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De Balanzó, R., and N. Rodríguez-Planas. 2018. Crisis and reorganization in urban dynamics: the Barcelona, Spain, case study. Ecology and Society 23(4):6.

Crisis and reorganization in urban dynamics: the Barcelona, Spain, case study

1City University of New York (CUNY), Queens College, 2City University of New York (CUNY), Hunter College


We use adaptive cycle theory to improve the understanding of cycles of urban change in the city of Barcelona, Spain, from 1953 to 2016. More specifically, we explore the vulnerabilities and windows of opportunity these cycles of change introduced in the release () and reorganization (α) phases. In the two recurring cycles of urban change analyzed (before and after 1979), we observe two complementary loops. During the front loop, financial and natural resources are efficiently exploited by homogenous dominant groups (private developers, the bourgeoisie, politicians, technocrats) with the objective of promoting capital accumulation based on private (or private-public partnership) investments. During the back loop, change is catalyzed by heterogeneous urban social networks (neighborhood associations, activists, squatters, cooperatives, nongovernmental organizations) whose objectives are diverse but converge in their discontent with the status quo and their desire for a “common good” that includes social justice, social cohesion, participatory governance, and well-being for all. The heterogeneity of these social networks (shadow groups) fosters learning, experimentation, and social innovation and gives them the flexibility that the front loop’s dominant groups lack to trigger growing pressures for transformation, not only within, but also across spatial and temporal dimensions, promoting panarchy. At the end, the reorganization phase (α) becomes a competition or negotiation between potential directions and outcomes (including conservative leanings and intentional bottom-up change) to restore the former system.
Key words: adaptive cycle theory; back loop; Barcelona urban planning; Barcelona's urban (sustainable) design era; crisis; panarchy; release (Ω) and reorganization (α) phases; social innovation; social justice; urban change dynamics; urban resilience


Since the mid-2000s, resilience has become increasingly central to international and domestic urban policy making. Climate change, recessions, overpopulation, or migration flows resulting from systemic environmental, economic, or social crises have affected the evolution of the urban quality of life. With these short- and long-term stresses to urban systems’ sustainability, gradual, adaptive or transformational changes occur (Chaffin et al. 2016). Importantly, a city’s resilience lies in its capacity to adapt and transform itself to meet the needs and aspiration of its citizens, rather than in its ability to return to its precrisis form. Hence, there is a need to generate new strategies that transform the city through resilient processes. However, prior to managing resilience, urban experts ought to understand urban cycles of change and the vulnerabilities and windows of opportunity these cycles introduce. To put it differently, they must understand how periods of gradual change interplay with those of rapid change and how such dynamics interact across temporal and spatial dimensions promoting panarchy (Gunderson and Holling 2002). This is the main objective of our paper.

Taking the city of Barcelona in Spain as an example, we analyze two recurring cycles of urban change (from 1953 to 1979, and thereafter) using Holling’s (1986) adaptive cycle theory. This theory examines the dynamics and resilience of ecological and social-ecological systems using a four-phase adaptive cycle, which can be divided in two distinct loops. The front loop includes “exploitation” or growth (the r phase), and “conservation” or consolidation (the K phase). The back loop includes “collapse” or release (the phase), and “innovation” or reorganization (the α phase).

Our focus is on the socioeconomic dimension of Barcelona’s real estate multiscale system dynamics and associated policy. During the two front loops, financial and natural resources are efficiently exploited by homogeneous dominant groups (private developers, the bourgeoisie, politicians, or technocrats), with the objective of promoting capital accumulation based on private or private-public partnership (PPP) investments. During the two back loops, change is catalyzed by Barcelona’s heterogeneous urban social networks (neighborhood associations, professional bodies, activists, squatters, cooperatives, and nongovernmental organizations), who exert discontent with the status quo of conservation (the K phase) and desire a “common good” that includes social justice and cohesion, participatory governance, and well-being for all. At the end, the reorganization phase (α) becomes a competition or negotiation between potential directions and outcomes (including conservative leanings and intentional bottom-up change) to restore the former system. Hence, the back loops are more a step-wise transition in which the direction is foreseen and occurs cumulatively, rather than a collapse that may have not been foreseen by many in power.

