I have a soft spot for the charming Mediterranean city of Barcelona, because it’s where I spent my junior year of university when I swapped New England’s Boston College for two semesters for Catalunya’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra. And I realized in my last visit a few weeks ago that one of the most seductive traits of this high-quality of life city is it’s urban layout and specifically the ‘ramblas phenomenon.’
What is a rambla?
Very simply a ‘rambla’ is an urban boulevard, which seamlessly blends together pedestrians, buses, taxis, cars and scooters in a safe, calm and very walkable layout, which has the feel of tying together the loose ends of a neighborhood: the sides-streets, alleys, passage-ways into an elegant boulevard for everyone in the city to use, tying together the city’s urban and social fiber into an urban pod of oasis.
Roughly speaking this is what an rambla looks like if you are standing right in the middle, facing north and to your east and west you have the buildings and sidewalks of either side of the street.
1. the rambla: is a wide pavement in the center of the street like a 30-foot wide sidewalk. Instead of having a huge urban boulevard with four car-lanes. The rambla is the center point taking over 50% of the width of the street.
2. traffic lanes: then there are two traffic lanes, one one each of the rambla, the one to your east for example with one-lane of auto traffic: buses, taxis, scooters, cars – quietly (at 25mph or less) heading in the northbound direction AND on the other side of the rambla there is another one-lane of traffic heading in the opposite direction, northbound.
3. additional two sidewalks: besides the 30-foot wide rambla in the center of the street and the two auto-lanes on either side of the street, there are the standard 10-15foot wide sidewalks also as any other city for pedestrians coming in and out of shops and residential buildings.
What purposes does the rambla serve?
Like many beautiful things in life, the rambla isn’t an absolute necessity, but it’s an extra bonus that once you see it, you can’t imagine life without it. (kind of like ear-plugs, smart-wool socks or an iPhone :). When I was walking through Barcelona and I was observing something in the the ramblas that I rarely see in London: an urban public space where old people, children, couples, families, local-natives and immigrants all sharing the same space together.
It’s also a very practical addition to urban life: somewhere you can slowly stroll or catch your breath in between meetings or sit on a bench with some bags after shopping or sit on a bench for a romantic moment or just lay-back, read a magazine and do some people watching.
And of course, because this is Barcelona, there is plenty of space, for a few of the surrounding cafes and restaurants to lay out there tables, raising one notch higher the quality of daily urban life and delight of small pleasures like sipping a morning cortado, outside your doorstep on the way to a meeting.
How many ramblas are there in Barcelona?
If you’ve visited Barcelona, you probably are aware of the most infamous main rambla, ‘Les Rambles’ which connects the top end of Plaza de Catalunya where old Spanish retail tradition, El Cortes Ingles and Silicon Valley tech the huge Apple Store connect the boulevard and pedestrians all the way down to the urban coastline, passing the Mercado de la Boqueria and finishing on the coast where you’ll see the outstretched arm of Christopher Columbus statue.
But there are several other ‘ramblas’ throughout the city.
1. Passeig de Sant Joan, connecting the northern neighborhood of Gracia with more central Barcelona
2. Rambla de Catalunya: parallel to the Paseo de Gracia with the graceful buildings of Gaudi, where you can walk north and south of the city, in a calmer rhythm avoiding the more lively buzz of Paseo de Gracia
3. Rambla de Raval: a newer addition in an effort of successful urban rejuvenation, this rambla has added life and public space to a slightly dilapidated neighborhood when I was a student there over a decade ago.
And I’m sure there are a few other ramblas that I have omitted (please point them out Catalunyans)
To ramblify deserves to enter the urban dictionary like ‘to google’, ‘to uber it’ or ‘tweet it’. In the craze of local mayors and urban designers to pedestrianize their cities, it’s important to remember that public space is for everyone to share: that includes children and old people and also buses, taxis, delivery trucks and scooters. The rambla phenomenon is one of the most alluring examples of public space I have seen in any city in Europe or America.
I hope that soon mayors of New York, London and Athens will begin discussing to ‘ramblify’ : a Rambla de 5th Avenue, Rambla de Oxford Street or Rambla de Panepistimiou connecting infamous Syntagma Square with neglected Omonia Square in central Athens.