Making a city from people

One of the different examples of uses of public space: tourists in Park Güell.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The debate about public space in the city is just as lively as ever, or maybe even more so. Ultimately, it is about finding collective solutions where the public and the authorities work together. Making a city from people.

People can be found in public spaces more than in their own homes. This was the surprising discovery made by Ana María Dávila, a Chilean journalist, when she arrived in Barcelona in the early 1980s. As she herself explains in the section “Visions of Barcelona”, she had landed in a public space that was still that of pre-Olympics Barcelona, with large areas yet to be developed and transformed.

Now, forty years later, the debate about public space in the city is just as lively as ever, or maybe even more so. This is because the city remains alive and unfinished, with spaces that every so often require rethinking in order to be inhabited, travelled, worked and shared in a thousand different ways, in line with social changes and the new needs of the citizens that live there and make them their own.

The city has changed – hugely – and great urban development work has been done, from reclaiming the seafront between the Besòs and Llobregat rivers to building ring roads, as well as recovering entire neighbourhoods such as Poblenou or building new ones such as Diagonal Mar and Vila Olímpica. However, there are still big projects on the table, such as the work on La Sagrera railway station, which also involves the unfinished number 9 metro line; the reorganisation of Plaça de les Glòries and its surroundings; and the redevelopment of the Marina del Prat Vermell neighbourhood, to name just a few examples.

Although it is often major projects that come to mind when we think about urban development, public space is also made up of the network of small or large roads, courtyards, alleyways, parks and gardens, communal elements within residents’ communities, as well as the fabric of open public amenities: markets, civic centres, libraries, museums, art factories and centres… Homes fit in between large infrastructures

and these other spaces for passing through and participating in. Town planners and architects are thus facing the dilemma of responding to both individual and collective needs, public and private needs, and setting different limits and definitions of what stays within and outside the public space.

This issue of Barcelona Metròpolis brings together a group of architects and town planners who analyse the public space of the four areas where everyday life takes place: the home, transport, work, and leisure, culture and participation. The authors of this dossier suggest responding to the needs in these four areas by putting people at the centre, looking at the city from street level and making the most of empty spaces to provide settings where the public can participate, get involved and play the leading role.

One of the different examples of uses of public space: a meeting of La Borda social housing cooperative at Can Batlló.
Photo: La Borda

The proposals gathered here include innovative and alternative ideas, such as those emerging from the solidarity economy, broad-based participation and counter-culture, as well as fields of experimentation that allow for new ways of participating. Town planners and architects are calling for close cooperation between civil society and public authorities, and agree on the need to promote more public housing and fewer private vehicles. This housing now accounts for 1.6% of the total housing stock available, either to buy or to rent. Cars, meanwhile, occupy 60% of the available public space, when only 15% of trips are made with this kind of transport.

Ultimately, it is about finding collective solutions where the public and the authorities work together. Twenty-five years ago, Manuel de Solà-Morales predicted that collective space (and we are not just talking about public space) would form the future wealth of cities. These proposals therefore suggest building the city and its public space so that they will organise community life and at the same time be personally welcoming, both for the people born there as well as for visitors. This is the case of refugee writer Basem Al-Nabriss , who closes the magazine with a collection of short stories about Barcelona written during his stay as Catalan PEN’s “Writer in Refuge”. Making a city from people.

Marina Garcés. The city has always been a refuge

“Cities have never just existed for their own sake: they are places of arrival, dynamic centres that are created with people who come from the countryside and from other countries. If we deny this place of arrival to refugees, we are banishing them from the world”. These are the words of the philosopher Marina Garcés (Barcelona, 1973), for whom life is a shared web of commitments.

© Pere Virgili

From the perspective of commitment, with Garcés we discuss the Europe of cities, border Europe, Syrian refugees and the relationship between the world and the interdependent subject. And about Filosofía inacabada [Unfinished Philosophy], her latest essay, which offers us tools to reflect on the common ground of human experience from

an environmentalist perspective on thinking.

Europe as a union of nations was a failure from the outset. With the economic crisis, the Europe of nation states has also collapsed. The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, recently talked of a network of cities: do you think this could be a good model for European relations? 