Through our analysis, we identify the key role of small, fast-responding systems (the urban social networks) in the resilient development of the city of Barcelona, and bring to light the relevance of the intra- and cross-scale linkages between the city’s institutional networks, local neighborhoods, and urban social movements, as well as the key actors, in achieving sustainable development. In particular, we observe that the heterogeneity of the urban social movements (shadow groups) fosters learning and social innovation (Parés et al. 2017; M. Parés, R. Martínez, and I. Blanco, unpublished manuscript, and gives them the flexibility that the front loop’s dominant groups lack to trigger growing pressures for transformation, not only within, but also across spatial scales and time dimensions, promoting a cross-scale process of revolt and stabilization, also known as panarchy (Gunderson and Holling 2002).

Since the mid-2000s, research on urban resilience has flourished. From the theoretical perspective, several authors have highlighted that, because cities are social-ecological adaptive complex systems managed by humans and organizations, ecological models analyzing urban ecosystems ought to include social interactions (Alberti et al. 2003, Marzluff et al. 2008). Consistent with this, other authors have modeled cities as heterogeneous, multiscale social-ecological systems with heavily intertwined spatial dimensions (Pickett et al. 2004, Grimm et al. 2008, Ernstson et al. 2010). Interestingly, Bristow and Healey (2014) emphasize that urban policies’ success or failure in promoting sustainable development relies on the knowledge and preferences of the city’s diverse composition of agents, entities, and networks; and Marcus and Colding (2014) argue for the need to use the adaptive cycle theory as a tool of analysis for urban systems. Most recently, Herrmann et al. (2016) use the adaptive cycle theory and panarchy to compare the growth and collapse of cities, highlighting the complementarities of the two phases, as well as their temporal and spatial dimensions.

Despite these recent developments in urban resilience, urban studies have seldom used Holling’s adaptive cycle theory to examine the dynamics and resilience of urban planning (Schlappa and Neill 2013, Marcus and Colding 2014) and urban environments (Chaffin et al. 2016). This is our main contribution. In particular, the novelty of our analysis is to focus on real estate dynamics and associated policy when analyzing a city’s adaptive cycle. In doing so, we merge urban dynamics with the adaptive cycle of the social-ecological complex systems (Holling and Goldberg 1971). As with others, our use of “the adaptive cycle model is not intended as a predictive or quantitative model, rather as a conceptual tool and approach focusing on system behavior” (Soane et al. 2012). Despite these challenges, the panarchy model can offer a powerful narrative with practical implications for better understanding the vulnerabilities and windows of opportunity of real estate dynamics. To the best of our knowledge, our study complements work from Pelling and Manuel-Navarette (2011), who use the adaptive cycle to analyze the vulnerability of two coastal cities in Mexico to climate change; Bures and Kanapaux (2011), who analyze Charleston’s (USA) urban cycles of change to wars and climate change; Abel et al. (2006), who explore processes of release and reorganization in cattle and wildlife ranching in Zimbawe and an Aboriginal hunter-gatherer system and a pastoral one in Australia; and Chaffin et al. (2016), who explain how transformative governance of Cleveland (USA) watersheds can help manage the social-ecological resilience of Lake Erie.


Our focus is on the adaptive cycle’s Ω and α phases of two urban eras from Barcelona (1953–1979 and 1980–2016). Appendix Tables A.1 to A.3 summarize the evidence discussed below by subsystem type.

Urban planning era: 1953–1979

After two decades of autarchy and economic stagnation, the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, drastically changed his economic policy by opening the economy. Economic liberalization, substantial U.S. economic aid, soaring tourism, and remittances from Spaniards working abroad paid for the country’s industrialization and economic expansion. Between 1950 and 1970, the share of the Spanish labor force working in the industrial sector grew from 23.5% to 34.6%, with a heavy concentration in the industries in Bilbao, Barcelona, and the capital, Madrid (Ferrer and Nel·lo 1998). At the same time, the use of land and natural resources soared, with the construction of rainwater reservoirs and nuclear plants. During this expansion, Spain was in the r phase, a phase of growth and exponential change, with its gross domestic product (GDP) growing an average of 8.6% from 1961 to 1966, and 5.8% from 1967 to 1972.

