Barcelona and Covid-19 era: where does virtual mobility win over human (im)mobility?

By Fiammetta Brandajs from Universitat Rovira i Virgili

The current COVID-19 crisis is boosting online activity – everything is increasingly shifting to the digital sphere including mobility.
Which urban areas are most resilient to physical break in mobility?

The latest studies by theorists from different disciplines analyze the bidirectional relationship which links mobilities to digital technology as enabling infrastructure for human mobilities on a large and local scale; as multiplier agent people’s mobile practices; and as an articulating factor of social, physical, mental, and financial relations. Therefore, the ways in which technologies reshape everyday activities and interpersonal relations, as well as connections with others and connections with the wider world, provides a predictive insight into the geographies of the social gap which emerge at territorial level by mapping out “hyper-mobilized” territories rich in technological components that contrast with others “hypo-mobilized” that are poor in functions, and little considered by both public administrations and private investments. This has become increasingly topical with the outbreak of COVID-19, as physical immobility has strongly fostered virtual mobility, revealing a wide disparity among populations in which those with higher income are able to access technology that can ensure work continues digitally during social isolation.

The attempt to analyze the digital disparities within the municipal boundaries of Barcelona is based on the analysis of the synthetic index (Digital Mobility Index), which evaluates both trends in citizens’ usage of technological and digital services and key variables which define the underlying socio-demographic structure of digital development. Finally, a focus on the resulting interdependencies between corporeal and digital mobilities/immobilities based on the study of the mobility of the population during the period of the state of alert.

Key findings

The resulting geographical configuration is illustrated in the two figures below:


Figure 1aDigital Mobility Index and Socio-Demographic Digital Propensity, Barcelona city

Figure 1b Physical Mobility during Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020, Barcelona city


Figure 1a

  • The neighborhoods of the Ciutat Vella district, the most cosmopolitan areas of the city that attract the most tourists, stand out with high Digital Mobility Index values supported by the general high Socio-Demographic Propensity Index value as expected due to a multiplicity of factors such as strong population renewal thanks to ‘globals’ and the ‘mobile population’, who are skilled, networked, and have purchasing power; a mainly tourist-oriented economy that is currently technology-based (hospitality platforms, etc.).
  • There are some constants throughout the urban territory and neighborhoods that seem to have incorporated more than others the idea of mobility through the digital environment in a transversal way by encompassing all its variables. These include the vast area of the most privileged neighborhoods of the north-west and south-east axis (coastline), which are the best equipped and most active in the network.

Figure 1b

  • The neighborhoods of the old town move from a high ranking from a digital point of view to the first displacement category in physical mobility during Covid-19 outbreak. This has highlighted the economic monoculture linked almost exclusively to tourism which has turned them almost totally physically immobile territories.
  • The north-west the areas and the coastline neighborhoods, other top-ranked digital mobility territories that are almost totally immobilized during Covid-19 outbreak suggesting a labor mobility supported by a technological substitution.


The immobility caused by COVID-19 has underlined that those who used to move the most physically are now those who move the least, replacing most of their activities with virtual ones since their mobile lifestyle never fully connected them with the surrounding territory, placing them on an almost self-sufficient technological island.

See full paper:

Transnational gentrification, tourism and the formation of ‘foreign only’ enclaves in Barcelona

Cocola-Gant, A & Lopez-Gay, A (2020). Transnational gentrification, tourism and the formation of ‘foreign only’ enclaves in Barcelona. Urban Studies. DOI: 10.1177/0042098020916111.

In a context of global-scale inequalities and increased middle-class transnational mobility, this paper illustrates how the arrival of Western European and North American migrants in a central neighbourhood in Barcelona drives a process of gentrification that coexists and overlaps with the development of tourism in the city. In understanding how tourism drives neighbourhood change, the paper moves beyond the impacts of visitors and Airbnb and considers how tourism is made and shaped by different forms of mobilities. This involves that urban tourist destinations experience the influx of transnational mobile populations such as lifestyle migrants, international students, and digital nomads who tend to settle in centrally located areas that are themselves impacted by tourism. Given the spatial division of labour within Europe in which Southern Europe has historically targeted consumers from core-accumulation areas as a means to stimulate the economy, transnational mobile populations from more advanced economies become privileged consumers of housing and therefore are able to gentrify the places in which they settle. Relying on socio-demographic data and in-depth interviews with both migrants and Spanish residents, the paper shows how the issue of unequal income structures was mentioned by all the participants and regarding housing markets, it reveals a clear difference in the perspective of migrants and Spanish residents. On the one hand, migrants found Barcelona a cheap place to live in and indeed, for many, Barcelona was a good place to invest in terms of real estate. On the other hand, Spanish participants felt increasingly excluded and as one resident stated, ‘if you want to buy a house to live in you actually have to compete against people that for us are super-rich’. The result is that in a context in which housing has turned into hotels and holiday rentals, the remaining stock available for long-term occupation tends to be rented by transnational mobile populations. Furthermore, as tourism and transnational gentrification spatially coexist, we found that the effects of this overlap go beyond the inability of residents to access housing, and it further creates an exclusion process marked by the differences in lifestyles between long-term residents and transnational mobile populations. The fact that transnational migrants feel more integrated in a tourist area leads to the formation of ‘foreign only’ enclaves that are not attractive to Spanish residents. Not only housing, but retail and spaces for leisure and socialisation cater to transnational mobile populations as well; with little interaction between them and Spanish individuals. As a result, the paper illustrates how residents experience the transnational appropriation of space and their encounters with transient foreigners who are better positioned in the unequal division of labour.