joe Thomas

The main Olympic stadium, located on Montjuïc mountain, in Barcelona. It was renovated in 1989 for the games and overlooks Barcelona’s seaport.
Photo by Joe Thomas

But before that village existed, the coastline was packed not with beachgoers, cruise ships and retail shops, but warehouses and industrial wastelands. La Rambla was hardly the major commercial avenue it functions as today. There was no Olympic Port, no beach and there weren’t nearly as many tourists. In fact, there wasn’t even sand. That was imported from Egypt, one small part of Barcelona’s massive urban rejuvenation project, with the games as its catalyst, during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

It’s been almost 25 years since Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics, but the presence of the games and their outcomes are still abundantly evident throughout the city. The improvements in infrastructure, from the reopening of the city’s seafront to the roads that connect its boundaries, dominate the daily life of its citizens and visitors.

Those hoping to deliver the Summer Olympics to Boston in 2024 see similar potential in the games as a catalyst for urban development and improvement, and they’re using Barcelona as an example to motivate the city’s hesitant population.

“The only reason we should take on the Olympics is for the benefit of the city going forward, like they did in Barcelona, and in Atlanta to an extent,” says Alex Krieger, a professor of urban design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The Olympics could be the occasion to take on public endeavors.”

Boston 2024, the group that compiled the city’s bid, explicitly lists benefits of hosting the games on its website, including improvements in infrastructure, housing, tourism and the creation of new jobs. The site also references the 1992 Barcelona Games as a model of the “significant economic and social benefits that can result from the Games.”

Perhaps most notably, the prospective reworking of Boston’s public transport system, which an Olympics would necessitate, is promoted heavily after 110 inches of snow paralyzed the MBTA system this past winter. In that regard, supporters see the Olympics as a tool to generate development that is already planned by the city.

“This winter happened and the MBTA was exposed in a way for being underfunded, for decades even, so now we’re in this place where we’re worried about repair, not expansion,” says Krieger. In January, Krieger suggested in an op-ed that the areas where Olympic venues are proposed represent the areas that are least served by public transit. The Olympics could be the driving force to connect those neighborhoods, a need the city has had for decades.

Notable proposed enhancements also include development on the South Boston seafront and the stimulus that the games would bring to the city’s lagging tourism industry.

The key for Boston officials, however, is to promote the lasting benefits Olympic games would bring because as of now, popular support is not apparent. Recent polls have indicated that a large percentage of Bostonians is opposed to, or at least skeptical of, hosting the games. According to numbers released by MassINC Polling Group for Boston’s NPR affiliate WBUR, about 40 percent of respondents supported the potential for Olympics in 2024 and more than 50 percent opposed it. The support has increased slightly from previous polls.

“The games were the key in Barcelona’s transition from an industrial city to a tourist city,” says Ferran Brunet, a professor of applied economics at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, who authored a financial report analyzing the 1992 Olympics’ impact on the city. Brunet explains that Barcelona excelled in its ability to “ride the Olympic wave,” or continue investments and impact in the years following the games.


The “Golden Fish” sculpture, on Barcelona’s seaport, was designed by Frank Gehry for the 1992 games. It is one of many iconic art installations that were commissioned for the Olympics.

Brunet says it’s important not to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the Olympics and the rebranding of Barcelona. Instead, he says the games functioned more as a deadline or incentive to fulfill plans of urban rejuvenation that were already imagined – similar to proponents’ strategy in Boston.

According to Brunet, Barcelona had endured about half a century of urban stagnation under the rule of Francisco Franco, the Spanish general and dictator in power between 1939 and 1975. With Barcelona native J.A. Samaranch serving as the chairman of the International Olympic Committee and revered former Barcelona Mayor Pasqual Maragall open to hosting the games, the Olympics essentially became the spark for an urban renewal.

The changes that ultimately occurred were drastic, costing about $11.4 billion according to one estimate from Oxford University. “[Hosting the games] is an investment, not a cost,” says Brunet.

Most importantly, the city renovated a large span of its seafront, featuring a two-mile beach and several ports. It was widely believed beforehand that the city had “turned its back” on the sea, and its reopening has thrived as one of the 1992 Olympics’ most enduring legacies.

Boston has suggested some coastal development in the southern sects of its city as well, but not to the extent that Barcelona did. An Olympic Boulevard is proposed along the Fort Point Channel near the Boston Children’s Museum and Boston Convention & Exhibition Center for visitors to walk from the subway to the stadium, which is imagined at Widett Circle in South Boston.

However, that development would necessitate the moving of a post office and the proposals are, again, preliminary. Some view the current, closed-off state of that coastal stretch as a waste and wish to see it made public again.

“One of the reasons why the Olympics would be so useful is in pushing this post office away,” says Krieger. According to him, this has been 10 years in the making, “which, for some reason, can’t get done.”  Boston can use the Olympics, he says, to move this project along.

If the games come to Boston, the plan does not necessarily include structures that are meant to remain in place. In fact, the planning committee has stressed the use of temporary and already constructed venues. For example, the Olympic stadium itself will be temporary, unlike Barcelona’s. But part of the pitch is that a new and improved infrastructure will be in place for whatever the city wants to develop after the stadium has been deconstructed, according to Boston 2024’s pitch. Committee members did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.

Some also believe Boston’s tourism industry has been lagging and believe the games could rectify that, as it did for Barcelona. In fact, Boston 2024 lists it as the second most important benefit of hosting the games.

A rendering of the proposed look of the

A rendering of the proposed look of the “Olympic Boulevard” which would be located on Boston’s seaport.
Rendered by Boston 2024

In Barcelona, the city saw its number of annual visitors jump from from 1.3 million to about 9 million after the games. “Tourism is a very important center in Barcelona’s economy. Roughly 20 percent of economic activity is related to tourism,” says Emilio Fernandez Peña, the director of the Olympic Studies Center at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Raul Pallares, a Barcelona native who works as a tour guide and assimilator for foreigners who move to the city, remembers volunteering at the games with his entire extended family. “It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life,” says Pallares, 38. He recounts a memory of meeting the “Dream Team” USA basketball members, who were one of the highlights of the games themselves.

More than anything, though, Pallares remembers the transition he witnessed Barcelona undergo. “Barcelona changed a lot, physically, for sure, but also socially, spiritually.  It was definitely interesting to see that change.”

It remains to be seen whether Boston can mirror Barcelona’s successes that resulted from the games. But there is hope. “The real shame is this pessimism in Boston about not being able to get something this big done,” says Krieger, adding quickly: “because we can.”


3 thoughts on “What Boston can learn from Barcelona’s post-Olympic transformation

  1. Pingback: Gonna miss that place… | dylan mcguinness

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