The mid-1950s industrialization of Barcelona, a city in the northeast of Spain, attracted an impressive inflow of rural immigrants from all over Spain. As a consequence, Barcelona’s population grew from 1.28 million inhabitants in 1950 to 1.75 million in 1970 (Ferrer and Nel·lo 1998), generating a huge housing deficit (Tatjer and Larrea 2010). To stimulate new housing construction, the Spanish government liberalized housing policy by offering loans, subsidies, and fiscal exemptions to developers, transferring most housing production to the private sector (Díaz Hernández and Parreño Castellano 2006). At the metropolitan level, the government approved in 1953 the Plan Comarcal de Barcelona (Barcelona District Plan; BDP53 hereafter), with the objectives of densifying the existing urban fabric in the suburban areas of Gràcia, Sarrià, Sants, and Sant Andreu, and replacing the 1920s shantytowns with housing superblocks (polígonos de viviendas) in the periphery of the city (Oyón 1998, Busquets 2005). As a result, Barcelona’s housing stock tripled from 1950 to 1975 (Ferrer and Nel·lo 1998). As in the rest of Spain, Barcelona was in the entrepreneurial exploitation phase (r phase) in which social capital positions and coalitions were being consolidated, generating fewer but more marked differences (Pelling and Manuel-Navarette 2011).

As Barcelona moved from the r to the K phase, dominant social actors under the influence of higher scales of power established a new social, organizational, and institutional equilibrium (Pelling and Manuel-Navarette 2011). A loophole allowed municipalities to override the BDP53 plan with “partial plans,” to the advantage of private developers well connected to the regime’s power structure (Calavita and Ferrer 2000, Herce 2013). During the 16-year mandate of Mayor Porcioles (1957–1973), residential housing was constructed in areas initially reserved for green spaces and public facilities, and housing densities frequently exceeded the maximum threshold of 400 units/ha (Ferrer and Nel·lo 1998, Solans 1996). During the K phase, organizations and institutions consolidated but lost flexibility. At the same time, overexploitation and overdensification built up social pressure and increased the system’s vulnerabilities.

Urban real estate development and urban social movements

Barcelona’s urban planning practice led to formal and functional conflicts that spawned its urban social movements (Busquets 1992, Solà-Morales 1997). A meager supply of green spaces and public facilities, and deficient lighting and sanitation conditions accompanied the heavy densification of the suburbs (Huges 1993). The social and well-being conditions in the housing superblocks and shantytowns were considerably worse than elsewhere because these settlements emerged in isolated, poorly built, and deficiently developed areas in the periphery of the city. The extreme densification of Barcelona mixed with the meager supply of public goods generated poor living conditions, social segregation, and deep social conflicts that spawned urban social networks (Calavita and Ferrer 2000).

In the late 1960s, and despite the lack of social freedom, these networks led Barcelona’s neighborhood associations (comisiones de barrios) through different forms of protests, including rallies, urban actions, marches, and traffic interruptions. At the same time, unions, (illegal) political parties, university students, and professional associations contributed to a wider city-level protest movement against the political regime. Social networks were becoming essential in connecting different sources of information and, hence, bringing together different forms of knowledge across Barcelona’s neighborhoods.

What caused the first creative destruction (Ω) phase?

The following events encouraged the decline of natural resources and political, industrial, and real estate capital, and exacerbated the socioeconomic vulnerability of Barcelona.

What was the nature of the first creative destruction (Ω) phase?

Despite its breakthrough in urban planning, a first version of the BMMP76, released in 1974, was disliked by both neighborhood associations and the private sector. The former criticized the proposed thoroughfares, which divided neighborhoods and affected thousands of homes, and the insufficient public-use land. The latter feared downward pressure in land prices and profit losses. In all, 32,000 allegations were presented, and the plan was revised thoroughly before its final publication in 1976.

These allegations signal the beginning of the creative destruction (Ω) phase, which was fueled by the urban social movements. To put it differently, the strength of the revolt of Barcelona’s urban social movements promoted the first window of opportunity for change. The neighborhood associations’ constant protests at different spatial scales (neighborhoods), i.e., from the destruction of the Plaça Lesseps because of the construction of the first beltway, to the sewer line demands in the shantytowns of Torre Baró, generated a city-wide intangible network that released social capital, which was scarce after 35 years of political repression.

