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Tradition and modernity. Competition among retail locations in contemporary Barcelona

Tradition et modernité. La concurrence dans les implantations du commerce de détail dans le Barcelone d’aujourd’hui
Carles Carreras
p. 41-52


L’article analyse l’évolution actuelle du commerce de détail à Barcelone, qui, au cours des dernières décennies, est passée du stade d’ancienne ville européenne de tradition industrielle à celui de nouvelle ville tertiaire. Cette transformation locale, qui constitue un processus urbain très général, a eu certaines caractéristiques propres et des modes originaux d’implantation, en raison à la fois de son rôle de ville secondaire au niveau national, et de sa « capitalité » constamment justifiée au niveau de la Catalogne. Nous étudions en premier lieu les fonctions traditionnelles et l’expansion du commerce de détail à Barcelone. La deuxième partie de l’article nous entraîne ensuite dans la modernisation relativement tardive (depuis 1993) de la structure du commerce de détail. Enfin, nos conclusions portent sur la virtualité d’un véritable modèle organisationnel du commerce de détail à Barcelone, basé sur la localisation intra-urbaine, les accès piétons et la qualité du design.

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The author wishes to warmly thank his colleagues Daniel Márquez, Sergi Martinez Rigol and Sergio Moreno, as well as the anonymous referees of the journal for their suggestions and corrections.


1This article tries to analyse the present trends in the evolution of retail activities in the city of Barcelona, which in the very last decades has been transformed from an old and traditional industrial European city into a new tertiary one. This local transformation, which constitutes a very general urban process, has had some special features and some original location patterns, because of both its role of secondary city in Spain and its always-vindicated national “capitality” of Catalonia. In addition, the relevance and large extent of contents of the so-called tertiary sector also lead to discuss this too general concept of tertiarization. The material basis of the analysis comes mainly from the experiences and conclusions of the complex process of elaboration of the Commercial Atlas of Barcelona by different researchers from the “Urban and Retail Study Group” of the University of Barcelona. This Atlas has been the result of a research project financed by the Barcelona Municipality and the local Chamber of Commerce, and has succeeded in assembling the knowledge of 28 different authors, mainly belonging to the department’s group, but with other special collaboration from Barcelona and from other cities and universities (Carreras, 2003a).

2We first analyse the traditional retail functions in Barcelona. A second part introduces us into the modernisation of the retail structure since 1993. Finally, we point out some conclusions regarding the virtuality of a real organisation model of retail in Barcelona.

The traditional relationship between retail and urban life

3The first general and evident hypothesis sustained here is that retail activities, in general, have been, are and will remain the most relevant urban activities, before the diffusion of the Neolithic agriculture (Jacobs, 1959) and after the manufacturing era. Nevertheless, this historical and well-known fact very often does not seem clear enough both to many social analysts and even to local decision makers. At least, it has frequently been the case in the city of Barcelona, where the big industrial era (1733-1973) remains as the most important one in the research projects and in the collective imagination.

4The second relevant hypothesis is that these very long historical traditions of retail activities are also accompanied by complex and continuous dynamics of changes in the number and specialization of shops, in their location patterns and in their own size and urban display. This fact could afford a first explanation of the relative underconsideration of retail, because of its multiplicity, fragmentation and ephemerity.

  • 1 Political capital sometimes (1931-39 and since 1978), and cultural and retail capital always.
  • 2 In 1907 a very popular Catalan author wrote a famous play that has become a cruel caricature of the (...)

5Against this conceptual background, Barcelona can be considered as a traditional Mediterranean retail city, reinforced by its capital1 role for the whole Catalonia and even for a large Euro-Mediterranean region. Beside its considerable retail infrastructure, Barcelona has also been a merchant city since the Medieval times, because of its important Mediterranean harbour, that has allowed the development of a light manufacturing centre, at least from the beginning of the 19th century and until the end of the 20th. But retail has always been alive and active, with its traditional shape of family business; this fact significantly contributes to explain both its historical longevity and the relative smallness of shops dimensions. Likewise the relatively big number of small retail firms has reinforced the political strength of a very conservative commercial local petite bourgeoisie, with relevant consequences on the policies of the city. In spite of these, the general misconsideration of the retailers’ image among Barcelona’s citizens2 has been very important, probably in part because of a complex mixture of the traditional Catholic prejudice against usury and a more recent Marxist and ecologist condemn of all kinds of intermediation between production and consumption. It could be interesting to remember the long revolutionary tradition of the city since the last decades of the 19th century at least until the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1939, as exemplified, among many others, by the famous book by George Orwell in 1938 Homage to Catalonia (Carreras, 2003b).

