Lifestyle migrants from the rich West are helping to gentrify Spanish cities like Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca

barcelona gentrification

Gentrification is a dirty word in Spain but one reason why Spanish cities like Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca are gentrifying is because of the influx of foreign residents from the wealthy countries of the developed world like the EU 15, Canada and the USA.

The quality of life in Spanish cities like Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Valencia, Málaga, Seville and Madrid is hard to beat, whilst globalisation and technology make it easier than ever to live in one place whilst making a living elsewhere or online. As a result, more and more people from rich countries in the West are choosing to emigrate, and Spain is the number one destination for quality of life. Spain was ranked number one for quality of life in HSBC’s latest global ranking of best countries in the world for expatriates to live in.

Many of the West’s lifestyle migrants head for the costas, but an increasing number, especially younger people, are heading for Spanish cities like Barcelona. The chart above shows the foreign resident population of Barcelona from 1998 to 2018 looking at just expats from the EU 15, Canada and the USA. By 2018 there were 133,000 expats from these countries officially living in Barcelona (and more unofficially no doubt), up from just 21,600 twenty years ago. The numbers dipped a bit in the crisis years but are now rising strongly.

Unlike economic migrants from poor countries these lifestyle migrants from rich countries tend to buy or rent in the nicer parts of town. This just adds to the demand for housing in the centre of cities like Barcelona and Palma where land is scarce and the housing stock inflexible. As a result, prices rise over time, and districts start to feel more trendy and upmarket, whilst some locals can’t afford the higher prices, and have to move further out. It’s been happening in London for decades but it’s a relatively new phenomenon in Spain. It’s gentrification in action, and foreign investors from rich Western countries are partly to blame for the gentrification of Spain’s most popular cities, as the figures in the chart above illustrate.

Will the relentless growth of foreign lifestyle immigrants slow down? I doubt it. There may be ups and downs in the short term, but over the long term I expect the numbers will continue to rise, driving the process of gentrification in Spanish cities forward, and pushing up the cost of housing in the process.

Leftie Barcelona Mayoress Ada Colau has made the fight against gentrification one of her priorities, whilst organisations like Barcelona Global try to attract international talent to the city by making “Barcelona one of the world’s best cities for talent and economic activity”. There’s an obvious contradiction is these aims.

About Mark Stücklin

Mark Stücklin is a Barcelona-based Spanish property market analyst, and author of the 'Spanish Property Doctor' column in the Sunday Times (2005 - 2008).

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