In principle, yes. It is very important that municipal politics take an approach that goes beyond simply managing the local area and that cities act as a platform for politics on a range of scales. But while I believe that it is vital that they act as a network, it’s not just to come up with a solution to Europe’s problems. In fact, we need to go beyond the Europe that we have built. The main problem with the European project is that it has solely and exclusively been designed from within. It’s pointless to replicate a Europe of cities with the same faults as today’s Europe of nation states: bordered, unified and closed in on itself. Let’s think about ourselves in Southern Europe. Why do we think that Tangiers or Tunisia are politically more distant than Oslo or Vienna? And let’s also think about ourselves transatlantically: the cities of Latin America are closely linked to each other, historically and through networks such as the Latin American Centre for Strategic Urban Development (CIDEU) based in Barcelona. Cities are free to build relations in a way that neither states nor nations are. The downside is that they are very restricted legally. An important battle that must be fought is the fight to conquer new legislative ground for cities.

The idea of city networks brings to mind the idea of collaboration, but in reality it appears that cities compete against each other. 

Municipalism carries a certain ambivalence that needs to be uncovered. City networks have been built on the basis of two opposing rationales: cooperation and competition. Barcelona has a dual nature: it is a leader in the cooperative municipalist tradition but also, in my view, an awful example of a branded city competing in the global marketplace of brands, with price rises and a model based on extractive tourism. Furthermore, brands don’t only compete: they are bought and sold. And Barcelona has lived very well from selling its model around the world.

Let’s move on to the reception of refugees. We’re talking about international problems being solved on the municipal level. Isn’t this an issue that is too big for cities to deal with? 

They are very restricted on a legislative level. But in their capacity to respond and in their conviction, they have been much faster and more effective than states, which are blocked by their own bureaucratic structure and their own vested interests. I’m not in the least bit surprised: where coexistence is more patent and more direct, the response to life-and-death emergencies is more effective.

I like to define cities as places of arrival. They’ve never existed for their own sake: they are dynamic centres that are created with people who come from the countryside and from other countries. City-dwellers are arrivers. If cities deny places of arrival to refugees, we are banishing them from the world.

There is talk of Barcelona taking in 1,200 refugees. Not a lot, when you compare it to the numbers taken in by smaller German cities. 

The Barcelona City Council is rolling out this scheme in opposition to, or regardless of, the Spanish government, while in Germany Chancellor Merkel is heading up the operation and has made it a national policy, serving whichever interests they may be. Then there’s the fact that Barcelona is in a state of social and economic crisis with job insecurity and a housing problem like few other cities in Europe. And we still need to bear in mind the fragility of the Barcelona en Comú government in the city council.

What challenges do the Syrian refugees pose?

They bring the European Union and its member states face to face with their own contradictions. And in Spain, they are opening up an even bigger minefield. We are a border country with a continuous stream of economic migrants. Why should we take in the Syrians and not any of the others? What difference is there between a military war (in the strictest sense of the word) and an economic war, a fight for resources, which makes thousands of people leave their homes in search of more security and better chances of survival? I also wish Barcelona would declare itself a city of refuge given the closure of Ceuta and Melilla. If it did, the idea of a city of refuge would take on a more radical and  more honest political sense that would open up a much more serious debate on what “we” means, on the life spaces we share in an ever more uninhabitable world, on this global war waged by capitalism against humanity. We’ll never solve Barcelona’s problems if we don’t put it into a shared world. 

Europe has been put to shame. 

Totally. It’s not just Fortress Europe that has been put to shame. A complete lack of engagement in a war that is our war has also been revealed. Now is the time for moral scandal, for big gestures and for urgency. But for how long has this war been going on? Which countries are involved in it? Which alliances? Whose weaponry? The war in Syria is our war because it is a World War in miniature. 

The humanitarian commitment to the refugees is a way of covering up the commitments that were not made before. And this reinforces the idea that we had nothing to do with the problem beforehand. We say that the refugees are arriving. But we should switch our perspective and ask ourselves where this situation began and what our relationship is to it. We were already involved in this war when no decision had yet been made on taking in refugees. The Paris attacks were a terrible reminder. We didn’t want to be there and now we are in it up to our necks, by force, by armed force. 

