Urban Security & The Public Space of Foreigners


Is it safe to travel to Europe? Depends on who you ask, you might be told that your concern is almost a total nonsense, or be assured that it is a certain lost of phones and wallets. This is rendered by the fact that although the statistic of crime in a community may be relatively low, fears caused by the news of separated incidences around the neighbourhood can spread among public without actual experiences. For cities that has a high flow of tourist population, it is only reasonable that such phenomenon can also be observed among the sparsely distributed community of this particular group. An internet search using related entries yields results that prove the relevance of such concern. Notably, some search results points out specific categories that one should be aware of as tourist. These mainly include petty property crime such as pickpockets and hotel crime. Conversely, the committer of such crime also tends to target the tourist population, and it is very likely that they have chosen this “career” because of the high “opportunities” provided by the intense tourist presence. This factual positive relationship between tourist concentration and the soaring of crime rate has been statistically proven by many researchers. As architects and urban designers, the general population’s wellbeing in their residing neighborhood is naturally one of our major concerns. Taking Barcelona as a typical European destination for overseas visitors, this project intends to carry out a systematic study of the real state of affair in the city, and thereby attempt to experiment with a methodology that might assist in improving the public sense of security at the contested sites where concerns are needed to be addressed.

Project Aim:

The project aims to analyse the degree of responsibility of urban planning behind the cause of the current state of affairs, and to produce an intervention that best remedies where this responsibility might be failing as urban planners.


  1. Identify the correlation between tourist concentration and crime rate. 
  2. Identify one specific townscape where crime and tourism overlaps. 
  3. Analyse the urban elements that may have potentially contributed to the insecurity.

Framework & Prospectives:

  • More tourist means more activities. More activities means more security concern.
  • Tourists are foreign, unfamiliar with the local condition, and are less likely to seek help from the local police.
  • Criminals are not necessarily local as well, views tourists as opportunities, professional occupation targeting specific urban areas. 
  • Property crimes (thefts/robbery) constitutes the majority of the reported crime.
  • Perception of crime can easily become much higher than actual crime rate.

Thesis Statement:

Tourism, Crime, & Urban Security experiments with the possibilities to enhance public security and wellbeing at an urban design level by methods such as spatial management, the friendly deployment of barriers, and encouraging mutual support, reducing costs and repressiveness in public space that came along the continuous upscaling of policing, creating a positive environment that contributes to the healthy coexistence between foreign visitors and the local residences.

Case study of Barcelona:

As a city that has established for itself a strong dependence on tourist economy, Barcelona received more than 29 million visitors (by hotel stays) in 2022. Tourism economy in Barcelona witnessed a stable growth in the past few decades, which came alongside a stable increase of crime rate. The relation between these two figures are no mere assumption: the rising level of victimazation dropped alongside the drastic decrease of toursit activity in 2020, after the COVID mesures went in effect. On the other hand, a study conducted prior to 2014 states that the fear of crime in Barcelona has been a prolonged issue since before the drastic rise of victimization index in the following years. An important observation made by the same study states that the social anxiety among local population could have been the outcome of uncertainty towards the soaring foreign population, which went from 2% in 1998 to 18 percent in 2012. The anxiety towards the frequent appearance of large groups of strangers, also amplified by reports of a mere few real cases, could spread incoherent fear among the local population.

Compare to data from online survey on the perceived security level of security, Barcelona is certainly on the top of the list.

What makes tourists easy targets? The simplest reason is that tourists often carry valuable belongings such as cameras, phones, jewelries, and cash; but more importantly, their pattern of behaviors often differs obviously from the local population, thus making them easily identifiable as valuable targets. The Problem Oriented Guides for Police published by the U.S. Department of Justice has pointed out following scenarios regarding street robberies:

“Street robberies occur when motivated offenders encounter suitable victims in an environment that facilitates robbery. A street robbery problem emerges when victims repeatedly encounter offenders in the same area. ”

Meanwhile, the Guide also points out that:

“…tourists are vulnerable because they are more likely to be relaxed and off guard, and sometimes careless while on vacation.”

It is also claimed that tourists are less likely to report a crime, which corresponds to the results of another study conducted in Barcelona. All these traits contribute to motivate the offenders to target tourists, and the confirmed likeliness of success promotes such activities to emerge into repetitive and even organized offences. The Guide also reminds us: “Furthermore, media coverage of crimes against tourists often tends to be out of proportion to the actual risk, having a profound effect on public perception of safety at particular locations.” In Barcelona’s case, this observation is manifested by the notoriousness of El Raval.