6So, the entrepreneurial family-based structure of Barcelona’s retail activities explains the maintenance and survival of a rich and diversified shopping organisation, based on the traditional specialized streets, even long after the general modernisation of the urban economy and society. Yet a first commercial urban centre appeared in 1850, very close to the harbour, and historically increased till the formation of the present shopping line, five kilometres long. This central commercial axis has first been defined in our research on retail concentration areas for the local Chamber of Commerce (Carreras, Domingo, Sauer, 1990). Later on, shopping line has partially been adopted as the local logo by the local tourism board. Contemporary to the commercial centre definition, the big impressive iron-built municipal markets (Carreras, 2003a, maps 41 to 44) and some regional capital based department stores (Carreras, 2003a, map 65)began to appearin the last quarter of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th. At the same time, consumption started to become the well-known urban spectacle (Debord, 1992), at least among the richest people, reorganising not only the new fashion shops and bars, restaurants and music halls, but even the main streets of the city. So a Barcelona’s commercial street, open to walkers and flaneurs, with important modern style shops, was created.

  • 3 As usual with French analysts, Europe used to be reduced to France and Germany and their traditiona (...)

7This commercial street is mainly based on a morphological feature. According to the study of the European regions by French geographers E. Julliard and H. Nonn (1976), Barcelona clearly belongs to the so-called “Parisian3 model”: a pattern of high urban density. Consequently, the street takes a big role in the urban scene, and the predominance of multifamily buildings frequently allows shops, bars, restaurants and workshops to occupy the ground floors, with their bright-lighted windows. This morphological fact also contributes to explain the typical dispersion of shops everywhere on the city streets and the lack of real commercial centres. Only the axial shopping line and the surroundings of the 40 municipal markets clearly appear as commercial centres; but even the relatively high number of these centres in a relatively small municipal area contributes to increase the impression of a much dispersed retail pattern.

8After the terrible break of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and its heavy political and economic consequences, we have to wait until the 1960s to find some renovation in the general economic structure of the city. Car manufacturing, with the location of the SEAT factory (from Italian FIAT and Spanish State capital) in the western industrial suburbs of Barcelona in 1953, has significantly contributed to the development of a new and brief industrial era. During twenty years the city attracted enormous flows of immigrants, coming from the other areas of Spain. The following motorization of the urban mobility, with its diffusion of private cars, the creation of a new middle class consumption society (with the spread of refrigerators, television sets and other consumption goods) and the first arrival of European tourists, all together, have been a structural basis for many other changes. Supermarkets and self-services have transformed some traditional shopping forms, but always maintaining the same fragmented entrepreneurial structure. At the same time, some big French distribution firms (Prisunic, Carrefour) started to establish some hypermarkets in suburban areas, in connection with the new highway system.

  • 4 1973 is the symbolic year of the beginning of contemporary changes, with the so-called « oil crisis (...)

9Since 1973, more or less4, Barcelona has experienced the dramatic changes of the process of deindustrialisation. Many traditional factories closed down, especially in the textile and mechanics sectors, and a general restructuration of the whole manufacturing raised unemployment to the highest levels; many immigrants of the last two decades started a slow process of returning to their original regions. With the reduction of the industrial employment a new tertiary model was progressively implemented, all around the expectations created by the organisation of the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, with a strong municipal leadership through the strategic planning. The further diffusion of new service activities also implied a total retail reorganisation, especially from Christmas 1993, when the first urban shopping centre was inaugurated. This late arrival of modern commercial forms has probably contributed to the maintenance of a very urban retail pattern in strong contrast with the current evolution of commercial activities location, mainly suburban, like in American or in French cities.