You always speak of commitment as the stage on which we move, and not as a purely voluntary mindset. 

For me, commitment is our essence, our way of being alive. We are also committed in shared situations at every level: biological, social, political… Ontologically speaking, we are committed beings. The thing is that we sidestep this through the different fictional realities that set us apart: the individual, the nation, the state… we create islands, bubbles of non-involvement in our true commitments that undo and neutralize our basic ties to others and to the world.

What are our true commitments?

The ones that link us to others and to the world we share. I stand for the idea that life is not just yours or mine: it is a shared problem. It takes different forms but they come back to a single web of commitments. Disconnecting ourselves, breaking the links to the shared condition of life as a problem, is an act of violence. Being committed is being aware, yes. But this isn’t a mental position, it’s a position one takes with one’s body, one’s life, one’s feelings.

The Thinking I, the World and God: these are the three elements that philosophical tradition has given us in the modern age. How do you explain your ‘we’ in this shared world? 

Taking a stance in a shared world forces us to move, to look all around us and to discover that we are involved. The tradition of Christian Enlightenment saw the world as our stage: God, from the exterior, puts man in the world. When God disappears, the relationship of exteriority between man and the world remains and the world becomes an object of consumption and exploitation. I argue that the world is the set of relationships of which it is made, and this set of relationships makes us what we are. Political thinking involves taking into account this set of relationships that we can think up and build together. They are relationships, so they are by nature dynamic. In other words, we can transform them together. They don’t define us.

What type of subject does this world of interdependency require? 

Not the modern subject, obviously. The whole of 20thcentury philosophy has already made a profound criticism of the subject based on the idea of unity, sovereignty and identity, a subject basically made up of conscience and will. The modern subject is an individual that has been freed from his determinants and his subjection to the world. The 20th century, with its terrible experience of destruction, deepens the subject’s crisis and reads out his death sentence. We now need to get through this crisis, this death, and find out what lies beyond: for example, autonomy, which is not an individual, but a collective attribute. Autonomy is the chance we give ourselves to transform the relationships of which we are made. 

The death of the subject as an opportunity. It seems contradictory, if we remember that the concept of the individual came about precisely as a form of emancipation… 

The category of individual arose in the 16th to 18th centuries as a movement of emancipation in the face of the unquestionable determinants of community of origin, religion or social class. The individual breaks these ties and we get the movement of subtraction that is needed to put values such as equality or freedom into practice. Our challenge is to re-forge the link with others and with institutions without losing the desire for emancipation so characteristic of that early radical modernity. 

Why emancipation? What subjugates us in a modern democracy?

We have discovered other forms of servitude and domination. The individual emancipates himself from the determinants of his background, but is condemned to make himself into a project and an enterprise in order to sell himself in a society that has been turned into a vast market. We find individuals who are just like businesses, in unbridled competition with each other. Heidegger put it like this: the conqueror has been conquered by his conquest. 

In the mid-20th century we could clearly see the drama of the modern subject unfold, this force of power that emancipates himself and then realises he is the destroyer of the world: we had enlightened ourselves, we had freed ourselves, we had killed off God… and we carried on killing each other. Today, we’re not so much killing each other as killing ourselves together. That’s what I explain in Filosofía inacabada.

In the first part of Filosofía inacabada you review the big questions that contemporary philosophy has left open. How do you approach them?

The book was born of the need to go beyond the oft-foretold death of philosophy. I decided to study philosophy in the early nineties, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the end of history went hand-in-hand with the aesthetic and philosophical debate on modernity and post-modernity. We were educated with the experience of an end that involved a two-fold depletion: the end of history and its promise of progress, and the end of systematic models of thinking. The book takes us on a journey around the landscape of thinking. The intention is not to stretch out a story that has been over-told, but to open it up to another experience of the relationship between thinking and the world. It’s not about dragging out the past of a dying philosophy but about opening ourselves up to the present of an unfinished philosophy. 

You define unfinished philosophy as a radical philosophy. How can a provisional philosophy be radical? 