A theoretical model for perceived insecurity
A theoretical model for property crime on the streets.

El Raval in Media:

Barcelona’s district of El Raval has, for a long time, suffered from the reputation of being the most dangerous part of the town. Pickpocketing, robbery, drug dealing, and prostitution plague the alleys of the congested medieval side wing of Barcelona. Although it was mentioned to testify what the U.S. policing guideline states as the impact of media’s over-coverage of crimes against tourists, angry testimonies of those who actually suffered from property lost or personal harm are even more responsible for reassuring skepticisms towards every street corner of this otherwise quite acceptable neighborhood. Posts from personal accounts on platforms such as TripAdvisor or Reddit relives the details of their victimization with vivid words and strong opinions, which are hard to tell if there is any exaggeration due to anxiety and excitement.

El Raval in Data:

In order to obtain a clearer grasp on the actual circumstance of El Raval, data from research papers and government publications regarding the relevant information in the city of Barcelona has been put into visualized comparison. Hopefully, this could help to find out some insights, or confirm some assumptions behind El Raval’s low level of perceived security. Starting from the tourist heat map and tourist attractions.

Mapping of Tourist Heat Zones and Tourist Attractions in Barcelona. El Raval is clearly in the top region.
Mapping of Violent Crime rate, scaled based on study by Cernat et. al., 2022.
Mapping of the percentage of tourist beds per 100 beds in the neighborhood by Cocola-Gant and Lopez-Gay, 2020.

Here we see that El Raval and the central Eixample are the two neighborhoods with highest violent crime index. These areas coincide with the tourist heat map, but somehow avoids the central venues of the hottest tourist activity. The following graph shows the extent of tourists occupation in each neighborhood by the percentage of tourist bed to the total bed count. This area meets the hottest zone of tourist activities, and is surrounded by the zones with higher crime rate.

Mapping of perceived crime rate based on the statistics calculated by Montolio and Planells-Struse, 2015 (same source is credited for the following three maps).
Mapping of personal encounters with police officers accounted by surveyed individuals.
Mapping of foreign-born male residents in each districts.
Mapping of education level in each district. Data has been inversed in order to maintain a consistent infographic language. The numbers represent an index with maximum value of 1 that indicates the lack of education.

These graphs indicate that El Raval is the neighborhood with highest perceived rate of crime. Interestingly, the central Eixample which also has a high rate of violent crime seems to be much safer in perception. Meanwhile, the other two neighborhoods in the Old Town are all perceived as rather unsafe despite having lower crime rate.

In the cited research, the author compared the effect of police presence to the perception of safety in a specific location. The graph here shows that police presence is much less frequent in El Raval than the adjacent neighborhoods. Although this data was gathered in 2015 and, according to the official publication cited previously, the police activities on the streets has seen a significant increase in the past few years, the author still offered some insights with their observation. Not considering the possible ambiguities behind the lack of police presence in El Raval back in the days, we can at least say that the police were much less motivated in stopping individuals in El Raval, especially in comparison to the other two, more tourist-rich neighborhoods of the Old Town. While the possible reasons for El Raval to be less attractive to tourists must be discussed in the following sections, here we can make a quick comparison of the police-crime-tourist data. Although one may observe that the low level of perceived security could be related to the lack of police presence in the region, since the other neighborhoods with high level of police activities are generally considered to be much safer, the author of the sourced research paper has pointed out that police presence may in fact cause negative impact to those who have recent encounters with actual crime. This is probably relatable to the negative impact of CCTV on crime risk perception: “symbols of security can remind us of our insecurities.” To put more rationally, outside forces that help us to maintain security could have the effect of reducing personal sense of responsibility and awareness, thus increase the possibility of victimization, while the level of anxiety is also risen as we realize that there is a necessity of constant police surveillance. This observation may seem self-contradicting, but is a rather realistic depiction of the complicated human psychology under the even more complicated social environments. The following graphs led an insight to one of the most disputed traits of El Raval when its crime issue is under discussion: its demography.

