About Michele Catanzaro

Doctor of physics and journalist

Clandestine and rebellious: women and science in modern Barcelona

Photo: Fundació Museu d'Història de la Medicina de Catalunya

One of the earliest Catalan female researchers, Teresa Bracons, a member of Doctor Ferrer i Cajigal’s team. Doctor Ferrer set up the Museu Anatòmic Patològic (Museum of Anatomical Pathology) of the Faculty of Medicine, in a picture from 1930. Bracons can be seen seated beside Ferrer i Cajigal, in the centre.
Photo: Fundació Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya

Officially, science was a man’s affair in Barcelona until very recently. This can be seen, for example, in the gallery of names of illustrious academics in the Paranimf of the University of Barcelona, which only includes one woman: 17th-century philosopher Juliana Morell. However, if we look under the surface, we find that women have in fact been involved in the scientific and technical life of the city in many different ways: often secretly, from spaces less hostile than the academic world, or rebelliously, questioning the patriarchal components of the scientific paradigms.

If in the 1920s and ‘30s women gained an unprecedented role in the world of science in Barcelona, the arrival of Francoism resulted in a setback that wasn’t reversed until the ‘70s. Nevertheless, women found new ways of taking part in science. The end of Francoism and an ideological shift among women resulted in a fundamental change: female registrations at university schools of science multiplied, as did the names of notable female scientists. However, the impact of this change was much more significant, because it also modified society’s view of science and health.

The impact of women in science in modern Barcelona (from the end of the 19th century to today) goes far beyond a handful of famous female researchers. We also need to focus on the patients at the clinics in the Eixample, the prostitutes in the Barri Xino and their role in public health policies, on amateur astronomers, female laboratory workers, “Museum girls” at the Museum of Natural Sciences during Francoism, the groups interested in legalizing abortion in the post-Franco period…

“For centuries, women couldn’t enter the academic world: in Spain, they needed parental authorization until 1910. But furthermore, history has ignored their contributions: it wasn’t until the ‘90s that the history of science began to wonder about feminine knowledge”, observes Mònica Balltondre, a researcher at the Centre for the History of Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (CEHIC-UAB). “Women’s contributions are more than notable from the 19th century onwards, but they’re made invisible. Often, women had another way of cultivating science, because of the limitations they faced”, agrees Pedro Ruiz Castell, a researcher at the Institute “López Piñero” for the History of Medicine and Science at the University of Valencia.

“In Catalonia, we have a historiographical deficit on this issue. It’s something we need to look into”, affirms Alfons Zarzoso, curator of the Museum of the History of Medicine of Catalonia. “Dr Miquel Fargas became the father of Catalan gynaecology thanks to articles like the one based on a thousand ovariotomies. We know very little about the women that endured these operations. Who were they? Why were they operated on? Were these operations necessary? How was their time at the clinic paid for?”, asks Zarzoso.

Another example are the health campaigns against venereal diseases carried out from the end of the 19th century to the first four decades of the 20th. “In all these campaigns, women, and especially prostitutes, are identified as the source of the problem. This group becomes faceless, anonymized”, explains the curator of the Museum of the History of Medicine.

Photo: Frederic Ballell / AFB

Around the 1920s, the presence of women in the world of science began to be a common occurrence. There are plenty of photographs of laboratories featuring women, though unidentified and in the background. The picture shows a group of people at a lecture by the well-known Doctor Josep Agell, founder of the School of Directors of Chemical Industries, in this body’s laboratory in 1916.
Photo: Frederic Ballell / AFB

We need to look for another way

“It’s not that there’s always been an attempt to make them invisible. The problem is that women don’t appear in the sources as much as men. But there are ways of tracking them down: behind this supposed non-existence there’s activity and value” affirms Emma Sallent del Colombo, a researcher at the University of Barcelona and the president of the Catalan Society of History of Science and Technique. “Historians aren’t blind; we just have to investigate differently”, indicates Oliver Hochadel, a researcher at the Milà i Fontanals Institution (CSIC) in Barcelona.

“We need to focus on the supposedly subordinate roles: wives that help their researcher husbands, collectors, museum workers, secondary-school teachers, activists… Or organizations like athenaeums, astronomical associations, hiking associations…”, states the researcher. Hochadel notes that at the beginning of the 20th century, research wasn’t as institutionalized as it is today: many individuals who would now be considered amateurs made fundamental contributions to science.

“From the groups meeting in aristocratic salons to athenaeums and the banquets of scientific societies, we know that women would often attend, either as organizers or participants. This oral culture played an important role, but it’s been hidden”, explains Agustí Nieto, an ICREA researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

“You can also do science outside of the laboratory”, insists historian Mònica Balltondre. One of the first areas where this became evident at the beginning of the 20th century was in pedagogy, a field that is more tolerant to female participation. “We know of a ton of women who went to congresses, but they didn’t do their research in the laboratory; they did it in the classroom”, adds Balltondre. One example was María de la Rigada, an Andalusian pedagogue who taught at the Superior Normal School of Teachers of Barcelona, among other institutions. De la Rigada was a pioneer when it came to finding objective measurements of what was then considered the intelligence of children. “These tests are a way of overcoming the old, subjective classification of smart kids and stupid kids”, explains the researcher from the Centre for the History of Science.

Photo: Antonia Fontanillas Archive

Women demonstrating in La Ciutadella in favour of secular education, on 10 July 1910. The demonstration was organised by the Barcelona group of feminist activists and freethinkers linked to the writer Ángeles López de Ayala, the anarchist worker Teresa Claramunt – who we see beside these lines in Seville with the photographer Antonio Ojeda and their children.
Photo: Antonia Fontanillas Archive

The amateur world was another way women could access science. “[In 1890], the British Astronomical Association was born in the United Kingdom as an alternative to the Royal Astronomical Society: the subscription was expensive, their publications were too technical, and… women couldn’t participate”, explains Pedro Ruiz Castell.

In 1910 and 1911, the Astronomical Society of Barcelona and the Astronomical Society of Spain and America were born in Barcelona, both founded by astronomer Josep Comas i Solà. “Many women attended these societies’ conferences. Comas i Solà had female collaborators. For example, his wife served as his assistant during the eclipses of 1900 and 1905, and the group he founded at the Fabra Observatory in 1920 included the mathematician Assumpció Ferrer”, adds the researcher from the University of Valencia.

“Women’s ways of participating in science also depend on their situation. If they’re from a bourgeois household, they can read, keep up-to-date and participate in debates. In other groups, women don’t want a scientific career: what they want is for science to help them gain greater autonomy, to become the masters of their own bodies”, Hochadel observes. “We can’t put the category of social class below the category of gender”, states Nieto.