“Radical” describes the willingness to question the paradigms and prejudices that govern us. So radicalness necessarily opens up and unfinishes the realities we think we know and recognise. It gives us other perspectives and exposes us to consequences that may even be unforeseen. Radicalness can never be sure of reality: it opens up provisional worlds. 

What do you mean when you say that for philosophy, the body has always been a corpse? What relationship with the body do you vindicate?

In the West, we have been dominated by a certain duality that puts the mind, the soul or the conscience at the centre of our understanding of reality, of knowledge and of our experience of truth. The body has been relegated to a supporting role, a machine or, as Plato said in one of his Dialogues, a tomb from which we ought to escape. This doesn’t mean that all philosophy has been dualistic and anticorporal, especially in recent decades. At least since Nietzsche there is a demand for incorporating the body into our thinking, for listening to its reasons and understanding ourselves as thinking bodies. I hope that this turnaround in our thinking doesn’t just amount to words and more writing about the body, but that it involves thinking from the body.

From Nietzsche to Jean Luc Nancy, the second part of the essay is a dialogue with twenty-six 20th-century thinkers, but they are all European or American. How should we read this, from the decentralised perspective of the West that you propose?

The 20th century, up to the point I track it, represents the culmination of Eurocentrism (even of North American culture) and of the colonial perspective on the building of a global world. Up to the late 20th century, we were not aware of the loss of centrality of western culture. From then on, the world started to reconfigure itself into a multipolar structure, although this wasn’t necessarily more just or more egalitarian. Europe has become provincial. What I am looking for in the major thinking of the 20th century is the self-criticism of the Western tradition. If we are reading it right, 20th-century philosophy is both a cry of pain about its own heritage and a very rich tool box for seeking out new alliances with other sources and paradigms of thinking. 

To create new concepts and ontologies from the shared world perspective, you say we need to change the national/cultural map, which closes identities and their ideas of the world into units under Western domination. How can we do this?

I propose an environmentalist notion of thinking that replaces the historicist and culturalist notions. The former tells us that there is only one history of philosophy with a single meaning and a single horizon. The latter tells us that each ethnic or national culture has its own philosophy. I believe that thinking depends on contexts that either foster or hinder the possibilities of a radical and creative experience of the truth. On the Iberian Peninsula we have grown up in an environment that, historically, has been averse to philosophy. How can we foster contexts that encourage thinking? What conditions are required? Today, from the point of view of ecosystemic wealth (which doesn’t see philosophy as history but as inconstant diversity) is it possible to think of the shared pool of human experience? The premise of Filosofía inacabada is “yes”. It is not just possible, but necessary. 

New perspectives on public space

© Maria Corte

The way public space has been managed over the last fifteen years has been a reflection of the policies that have defined the life of our city. This dossier goes over some of the architectural and urban solutions applied, which haven’t always responded adequately to the challenges posed by housing, mobility, urban sprawl and de-industrialisation.

The abuse of mortgage loans and the scarcity of public housing projects have made access to housing difficult for large sectors of the population. In some neighbourhoods, the phenomenon of gentrification has expelled the traditional inhabitants.

Mobility is key in order to rethink productive models. Vehicles occupy an excessive amount of space in our streets and are killing Barcelona, which is already one of the most polluted cities in Europe.

Barcelona is also being polarized between tourists and citizens. Even if tourism is inevitable, the city needs to be liveable. Changes to the productive model and its consequences for the industrial fabric encourage us to consider how we can re-industrialize our city, and what role public spaces need to have in the system of production and consumption.

The architects that participate in this dossier ask that urbanism solve existing problems instead of creating new ones, and they offer proposals that place people at the centre once again. They also ask that the democratisation of the city include sustainability, memory, redistribution, and the participation of citizens in demanding accountability.

In support of city planning that puts people at the centre

Housing for the elderly on the Passeig d’Urrutia in Nou Barris.
© Vicente Zambrano

Barcelona is expelling the working class from the city centre to the periphery. Gentrification and urban sprawl are two results of a single process that must be actively counteracted, as they take us away from a city model that is more mixed and compact, and consequently more just and sensible.