The turmoil that accompanied the 32,000 allegations also brought about political upheaval at the municipal level, weakening the regime’s political capital and eventually restructuring it. Because of the wide social opposition to the 1974 BMMP, an intransigent Mayor (Viola), well connected to the regime’s power structure, replaced a benevolent one (Masó). However, the persistent neighborhood associations’ complaints regarding real estate speculation caused Viola’s quick demotion and replacement by yet another mayor (Socias) in 1976.

The political uncertainty that accompanied the transition to democracy and fears of socialism and property expropriation further pushed land prices downward (Calavita and Ferrer 2000). Overall, the economic slowdown led to an appreciable change in population dynamics, with decreases in both fertility and immigration (Ferrer and Nel·lo 1998).

In addition to the neighborhood associations, other urban social movements released social capital, generating cross-system linkages. For instance, local initiatives involving transdisciplinary participatory processes, including architects, sociologists, journalists, and neighbors, developed Social Plans (Planes Populares), with the objective of compiling their multiple objections to the 1974 BMMP (Magro 2014). The delivery of the Social Plans to the local administration set the beginning of the reorganization (α) phase.

What was the nature of the first reorganization (α) process?

With Franco’s death in 1975, parliamentary elections and the restoration of the Generalitat de Catalunya in 1977, and the implementation of the BMMP76, reorganization was on its way. Reorganization was facilitated by: (1) leaders and transformational agents of change who emerged in the neighborhoods and organized through neighborhood associations, (2) urban development protests that became a common platform action against speculation, (3) a sincere attempt from political leaders to turn the protests of the urban social networks and local community-led organizations into effective technical proposals such as the Social Plans, (4) a larger than expected funds transfer from the Spanish government allowing the city to buy close to 221 ha for public use for 3 billion pesetas (~USD $20 million; Solans 1979), and (5) broad-scope debates regarding Catalan culture, spanning from language to theater, architecture, and regional planning (Congrés de Cultura Catalana 1978).

With democracy, newly acquired public-use land, and a democratically elected (progressive) mayor in 1979, many young architects (led by the new urban planning director, Oriol Bohigas) designed almost 200 parks, plazas, and other public facilities during the 1980s (Buchanan 1984) with two objectives. The first objective was to respond promptly to citizens’ demands by efficiently designing and building what was most needed, including public spaces for civic and political participation. The second objective was to obtain both local and international recognition that would fuel local enthusiasm, build a reinvented local culture and urban identity (McNeill 1999), and advance a new Barcelona style (Julier 1996, Narotzky 2007).

According to the engineer of the BMMP76, Albert Serratosa, the neighborhood associations “were the real protagonists (...) in resisting the attacks on the most essential aspects of the plan [the BMMP] on the part of powerful pressure groups” (Huertas 1997). He also credited citizens for defending the BMMP76 by “building cross-scale interactions between citizens, experts, practitioners and politicians.” Hence, the revolt of the urban social networks fostered the adaptive capacity of multiple neighborhood community-led actions, generating a cross-scale nested set of system dynamics (panarchy). In other words, the actions of both small- and intermediate-scale systems triggered a critical change to a larger scale system (the government of Barcelona) through a bottom-up process.

Although the transition from the BDP53 to the BMMP76 triggered the creative destruction (Ω) phase, the preconditions for the reorganization (α) phase were in place when the stress accumulated, and the system transformed into an exploitation (r) phase, with new social and political capital replacing the old regime’s political capital, and young technocrats and architects developing and regulating another real estate growth in the city. Despite the long-lasting economic recession (1974–1985), public infrastructure in Barcelona soared, correcting a long-lived deficit. The new r phase of growth and exponential change had begun.

Urban (sustainable) design era: 1980–2016

The second r phase: redressing Barcelona’s imbalances in the midst of an economic recession: 1980–1985

“The critical discussion of the 1970s that spoke out against speculative urban development projects” guaranteed that “the major intervention projects [of the 1980s and early 1990s] were seen as a strategy to redress balance” (Busquets 2005), foster social cohesion, and create a “sense of belonging to the city” (García-Ramon and Albet 2000). Furthermore, “Barcelona’s urban regeneration program coincided with a wider program of building democratic citizenship in Spain with the implementation of national welfare policies favoring education, training and health” (Degen and García 2012). At the same time, to confront the economic recession and demographic stagnation, the local administration covered basic services and improved the poor living conditions inherited from the Porcioles era (Ferrer and Nel·lo 1998).