Public domain / WIKIMEDIA

The writer and charismatic spiritist Amalia Domingo, on the right.
Public domain / WIKIMEDIA

The explosion of spiritism

Within this joint framework of social class and gender, we can understand the explosion of spiritism in Barcelona in the first few decades of the 20th century. Today, spiritism is a sort of superstition, but in those days it was seen as just the opposite: it was a plausible scientific theory that offered a rational, modern alternative to religion. According to Balltondre, “spiritism was seen as a scientific field that sought to determine whether the soul was immortal. For years, it tried to communicate with spirits using scientific trials and controls.” The movement was quite successful for some time, but was later pushed aside.

Research by this historian has shown that spiritism was a very important phenomenon in Barcelona, strongly rooted in neighbourhoods of skilled labourers and liberal professionals like El Raval, Gràcia or Sant Andreu. “These groups had disconnected from the Catholic religion, and they saw spiritism as a modern alternative, in solidarity with anticlerical movements and attempts to secularize society”, she states.

Women played a central role in spiritism. First of all, mediums were traditionally women. “Mediums started to have a certain degree of power in spiritist societies as well as a place in public spaces: they would give talks, write in publications. Through the spirits, they would speak and write about their vision of morality and the progress of humankind”, explains Mònica Balltondre. One of the most charismatic mediums, Amalia Domingo, even founded a magazine, La Luz del Porvenir (The Light of the Future).

Second, spiritism sought to wrest power over schools from the church. Some of its tenets were equal educational opportunities for both sexes and mixed-gender education.

Third, spiritism promoted a female workers’ movement. “Working women were looked poorly upon in the mid-19th century: they were practically considered prostitutes, someone their husbands couldn’t support”, indicates the UAB historian. Anarchist attempts to make groups of working women had failed. Once again, this was finally achieved by Amalia Domingo. Together with anarchist textile worker Teresa Claramunt and libertarian and masonic writer Ángeles López de Ayala, in 1890 she founded the Autonomous Society of Women, which would later be called the Feminine Progressive Society. In the words of Balltondre, “the movement of free-thinking women that existed in Barcelona at the end of the 19th century was ground-breaking in Spain: it’s hard to say whether they were the first feminists, but they were most likely the first ones in all of Spain to make feminist demands.”

Alternative collectives

Science was a popular topic of debate in other antihegemonic groups in the early 20th century, from the naturists to the herbalists. One of the most active was the anarchist movement. In its publications, for example, there was deep debate on the question of contraception. During the first seven years of the 1930s, the anarchist magazine Estudios had a lively “Questions and Answers” section on health-related topics. This section promoted an intense debate between two doctors and other readers regarding the Ogino birth control method. Finally, one of the doctors asked the readers for help to find statistics on the method. In general, anarcho-syndicalist militants were sceptical of experts, since they considered them a part of the machine they were fighting against.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the female presence in the world of science began to become hard to hide. “We have many photographs of laboratory teams where we start to see women in the second or third row. Who were they? Where did they study?” asks the curator of the Museum of the History of Medicine of Catalonia, Alfons Zarzoso. From 1924-1939 there was a Museum of Pathological Anatomy at the University of Barcelona. “There were women working there that were more than just technicians; they were already taking part in research”, notes the president of the Catalan Society of History of Science and Technique, Emma Sallent.

Gradual incorporation into higher education

This increasingly-visible role of women is due to their gradual incorporation into higher education starting in 1910. While Dr Abreu (one of the first female doctors in Barcelona, who got her licence at the beginning of the century) had to be accompanied to the university to avoid problems, free access of women to higher education was one of the ideas defended first by the Commonwealth of Catalonia and then the Republic (“even though, without a doubt, there was also a great propaganda effort on this issue”, observes Emma Sallent). During the first decades of the 20th century, “there was more of an increase in the women registering for scientific pursuits –especially pharmacy– than others like law”, notes Alfons Zarzoso.

Photo: Fundació Museu d'Història de la Medicina de Catalunya

Members of the Institut de Fisiologia (Institute of Physiology) of the Barcelona Faculty of Medicine, around 1925. Among them, in the second row, Antonia Papiol, Montserrat Farran, Maria Bosch and Josefa Barba. Barba, a graduate in Pharmacy and Law, was an emblematic character in research in her day.
Photo: Fundació Museu d’Història de la Medicina de Catalunya

One significant figure from this period was the researcher from Barcelona Josefa Barba. A bachelor of pharmacy and law, she specialized at the Residencia de Señoritas in Madrid— the female version of the Residencia de Estudiantes attended by Dalí, Lorca, Buñuel… Thanks to scholarships from the Junta de Ampliación de Estudios (part of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza) and the Maria Patxot Foundation, in the ‘30s she went on research trips to the United Kingdom and to Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Barba broke with the conventions of her time: for example, she travelled alone and didn’t want to have children.

Photo: Brangulí / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

Doctor Maria Lluïsa Quadras-Bordes in her gynaecological surgery at the Institut Electrològic i Radiològic (Electrological and Radiological Institute) in Barcelona, in 1921.
Photo: Brangulí / Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya

However, not all women with higher educations were progressives. Sisters Maria Lluïsa and Victòria Quadras-Bordes, for example, showed business initiative and reached powerful positions in medical institutions, but they were ideologically conservative, states Zarzoso. In any case, he notes, “in the ‘30s Barcelona was unmistakeably advanced and modern”, more so than many other European cities.

Francoism against women

The researcher notes that “Francoism brought about a sort of collapse for women, who didn’t recover until the ‘70s.” During the Civil War, Josefa Barba left for the United States, where she had a long career that put her work in publications like Science. In 1939, the Museum of Pathological Anatomy of the University of Barcelona was shut down entirely. “Some of the men involved continued to work in medicine. The women all became housewives”, Emma Sallent states, ironically. “After the war, women were limited to paediatrics or obstetrics, branches related to women as mothers and wives, or to the world of clinical analysis, where they worked in isolation, without interacting with patients and were socially invisible”, Zarzoso explains.

Photo: Frederic Ballell / AFB

Students and teaching staff at the Institut de Segon Ensenyament per a la Dona (Secondary Education Institute for Women) on a visit to the Fabra Observatory on 5 March 1911, listening to the explanations by the director of the centre, the astronomer Josep Comas i Solà.
Photo: Frederic Ballell / AFB

Photo: Aster

Inauguration of the premises of Aster, Associació Astronòmica de Barcelona (Barcelona Astronomical Association), on 3 June 1949. In the image a significant female presence can be seen.
Photo: Aster

Nevertheless, during the dictatorship several opportunities appeared in the world of science that had been barred in more politicized areas. “Some organizations serve as refuges, little bubbles of freedom”, states Hochadel. One example is Aster, the Barcelona Astronomical Association, founded in 1948 as an alternative to the Astronomical Association of Spain and America, which had become very professionalized. “The Barcelona Astronomical Association (Aster) is related to an alternative sort of sociability; it represents a place where there’s room for women”, observes Ruiz Castell. The presence of women on the board is minimal, but there are a significant number of female members, especially in certain commissions like the one on bolides. In addition, there are multiple donations from women for the construction of the dome of the Association’s observatory. Part of the success of this organization has to do with the famous celebrations they would organize after their conferences. Some of the complaints about the supposed promiscuity at these events reveals the presence of women, according to the researcher from the University of Valencia.