Now that Barcelona is embarking on a new political era, one cannot help but wonder what kind of urban development project it needs. By now, the “city of marvels” should have learned that city planning and politics are inextricably linked. The very meaning of the words are rooted in the city streets and show us that, more than a simple question of aesthetics, architecture and city planning also have an ethical dimension. Too often, evaluations of the Agbar Tower or the Hotel Vela have consisted in simply answering the question “do you like it?” However, a political take on city planning is as necessary as achieving a balance in planning policy. The transformation of the city can just as easily be a democratic tool as a weapon used in the abuse of power. And over decades of ups and downs, Barcelona has been an example of both. We have witnessed how urban reform can be put at the service of corruption, speculation, privatisation, segregation and waste: but we need it to face the environmental and economic challenges that lie ahead.

For too long, city planning has disguised its political nature, but politics can no longer underestimate its task of city development. To be clear: technocracy has been the governing force in Barcelona. Experts and the powers that be have made top-down decisions, ignoring the needs of the people. To the bewilderment of many of our institutions, grass-roots movements have had to take the lead in response to the mayhem caused by the boom and bust of the property market and of tourism. It appears that activism has now taken the City Council, to govern it from the “bottom up” and for the “common good”.However, how does that translate into planning policy? 

A bike lane on the Passeig de Sant Joan.
© Vicente Zambrano

To start with, we need to have a more empathetic view of the social fabric that lives in the urban fabric. To stop looking at it from above as though it were a chessboard (not to say a Monopoly board) with criss-crossing strategies that are too complex for the city dwellers to understand. This distanced perspective has stopped technocratic city planning seeing something that residents experience first-hand, that Barcelona is expelling the working class from the centre out to the periphery. Gentrification and urban sprawl are two results of a single process that must be actively counteracted, as it takes us away from a city model that is more mixed and compact, and consequently more just and sensible. City planning carried out from a pedestrian’s horizontal point of view would have noticed the effects of this centrifugal dynamic that seriously damages the four spheres of everyday city life. It was not hard to know what these spheres were: every morning, we leave the place in which we live (housing) to travel (mobility) to a place where we earn or spend money (production and consumption) and then, if all goes well, we devote some time to leisure, culture or social participation (spaces of citizenship). Housing, mobility, places of production and consumption and spaces of citizenship are four fundamental areas that have been overlooked, and even abused, by the city planning format of the recent past. 

When it comes to housing, there can be little doubt at this stage that things have been done very poorly. In order to shake off the grey heritage of Francoism, Barcelona turned public space into a vessel for the young democracy; yet the domestic space remained in the hands of the market. By actively encouraging mortgage borrowing and creating a scarce supply of public, central and rental developments, we now have a landscape full of homeless people and people-less homes. Not only is the Catalan capital far from guaranteeing the right to a home, it is also facing a housing crisis that is attacking our right to a city. Paradoxically, the embellishment of squares and streets has made the surrounding apartments more expensive and pushed out the residents that are most deserving of these public redistribution actions. Staying out in the street and not crossing the thresholds of homes has been a mistake that may cost us as dearly as “getting pretty” and then going out without a coat. 

The mobility side of things does not come out of this analysis very well either. We earmarked the biggest part of the Olympic budget for the ring roads, a Pharaonic piece of infrastructure that allows more cars to enter Barcelona every day than Manhattan and that has made us one of the most polluted cities in Europe. Once it had been expropriated and dug up, this public channel devoted solely to private vehicles missed the opportunity to create a metro line around the city. Years later, this led us to start work on Line 9, an even more Pharaonic project that we do not even know if we can finish or pay for. At the end of the day, the density that is such a feature of Barcelona and that makes it so easy to move around on foot or by public transport also means that it is more vulnerable to the impact of traffic and that more people are revving away from it towards the greener suburbs. 