10For all these reasons, in the mid 1980s, we started to search for some alternatives. Therefore, in our first commercial analysis of the city, in order to take some benefit from the mild climatic conditions of Barcelona and its interesting architectural features, there has been a proposal of organisation of some urban areas, especially the most central ones (Rambla de Catalunya or Passeig de Gràcia), as real open air shopping centres (Carreras, Domingo, Sauer, 1990). The fragmentation of the retail economic structure and the traditional difficulty to cooperate among retailers have made impossible the implementation of any kind of initiative in that direction. That would have implied a strong technical integration of the main retail activities and an important selection of shops, in addition to the application of real commercial policies and urban planning at municipal level.

New retail competition in Barcelona

11The maintenance of the urban retail pattern could clearly be expressed in some simple figures: in 1998, the number of retail shops in Barcelona was 37,778 and in 2003 still 36,363, very regularly distributed in the whole urban space, especially dense in the most central and coastal areas. This retail infrastructure implies almost 3.5 million square meters of urban land and one hundred thousand people working in (Carreras, 2003a, maps 6 to 35).

12Theoretically, the internal consumption market was stable enough, because of the decrease in total population in the last decades, with negative growth both in natural and migratory rates (with the highest figure of 1.9 million of inhabitants in 1979, and 1.5 in 2001). In addition, the new immigrants from outside the European Union were poor people with low salaries in the best cases and with a strong connection to the informal market.

13However, at the same time, the general income has increased in Spain, on average, and in Barcelona in particular, and has generated a really affluent local society (Galbraith, 1958) with the support of the European funds and flows since 1986. Levels of consumption have considerably and qualitatively increased: second homes in the periphery or in coast or mountain areas, second family car, generalisation of credit cards use, personal computers (in 2004, 16% of people were already using internet shopping), air conditioning (especially since the hot 2003 summer), home cinema systems, and so on.

14A series of successful urban projects, mainly the new public spaces of the city, became more and more related to new commercial investments, as a consequence of the dramatic deindustrialisation and its subsequent tertiarisation process. Walking facilities, leisure services and quality of design appeared more and more related to the traditional and new shopping activities. The city of Barcelona itself became an object of consumption for a growing number of tourists, year after year. The number of Barcelona’s air passengers has doubled in the last ten years (10.6 million in 1994 and 24.5 in 2004), and so has the number of the hotel resident tourists (2.6 millions in 1994 and 4.5 in 2004). Moreover, in 2002 43% of the total credit card expenses of foreign residents in Barcelona were collected by the retail sector(Carreras, 2003a, maps 174 and 175), a clear expression of the commercial relevance of foreign and national tourism in the contemporary city.

15In addition, the number of firms, which are also consumption units, is very high in the metropolitan region, and is on the increase. The firm itself is a local consumer of many different products and services, and the workers also increasingly tend to consume near their labour place more than in their home place (daily products, restaurants, bars, and other goods). In 2000, 2,470 big firms were concentrated in the sole Municipality of Barcelona (with more than 600 thousand euros of billings) and one million workers(Carreras, 2003a, maps 157 to 163).

16Because of this general increase (both qualitative and quantitative) and diversification of the consumption demand in the last decades, Barcelona also experienced visible transformations in its retail structure. These changes could be associated to the general concept of modernisation, or even more to the local consequences of globalisation, due to the large amount of foreign investments into this commercial sector. The most visible change has been the implementation of the new forms of shopping centres in the international way. From 1993 to the end of 2004, 10 centres have been inaugurated in different parts of the city’s municipal territory, at the same time as many peripheral others appeared(Carreras, 2003a, maps 105 to 120). Less visible, but even more important has been the spread of the franchisingsystem (Carreras, 2003a, map 47) that apparently maintains the size of traditional shops, but dramatically changes their economic structure and functioning.

  • 5 In fact, this conflict is a consequence of the famous French commercial law model, which classifies (...)