Another unexpected opportunity came from the elimination of researchers and technicians by the Francoists, what would later be known as the atroz desmoche –atrocious decapitation– using an expression by Pedro Laín Entralgo. “It’s horrible to think about, but that did open up a little space for women”, says Hochadel.

The “museum girls”

The Natural Sciences Museum in Barcelona had female employees since the 1920s. In 1916 no women were mentioned in the museum’s annual report, and in 1917 there were about a dozen. They often began as secretaries, but many took botany courses and were later promoted. Over time, this group came to include about forty members, who were eventually nicknamed the “museum girls”.

“When some of the men were purged, the women stayed. They were the ones who knew how the museum worked, how to manage the collections. There wasn’t much room, but some women took advantage of this little space to have really impressive careers”, Hochadel explains. He especially notes Roser Nos, a Valencian scientist who moved to Barcelona at a young age. As opposed to many of the “girls”, Nos didn’t start out doing administrative tasks at the museum; she arrived as an intern as a result of her studies in natural sciences. She worked at the Museum of Zoology from 1947-1961, and afterwards at the Zoo until 1978. She then became museum director, a position she held until 1989.

The recovery of the ‘70s

The end of Francoism and a shift in ideology among Spanish women resulted in a significant change in the relationship between women and science. In the 1970s, female registrations at the science schools of universities grew exponentially. From then on, the number of notable female scientists continued to rise. However, the impact of this change goes even further: it changes the way science is seen, especially with regards to health.

“Under Franco, sex was basically seen as having to do with reproduction, not pleasure. In the ‘70s, women begin to claim their right to their own bodies, to sexuality and sexual education” explains Sara Fajula, an archivist at the Doctors’ Association of Barcelona. Several years prior, in the previous decade, medical student Assumpció Villatoro had run into gynaecology professors who were within the Francoist tradition, but who had a more progressive attitude. The professor she specialized under, Victor Conill Serra, was a practicing catholic, but he had come to the realization that family planning was a necessity. On the other hand, another professor, Jesús González Merlo, was initially opposed to such ideas.

Starting in the ‘60s, Santiago Dexeus began to offer a secret and private family planning service from his clinic. In the ‘70s, a movement of doctors in favour of family planning appeared. It was made up mostly of men (Dexeus himself, Ramon Casanellas, Eugeni Castells, Josep Lluís Iglesias Cortit, Xavier Iglesias Guiu…), but also included Assumpció Villatoro. Many of its ideas were manifested in “La Gaia Ciencia” book collection created by writer Rosa Regàs, which included a volume by Villatoro on abortion (“What Is Abortion?” from 1977) before the practice was legalized in 1985.

Photo: El Prat Municipal Archive

Demonstration in defence of the right to divorce and to abortion, organised by the Coordinadora Feminista del Baix Llobregat (Baix Llobregat Feminist Coordinating Committee) in the early days of the Democratic Transition.
Photo: El Prat Municipal Archive

In 1976 a group of feminists including nurses created the DAIA collective (Women for Self-knowledge and Anticonception). “They thought that feminism was a strong movement, but that it wasn’t doing enough”, explains Fajula. The group counselled women on contraceptive methods in a Barcelona apartment, and saw itself overwhelmed with questions on abortion. The members of DAIA, who were in favour of sexual education and the right to abortion as a last option, offered women advice on safe abortion options, either clandestinely or abroad. The group was active until 1984.

Photo: El Prat Municipal Archive

The team of the Prat de Llobregat Family Planning Clinic, the second of its kind in the whole of Spain. It was founded in 1977 by the left-wing activists Carmina Balaguer and Maruja Pelegrín, on the right in the picture.
Photo: El Prat Municipal Archive

The first family planning centres

In 1976, the first family planning centre was opened in Madrid, and in 1977 the first in Catalonia was opened in el Prat del Llobregat. These first centres were initiatives of women rooted in their neighbourhoods, feminist militants or members of the PSUC (Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia), such as Carmina Balaguer or Maruja Pelegrín. “The women who worked at these centres had either studied, or had educated themselves by reading books like ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’”, translated into Spanish in 1982. But female doctors also got involved, including Assumpció Villatoro herself. They were in charge of medical supervision, and they applied a sort of pre-emptive medicine”, Fajula explains. Many of these centres began to produce data and statistics on how women experienced sexuality, and what contraceptive methods they used. The centres slowly lost their “women for women” philosophy when they became part of the public health service, the researcher notes.

At a time like the present where, in theory, there are no explicit barriers to women wanting to access science, the story of all the obstacles they once had to overcome seems like something from another world. Nevertheless, historians believe that this process holds plenty of useful lessons for us today: no step forwards is permanent, there’s always a risk of sliding backwards. “The fight for the right to family planning is over, but the right to abortion is in a delicate situation”, Fajula reminds us. Balltondre has something to add: “there are still plenty of fields of research and technology where women are practically absent. How many apps are there that address women’s needs? How many women are there in Silicon Valley?”, she wonders.

Photo: Public domain

The child psychologist Milicent Shinn (1858-1940) was the first woman to receive a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1898. In the photograph she can be seen with Ruth, her niece, the subject of her observations on the psychology of babies.
Photo: Public domain

Research in the crib

The apparent total absence of women in the world of science until a few decades ago is, in part, a result of the objective barriers they found. However, according to historians, it also has to do with a process of making their contributions invisible. In addition, it comes from an excessively restricted idea of science, which is limited to the academic, institutional and official world. Science is much broader, and it includes other spaces (not just the laboratory, but also the workshop, the store, the factory, etc.) and other participants (not just academic researchers, but also technicians, patients, activists, communicators, etc.). If we look at science from a historical perceptive, we can see that these spaces and these actors have always played a fundamental role in expanding scientific knowledge.

It is precisely in the least institutional places and the least academic roles where women have met less resistance to their participation in science. One extraordinary example of this is Milicent Shinn. This Californian housewife turned her home into a laboratory to scientifically analyse the psychology of newborns. Furthermore, she created a network of about fifty observing mothers, and together they put together the largest body of direct observations on the development of babies.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1878, Shinn began caring for her parents and siblings in the town of Niles, near San Francisco. In 1890, she started to take notes on her newborn niece. Just a few years earlier Charles Darwin had encouraged scientists to investigate the development of children, and more specifically to observe babies as “natural history objects” and to “bring the argument of childhood into the scientific realm.”

