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  • Writer's pictureIHS Alumni

Doing more with urbanism: Activating Barcelona’s rooftops

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

Thousands of postcards must have been sent from Barcelona to all over the world like people never cease to see photos of this city and of that warm feeling they get when they receive one. This can be credited to the city’s distinct urban typology with a very strong character recognizable to any regular human being- a compact and dense massing with an orthogonal grid pattern, mixed use superblocks, medium rise structures and predominantly narrow streets boasting of modernist, art nouveau and Mediterranean buildings and streetscape elements. These however, are not a result of happenstance but are largely influenced by the kind of city development that considered such factors as its territorial features, spatial, political, social, cultural as well as climatic factors.

Due to these same influencing factors, there emerges another feature of the city, glaring yet discreetly intertwined within the urban typology - the rooftops. Among the 70,717 buildings in the city, 67% have generally accessible flat roofs but are however mostly unused spaces only for drying clothes, while 20% have empty sloped roofs. An aerial view demonstrates this scale of what seems to be a sea of rooftops. However, contrary to how density, blocks, streets and buildings have been well designed and utilized, this is a feature yet to be fully exploited.

Utilizing rooftops as multipurpose spaces increases the value of any building, whether for profit, aesthetics or overall quality. From an environmental standpoint, when these spaces are designed as urban green patches, they can foster biodiversity, reduce pollution levels and urban heat island and eventually improve urban landscape and quality of life. Incorporating sustainable strategies, on the other hand, reduces energy and water usage, promote energy production systems that contribute to the adaptation of buildings and cities to climate change, and thus increasing the resilience of the city. Ultimately, rooftops can be treated as active collective spaces that enhance social cohesion and community relationship as well as promote inclusiveness and social participation.

It is here where the city council began an initiative to activate the vast potential of rooftops. Accompanied by their goal to improve the quality of life, build a healthier, sustainable and resilient city as well as promote social cohesion, they set up four types of measures. The economic measures involve provision of financial assistance for the rehabilitation and renovation of roofs as well as encourage direct or indirect financing. Second, technical measures to support building owners and the community include conducting of technical study, consultation and evaluation of design intent/proposals. Third is to disseminate the campaign across the citizens through teaching materials and online interactive map with geolocation. More importantly, to reinforce this initiative, measures at the policy-level involve revision of the current legal framework.

The “Guia Terrats i Cobertes Verdes” (guide to terraces and green roofs) published by the city Council includes various parameters and technical considerations for the study and evaluation of proposals. This guide also presents the different designs that can be incorporated depending on the location, site and building conditions, design intent and objectives of the building owner or community. More importantly, it includes considerations such as maintenance factor, availability of irrigation and drainage, budget, security issues and management of space. For instance, if the goal is to increase the aesthetic value, the design could be centered around the use of ornamental plants, rather than on drought-tolerant and low-maintenance species and thus may fall under the types “coberta extensiva”, “coberta semiintensiva” or “coberta intensiva”. The same design may not be suitable for a user whose intent is to achieve less maintenance, minimize water usage and encourage biodiversity.

In a city with a very distinct urban typology and a strong urban character but where space is a luxury, different planar levels have to be identified, activated and utilized. Doing so will not only respond to design or aesthetic objectives but yield economic, environmental and social benefits. Looking beyond Barcelona’s density, blocks, streets and building facades, the rooftop presents itself as a big part of the urban character of the city as well as a very viable space to contribute to its overall functionality.


All urban photos courtesy of Victor Encinas; Instagram @senyorencinas

Guia Terrats i Cobertes Verdes courtesy of Ajuntament de Barcelona

About the Author:

Jec Alforque is an architect by profession and urbanist by passion. She is interested in the convergence of the spatial, social, economic and environmental facets of life and how they manifest themselves in the urban setting.

Born and raised in the tropical land of the Philippines where having fun is an understatement, she moved to Europe to pursue a more global way of approaching things. She graduated at IHS Msc Urban Management and Development. She currently resides in Barcelona, awaiting to get her hands dirty for heaps of urban planning and management issues.


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