Barcelona from Mare Magnum. Flickr/Moyan Brenn. Some rights reserved.Barcelona is thriving and dying at the same time. How could that be? The sound urban policies which have been so outstandingly successful since the city recovered its democratic institutions in 1979, now seem exhausted. In fact, the upcoming May local elections will see two divergent models, head-on.
On the one hand, the current tourist, congress and business oriented “smart city” model, privileged by the ruling centre-right nationalists, with their flagship idea of Barcelona as the capital of a new Catalan state (whatever that may be). On the other hand, a participatory, people-friendly, socially-oriented model, led by a newly constituted electoral platform, originally named “Win back Barcelona” and later rebranded “Barcelona for all” (Barcelona en comú). This combination of grassroots movements and leftist parties, including the influential Podemos, seek to win back Barcelona for its city-dwellers (whatever that may mean).
Both models struggle to preserve Barcelona’s major achievements of the last decades, particularly its outstanding quality of life, but they differ over their priorities.
The Barcelona model
Memory is short, but 40 years ago the city we see today at the top of most international indexes was a parochial, de-industrialized and rather gloomy town. Among black-and-white TV screens and sordid prostitutes wondering the side-streets of the Ramblas in their quest for merchant navy crews and US marines, grey was Barcelona’s predominant color. FC Barcelona was an ordinary team, and the Sagrada Familia was a rather ugly church of another era, left - unfinished - to its own devices.
But both Barcelona city dwellers and their elected authorities did a great job in the 1980’s and 1990’s, combining state of the art urban planning with sound, structured social policies which sought to build an inclusive, cohesive and at the same time modern, urban capital. A young and cultivated elite of gauchistes governed the city council from the start. And they had a vision for their city.
Backed by their socialist buddies in Madrid under Felipe González’s administrations, and led by the city's charismatic mayor Pasqual Maragall, they had enough political and economic weight behind them to win the 1992 Olympics candidacy. They implemented a smart urban transformation model that combined heavy infrastructure and transport investment with swift urban regeneration, particularly of peripheral working-class neighbourhoods, integrating former industrial soil and depleted beaches into the urban fabric.
Taking particular care to build quality public space and good services, the city managed to put together a success model. Cosmopolitanism might have remained aspirational, but the city was able to project an open, contemporary and vibrant model to the world: the Barcelona model.
But Barcelona’s success came at a cost. The post-Olympic city attempted to overcome its washed-out industrial inheritance, by placing a bet on a knowledge-based “new economy” – perhaps a mere euphemism for the neoliberal policies which came into fashion by the turn of the century. The productive economy was set aside as few investments were made in re-industrialization, the truth being that the heirs of the once significant bourgeois fortunes had become a rentier class or joined the ranks of the initially vibrant but rapidly bloated Catalan regional administration.
The lack of a consistent alternative economic model opened the door to urban policies basically devoted to the tourist and real-state industries. The efforts to compensate for this with some investments in research, education and innovation centers, was often overturned by the power of quick-profit seeking market forces. They benefited from a welcoming environment, a splendid southern European location with fair weather and excellent international connectivity, high quality of life, rather cheap services and a relatively low and flexible fiscal regime.
The lack of an alternative model
Unfortunately, this lack of alternative economic model – a problem that is not exclusive to Barcelona but shared by many post-industrial cities around the globe – had dramatic consequences for the city-dwellers. They found themselves struggling to find decent jobs, to cope with housing bubbles and to keep quality public and social services alive. Out of an old tradition of organized community and grassroots movements, social activists began to organize themselves in resistance, some joining the alter globalization wave of the early 2000’s. A monster march against the Iraq war in 2001 showed the impetus of Barcelona’s social mobilization to the world.
The success of the 90’s left public authorities with little imagination as they indulged in self-complacency and internal power wrangles. Mesmerized by their own success model of an event-driven growth and transformation, they decided to give the 92 Olympics formula another go. By 2004, they tried to set up a new international event that was to transform the city, the Universal Forum of Cultures, only to realize that the model was by then obsolete and that market forces had already conquered the city and co-opted its civil society.
Luxury marinas, five star hotels and high-end stores occupied the urban space along with tourist apartments, fancy tapas and cheap booze bars for low-cost noisy weekenders. Souvenir shops and fake paella bistros started to cater for tides of thousands of cruisers in their shorts and flip-flops, briefly wandering through the Ramblas before rejoining the gigantic cruise liners docked at the port. The very few (at least compared with many other European cities) heritage sites became increasingly overcrowded and over-priced, while foreign investors flocked to buy apartments in the city center – investment financial assets rather than homes to live in. Trapped between its hills and the sea, Barcelona has always been a densely populated city, but tourism hyperinflation was bound to kill its charm.
However, behind the wealthy and trendy façade, the great recession and the ensuing harsh austerity policies hit Barcelonians hard. Today, unemployment in the city is very high, opportunities are scarce, inequality has grown among citizens and among neighborhoods, and even life-expectancy has diverged between rich and poor districts.
All in all, a significant part of Barcelona’s citizenship now feels left behind by the city’s public institutions, which are perceived as having been hijacked by a political elite subordinated both to a nationalist agenda and to private interests. Winning back the institutions is certainly a necessary move, but the lack of an alternative economic model is upsetting.
The call for a vision
Barcelona from MontJuic. Flickr/Konstantinos Dafalias. Some rights reserved.Lacking a vision, Barcelona finds itself at a crossroads. Either the city manages to reinvent itself, attracts more international talent, becomes a true knowledge centre and brews fresh ideas, or it is bound to become commonplace in the mid-term, drowned in tourism, easy money and real-state trading.
In recent years, the city has experienced a boost of its social movements that has generated a dynamic environment, with new civic rights groups and democratic participation movements engaged in activism and policy innovation. At the same time, it has managed to develop successful company clusters in fields such as design, internet start-ups, health and biotechnology, and has kept its lead in the publishing and post-graduate education sectors, being home to decent public universities and world leading business schools.
And yet, Barcelona lacks a vision that will help it avoid the risk of losing its soul. Becoming a Gaudi theme park, a huge shopping mall or the Miami of Europe is not an option for its citizens Becoming a Gaudi theme park, a huge shopping mall or the Miami of Europe is not an option for its citizens.who fought hard to rebuild a city that was left in tatters by an obnoxious dictatorship. They now seem all set to fight back.
The battle for Barcelona will also be fought in the intricate context of Catalan politics. The hegemonic nationalists, right and left, want the local elections in May to be the first round for the regional elections in September, poised to become the sort of independence referendum they could not hold during this last term. It will be difficult to shy away from this context, but if the only vision for Barcelona is to become “the capital of a new state”, it will certainly fall very short of the target.
Barcelona en comú could be a refreshing political option if, ahead of direct democracy, it is able to propose policy innovation that goes beyond the mere transparent and ethical management of municipal affairs. A grassroots, community background can bring solidarity and inclusiveness, yet it needs to be able to create quality jobs, protect the public space and services, and have a vision for the twenty first century. Putting people, and not a combination of businesses, technology and national identity at the centre of the political debate, seems to be a first step in the right direction: except it will not be enough.
In the broader Spanish political context, where other major capitals like Madrid or Valencia may also be changing hands in the direction of similar citizen platforms, “winning back” Barcelona in May can be a game changer, particularly on the eve of decisive Catalan and general elections. As it has done in the past, Barcelona can lead the way, but it needs to call for a vision.