Information accessible to men

Soon, Shinn realized that her detailed diary was an exceptional body of information, accessible to most male researchers who never set foot in a child’s room. By 1891 she had already contacted ten other Californian mothers to carry out coordinated observations of their babies. The network would grow in the following years under the protection of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (ACA), an organization of female alumni from the most prestigious universities in the US.

In 1893 Shinn presented her first results at the annual meeting of the National Educational Association in Chicago, and she published the first two volumes of her observations on Ruth (she would eventually publish a total of four). Her conclusions refuted the dominant idea that babies first developed their senses and then reason. Shinn established that a series of complex capacities guided the psychological development of babies.

While some scientists valued her work, others questioned its legitimacy. Psychologist James Mark Baldwin argued that a mother couldn’t be a scientific observer, and others stated that women were blinded by their adoration for infants. Shinn answered that women wouldn’t be able to keep a child alive without making objective observations about their behaviour.

The researcher, who obtained her doctorate using these studies, put forward her results in the 1907 essay The Development of the Senses in the First Three Years of Childhood. In 1910 she retired from directing the ACA, a position she had earned in the meanwhile, to care for her mother, nephews and nieces. Nevertheless, she kept up correspondence with the mothers in her network throughout her life.

Decontaminating the bodies of city-dwellers

Illustration: Patossa

Illustration: Patossa

There is a form of pollution that is more subtle and invisible than that of air or water. It’s inside the human body. Endocrine disruptors are substances found in food, household and office items, cleaning products, cosmetics, etc., which all build up in the body, change the way our hormones work and contribute to obesity, diabetes, cancer, fertility issues and brain development.

The scientific evidence is solid, but most governments look away. Nevertheless, the European Commission has missed all the deadlines for restricting disruptors. The unresolved issue is how to define a hormone disruptor. Depending on the definition one uses, it could cascade down into changes to EU law on pesticides, biocides and cosmetics and into the REACH list of chemicals. At the same time, some cities are prioritising the job of decontaminating the bodies of their inhabitants.

The city councils of Stockholm and Gothenburg in Sweden have banned endocrine disruptors from products purchased with public money. Paris has banned baby bottles with bisphenol A (BPA) and certain types of nappies from public childcare centres. Barcelona no longer uses the herbicide glyphosate in its parks and gardens. And nine town councils in Spain, starting with Anglès (Girona) have set up a network of cities that aspire to rid themselves of hormone disruptors, under the name “Mi ciudad cuida mis hormonas” (My town cares for my hormones).

“When a town, and especially a city, makes this kind of decision, it can have a big impact on manufacturers”, says Leonardo Trasande, a researcher at the New York University School of Medicine. “Politicians will only take decisions if public opinion changes, and the actions of cities will lead citizens to get information and ask questions”, points out Barbara Demeneix, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). They are both renowned researchers in the field of endocrine disruptors.

“Think of the everyday life of a child: if he were not exposed to these substances at mealtimes, if he didn’t find them when out playing in the park…, the amount of pollutants he has to live with would be greatly reduced”, explains Dolores Romano, head of Chemicals Policy for Ecologistes en Acció. “It’s true that councils lack some of the authority they need, but they can take actions that have a direct impact on the public”, adds Ruth Echeverría, training and research coordinator for Fundación Alborada, a charity that helps people suffering from environmental diseases. This pair of environmental organisations are the driving force behind the “Mi ciudad cuida mis hormonas” network.

The first warning signs of the dangers of endocrine disruptors date back over half a century. In the fifties and sixties, doctors in the United States observed that young girls who had taken diethylstilboestrol during their pregnancy (a synthetic oestrogen that was prescribed to prevent miscarriage), had a higher incidence of cancer. Around the same time it was discovered that certain compounds known as xenoestrogens had a feminizing effect on animals. Some of them were natural, such as soya isoflavones, but the artificial ones had more worrying effects.

In the early eighties, the infiltration of DDT in Lake Apopka, Florida, had such a strong effect on the fertility of alligators that the population fell drastically. That same decade, doctors detected reproductive anomalies in humans, too; specifically, in the victims of the 1976 disaster in Seveso, Italy, when high quantities of dioxins were released. The higher the concentrations of dioxins in parents’ bodies, the lower the probability of having sons. Some couples only gave birth to girls.

Photo: Dani Codina

Cleaners are one of the groups most exposed to chemical products and, thus, are at greatest risk of being affected by hormone disrupters.
Photo: Dani Codina

Barcelona had its own incident. In 1996 a group of cleaning women at Vall d’Hebron Hospital were poisoned by solvents and other products. They experienced heavier menstrual flows, more mastitis, fatigue, hypersensitivity to smells, etc.

The common denominator across all these incidents is that the compounds involved have a special ability: to simulate the behaviour of natural hormones. Hormones are produced by the glands of the endocrine system: a dozen or so tissues ranging from the hypothalamus in the brain to the gonads in the reproductive organs. The glands produce the combination of hormones that the body needs at any given time to activate the hormonal receptors in the cells and in turn the corresponding biological processes.

A very delicate balance

The cocktail of hormones is delicately balanced: each ingredient is present to a very low and specific level (a few picograms or nanograms per millilitre of blood). This balance goes awry when an endocrine disruptor enters the mix. Disruptors imitate the function of certain hormones and stop others from working. It only takes small amounts of hormonal disruptors to interfere with our biological functions.

The picture was brought into focus in 1991, when for the first time, a team of scientists summarized the situation in the Wingspread Declaration. Since then, the evidence and the declarations have been accumulating and now include benchmark documents produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2012 and the International Society of Endocrinology, in 2015.

“We know that endocrine disorders are on the rise. There is growing evidence that they are related to endocrine disruptors. So we know that disruptors carry a cost, and we also know how to reduce our exposure to disruptors”, says Trasande. “Numerous studies […] confirm the idea that exposure to chemical substances contributes towards endocrine disorders. […] There are almost eight-hundred compounds that we know or suspect interfere with hormones”, reads the WHO report.

Photo: Dani Codina

There are around 800 substances known or thought to disrupt hormones and cause diseases and other health problems, including reproductive problems among women and men, neurodevelopment issues, obesity, diabetes and some types of cancer.
Photo: Dani Codina

The International Society of Endocrinology report lists the diseases for which there is solid proof: neurodevelopmental conditions (such as autism and hyperactivity), obesity, diabetes, male and female fertility problems (such as low sperm count, genital deformities, premature births…) and hormone-related cancers (such as breast, endometrial, ovarian, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancer).