17The retail structure in Barcelona, for all these reasons, appears today very complex, and with different types of tensions and competitions, even with new kinds of complementarity. First of all, the strong competition between traditional and modern commercial activities should be underlined. At local level perception, this competition currently appears as a false conflict opposing small and medium size firms to big ones. But it is not a problem of size: it depends mainly on the type of good commercialised (big car shops or very small newspapers stands)5. The real conflict appears with the confrontation among international and local strategies and their mutual capacity or incapacity of adaptation to the new rapid changes in demand. For this reason, the biggest social problems appear around the discussions about the commercial opening hours. Catalonia, sometimes even against the general Spanish law, shows a strong tendency not to allow shop opening on holidays, because of both right-wing and left-wing policies protecting traditional shopping, except in the most attractive tourist places. Large distribution firms, mainly French, and department stores have created a lobby (ANGED) to defend the freedom of shop opening hours. The commercial department of the Catalan government has a strong control on the location of new big commercial investments, often against the financial strategies of local authorities. One of the reactions of some large distribution companies has been the purchase of some local medium size supermarket chains, in order to maintain their market share.

18Of course, this economic and political competition results in many other conflicts at a very different level. One of the most important could be the contradictory tendency between central and peripheral locations. In this regard, both patterns can be found in metropolitan Barcelona, with multiple intermediate alternatives, defining a certain Barcelona model.

The pattern of Barcelona contemporary retail activities

  • 6 This Madrid based firm, created in Cuba in the 1930s, has succeeded in putting an end to national a (...)

19The first hierarchic level of the retail structure of Barcelona is represented by the shopping line, the five kilometres long commercial centre of the city, connecting the harbour with the western bourgeois neighbourhoods. Five shops of the same department store, El Corte Inglés6, around three different squares, and three new shopping centres (Maremàgnum, the Triangle and L’Ílla) reinforce this traditional commercial axis, mainly specialised in clothing and fashion shops, design and furniture, presents and souvenirs, together with a lot of bars and restaurants. One private bus line serves the main part of this axis. The other three big new urban shopping centres (Glòries, La Maquinista and Diagonal-Mar), which serve the northern and eastern part of the city, are probably to be considered at the same level. All these six new centres have a very marked urban character by their location, their pedestrian and public transportation access, their opening to the surrounding areas and, generally, their high degree of architectural design. This is especially true of L’Ílla, designed by two famous Spanish architects, and of La Maquinista, designed by an American team, but adapted to local standards by Catalan architects.

20At the metropolitan level, there are also some big peripheral shopping centres and department stores, located in other municipalities than Barcelona. These commercial areas, as usual, are mainly located in relation to the metropolitan highway system and based on the use of private car transportation, and are aimed at suburban residents in low densities. But it is also possible to find some urban commercial investments connected to the renovation of a few large peripheral cities, like Sabadell, L’Hospitalet de Llobregat or Cornellà de Llobregat.

  • 7 In the Western central part of this area it is also worth mentioning the creation of a Gay neigbour (...)

21A second level of hierarchy is occupied by 13 other commercial areas, of associated small and medium size shops, very diversified, and very often reinforced by one or two municipal markets. Municipal policies explicitly support those areas, called commercial axis, through the commercial associations; even the shopping line is officially fragmented in three more axes. The location of these areas mainly coincides with the old cores of the ancient municipalities, except in the case of the 19th century planned city7. Retail specialisation tends to be food, clothing, home equipment, more bars than restaurants, and other commercial services like travel agencies, banks or gyms.

22A third level of commercial hierarchy includes a lot of highly specialised shops in some minority hobbies (sports, collectionism, computers), very diffuse anywhere on the city. The demand is normally not very concentrated and the clients perfectely know the location of their interest and they are able to do even long trips to buy their goods.

23Finally, a fourth level includes all the rest of the shops, probably a half or more of the total, supplying the so-called proximity or everyday life goods: food, cleaning and hygiene products, pharmacies, shoes or clothes repair, banking and so on. They are relatively concentrated in neighbourhood centres, sometimes around the rest of the municipal markets not included in the second level. A relatively new activity in Barcelona, at that hierarchical level, is the so-called ethnic retail, related to the increasing multicultural immigration (Solé and Parella, 2005).

24This is the main locational four levels structure of permanent shops, which, as has already been pointed out, are all in constant change and transformation, according to the dynamics of an increasing diversified demand. Its main elements are represented in figure 1. In addition, Barcelona, like any other city, also has a multiplicity of temporary fairs and open-air markets, connected with some religious or cultural events during the year. Many of the public spaces, everywhere in the city, are periodically occupied by commercial activities, maintaining the Mediterranean tradition, renovated with the multicultural turn of cities and the spread of ecological and alternative ideas. The main concentration of formal fairs in the historical core of the city coincides with some religious events (Christmas, Eastern) and tourist demand. In the urban periphery some periodical markets, more or less related to the informal sector, are also organised (Carreras, 2003a, map 63).