The last two graphs indicate the distribution of foreign-born male residents in each district and the distribution of education level among the general population, which shows a concerning degree of correspondence between the two. The negative impression towards immigrants is a problematic, yet unfortunately all too realistic factor that generates a perception of potential risk, especially among foreign tourists. From what we have discussed above over the factors that generates the senses of insecurity, we can assume that this impression of risk is very likely to be caused by obscurity between culture, a type of insecurity due to uncertainty and suspicion towards a community that is excluded from what we are used to. While it might be easy for those tourists who share a common language, or even a common nationality, to feel quite at home under this kind of environment, the apparent perception of economic underdevelopment and incivility around the streetscape, such as graffiti and litters, causes a natural sense of anxiety to those who came to expect good sights and friendly services. It is thus important to consider a redevelopment of these districts with special supports provided for immigrant entrepreneurs and encourage more unhindered contact between them and the visiting tourists.

So far, the observation provided by this series of maps can be described as follow:

  • 1. The concentration of tourist activity is related to various other urban factors, but mainly with the distribution of attraction sites.
  • 2. A strong positive relation between tourist concentration and crime rate.
  • 3. A negative relation between tourist concentration and police activities.
  • 4. A distribution of perceived crime rate that normally scales with the actual crime rate, but is lower in Eixample and higher in the entire Old Town district.
  • 5. A very unfavorable statistic of education rate for residences who dwell in the Old Town, which are the most tourist-rich neighborhoods and are mostly occupied by foreign residents.

What are the Insights?

As of El Raval specifically, we found that:

  • – It has a high level of perceived crime rate.
  • – It has the highest level of actual crime rate.
  • – It is adjacent to the hottest tourist zone, but tourists seem to have less interest in this neighborhood than the other ones of the Old Town district.
  • – High percentage of immigrant popula tion.
  • – Low level of education.

If put into cross-comparison with the other neighborhoods of Barcelona, especially the ones that are also frequented by tourists in the urban center, we can try to understand why is El Raval is special:

  • The Gothic neighborhood: which is the actual nucleus of the ancient Barcelona, is also perceived as unsafe, but is much more popular among tourists than El Raval. Likely due to the fact that this is also the location of the city’s government, police presence in this immediately adjoining neighborhood is significantly higher than El Raval, separated only by a few alleyways. It also has a low level of education, but has a significantly lower percentage of foreign-born residents, likely due to the fact that this area is mostly occupied by temporary visitors. It is hard to tell a strong difference between this area and El Raval other than the higher concentration of attraction sites.
  • The central Eixample neighborhood: also has a higher rate of crime, but has a very low level of perceived insecurity. It is also home to some of the hottest tourist attractions, with also a large percentage of tourist accommodations. The concentration of immigrant population is low and education level is high, and police do not frequently stop people in this area. Besides those quantitative data, the urban landscape of Eixample is much more open and aiery, which is very likely a source of perceived civility and security. Compared to El Raval, the main differences here seem to be the townscape and the demography.

Putting the above observation together with the elements of security perception, which we have discussed earlier, we can see now that the deteri-oration of El Raval’s security level can be accredited to the following causes:

  • – High level of tourist activity has caused a target-rich environment for the offenders.
  • – Low level of police activity has reduced the potential cost of crime (according to the city council, this situation has been altered by increasing police activity in the past year).
  • – Relatively lower density of tourist level room for offenders to maneuver.
  • – Proximity to the more concentrated area sometimes cause tourists to lower their guards when they enter this somewhat quieter environment, as people are generally more worried of pickpockets in crowded areas.
  • – On the other hand, as they wonder deep into El Raval, the apparent signs of incivility (litters, graffiti, and suspicious groups of individuals) could cause them to feel anxious again.

Commenting from the first-hand experiences of the author during the field survey, it can also be said that the appearance of El Raval’s streetscape can also lower the awareness of a tourist, since they are likely expecting to feel some medieval vibe around the area. Negative sensation may also arise as they discovered that El Raval somewhat resembles an underdeveloped ghetto rather than a medieval tourist town (like the adjacent Gothic neighborhood).

In order to further understand the issues with El Raval, the next section will be dedicated to a brief history of El Raval’s development. As a part of Barcelona’s Old Town, why is it different from the Gothic nucleus, and why are tourists way more interested in the latter?

On the other hand, as we have now observed the relation between the concentration of tourist activity and the concentration of crime, we can conclude that the lucrative tourist industry is indeed capable of raising both the legal and the illegal businesses that feed around them. As town planners, measures should certainly be considered to mediate these problems, as they negatively affect the healthy growth of local economy and the wellbeing of the regular citizens. At this point I would like to revisit the thesis statement of this project:

Thesis Statement:

Tourism, Crime, & Urban Security aims to boost the perception of safety during tourists’ visits at attractions with high victimization rate.

