The project starts from the conviction that the pandemic has worsened the fragile condition of contemporary cities around the world. As the current centre of gravity for most territories, the city has suffered radically during the pandemic. This is not only due to its functioning, which has been distorted, or to the experience of people within public and private spaces, which took on special significance during lockdown, but also because the city itself has been questioned as a model of living. It has been questioned and perceived differently, in relation to its environmental, social and cultural values. The questioned city becomes a fragile structure.

Fragile is everything that can break, disappear, become degraded.

But that which is fragile is not weak, it is not banal, it is not indifferent: it can be fundamental, it can be strong if it is considered active, it can reveal meaning and transform everything it touches with its presence. The contemporary city is a structure that is only apparently strong and that gives rise to multiple forms of life and realities within its scope, among which we can discover the different fragile situations that also comprise it. Within its diversity and complexity, the city becomes fragile.

 

The research group leading this project proposal, ACC (Architecture, City and Culture), found this term very appealing after the publication of La città fragile, a text by Beppe Rosso and Filippo Taricco published in 2008, in which authors, poets and playwrights faced one another and brought reality and a voice to recurring figures from urban marginalisation [B. Rosso, F. Taricco. La ciudad frágil. Barcelona: Ediciones Bellaterra, 2012]. We were surprised by the use of this term in relation to the traditional vision of the city as a strong organism. Applying the poetics that we perceive within this contrast, we started to detect situations that were worthy of being considered fragile, not always linked to people’s marginal lives, but beyond, in relation to a series of phenomena that we had not considered until that point. In a certain way, we can turn the solid aspects of the city on their head and detect the forms of life and occupation that call them into question and transform them.

 

Over the last ten years the ACC group has worked on detecting, recognising and diagnosing the contemporary city, focusing on what we call fragile spaces. The initial conclusions of this work were published at the end of 2019 [Marta Llorente (coord.) Espacios frágiles en la ciudad contemporánea. Representaciones y formas de ocupación del espacio urbano: figuras de la fragilidad. Madrid: Abada, 2019, with articles by Carmen Rodríguez, Marta Llorente, Carlos Bitrián, Pedro Azara, Marina Povedano, Ricard Gratacòs, Marta Serra, Mònica Aubán and Mònica Sambade]. We understand that fragility conditions the future of human projects, but also that it can enrich them. Alongside the strong and consolidated city, its constructions and organisation, the signs of its history, there is another city that moves, that hides and is transformed, but that brings new versions of itself to each transformation. Perhaps we should not speak of a fragile city, but of the city as an immense container of fragile realities.

 

The urban model is now seen within the midst of a pandemic —and at the gates of new waves— in many aspects as a vulnerable model itself, where life, also more fragile than ever, has to adapt again and sometimes in an improvised and urgent way. The consequences of this fragility can already be seen in certain changes in citizens’ uses and habits. We have a new perception of the urban environment as we perhaps have a new perception of coexistence, of habitat needs, of the meaning of public spaces and streets. We know that this perception will influence choices and the ways of using urban reality in the future. The crisis of the city as a model will be aggravated by the decline in resources entailed by a financial crisis, which unfortunately already lies within the horizon of what we can expect.


As a life experience, the pandemic has generated distortions and unpredictable events within the framework of our city, just like other world cities. Each city, however, is a unique unit that responds to this global phenomenon in a different way. Within Barcelona, there are all our city’s spaces that are vulnerable, less visible, unstable and spontaneous, but that we consider essential in order to understand the city in all its meaning: as an inhabited material structure, as a space of experience and as a place for the creation of meaning and, therefore, transformation. We study the city as a whole within which all existing realities are decisive in generating its meaning. We believe that it is vital to establish a type of vision and representation that reaches the most marginal, as well as the most creative, aspects that the city is capable of generating in order to regenerate itself, almost as if it were a living being. More than ever the city needs to take its own capacity for regeneration into account. The city needs to be understood based on the most diverse set of realities that it contains.

Why are we seeking an image of the fragile city during the pandemic? 

What relationship does this diverse city have with the city that is already known and represented?

The image of the city that we have come to build during the current pandemic caused by COVID-19 has been strongly represented by statistical data derived both from the monitoring carried out by government institutions and from scientific studies. Naturally, these data bring to the forefront issues related to the subject, to people: suffering, morbidity, mortality, within the field of health, or employment situations, precariousness, poverty, lack of technological resources. It is true that the media have established a bridge between these data from scientific information and citizens, establishing a particular representation of the main spaces and scenarios where they had an impact. From here, we have partially given a face to a very specific set of community spaces, such as hospitals, residences and schools and, within the private dimension, to the domestic space, to the home and, even, to spaces of death and grief, which were particularly affected. In relation to urban spaces, we have also concentrated on the effects caused on those that belong to the commercial sector, indicating deficiencies and limitations resulting from the pandemic. Some images that have been shared have opened up the dimension of empty streets and public spaces, creating transformed and changing urban scenarios.