Figure 1. Four levels structure of permanent shops.

Figure 1. Four levels structure of permanent shops.

Strategies for competition or complementarity

25With this locational pattern as a general background, there is another kind of competition to be analysed, that could be summarised as the tension between isolation and concentration. The more traditional retail ideology used to privilege isolation, precisely because of the fear of competition. But the modern trends in retail and commercial activities, even the official commercial policies, tend on the contrary to the local concentration and to the diversity’s integration. In this regard, it must be underlined that the municipal policy has reinforced the majority of the 40 municipal markets with a big investment in formal and functional renovation and diversification, trying to ensure the universal access to basic goods. In the same way, many small- and medium-sized private retail firms have applied new strategies of complementarity. On one hand, some of them moved to the new shopping centres or as close as possible to them; on the other hand, many have also developed buying or services associations, chains and franchises in order to compete at a larger scale with the big distribution companies.

26In this connection, another kind of tension or competition appears between the traditional specialization of retail and services supply in traditional commercial areas and the new combinations with leisure, culture, tourism or sport facilities. The new shopping centres have first integrated this fun-shopping model, especially the cinemas. It must be pointed out that in Spain cinema attendance is higher than in the rest of the European Union (3.4 times per inhabitant and year vs. 2.9 on average for the European Union in 2000, according to Media salles). Following this trend, some leisure centres have been created (Maremagnum and Heron City, for instance) with almost no retail activities. Finally, the local cultural policy tends to reinforce the city’s cultural supply (theatre and musical events most particularly), with a real and progressive transformation of some parts of the city into some sort of theme parks.

27From a more transversal point of view, contemporary Barcelona also presents a new tension, in some way expressing the local consequences of globalisation, namely the spread of the so-called ethnic retail: shops, bars and restaurants based on more or less “exotic” cultures. Some of them are connected to changes in taste on the demand side, due to the increase in cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1979), like Japanese restaurants or fairtrade shops. But many of them are also connected to the present extra-European immigration flows and the new demand for goods and services (Arab, Pakistani or Chinese food, long distance calls, Internet, second hand goods). These tensions express a certain trend to the homogenisation of different local societies and the parallel hybridisation of migrants (Garcia Canclini, 2001). Moreover, many of the ethnic shops experience no problems of opening hours at all.

28Last but not least, a progressive conception of the city as a kind of very qualified theme park, especially after its touristic success, introduces new competitions and tensions among retail owners. In the very last years, some influent part of the Barcelona public opinion has shown a relative weariness in front of the so-called tourist invasion of the city. Many small and medium size retail managers express a certain scepticism in front of the commercial benefits of national and especially international tourism. Some of them aim at isolating tourist demand exclusively along the shopping line, claiming for a reinforcement of new centralities on the core of some of the more or less traditional neigbourhoods. This totally new argument, to which local authorities are very sensitive, needs to be urgently discussed among the different urban local interests.

29From this debate it could probably be possible to clarify the conflict between, on one hand, those who use – or at least consider – the city as a whole, as a collective but unitary subject (local authorities, analysts, journalists, even many tourists) and, on the other hand, the majority of citizens who live their daily life in a very fragmented way, with contradictory and complementary interests. This gap between unitarism and diversification could help in explaining the progressive distance between citizens and politics in the Western democratic societies (Mollenkopf, 1983), and allow a better understanding of the diversity of interests underlying the different urban strategies.

The Barcelona model, conclusions on a certain retail personality

  • 8 In this direction, for instance, it can be visited the site and its Barcelona’s mod (...)

30The theoretical discussion about the possibility to consider Barcelona as a model8, especially in the field of a successful urban planning, has become very common. In continuation of a city selling local policy (Ashworth and Voogd, 1990), and based on the relative success of the urban scenarios built for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, some Barcelona’s architects and planners have succeeded in selling many plans and urban interventions in different Latin American and European cities and regions. The mere transplantation of technical instruments to different local and social realities leads to a number of problems and generates many discussions far from the aim of this article.