El Raval in History

After investigating the state of affairs in today’s El Raval it would also be necessary to have an understanding of its historical development. Although some may think that it is better for the introduction of historical background to be placed at the beginning of the story, in this case it is more important to first understand the problematic that is widely relevant to many tourist cities in Europe. That is because the main reason behind this phenomenon is also widely relatable to many other cities in Europe and some other parts of the world: the making of a tourist city from what used to be only regular fabrics.

As mentioned, El Raval is a part of Barcelona’s historical nucleus that seems more underdeveloped than historical. This is due to the fact that although El Raval has been a part of the ancient Barcelona since as early as the 14th century, most of its fabrics were only built up during the 18th century. Initially, it was populated by the displaced residents of the Ribera district, which was demolished in favor of a military citadel under the order of the newly crowned Felipe V, a move that is understood as the retribution for the city’s support to his opponent during the Spanish War of Succession. From that point on, El Raval’s image as home to the displaced working class continued to the modern days, only that the distance of displacement is expanded from within a city to across the oceans.

Scholars sometime characterize the architecture of Barcelona into three periods: the Gothic, the Modernist, and the contemporary. This wide range of variety is considered as an advantage for the city’s marketing of its tourist image under the competitive environment of the old European cities. El Raval, on the other hand, is on a quite awkward position that fits into neither of these three categories. Its streets are as narrow and organic as a medieval town, yet the residences are mostly constructed in a pre-modern time under repressive condition, only a several decades older than the Modernist blocks of the Eixample district. The tendency of over construction during the industrial age was mediated by the openness of Ildefons Cerdà’s masterplan in the Eixample, but is worsened by the narrow alleys of El Raval. This has caused an inherent disadvantage when the neighborhood needs to be integrated into the new image of Barcelona as a welcoming city that opens its arms to the global visitors.

In a paper published in 2003, Monica Degen described this kind of urban reforms as “fighting for the global catwalk,” a trend motivated by the rise of global leisure business. Degen made a comparison between Barcelona’s El Raval with the Castlefield neighborhood of Manchester, England, as both of them are seen as typical examples of how the public life of a socially underdeveloped domestic landscape could be altered to serve as a showcase of the city’s reclaimed identity to the global audiences.

Degan observed that the reforms of El Raval back in the days was aimed to “homogenize” it with the rest of the city, in a way that the uniqueness of its physical space is preserved as the local population became mixed with the rest of the city. The new public spaces such as the Museum of Contemporary art and the public spaces for leisure were meant to present El Raval to a brand-new type of audiences. The local population were considered as elements of instability and potential risk of crimes, while the prospective user of these new spaces, the educated middle-class who find interest in the unique vibe of El Raval’s unexpectable physical space, were imagined to take up the public activities and suppress the actions of incivility practiced by the local residents.

Degan then quote the words of a planner who was involved in the reform programme of El Raval:

“[The criminal activities] are happening because one type of people occupy [el Raval]. . . . When they start to mix they will be forced to disappear. Because people won’t allow that somebody shoots up [heroin] in their door entrance.”

The reality is that the undesired “one type” of people refers exactly to the immigrants from Africa and Asia, who made up of a significant part of Barcelona’s labor force. As stated before, El Raval was a once-vacant part of Barcelona’s old town with little significant sites, save for a few monasteries, and was populated first by the displaced workers from Ribera. The number of workers living in this area grew rapidly since the early 19th century, as the industrial revolution demanded more workers, first from other parts of Spain and then from the third-world countries. Those who have basically made El Raval to what it is are now considered uncivil and are needed to be displaced again in order to make their neighborhood’s unique appearance exploitable as tourist resources. On the other hand, the reform was only completed in a piece-meal fashion, with only the namable few public sites “regenerated”, while most of the narrow alleys were left untouched. Unfortunately, the dreadful housing condition and the lack of real historical vibe of the Gothic district have offered little interest to the targeted middle-class population, who would only visit El Raval as passer-by at those designated public spaces.

It should be easy to understand the high level of criminal activities in El Raval at this point. Although it is never possible to say that there can be a clear-cut answer of why, since society always ferment with a million possible combinations happening and tangling at the same time, the amount of information we have obtained so far makes it safe to reach a rational understanding of the situation based on the previous diagrams on the motivation of crimes and the perception of risk. From this point on, the project will start to discuss a potential set of solutions that may bring positive changes to El Raval’s state of affairs, taking lessons from the previously discussed design-security theories and the implemented interventions in this neighborhood at the same time.


The history of development of El Raval

The most recent development after the olympics in the 1990s.