To address Barcelona’s former urban deficits, its first two democratic mayors, Serra (1979–1982) and Maragall (1982–1997), prompted a massive relaunch of Barcelona at different, highly intertwined scales of action (Busquets 2005). Initially, these actions targeted small-scale problems brought up by the neighborhood associations, such as the lack of green areas and the need for urban rehabilitation alternatives compatible with the distinct fabrics in the Ciutat Vella (old town), Eixample, and the suburban areas of Barcelona.

European Union integration and Barcelona’s nomination to host the Olympic Games: 1986–1995

With the 1981 liberalization of the mortgage market and the 1986 Spanish integration to the European Union, Spain underwent radical economic changes, improving economic confidence, boosting corporate investment and employment, and increasing household income and consumption. Barcelona led the country’s economic expansion, thanks to its 1986 nomination to host the 1992 Olympic Games, boosting public regional and national investment to finance the city’s large-scale public works (García and Claver 2003) and attracting private investment. Subsequently, the price of land escalated housing prices in certain sought-after neighborhoods and resumed the gentrification process that had stalled during the economic recession. Within a year (from 1987 to 1988), housing prices increased by 51% in Eixample and 100% in the neighborhoods of Diagonal and Pedralbes (Calavita and Ferrer 2000). Barcelona was again in the r phase of growth and exponential change.

In 1988, the “Plan for Hotels” laid the foundation for converting Barcelona into a tourist attraction. It was the beginning of a new economic growth model for Barcelona based on construction, tourism, and service sectors (Degen and García 2012). The construction of new public spaces as well as the celebration of cultural events in different neighborhoods connected segregated areas of the city and gathered residents from different neighborhoods on common ground, enhancing social cohesion and citizen involvement. As Degen and García (2012) explain, social diversity replaced social and spatial segregation, urban identity was built around “Barcelonity” and the “discourse of class was replaced with one of municipal citizenship” (McNeill 2003), generating “a common democratic culture” (Mascarell 2007). At the same time, to implement education, health, and social services, Barcelona built a complex multilevel governance model, integrating the municipal government with other local administrations (regional and provincial) as well as social partners (business and trade unions) and nongovernmental organizations, and financed with funds from regional, national, and European institutions (Truñó 2000).

The decline in bottom-up participatory democratic governance

With the democratization of the Spanish political system, the political opposition dimmed, and Barcelona’s urban social networks and local community-led organizations progressively lost their potential and connectedness (explained in Appendix Table A.4). The neighborhood associations and trade unions also became less influential in Barcelona’s governance. The system had again reached highly institutionalized stability (K), “in which dominant social structures and social agency were well aligned and reinforcing” (Pelling and Manuel-Navarette 2011).

Importantly, the strong influence of technical experts in the city’s strategic planning combined with the loose or indirect public involvement left little room for democratic control of changes in urban development. Marshall (2000) underscores that the municipal regulation whose objective was to give voice to the neighborhood associations in the municipal meetings (ordenanza municipal de Calidad de Vida y de Participación Ciudadana) was never applied because of fears that it would slow down the implementation of urban projects.

Barcelona’s governance model was “only consensual or collaborative because certain power elites were in effect deciding” (Marshall 2000), as the organization of Barcelona’s Olympic Games exemplifies. The authoritarian tradition from the Porcioles era (remember process) combined with the exceptionality and grandiosity of the Olympic project and the pressing deadline of July 1992 “justified” rigid, inflexible, and top-down decision making in the implementation of the Olympic infrastructure.