31However, regarding the contemporary evolution of the retail structure and locations in Barcelona, it is possible to conclude that the city could be some kind of a model; not in the sense that the city could be regarded as worthy of imitation, but at least as offering an interesting structural design. The main features of this model consist of a very special combination of traditional and modern retail trends. Probably because of the delay in its modernization, at least in comparison to the American and other European cities (mainly British and French), Barcelona has succeeded in maintaining the social role of its commercial streets, helped by a mild Mediterranean climate. Local authorities have developed a policy of increasing and reinforcing public transportation and pedestrian itineraries, without totally cancelling private transport access, in a certain postmodern complementary way. Finally, the search for a certain formal design quality has completed the attractiveness of Barcelona’s urban scenarios, even implemented in new urban malls. Barcelona’s retail maintains and reinforces its traditional urban pattern, not only in the touristic centre, but in many of its neighbourhoods centres too.

32On a larger scale, a second conclusion has to be underlined: the modernization of Barcelona’s retail does not only result from technical or managerial strategies, but also and even more from the implementation, in the very last decades, of a new international consumer society (McCraken, 1990; Clarke, 2003). In this sense, our research has evolved from the traditional retail geography, as a branch of the more or less classic economic geography, to a new real cultural urban geography and a geography of consumption (Mansvelt, 2005). The city as a whole has been transformed in an international consumption scenario, where local, national and international citizens continually consume goods, services, time and public spaces, with tensions, conflicts and complementarities among them. So the city becomes some kind of theme park that needs a deep analysis and the study of new alternatives. In this respect, one of the main problems in the present city life seems to be between the people that use a holistic conception of the urban question and the majority of the citizens that only have a fragmented experience of it (Parker, 2004).

33Finally, and from a theoretical point of view, we are faced with a reinforcement of the concept of globalisation, which in its dialectics between the global and the local, implies the internationalisation of capital processes, but also the possibility of original local combinations. This fact has been particularly reinforced by the impact of the new information technologies (Castells, 1996). In a very similar way, the reversibility of franchising processes allows the introduction of local colour and style into the global forms of consumption. In addition, it is necessary to underline the contribution of international marginal people to the performance of a new multicultural city that forces us to reelaborate our old theories about social exclusion and inclusion.

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1 Political capital sometimes (1931-39 and since 1978), and cultural and retail capital always.

2 In 1907 a very popular Catalan author wrote a famous play that has become a cruel caricature of the traditional shopkeeper (Carreras, 2003b) in the same way as many other Western cultural traditions.

3 As usual with French analysts, Europe used to be reduced to France and Germany and their traditional opposition. For this reason the opposite model, or urban spread, was named Rhenish model. In our opinion this Parisian model, disseminated by the Roman Empire, of highly dense cities would more appropriately be called Mediterranean, vs. the Atlantic model, as used to be known the rural settlement patterns.

4 1973 is the symbolic year of the beginning of contemporary changes, with the so-called « oil crisis », but in Spain the year 1975 is probably more appropriate, as it coincides with the beginning of the political transition to Democracy.

5 In fact, this conflict is a consequence of the famous French commercial law model, which classifies all the retail units only by their surface dimensions.

6 This Madrid based firm, created in Cuba in the 1930s, has succeeded in putting an end to national and even international competition (Sears, Sogo, Marks & Spencer) for the whole Spain, and today has 11 centres in the Barcelona’s Metropolitan area.

7 In the Western central part of this area it is also worth mentioning the creation of a Gay neigbourhood (the Gayxample), with shops, bars and restaurants, gyms, saunas and hotels, even if they do not have any official support.

8 In this direction, for instance, it can be visited the site and its Barcelona’s model book collection and dossiers.

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Titre Figure 1. Four levels structure of permanent shops.
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Carles Carreras, « Tradition and modernity. Competition among retail locations in contemporary Barcelona », Belgeo, 1-2 | 2006, 41-52.

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Carles Carreras, « Tradition and modernity. Competition among retail locations in contemporary Barcelona », Belgeo [En ligne], 1-2 | 2006, mis en ligne le 19 décembre 2013, consulté le 23 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/belgeo.10875

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Carles Carreras

Professor in Human Geography, University of Barcelona (Spain),

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