The study points to the main compounds on which there is conclusive research: atrazine and DDT are found in herbicides and pesticides; bisphenol A (BPA) is present in food tins and in the ink on supermarket receipts; phthalates are in food packaging, cosmetics, shampoos and vinyl flooring; and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are found in flame retardants and in electronic devices.

Chemical fingerprinting

“Each country has a kind of fingerprint [of disruptors] based on its [industrial] activities. A placenta with high PCB is probably Danish; one with an abundance of endosulfan, French; and one that has a lot of monoethyl phthalate, Spanish”, explains Nicolás Olea, Professor of Medicine at the University of Granada, Spain.

“It has become normal that people have certain concentrations of toxic compounds inside them”, says Miquel Porta, a researcher at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM) in Barcelona. “Of the nineteen toxic compounds we have analysed, nobody has fewer than three of them: on average, we find eleven per person”, he explains, referring to a sample of Catalan individuals between the ages of eighteen and seventy-four. “DDT, which was banned thirty-five years ago, is still today found in 88% of the population. Hexachlorobenzene, a fungicide, is in over 90% of us”, he points out.

Endocrine disruptors work in a particularly surreptitious way. Firstly, they can be dangerous even in very low doses, because the hormones that they emulate also work at very low doses and because the disruptors boost each other. That’s why the International Society of Endocrinology considers that “there is no safe threshold of exposure”.

In addition, disruptors act differently depending on life stage and gender. The WHO and the International Society of Endocrinology both state that infancy is the most delicate period, even though exposure begins even before birth. “We’ve been detecting these substances in the amniotic fluid around the foetus for many years now. There is evidence that disruptors can programme the unborn baby towards obesity, excess weight, resistance to insulin, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases”, says Porta.

Women are more exposed, for various reasons. Firstly, because of the types of jobs they hold: cleaning staff, school teachers, swimming instructors and lab technicians, for example, get more exposure. Secondly, because of their greater use of cosmetics and makeup. And lastly, because the mix of hormones in women is more sensitive to adverse effects than that of men.

Interested parties planting the seeds of doubt

Despite the weight of the evidence on hormone disruptors, there are still divisions within the field. For example, in 2015 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) disagreed on the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate.

“The state of the science and the legislation is similar to what there was on climate change a decade ago. […] Faced with the evidence […] a small group of scientists – many of them with well documented connections to industry – have dedicated themselves to sowing doubt to a degree that is completely out of proportion to the actual level of scientific disagreement”, wrote Trasande in the journal Nature.

The latest document produced by the International Society of Endocrinology was given prior approval by thirteen thousand experts. “There are between eight and twelve scientists, with major conflicts of interests, who go against it”, points out Ángel Nadal, Professor of Physiology at Miguel Hernández University of Elche, Spain, and coordinator of the International Society of Endocrinology’s advisory group on endocrine disruptors.

“The impact of endocrine disruptors on health is bigger than the impact that legislating on their use would have on the chemicals industry”, remarks Demeneix. A 2016 study by Trasande puts the economic impact of endocrine disruptors – in terms of the associated costs of the diseases they cause – at 217 billion dollars in Europe and 340 billion dollars in the USA.

According to some scientists, the situation also resembles that of leaded petrol. Lead was progressively removed between the seventies and the nineties, and as a result, levels of lead in the air and in children’s blood fell markedly (to start with, 88% of children in the US had dangerously high levels of lead, and by the end, only 1% did). Over those years, children’s intelligence quotients in the US also rose by 2 to 5 points, partly because before that, lead had been affecting their brains. Translated into GDP terms, it is estimated that this improvement in general IQ because of a reduction of lead levels in the blood brought economic benefits of between 110 and 319 billion dollars a year.

Defining hormone disruptors, the bottleneck

Nevertheless, the European Commission has missed all the deadlines for restricting disruptors. The unresolved issue is how to define a hormone disruptor. Depending on the definition one uses, it could cascade down into changes to EU law on pesticides, biocides and cosmetics and into the REACH list of chemicals.

Photo: Dani Codina

Reducing the use of plastic containers and packaging for food is one of the recommended ways to protect oneself from hormone disrupters.
Photo: Dani Codina

In June 2013 the Directorate-General for the Environment presented a draft definition based on the work of a group of experts. It was due to be approved in December 2013. “But industry didn’t like the draft, and it carried out manoeuvres to block it. Then, in the winter of 2013 the European Commission ordered a study on the socioeconomic cost of those criteria”, explains Dolores Romano. It also transferred the issue over to the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency.

Time went on and in 2014 Sweden took the Commission to the European Court of Justice for failure to act. In late 2015 the Court ruled that the definition must be published with immediate effect. Finally, in June 2016 the Commission presented a new draft.

Its proposal was a disappointment to activists and experts. “It requires a much higher level of evidence than for any other substance”, explains Dolores Romano, of Ecologistes en Acció. Ángel Nadal adds that this level is “above what is required for categorising a substance as carcinogenic. For that, it’s enough to prove that it causes anomalies in cells and animals. We want the same level for disruptors”.

But it isn’t enough to demonstrate the compound’s negative effects; one also has to know how it operates. “We have here some very complex modes of action, like the production of epigenetic changes during the foetal period and lactation, with effects that emerge years later. How long will it take to conduct all the tests on tens of thousands of compounds?” argues Nadal. In addition to all this, the European proposal includes an exemption for insecticides.

“The European Commission is too swayed by the chemical industry”, says Demeneix. Despite the fact that the Commission has already modified the definition four times, several countries (headed by the Scandinavians) have blocked its approval. In a move considered suspicious by some activists, in December 2016 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) set up a working party to develop a set of guidelines for putting the definition into practice, even though it hadn’t yet been ratified.

Proactive town councils

The situation is no better on national or regional levels. In 2004, the Spanish Minister for the Environment, Cristina Narbona, made the symbolic gesture of having her blood analysed: it contained dozens of contaminants. In 2010, a national environmental health plan was drawn up and then promptly disregarded. When it comes to the Catalan government, since 2012 there has been no further monitoring of endocrine disruptors in the population, although more recently there have been discussions on relaunching these checks, according to Miquel Porta.

“At the town council level, everything goes faster”, thinks Ruth Echeverría. In November 2016, Fundación Alborada and Ecologistes en Acció set up the “Mi ciudad cuida mis hormonas” network, with nine towns and cities that have passed motions to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors: Alcalá de Guadaíra (Seville), Anglès (Girona), Brunete (Madrid), Estella-Lizarra (Navarre), Onda (Castellón), Quijorna (Madrid), Robledo de Chavela (Madrid), San Fernando de Henares (Madrid) and Zaragoza. A few others, such as Barcelona, are in the process of joining.