Neoliberalism and the housing bubble: 1996–2008

Starting in 1995, Spain experienced a decade of loose lending and falling interest rates as a result of both Spain’s entry into the European Monetary System and fierce competition across financial institutions (Rodríguez-Planas 2018). Households’ willingness to take on mortgage debt soared, with mortgages representing from 40% of disposable income in 2000 to 92% in 2007 (Henn et al. 2009). The increased housing demand, coupled with the underdeveloped rental market, further boosted the real estate demand, developing a housing bubble, with housing prices increasing 175% between 1998 and 2008 (Henn et al. 2009). At the political level, the conservative party (Partido Popular) won the Spanish general elections in 1996, setting the ground for a shift toward more neoliberal policies such as liberalizing the land in 1998.

The construction of the Olympic Village initiated a new phase of housing development led by private developers and resulting in high market prices (Degen and García 2012). PPPs marked a change in urban planning priorities because they limited urban planners’ potential to include social and environmental goals that could discourage developers. With the new century, this new model consolidated, especially after the arrival of the new conservative (Convergencia i Unió) Mayor Trias in 2011. Despite the major economic slowdown that followed the 2008 financial crisis, Barcelona’s local government continued to pursue a growth model that sought international investment through making Barcelona a reference for “smart cities” and a center for tourism (Degen and García 2012). Long forgotten were the days when Barcelona’s urban regeneration had, as its main objectives, reaching social cohesion, reducing income inequality, and addressing the growing city’s welfare problems.

What caused the second creative destruction (Ω) phase?

The following elements resulted in the creative destruction (Ω) and reorganization (α) phases:

What was the nature of the second creative destruction (Ω) phase?

The 15M movement, a wave of social mobilization that started on 15 May 2011 and “featured some of the largest occupation of public plazas since the country transitioned to democracy” (Fuster Morell 2012), set the beginning of the release (Ω) phase. In Barcelona, the occupation of Plaça Catalunya lasted more than two weeks, and thereafter moved to neighborhood plazas across the city. While many participants had no previous political experience and were mobilized through social networks, others came from the urban movements, bringing with them their former mobilization trajectories as well as their accumulation of knowledge (Fuster Morell 2012, Nel·lo 2016). Social knowledge and behavior, as well as social memory, learning, and communication strongly influenced social resilience and shaped public opinion first, local neighborhood community-led organizations second, and municipal and governmental agencies later. According to Fuster Morell (2012) and Magrinyà and De Balanzó (2017), the urban movements that became most relevant during the 15M movement were: the Squatters’ Social Centers (created in 1986), the Cooperative movement (Coop 96, running since 1996), the Housing movement (Observatori DESC and V de Vivienda, existing since 2004), the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH, founded in 2009), and the left-wing pro-Catalan independence assembly-based political organization, CUP (created in 2002). The latter two movements would eventually shape governmental institutions by becoming key players in both the municipal (2015) and regional (2012 and 2015) governments.

Leaders from these movements were the transformational agents from the shadow networks that led the 15M movement. The 15M movement became particularly relevant to the creative destructive (Ω) phase once it migrated to the different neighborhoods because this implied the creation of solidarity exchange networks (such as the time bank), the sharing of knowledge, new public-space uses, the exchange of goods, and the creation of energy cooperatives, as well as cooperatives of agro-ecological consumption (Ubasart et al. 2009). As Fuster Morell (2012) explains, “the plazas were like living cities, and managing the squares involved many skills.” Most importantly, the 15M movement reenergized neighborhood networks by connecting old neighborhood associations with social networks associated with specific environmental initiatives or urban and housing projects, hence engaging those who had participated in the first urban social movements and generating synergies and conversational flows.

What was the nature of the second reorganization (α) process?

The 15M process culminated on 11 June 2011 with the municipal council offering Can Batlló (bloc 11), one of the plants of an obsolete textile factory, to the Neighborhood Association of La Bordeta and the Social Center of Sants so they could use it as a social center (Subirats 2015, Parés et al. 2017, Eizaguirre and Parés 2018). This victory created a unique comprehensive social center with a start-up of nongovernmental organizations (Coópolis), a public housing project, and a library. Can Batlló became an inspiration to Barcelona’s neighborhood associations, social centers, and the cooperative movement, and provoked many other emerging urban actions. All together, these actions translated into the Neighborhood Platforms and Assemblies created by the 15M movement, as well as bottom-up projects such as the Vallcarca strategic social plan “The Neighborhood We Want” (el Barri que Volem) in 2013 and 2014 (Observatori de Vallcarca 2015). Additionally, the 2013 top-down municipal initiative Pla BUITS, aiming at temporarily allowing the use of Barcelona’s empty lots by neighbors and nongovernmental organizations, metamorphosed into network bottom-up experiences such as the one in Germanetes. Crucially, Pla BUITS transferred rights to local communities so they could develop emergent actions in tactical urbanism at 50 empty spaces across the city (Magrinyà 2015). All of these local initiatives converged and interacted, creating a common framework for articulating actions through social networks and generating multidimensional synergies that multiplied citizens’ social support and engagement, as reflected by several research projects and urban academic studies from universities and research centers, such as “Observatorio Urbano del Conflicto Urbano,” “Movement Transition Towns,” “Barrios en Crisis,” “BCN Comuns,” and “POLURB 2015” (De Balanzó 2017).

