The Zona Franca Industrial Estate is the largest and most active industrial area in Spain and one of the most dynamic in Europe. It has been a key factor in Barcelona’s economic strength since its construction in the 1950s and it has tremendous future potential. Covering an area of about 600 ha, over 300 companies operate in the Zona Franca, employing more than 50,000 workers. Together with the harbour and the new ZAL (logistic activity area), it encompasses a high volume of trade and goods, representing around 3% of Spain’s gross domestic product.
The Zona Franca took off when the decision was made in the late 1940s by the Spanish dictatorship to locate the SEAT factory (Spanish Society of Automobiles and Transport) here in an attempt to modernize the country’s backward economy. That decision turned out to be crucial for the future of the city of Barcelona, for the surrounding region (especially the comarca of Baix Llobregat) and, in economic terms, for the whole country. As a result, the Zona Franca from that moment on was the embodiment of economic and productive progress.
Its geographical location provides the Zona Franca with excellent potential: sited in the Delta plain of the Llobregat River, it is separated from the city centre by Montjuïc, a prominent hill that pushes the area into the hinterland. Nevertheless, the core of the Zona Franca is only 7 km away from the airport and the same distance from the city centre, an attractive aspect in terms of leisure and services. In the 1990s the construction of Barcelona’s ring roads (Rondas) linked the local traffic up with the national highway system and provided the area with two specific points of access. Very recently the Zona Franca was connected to the highspeed railway system, adding a final element in the configuration of a superb network of international connections.
The high degree of infrastructure provides excellent accessibility and strong interdependencies with the metropolitan area, but in spatial terms it reinforces its specialized character and functional organization. Gates, loops and segregated types of infrastructure make up a system of progressive enclosures, with delimited areas and few synergies nearby. Historically, this enclosed character is closely associated with tax redemptions and fiscal advantages as ‘Zona Franca’ means Duty Free Zone: an area that is ‘isolated’, and protected by special regulations.
Separated by a thin but continuous fence, both the Zona Franca and the harbour are areas of ‘public’ land whose administration is managed by public consortiums. The Consorci de la Zona Franca is run by the Central Spanish Administration and the City Hall, Barcelona’s Port Authority, and the Generalitat de Catalunya (regional government). This structure means that these public consortiums operate both as landlords and managers, administrating areas for logistics, industry and manufacturing. Decision making on the kinds of infrastructure for supporting new industries, real-estate policies and the type of businesses are their specific responsibility.
The harbour and Zona Franca areas play an active role in the metropolitan metabolism because of the concentration of different types of infrastructure they host: eco-park (city waste), a general sewerage collector, a large water-treatment plant, a gas pipeline from north Africa and other fluids. Most of these different forms of infrastructure are underused in terms of capacity and could serve a wider area.
In recent years, the industrial estate has undergone major changes: new projects have replaced older industrial activities with more innovative companies, which seek to UPCYCLE optimize their location, thus introducing added value to the city. The huge SEAT complex (initially covering more than 150 ha) is no longer fully active and the old buildings have been transformed into new vacant plots (BZ sector). Meanwhile the large central market Mercabarna is one of the most active clusters, serving a population of almost 10 million inhabitants. Logistic activities take advantage of the Zona Franca’s accessibility and new projects are planned to attract added-value activities including R+D and pharmaceutical companies.
This upcycling process requires services to be more strongly structured. Hence the infrastructure projects that reinforce the accessibility of both the harbour and Zona Franca: new railway tracks connecting with the European rail network, new terminals for containers at the harbour and the future plans for the Ronda Litoral motorway. At the same time, new businesses demand more qualitative urban services that consider environmental factors as added value. New networks for heating and cooling, as well as use of the cold surplus from the regasification plant are to be implemented. Including these in the design and production of industrial models, and in specific clusters and forms of hybrid urbanism will be a great challenge.
The future scenarios for this area offer enormous scope, because of its geographical qualities, infrastructure assets and the new energy resource options. The diversification of economies and changes in industrial forms offer a wider range of possibilities for making the best use of the Zona Franca’s excellent location. Additionally, the presence of two new metro lines (one crossing the area to the airport) with six metro stops opens up new opportunities: we can imagine a more intense and diverse scenario, achieving a definitive break in patterns of isolation with regard to the city.
Within this general framework certain questions arise. How we can imagine here a new balance between the local and global economies? Is it possible to imagine that local flows, based on a regional-scale economy, could progressively replace the global ones? In a prosperous future, what kind of activities could be in-filled to intensify this area without displacing, again, the productive economy to the outskirts of the city? What lessons from the 22@ District experience could be transplanted to this area with its completely different structure and location? And in the near future, what kind of progressive strategies could be implemented, launching temporary initiatives to overcome the economic gloom forecast for the coming years?
To address these questions, four different sites (A, B, C, D) were chosen according to their potential for exploring the creation of new energy networks, and for overcoming the sense of enclosure in Zona Franca by stimulating potential synergies with future industries and the tertiary sector. Varying from existing mixed fabrics and strong logistic parts to ex-novo implementations, from linear elements to grid-like patterns, the sites allow a deeper exploration of the typological and urban approach to these networks. For instance, the appearance of taxi cooperatives based on solar cell parking lots exemplifies how energy logistics might be implemented not only at the design level, but also at the social level.
Carles Crosas & Jorge Perea