On Las Ramblas: the symbolic heart of Barcelona

Locals and tourists observe a minute's silence on Las Ramblas on Friday. Image: Getty.

It should come as no surprise that terrorists deciding to attack a target in Spain would choose Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. The driver of a van deliberately ploughed into a crowd of pedestrians, killing at least 14 people, and injuring more than 100 in the horrific incident. Beyond the immediate horror, the attack is likely to have consequences for the area.

Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city and the sixth most inhabited area in the European Union. Perhaps more significantly, it is a global tourism hotspot. A total of 18m tourists visited the region in 2016, with 9m staying in the city’s hotels – an increase of more than 7m since 1990. At the heart of this renaissance has been the celebrated street.

Las Ramblas (Les Rambles in Catalan) is a tree-lined boulevard that stretches across the heart of the city, with space for pedestrians along its centre and cars on either side. The street forms Barcelona’s historical centre, tracing the lines of an ancient seasonal watercourse visible in old maps.

The area is often the first destination for new arrivals in the city, given its proximity to some of the major tourist locations. It’s a good way to get to the Gothic Quarter, the marina and the seafront. A number of theatres and museums are situated on or just off La Rambla and a pavement mosaic by Barcelona-born artist Joan Miró can be found along its route.

It’s also an important ideological centre. It leads to the Plaça de Catalunya (Catalonia Square), which is seen by pro-independence residents as the city’s main square, rather than Plaça de’Espanya (Spain Square).

This is a reminder of the difficult situation Spain now finds itself facing. An attack on Barcelona raises questions not only about how to respond but also who should respond. There is a long-running constitutional tension between the local Catalan administration and the central Spanish government, with the former seeking to hold an independence referendum in October. The two take different approaches to all kinds of issues and terrorism is potentially one of them – not forgetting Spain’s lengthy struggle with its own terrorist group ETA. The leaders will now have to work together to decide how to react to this crisis.

A symbolic site

Over the years, Las Ramblas and the Plaça de Catalunya have been the scene of anticlerical violence, Spanish Civil War clashes, and socio-political demonstrations. In many ways, Las Ramblas is the emotional heart of Barcelona, representative of the city itself – its people and their struggles.

The Las Ramblas traders showed their entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility in the way that, over the past few decades, they have shifted their focus away from traditional local markets towards a more diverse tourist market. The boulevard is lined with souvenir kiosks, street performers and pavement cafes these days. More traditional markets are still there too, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish – but the difference is notable.

Adapting to tourism has brought its problems too. Crowds flock to Las Ramblas throughout the day. The boulevard heaves with people from early morning to late at night, and pickpockets are a notorious problem. There has recently been fierce debate about the impact so many visitors have on the local life of Barcelona.

This week brought things into perspective though. The crowded street was evacuated within minutes and the normally bustling markets fell silent. Local people and tourists gathered together in a vigil after the attacks in a moment of stillness rarely seen on the busy thoroughfare.

Barcelona is Spain’s economic powerhouse. The 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition and the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition catapulted the regional capital onto the world stage and it really became a major tourist location after hosting the 1992 Olympics. But of all the sectors of Barcelona’s diverse economy, the attacks have the potential to hit tourism the hardest.

The ConversationNowhere is more intertwined with the city’s tourist industry than Las Ramblas. In true Barcelona fashion the boulevard reopened for business just 24 hours after the attacks. The message was a vital one: incidents of this kind, however horrifying, must not destroy a way of life.

Mark McKinty is a researcher in Spanish Studies, Queen's University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.