 

This reality provides the basis with which to start, but we intend to go further. Having received attention from the media, all of these spaces have been recognised and naturalised, becoming almost familiar to us. And we have been able to build an image of the city from them. But is this image true or sufficient in relation to everything that the city has experienced, in everything that affects the way it was transformed by the pandemic? Have we considered all the factors that allow us to understand the concrete reality of the city and its consequences related to the use of space?

 

We believe we have to intensify the image of the city that was experienced during the pandemic, refine its reality in relation to the differential experience of users, to the effect of experiences that were different and perhaps more hidden from view, take into account the emotional impact that these experiences have created in people and that has influenced their use. We believe we still do not know enough about all the experiences that emerged during lockdown and the following days when things started to open up, during the months that separate us from the start of the pandemic. Even now, every change of use in the city in relation to the imposed security guidelines is generating new situations that we wish to acknowledge. We understand that the fragile city is a city undergoing transformation.
 

 

What contributions to this vision of the fragile city can be made by architecture and urban planning?

We can detect other realities from the field of architecture and urban planning that, in a more tangential and sporadic way, have been –and continue to be– affected. To begin with, we will mention some examples which are perhaps the most shocking: the realities associated with extreme marginality and the fragility of life, those deriving from loneliness within the private space and the social isolation it involves, social uprooting linked to a lack of housing, homelessness, the precariousness of mid-life, vulnerability to the experience of illness and death in certain extreme situations, and even the lack of legality of people and of certain semi-clandestine uses and actions that have been deployed within the urban space.


These data would have to be differentiated and analysed according to factors such as age, gender and origin: these variables can create different and complementary images of the same experiences. All of these realities affect the data obtained by the statistics, but they have not been revealed in their full complexity, in their temporal rhythms of transformation, in relation to changes in location and itinerance; in short, in space and its many scales. All of these layers of experience and meaning make up what we call the fragile city. This fragile city can be unpredictable, residual and sometimes hidden, but it is still a city in the full sense of the word. It has the right to be represented and known. Furthermore, this city is actually the true city, the one that not only exists but also creates and occupies space. A city that conditions spatial reality and transforms it.


The aim of our proposal is to reveal these more ethereal and subtle layers, which are sometimes rather more overwhelming, to incorporate and integrate them with those that already have weight, as has been said, within the representation formed of the pandemic city. This study seeks everything that we believe has affected the experience of urban space, that can review the problems linked to shortcomings or transformations of private and public urban uses that can be taken into account to repair current dysfunctions and to anticipate, if this is the case, any actions that improve the resources of the city itself. It is about having more in-depth knowledge of the fabric of urban realities, including those that occur within private spaces, and containing them within a cartography that compiles these layers of meaning and displays them sufficiently clearly.


We have already detected many of these possible situations, which we refer to as layers of the fragile city: some have already been mentioned, and later on, we will formulate the first specific account of the one we wish to study. But we also want a project that pays attention to discovery, to things that are perhaps still unpredictable, to everything that belongs to a fleeting moment but that can modify experience, memory and the will to change. This is the expectation.


As mentioned previously, the project wants to recognise realities that do not always represent negative experiences, but rather have the power to create meaning and transform the urban environment in a subtle and playful way. As much as possible, we intend to record everything that has made the city live as a space for creativity, in spite of its limitations. We value creative spatial practices: street arts, spontaneous culture that finds strands of hope in unsuspected spaces to overcome the fragility of an artistic scene that has been forced to regroup. We represent these transformative poetics and all possible actions that are typical of each place and with the capacity to create memory as events that are ephemeral but in turn as an exercise in resilience.


Therefore, the main aim of the project is to explore the concept of urban fragility during the COVID-19 pandemic, associating the spatial dimension of the city with the impact of social realities that are less visible but that can be decisive for the city of the future, as well as incorporating this image into the existing representation, completing it and even changing it.


In order to bring about this reflection, our decision is to base the case study within the city of Barcelona, understood as a living and changing reality but that can be delimited by its peripheral territorial and central extension. Fragility is understood as a less recognised form of reality that is vulnerable but real, capable of taking root and making its way forward amongst the most adverse conditions. This is why the project is called Barcelona Fragile City.