The production and consumption that make a city what it is have also jumped ship. Globalisation has taken industry away to distant places where it is much cheaper to exploit workers and the environment. The factories that once attracted such a big workforce to Barcelona are as unemployed as their workers. When the city started to ask itself how to earn a living, it was trying to be clever, instead of intelligent. For example, it got the idea of planting casinos on the farmland of the Llobregat and expected millions of euros and thousands of jobs to rain down on it. However, as we know, with this kind of city planning, it never rains, but it pours. Meanwhile, globalisation was also replacing small shops with franchises that give nothing to the everyday life of the local community. The streets of the city centre are now easily mistaken for a shopping mall and on the outskirts there is an abundance of hypermarkets and vast retail spaces that incite irresponsible consumerism, waste, use of private transport, job insecurity and the concentration of wealth into very few pockets. 

Fira d’Economia Solidària [Solidarity Economy Fair], which took place in October 2015 at the Fabra i Coats space in Sant Andreu.
© Vicente Zambrano

Finally, the public spaces where leisure and culture were to flourish as vehicles for social change, critical debate and democratic participation, now feed the last industry that is possible: mass tourism. We have already lost La Rambla, Port Vell and Park Güell. As the streets care less for their citizens than for their customers, they are filled with mechanisms to shoo away the poor and become more exclusive and excluding, more at the service of profit and luxury than of equal access and free movement. Excessive rules and regulations suffocate spontaneous expression and criminalise any protest, while giving wings to commercial propaganda, social control and a strong presence of the powers that be. Iconic museums have been opened while funding for existing arts venues has been cut; the management and use of public facilities have been handed over to private companies while self-managed social spaces have been emptied and demolished. The long and the short of it is that clientelism has gained ground over citizens. 

Although city planning has mistreated these four fundamental spheres, whether we like it or not, it still holds the key to putting them right. Barcelona needs more affordable housing and fewer private vehicles, more places where many little hands can earn a living and more spaces where citizens can get involved, express themselves and be empowered. And all this involves a type of city planning that puts people at the centre. Putting them at the centre, physically speaking, means letting the working class repopulate the mixed, compact neighbourhoods from which they have been pushed out by the market. Putting people at the centre, politically speaking, means involving citizens in decision-making, so that they stop being affected by technocratic city planning and become the protagonists and beneficiaries of democratic city planning. 

If the city is a paella, housing is its rice

A meeting of participants in the La Borda cooperative project, at Can Batlló.
Cristina Gamboa / La Borda

It’s time to start cooking. Let’s mix some cooperative approaches with views on gender and typological experiments, social policies with legal opportunities, and environmental awareness with countercultural and anti-regulatory efforts.

We have a housing problem. It concerns the right to housing. Buying a house is the most important investment we ever make. It uses up most of what we earn. Housing is essential to our identity because the home provides a shelter for our other rights: if I’m not registered as a resident, I can’t vote; if I don’t have anywhere to shower I can’t look for work; if I don’t have a place to sleep, how can I possibly establish relationships? If houses are just goods, how are housing rights possible? How can we even contemplate our right to the city?

We have a problem regarding the lack of transparency and accuracy of information on housing. Houses and our ability to fall into debt by buying one is one of the main measures of the country’s wealth and national solvency. Housing is the new gold standard. The information we dispose of is contradictory and scarce. Moreover, the data we do have is devastating.

The cooperative Sostre Civic program, at Carrer Princesa 49.
Foto: Jordi Gómez / Adriana Mas

A third of families in Barcelona live in rented accommodation and two thirds are homeowners, but almost all of these properties are on the free market. Social housing constitutes less than 1.6%. This would not be a problem if the market were self-regulating and it covered citizens’ needs, but the economic crisis has shown that the market only regulates in favour of the wealthiest members of society. Moreover, when the market is at its greediest, this 1.6% proves inadequate in meeting the requirements of those who have been pushed out of the market.

In short, more than half a million people have been evicted in Spain since 2008. It represents the Spanish equivalent to the 5 million people who were evicted as a result of the American subprime crisis. Among all Spanish cities, Barcelona is home to the most evictees, and the neighbourhood with the most evictees is Ciutat Meridiana. Half a million is a lot of people with their bags piled up on the pavement, equating to the size of the largest Spanish provincial capitals. They represent 500,000 units of pain and despair: 500,000 units of anguish who have lost the will to live. We have a housing problem, with our social services up to their ears because State welfare arrives late, if at all. Our healthcare services have collapsed, with an influx of illnesses linked to the lack of housing and mental health conditions brought on by fear. And this is the same healthcare system that is undergoing cuts and privatisation. 