Three Spanish regions (Valencia, La Rioja and Aragon) have passed non-binding laws on the subject. It is worth remarking that the governing bodies of these councils and regions span Spain’s entire political spectrum, from Partido Popular to Podemos.

The small town of Anglès in Girona was the first in Spain to pass a motion, in February 2016. “We have a secretary with hyperthyroidism, same as me”, explains Astrid Desset, the elected CiU mayor. “She suggested that the Council should put some pressure on the health authorities to draw up some guidelines for local councils”. Anglès has banned Teflon cooking utensils from public schools and has changed the menu, banned glyphosate from council-run gardening services, substituted bottled water for osmosis water systems and replaced hand soaps in all public buildings. But “we don’t have anyone to help us go any further”, laments the mayor.

Photo: Dani Codina

The municipal government banned the use of chemical pesticides in the parks and gardens of Barcelona in January 2017. In the picture, Ciutadella Park.
Photo: Dani Codina

In March 2016 Ecologistes en Acció published a guide to removing hormone contaminants, to be used by local authorities. The experiences of councils all over the world are helping to define a set of practices for reducing exposure.

The most popular measure is the banning of chemical herbicides from parks and gardens. Under the local government of Barcelona en Comú they have been banned in the city since January 2017. Until last year, for example, 2,500 litres of glyphosate were used for yearly treatment, in 200,000 tree pits and on gravelled areas, according to Izaskun Martí, Conservation Director at the Parks and Gardens Department. Today, the Council has four machines that kills weeds using hot steam and twenty-four people who do the work manually, each hired for six months on a job scheme for the unemployed. Some tree surrounds have also been covered with pine bark to prevent weeds, or planted with plants that are natural enemies of tree pests and disease.

Madrid City Council under Ahora Madrid has also got rid of glyphosate for the treatment of weeds on roads. But some councils have gone further and applied the same approach to pests. This is what the small town of Brunete has done: as well as banning certain herbicides, its PP-run council is replacing its pesticides so, for example, the nests of processionary caterpillars are removed mechanically, using nets or discs for collecting the caterpillars.

In February 2017 Brunete also pledged to introduce organic food into nursery schools, school canteens and municipal care homes, and to buy disruptor-free products for all public facilities. It may appear to be small-scale, but these are two major areas of councils’ anti-disruptor policies: to remove them from any council-run catering facilities and from municipal procurements of products such as cleaning supplies, building materials, etc.

“The residents [of Brunete] are happy up to a point. Sometimes they don’t understand the steps that are taken. Education and information are really important”, observed the training and research coordinator of the Fundación Alborada, Ruth Echeverría, who advised this town council located in the Madrid region. This is why other councils, like that of Estella-Lizarra (governed by EH Bildu) in Navarre, have embarked on a change management process, with meetings to train employees and to communicate with the residents.

The cities outside Spain that are making changes include Paris and Irvine, California. Under socialist rule, Paris’s last two city councils banned baby bottles that contain bisphenol A and certain types of nappies in public nurseries. The current council has adopted an environmental health plan (Paris Santé Environnement) that includes an advisory service for council offices on the procurement of products that are free of hormone disruptors.

In Irvine, the initiative came from a group of four committed parents who consulted three local scientists and set up an organisation called Non Toxic Irvine. After organising a petition, in February 2016 they got the City Council to replace all pesticides with organic products.

“We take great pride here in the appearance of the city and there is little tolerance for weeds”, explains Ayn Craciun, one of the mothers behind the project. “But people did understand that it was senseless to use toxic substances on gardens where kids and pets play”, adds Bruce Blumberg, a biology lecturer at the University of California-Irvine and an advisor on the project. All five council members of this Californian city (four of them Republican) voted in favour of eliminating toxins. “The pressure from a strong group of parents like ours and the arguments put forward by the scientists were crucial in persuading them”, explains Craciun. “Other cities in our region are following Irvine’s example”, says Councilwoman Christina Shea, who has had personal experience of cancer and who supported the project from the outset. The use of organic products has raised costs by no more than 6%, reports Craciun.

Another action that has been taken by various cities around the world – but only one in Spain – is currently being implemented in Barcelona, where the authorities are biomonitoring blood samples from 240 people who are representative of the city’s population. The analysis of the samples is being coordinated by Miquel Porta, a researcher at IMIM, and it will provide an estimation of the presence of disruptors in the organisms of the city’s residents. The procedure had already been carried out in 2002 and 2006. “We’ll have to see if the downward trend recorded between the two previous studies continues”, reflects Porta.

“The lack of EU-wide regulations puts the ball firmly in the court of local governments. They can reduce the use of certain substances, stimulate the market for safer alternatives and, basically, set a good example to the public. Cities have a lot of work to do when it comes to endocrine disruptors”, concludes Dolores Romano.

Individual actions to protect oneself against endocrine disruptors

A number of simple, tried and tested rules can reduce a typical city-dweller’s exposure to hormone disrupters.

Photo: Dani Codina

A mobile application developed in Barcelona enables users to obtain data from a product’s barcode regarding its health effects, environmental impact and corporate social responsibility.
Photo: Dani Codina

“The problem of disruptors is a global one and it has to be solved on a global level: with as much regulation as possible. In the meantime, as long as we don’t have these laws, we can all take steps individually to reduce our exposure to endocrine disruptors”, says Ángel Nadal, Professor of Physiology at Miguel Hernández University of Elche.

“Taking individual actions requires effort. Reading labels is time-consuming and one can’t expect the general public to be experts. In addition, some disruptor-free products are more costly”, admits Ruth Echeverría, who gives training courses on disruptor-free products at the Fundación Alborada.

However, all the experts we consulted agree on a set of simple rules that can help to reduce exposure to disruptors, for any typical urban dweller.

In terms of food, for example, they recommend buying organic fruit and vegetables and to always wash and peel those that are not; to cook at home and to use stainless steel frying pans and saucepans (avoiding non-stick ones); to eat fewer products that come in plastic packaging or tins or that are kept in Tupperware (better glass or ceramic); not to heat up food in Tupperware or drink hot drinks from plastic cups or mugs; not to wash plastic in the dishwasher; and during pregnancy, not to eat tuna or salmon more than once a week.

When it comes to cleaning and cosmetics, it’s best to avoid cosmetic products (especially those that contain phthalates, triclosan or parabens) and cut down on the use of sun creams (better to wear sunhats and t-shirts) and wet wipes, especially on young children. Another recommendation is to wash newly-bought clothes before wearing them.

Ventilating the house well and not using insecticides or pesticides on house plants are also steps that one can take against the presence of disruptors. Given the choice, it’s better to have objects made from wood, paper, metal, glass or ceramic than plastic (for toys, for example). And one must be careful with the ink on shop receipts.

