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September 23, 2004

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map of Barcelona
Map showing the 'land use mosaic' of the Greater Barcelona region. Green represents woody vegetation; yellow is open land; and red stands for built areas - mainly cities, towns, farmsteads, highways. Barcelona is Boston's sister city. (Courtesy of Barcelona Regional)

Barcelona works

GSD's Forman helps region make plans for the future

By Ken Gewertz
Harvard News Office

Richard Forman likes to think big, which is why he became a landscape ecologist.

"I like to study large areas - what you can see out of an airplane window. It's been a passion of mine for 30 years."

A pioneer in his field, he has helped forge the basic concepts of landscape ecology, a science that sees the surface of the Earth as a complex mosaic linked by movements of people, animals, water, energy, nutrients, and other elements. It is a vision that goes well beyond urban planning in that, for example, it views cities as embedded in and dependent on natural processes. It also goes beyond traditional ecology in that it includes humans and their needs as very much part of the picture.

"If ecological principles only apply to wilderness, then they're not very robust," said Forman, a professor at the Graduate School of Design who also
Richard Forman
Richard Forman of the Design School: 'There are resources out there, places that people need for fresh food, clean water, and recreation.' (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)
teaches in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Environmental Science and Public Policy Program.

A few years ago, Forman's big-picture approach attracted some unexpected attention.

He received a surprise call from Josep Acebillo, chief architect for the mayor of the city of Barcelona. Acebillo told Forman he'd been reading his books and articles and that they were the only studies he had encountered that focused on natural systems and the way they were used in urban regions. Acebillo said he wanted Forman to formulate a long-range plan for Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia in northeastern Spain.

Forman immediately agreed and only later began thinking of reasons why he was not qualified for the project - he was a scientist, not a planner; he had little acquaintance with Spain and none with Barcelona - but Acebillo dismissed all of them. Six months later, Forman found himself on the first of several visits to the Barcelona region, gathering data and observations with a team of local experts.

The study was finished in early 2003, and a Spanish translation, "Mosaico territorial para la region metropolitana de Barcelona" has recently been published. The study deals with what Forman calls the Greater Barcelona Region, an area of about 2,500 square miles.

Barcelona is comparable in size to its sister city, Boston. Like Boston, it is part of a matrix that includes many smaller towns and cities and a great deal of wooded land. But there are differences as well, among them the presence of large agricultural areas near Barcelona producing grapes, grain, and pork.

Sprawl in the American suburban sense is not very much in evidence, although urban areas are expanding and show signs of coalescing and gobbling up adjacent rural land. While environmental activists might deplore this trend and struggle to stop it, Forman takes a different approach.

"There are resources out there, places that people need for fresh food, clean water, and recreation. We want those resources within the urban region to improve over the next 10 and 50 years, despite growth and development. In the process, fish and wildlife movement and biodiversity can be enhanced. That's a more powerful approach than just saying we want to stop sprawl."

Forman saw his task as examining the region's overall patterns and suggesting ways of protecting the systems that were working while improving the performance of those that were not.

Among the region's positive features is its system of eight large, natural parks furnishing habitats for plants and animals as well as trails for hikers. Forman proposed adding two more, and, even more importantly, linking them with green corridors to allow both people and wildlife to move among them. Creating this "emerald network" is especially important for animals because it enlarges their potential territory, allowing them to migrate more freely in the event of fires, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters.

He also recommended protecting the tiny family farms located close to the city that have provided Barcelona's homes and restaurants with fresh produce for generations. Maintaining these farms along with greenhouse growers and larger-scale agricultural operations gives the region a degree of diversity and economic flexibility in the area of food production that it would not otherwise have.

Barcelona's water resources present more of a problem. Rain is scarce and about to get scarcer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that, as a result of global warming, the region will have 15 percent less precipitation by the 2020s. This will adversely affect agriculture, and the associated temperature rise will discourage summer tourists, causing possible economic problems. At the same time, the destruction of all but a few wetlands has increased the chance of flooding when the rains do come.

Another water-related problem is that sewage and storm water are typically channeled into treatment plants through a single system of pipes. This means that during periods of high rainfall, the treatment plants are overloaded and raw sewage enters streams and rivers, causing pollution. Fishermen are almost never seen on streams and rivers.

Forman recommended a package of solutions, including the construction of a two-pipe system for sewage and storm water, restoring wetlands, improving riparian strips on slopes, and instituting a program of water conservation.

The plan also recommends shifting industry from certain rivers and flood plains to areas where it will cause less environmental harm. Forman also suggests buffering residential areas on the edges of towns with strips of parkland and vegetation that would provide amenities for existing populations and provide for future growth. Small and medium industry in nearby sites would be accessible to residents, thus limiting commuter traffic.

Forman did not expect the Barcelona authorities to follow his plan to the letter, but since submitting it, he has been encouraged by the passing of several measures consistent with his recommendations. Local authorities have also expressed their approval.

Acebillo, now Barcelona's commissioner for infrastructure and urbanism, called the plan "a milestone, a rigorous and simple proposal which provides down-to-earth solutions." He also said that "Forman's land mosaic is the starting point for the regional project we need, a key reference in dealing with the complexity of balancing growth and natural resources and finding synergies between both."

Convinced as he is of the validity of the landscape ecology perspective, Forman is not surprised by this acceptance.

"They didn't want a conservationist or an urban planner. They wanted someone who could integrate everything out in the landscape, spatially meshing nature and people so they both thrive in the long term. It's the only thing that makes sense."


Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College