With these emerging initiatives, the reorganization (α) phase was on its way. It was facilitated by: (1) leaders and transformational agents of change who emerged in the neighborhoods and generated, thanks to the 15M movement, synergies and networks that opened a window of opportunity for change; (2) protests against housing evictions and in favor of decent and affordable housing metamorphosing into a platform against real estate speculation (DPH 2006); (3) a sincere attempt from local assemblies to turn the urban social movements’ protests into effective urban planning proposals such as the “new version” of Social Plans, “The Neighborhood We Want” plans; (5) broad-scope debates regarding collective Catalan patrimony and public assets (Forum Veïnal); and (6) rising popular support for Catalan self-determination led by the left-wing local CUP assemblies.

Hence, these local social networks’ revolt fostered the adaptive capacity of multiple community-led local actions, generating social capital within and across spatial scales (panarchy). Actions of small- and intermediate-scale systems triggered a transformational change into larger scale systems (the city government) through a bottom-up process. In 2014, a new party that emerged from the shadow networks, Barcelona en Comú, was created, marking the end of the reorganization (α) phase. As in the 1970s, when the new democratic government absorbed transformational leaders, the transformational leaders of the second α phase entered the municipal administration when the spokesperson of PAH was elected Mayor of Barcelona in 2015. In these same elections, CUP entered Barcelona’s local government with 7.4% of the votes. Mayor Colau and her team are currently leading the new transformation of Barcelona’s urban dynamic. Whether they will succeed in achieving a new urban “common good” remains to be seen.


Both adaptive cycles of Barcelona’s social-ecological system conform to the basic sequence of change in the adaptive cycle theory: a growth phase (r), followed by a consolidation phase (K), prior to a release () event, that leads to the reorganization (α) phase. The novelty of our analysis has been to focus on Barcelona’s real estate dynamics and associated policy. Below, we summarize the main analysis (Fig. 1).

Front loop

In the case of Barcelona’s real estate adaptive cycles, the front loop is long. Financial and natural capital is plentiful, and fast-growing entities (private developers, politicians, and technocrats) take advantage of these resources to dominate the system efficiently. During the 1960s and 1970s, abundant financial capital added to economic liberalization set the ground for Barcelona’s massive urban sprawl and densification. In the 1980s and 1990s, the democratic transition funds and newly acquired public-use land, a well as the European Union and European Monetary Union entry and international investments, were the basis for PPP urban development. In the 1960s and 1970s, private developers abused their contacts with the dictatorial regime to develop massive urban sprawl and densification via “Partial Plans;” and in the 1980s and 1990s, technocrats and private developers pursued a growth model based on a knowledge economy and tourism industry (1–3 and 11–13, respectively, in Fig. 1).

As the adaptive urban complex system matured, several homogeneous social groups (private developers and the bourgeoisie well connected to the dictatorial regime in the first era; and national and international private investors and municipality technocrats in the second era) came to dominate the system. During the K phase, resources (land, housing, green spaces, public infrastructure, and wealth) became scarce for “new” (and old) entities such as youth, immigrants, the working and middle class, and industry, and the system lost its flexibility, as reflected by the rise in social injustice, discontent, and social conflict, increasing the likelihood of the system collapsing. The dark arrows (4 and 14 in Fig. 1) reflect the revolt process (panarchy) initiated by heterogeneous small- and intermediate-scale systems that take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the large-scale systems to generate windows of opportunity to trigger growing pressures for transformation.