These tips are based on studies that have shown them to be effective. For example, in 2011 one study showed that the indicators of disruptors in the urine of twenty individuals who limited their intake of food from plastic packaging or tins for three days, fell by 50-100%.

The effort of selecting disruptor-free products may soon get a little easier, thanks to a mobile app created in Barcelona, currently being prototyped but soon to be launched on a wider market. It’s called Abouit and it’s an app backed by businessman Tabaré Majem Olivera, with the support of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona’s Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, among other organisations. The app scans the product’s bar code and gives information on health, environmental impact and corporate social responsibility. Its database holds information on tens of thousands of products, based on scientific publications and experiments specifically conducted for the purpose in the laboratories of a Catalan firm, InKemia.

However many actions we take ourselves, we can never be completely protected from disruptors. It’s a systemic problem: in 2011, for example, dioxins were even found in organic eggs produced in Aragon.

“I believe the solution has to be a combination of legislation and individual actions. Legislation can bring about instant, widespread change. At the same time, consumers can put pressure on producers”, thinks Leonardo Trasande, researcher at the New York University School of Medicine. “Disruptors are a problem, but they are also an opportunity to innovate in agriculture, food and green chemistry: we wouldn’t only be helping our health, but also the economy”, concludes Nadal.

Isabelle Anguelovski: “Powerful investors have taken over the ecological agenda”

The creation of city parks, green belts and ecological corridors in urban neighbourhoods attracts upmarket estate agencies and new residents with more purchasing power than longstanding residents. The rise in housing prices pushes the original population out: a frustrating phenomenon known as “green gentrification”.

Photo: Pere Virgili

Isabelle Anguelovski, researcher in political ecology
Photo: Pere Virgili

Barcelona’s Parc del Poblenou is the kind of project that everyone would like to live close to: a large green space in a historic and popular neighbourhood with industrial past. But the park has brought about unexpected consequences. The number of residents with a university education has increased by 700% in a 100 metre radius around the site. The number of elderly residents and immigrants from the global south has fallen. Luxury dwellings have sprung up, and housing prices have shot through the roof. In a nutshell, the community that was to benefit from the park has been moved aside to make room for new, richer, younger and whiter residents.

This is Barcelona’s most blatant example of a frustrating boomerang effect known as “green gentrification”. The creation of city parks, green belts, ecological corridors, etc. attracts upmarket estate agencies and new residents with greater purchasing power, while the rise in housing prices ultimately pushes out the original working-class population. Deprived communities campaign for greener neighbourhoods, but when they achieve their objective they find themselves driven out to less attractive areas.

This phenomenon has occurred in a number of places, including the new green belt of Medellín (Colombia), the redeveloped waterfront of Portland (Oregon, United States) and the brand new High Line (New York City), a park built on a disused section of elevated train track. It is as though the most aggressive mechanisms of the market economy had put themselves at the service of environmentalism, sustainability and the fight against climate change.

“Before, economic factors worked against environmental factors, but today the big property corporations have found ways to cash in on the green agendas of cities”, says Isabelle Anguelovski (Reims, France, 1978), a researcher in political ecology at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB). Anguelovski, having identified “green gentrification” phenomena on both sides of the ‘pond’, has become the go-to expert in this area. She worked at the Sorbonne, at Harvard University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before settling in Barcelona in 2011. In 2013 she won the Catalan Regional Government’s National Research Prize for Young Talent.

Over the next five years, she will be analysing the process in forty cities around the world as part of the Greenlulus (Green Locally Unwanted Land Uses) project, which has received €1.5 million in funding from the European Commission’s European Research Council (ERC). The researcher also hopes to find success stories in cities where a balance has been struck between social justice and nature. These examples could prove valuable when the time comes to deal with the next candidates for green gentrification in Barcelona: the Parc del Calaix de Sants and the city’s superilles, or “superblocks”. Anguelovski is advising the City Council on this issue.

You describe yourself as an activist researcher. What does that mean?

It means having an in-depth understanding of the social realities that I study and helping to resolve some of the more acute sources of tension. In Boston, I worked in Dudley, a deprived neighbourhood that for decades has experienced arson attacks perpetrated to empty out rented flats, as well as an accumulation of rubbish and a lack of interest on the part of investors. Afro-American, Afro-Latino and Cape Verdean communities campaigned to improve the quality of the neighbourhood. I worked with them and shared the results of my research. In Barcelona, I haven’t had such an activist role. With two small children, it’s not so easy. But I always share information with the organisations I study. I also hold workshops and write for the press. And I’m also working with the City Council to prevent green gentrification in the superblocks and the in gardens of Sants.

Have you always combined research with frontline involvement?

At the age of nineteen, I used the Spanish I’d learnt at high school to travel to Cuba with a Madrid-based NGO, Sodepaz. I was shocked by the problem of developmental inequality. During my degree [in political science at Sciences Po Lille (France)] and Master’s [in development cooperation at the Sorbonne] I often went to Latin America on cooperation projects. Later on, I worked with Oxfam to help women deal with the effects of mining. This was my first exposure to environmental injustice. I also set up an NGO that offered advisory services to indigenous communities affected by mining.

Have you been studying the relationship between justice and the environment since then?

After a few years, in 2006, I started a PhD at MIT on conflict resolution between environmental offenders and affected communities. It resulted in a book published in 2012 [Neighborhood as Refuge: Community Reconstruction, Place Remaking, and Environmental Justice in the City] where I compare cases from neighbourhoods in three cities: Dudley in Boston, Sant Pere and Santa Caterina in Barcelona and Cayo Hueso in Havana.

What do Barcelona, Boston and Havana have in common?

I’d realised that many deprived communities work on environmental issues. They clean up land, create green spaces, set up workshops with recycled materials and work with renewable energy. This happens in communities that have nothing at all in common. I wanted to understand why and how communities that have historically been stigmatised and marginalised actually mobilise. Not by comparing neighbourhoods in the same city, but by comparing very different political situations.

Why did you choose Barcelona as a case study?

I’d already visited the city in 2000 and gone around the neighbourhoods. Since then, I’d come back several times and had followed the urban development. The objective of my work was to compare the movements in Boston, which has a well-established democracy and a high level of urban development, with those in Barcelona, which has a young democracy and an intermediate level of development, and Havana, which has an underdeveloped autocratic regime.

What do the environmental movements of these three cases have in common?

