Flags, Noise, and Tourism in Barcelona

Flags hung on balconies protesting noise in city center (Image: Lily Bui)

In Barcelona, some residents hang flags on their balconies as a form of expression — of their identity, geography, and politics. Walking through a typical neighborhood, you may see the Catalan flag, Barcelona flag, or the Spanish flag hung above.

In recent years, local residents of Barcelona have used flags to begin communicating something else: discontent and frustration. The exponential rise in tourism in the city, leading back to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, has transformed previously quiet neighborhoods into overcrowded, loud ones; raised property values for local residents; and posed a cultural threat to the Barcelona way of life.

So, in order to express their discontent, some citizens have used their balconies as a medium for protest and activism against the massification of tourists in their neighborhoods. By hanging flags with messages against tourism, residents signal disapproval of current conditions in the city. For example, the flag below says, in Catalán, “No more terraces, no more noise.” Locals often complain of excessive noise pollution caused my late-night tourist traffic in mixed-use commercial and residential district in bars, restaurants, and clubs. The terraces also refer to the number of outdoor tables there are in front of restaurants; in general, the more there are, the more people are likely to come and socialize there, causing more noise.

Location of other flags in and near city center (Image: Lily Bui)

The municipality has actually recognized this as a problem, and Ajuntament de Barcelona has gone as far as to create a plan of action to address how noise can be mitigated.

When thinking about environmental pollution, noise often takes a backseat to issues of air and water contamination. However, in Barcelona, it is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue among local residents here. Air and noise pollution are invariably intertwined. The more an area is being used by people, the more likely it will be noisy, as the air is more likely to be polluted by transportation, cigarette smoke, industrial output, etc.

Since the SmartCitizen sensor kit also measures noise pollution in decibels (dB), being able to understand the context of noise pollution as a social problem is extremely important. Still, there are a few tricky things about documenting and measuring noise pollution, though.

The SmartCitizen kit contains a noise sensors along with other environmental sensors, and it is quite good at documenting sound levels. While it is true that you can measure sound in decibels (dB), the interpretation of what constitutes “noise” is much more subjective. For some, the noise from a crowded area with loud music is tolerable while for others, it’s stress inducing. Consequently, drafting policy around these subjective experiences is nonetheless challenging.

Furthermore, the anecdotal evidence is paradoxical. While people complain of noise, property values near “noisier” and more active areas (like city center) tend to be higher. Thus, the value of being close to activity (which includes mass tourism) is usually higher, despite the noise.

Ada Colau, the beloved Barcelona city mayor, has written and spoken extensively about this exact issue forinternational audiences as well as local ones. While some local residents see noise pollution and tourism as going hand-in-hand, she distinguishes to two:

“[T]he answer is not to attack tourism. Everyone is a tourist at some point in their life. Rather, we have to regulate the sector, return to the traditions of local urban planning, and put the rights of residents before those of big business.”

To Colau, combatting noise pollution as a proxy for tourism is not the right thing to do. That perspective villainizes a central part of the city’s economy, and one that keeps the city diverse, inclusive, and open. A campaign against tourism could have adverse effects in perpetuating localism to an extent that elides hospitality for visitors altogether.

Does raising awareness of noise pollution help toward regulating it? Is there a way to do so that doesn’t alienate the tourism industry but placates locals and restores some peace of mind?

These are, indeed, difficult questions to answer, and they give way to even more questions still. I am not convinced that we will be able to answer them all; however, a technological solution to enable people to measure sound pollution to create evidence for environmental issues for themselves might be one step in the right direction.

Our fearless SmartCitizen team at FabLab Barcelona (Image credit: Tomas Diez)
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