Back loop

Economic and governance disruption (1973 crisis and Franco’s death during the first era; the Great Recession, the bursting of the real estate bubble, and Barcelona’s model of aggressive entrepreneurial urban regeneration during the second era) increased the system’s vulnerabilities by releasing capital. Crucially, in both eras, the phase was triggered by a disturbance in the social domain: the 1974 revision of the BDP53 (5 in Fig. 1) and the 15M movement (15 in Fig. 1). In both cases, shadow groups (urban social networks) led by transformational agents (neighborhood associations and new democratic political groups in the former case; squatter, cooperative, public space, PAH, housing, and CUP movements in the latter case) depleted the political capital that had accumulated during the Barcelona of Porcioles and the PPP–urban-development era (6 and 16 in Fig. 1). In addition, in both cases, political leaders or local assemblies turned the urban social movements’ protests into effective urban planning proposals such as the Social Plans in 1976–1979 or “The Neighborhood We Want” plans in 2012–2015 (7 and 17 in Fig. 1). It is noteworthy that enough social capital (social networks, trust, and human capital) was retained during Barcelona’s back loops for the following adaptive cycles. For instance, the neighborhood associations’ social capital from the 1970s built “cross-scale interactions between citizens, experts, practitioners and politicians” most relevant in “resisting the attacks on the most essential aspects of the [BMMP] plan on the part of powerful pressure groups” (Serratosa 1996), and hence, enabled Barcelona’s urban regeneration and social cohesion during the late 1970s and 1980s (8–10 in Fig. 1). The dark arrows (9 and 19 in Fig. 1) reflect the “remember” process (panarchy) from large-scale systems that restores stability and dominance of conservative leanings through the creation of new municipal institutions.


We used adaptive cycle theory to improve the understanding of Barcelona’s real estate dynamics and related policy. Specifically, we explored the vulnerabilities and windows of opportunity these cycles of change introduced in the release and reorganization phases. In the two recurring cycles of urban change analyzed, we observe two complementary and opposing loops. During the front loop, resources are efficiently exploited by homogenous dominant groups with the objective of promoting capital accumulation based on private or PPP investments. During the back loop, change is catalyzed by Barcelona’s heterogeneous social groups (urban social networks and the third sector), whose objectives are diverse and uncertain but converge in their discontent with the status quo of the conservation (K) phase and their desire for a “common good” that aims at social justice, social cohesion, participatory governance, and well-being for all. At the end, the reorganization phase (α) becomes a competition or negotiation between potential directions and outcomes, including conservative leanings, that restores the former system.

In our analysis, we observed that disturbances at the smallest scale (rallies, marches, urban actions, participatory processes, and litigations) affect the intermediate scale (neighborhood community-based organizations) and may well have a bottom-up influence on larger, slow-responding scales (municipal and regional institutions), especially when multiple revolts from smaller and intermediate systems destabilize and erode the apparent stability of the larger systems. We also observed that disturbances of larger scale systems (city’s political changes, economic crisis, dictator’s death) can have a top-down influence on smaller scale systems. Smaller and nested systems reorganize under the influence of larger scale systems, and social memory and hierarchical constraints determine the way societies reorganize.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the heterogeneity of shadow groups fosters learning and innovation and gives them the flexibility that the front loop’s dominant groups lack to trigger growing pressures for transformation, not only within, but also across spatial and temporal dimensions, promoting a cross-scale process of revolt and stabilization, also known as panarchy. As such, the local neighborhood experiences (Can Batlló, “The Neighborhood We Want,” and Pla BUITS) escalated to network bottom-up experiences and became city-wide emergent and social-innovation experiences (De Balanzó 2015, 2017).


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We thank Editor Carl Folke, an anonymous subject editor, and two anonymous referees for excellent comments on an earlier version of this paper. This paper benefitted from early discussions with Francesc Magrinyà, as well as comments from participants of the Third International Conference in Resilience and Development in Montepellier, France, in 2014.


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Address of Correspondent:
Rafael De Balanzó
City University of New York (CUNY), Queens College
Economics Department
306-G Powdermaker Hall
65-30 Kissena Blvd.
Queens, NY USA 11367
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Figure1  | Appendix1