After conducting 150 interviews, I can say they have a lot in common. The sense of abandonment experienced by people in these neighbourhoods creates a connection between people and places. A kind of twofold awareness emerges: firstly, they understand the problems they suffer from; secondly, and paradoxically, they also have a sense of belonging, a sense of community and a pride about living in their neighbourhoods. This generates a sense of responsibility, an interest in improving the quality of the urban environment and personal growth, even in people with no formal education or profession. The objectives of these movements are to remake their surroundings and reinforce their identity. Caring for the environment is a tool to help them achieve other goals. They’re looking to fix the environment but also to create a sense of protection from racism or drugs, to set up a kind of urban village and to celebrate a sense of community. The neighbourhood becomes a refuge, a safe sanctuary. This is a really important factor, especially for the youngest residents.

How does this idea of neighbourhood as refuge play out in Barcelona?

I focused mostly on El Forat de la Vergonya. Despite the conflicts with the council and between the groups involved, I think they’d managed to create a space run by the citizens that had social and cultural diversity, locally-owned shops, etc. Things have changed now. El Forat and the social housing are like an island cut off from the rest of the neighbourhood. All around it, there has been major social breakdown. There are no shops selling products for the residents. Instead there are art shops, smoking clubs, electric bike hire places and bars selling patatas bravas at €8. This preference for the “Barcelona brand”, the reduction in citizen participation that occurred during Mayor Trias’ term in office and the financial crisis have all led to a scenario where only outsiders invest in the neighbourhood. New hotels have been built to attract tourism, but rental properties are scarce and most of them are for tourists. It’s also a fact that the people who led the fight at El Forat have grown old or have left. There are nonetheless some new, emerging activist initiatives.

After moving to Barcelona, you became interested in bottom-up initiatives to combat climate change.

Yes, I was a principal investigator on TESS, a European project that set out to measure the impact of grass-roots initiatives in mobility, food, energy and waste across six countries. In Barcelona, I studied associations, cooperatives and companies like Can Masdeu, La Col, Can Batlló, Trèvol, La Ortiga, Tota Cuca Viu, Granja Aurora, Som Energia, and so on.

Isabelle Anguelovski. Photo: Pere Virgili

Isabelle Anguelovski. Photo: Pere Virgili

How did the idea of “green gentrification” come about?

It arose towards the end of my fieldwork for the book. Many activists were telling me things such as: “We fought to clean up our neighbourhood, which was polluted and neglected. Now we finally have environmental infrastructure and see that the neighbourhood is attracting investors and new residents”. There were people who said that if they put in another community garden, they’d have to leave in five years, or that their neighbourhood was green enough already. At El Forat de la Vergonya, they tipped sand on the ground to stop café terraces from being set up. Many movements shifted their focus from environmental justice to housing. It was then that I saw the contradiction and the paradox that these people were facing. The scientific literature on the subject was in its very early stages, and only a few very specific individual case studies existed.

When did this process begin in Barcelona?

The first documented cases are from the late 1990s, Vila Olímpica being one of them. I’m also thinking about researching cases from the 1980s, such as Parc de Joan Miró and Parc de l’Espanya Industrial, but there’s not much data.

And where are the hotspots today?

Firstly, there are the gardens on Rambla de Sants, where some residents are already fearful because their homes are more visible to tourists. And there’s already the precedent of the High Line in New York. Secondly, the superblocks. I’m on the study group set up by the council to mitigate any of their negative effects. But there are other examples, too, like Passeig de Sant Joan. It has never been a low income area, but it suffers from supergentrification. In other words, the middle classes are being displaced by people with even higher incomes.

Is green gentrification the result of a deliberate strategy by property companies?

The companies are fully aware of the power of green. In Vancouver, powerful construction firms advertise luxury buildings with communal gardens inside. The big estate agencies of Germany advertise properties in Barcelona, emphasising the green space. It’s not just about building or redeveloping luxury buildings. It’s simply that high-income people and families are attracted to beautiful parts of the city.

What role does politics play?

Sustainability has been de-politicised. Green planning is viewed as technocratic, post-political, apolitical, top-down. A park or a High Line-type project is created and it’s assumed that everyone will benefit. There’s no critical analysis of the situation to find out which stakeholders really do benefit. The fact that powerful investors have taken over the ecological agenda is ignored by political discourse.

You have said that a greenlulu (unwanted green space) could be even worse than a brownlulu (polluted or deteriorated space). How can that be?

Well, yes, in a certain way it can be like that. Green gentrification can be worse than a polluting factory because of the forced displacement it imposes. People lose their social networks and are forced to move far from the city centre, where it’s harder for them to find work or get around. And everyone knows that a brownlulu is bad, while greenlulus are seen as positive, which makes it more difficult to put research into the problems they cause on the agenda.

At least these green spaces help to make cities more sustainable?

The agenda to make the city greener doesn’t necessarily coincide with the sustainability agenda. The latter requires energy policies, an aggressive sustainable transport strategy, strong commercial networks of shops within the city, well distributed schools and health facilities, etc., so that people have amenities nearby and don’t need to travel so much.

Is there any way of keeping the benefits of green spaces in cities without creating injustices?

Basically, it’s a question of coming up with resolute affordable housing policies. In Europe, there are more than three million empty homes. Spain is one of the countries with the highest rates of this. We need to find ways of spreading access to these spaces and reclaiming the buildings that have been repossessed by the banks. One way would be to create new forms of social housing. We don’t need to build more, we just need to increase the funds allocated to refurbishing existing buildings. And when there are new developments, one can set up inclusiveness zones. This has been done in Berlin and New York, cities where 20%-30% of new homes must be allocated to social housing. We also need to push forward vigorous policies that control and expand the rental market, because the speculation that is rife in the mortgage market means that sometimes people end up unable to pay back their loans. In this regard, we need to change the mindset that puts buying before renting. And we also need to reduce the number of licenses for tourist flats and control illegal rentals through platforms like Airbnb.

Does the key lie in developing good housing policy?

That and more. If there is one positive thing about gentrification it’s that neighbourhoods get regenerated. But how can we help residents to stay on? Basically, by improving their income. With that objective, we should be able to change the cycle of poverty already at school, by funding the most neglected schools and giving pupils an opportunity to find well-paid work in the future. It’s also important to have strong local merchant associations to defend the traditional shops. Finally, health centres can have a positive influence on the social determiners of health. It’s a whole set of actions that go together. It’s about putting a localised focus on policies of regeneration.

Nevertheless, the residents of areas that are at risk today need quick solutions.

In each place, one has to study the causes of gentrification. In Barcelona, it’s driven by a combination of tourism, property investment and trends which see upper class people moving or returning to the city. We need to revitalise neighbourhoods in crisis by, amongst other measures, providing loans to small businesses and controlling which shops can open. Maybe we don’t need another electric bike hire shop for tourists. Instead, we could prioritise businesses that provide services to local communities. And we’d also need to reach political agreements to set up zones of inclusiveness.