We have a housing problem in Barcelona because there are 3,000 people sleeping rough whose only place to turn to is a volunteer-run and insufficient shelter network. It should not be this way. Barcelona is a wealthy city. 

We have a serious housing problem because what was meant to be a refuge has turned into a shipwreck.

The local authorities, so quick to launch big schemes, have proved to be sluggish in their attempts to solve the problem. Both the media and political neglect are responsible. Years of rhetoric from boards, desks, observatories, committees, departments, directorates, drives, councils, offices and even ministries – which there have been – devoted to housing. There is not much rice and it has been stirred. Stirred rice is spoiled rice. 

But all is not lost. There are five different areas of housing proposals that offer solutions. Firstly, there are proposals from the solidarity economy. Two experiments are underway in Barcelona: La Borda and Sostre Cívic, at Can Batlló and on Carrer de la Princesa, respectively. They propose the cession of use cooperative model as a housing solution that will allow people to settle, i.e. enrol their children in school or change their bathroom tiles, without unleashing the little speculator we all have inside us. This is no invention. The Andel cooperative model has been proven in Scandinavia, with ratios of up to 30% of the housing stock (Copenhagen). You might think this is a solution for the wealthiest countries. Well, it is not. In Montevideo, Uruguay, the model has been applied with a rate of 4%. 

A squatted building.

We have grassroots and counterculture proposals. The okupa squatter movement, spelt with a “k”, is a political phenomenon in response to an abusive market and it has been violently repressed in Spain. It would be impossible to conceive experiments such as London’s Bonnington Square or Copenhagen’s Christiania in Catalonia because the repressive mechanisms of local authorities are merciless. Spanish legislation places private property rights above other rights that affect the masses. In spite of all this, fortunately, the okupa and self-management housing collectives denounce speculators with their actions, as well as those who look down on and neglect their city and neighbours.

The Arrels Foundation’s Pis Zero project.

Moreover, there are proposals regarding social policies. The Arrels Foundation’s “Pis Zero” (Zero Apartment) offers a response to the reality faced by long-term street dwellers which overcomes the confines of only relatively effective welfare mechanisms. The “Arquitectes de Capçalera” initiative recovers the architect’s social role through a professional call to arms in response to emergency situations. These proposals go beyond the American Housing First approach, which has also been adopted in Australia, France, Canada and Finland. 

There are also proposals regarding sustainability and materials. Building with sustainable materials and holding workshops on the energy usage and maintenance of buildings provide strategies for fighting fuel poverty. The 2014 International Solar Decathlon award marked a turning point in the way in which housing is thought about in terms of its most important function: to provide actual shelter. The most interesting aspect of the competition’s most recent edition is not the winning piece’s technological capacity to be built and to function with virtually no environmental footprint, which it does. The best part is that it directly criticises the idea of a detached single family home as a model of urban growth. Single family homes are incompatible with the idea of a sustainable city. The Vallès School of Architecture (ETSAV) submitted the Ressò project, which won the first prize for innovation with a solar community house for social rehabilitation.

Image from the Vallès School of Architecture (ETSAV)’s Ressò sustainable community architecture project, the winner of the innovation prize in the 2014 international Solar Decathlon.
Foto: Sandra Prat

Lastly, we have proposals based on architectural form. France has moved ahead with densification projects in its suburban housing estates. It is no coincidence that housing initiatives coexist alongside an economic experiment within the one culture that has proposed theoretical alternatives to savage capitalism with the most editorial success. The essays published by _Export Barcelona on new residential architecture are extremely useful for moving forward. The “Casa sense Gènere” (Gender-Neutral House), a product of avant-garde feminist architecture, demonstrates the deceptive rationale of modern typologies. Designed by and for men, hierarchal spatial distributions actively disregard household chores through narrow, out-of-the-way kitchens that require women to work with their backs turned to their families, and tiny laundry rooms that are incompatible with domestic harmony. The Rehabitar research team reminds us of the benefits of a thick, mixed urban fabric and, like the feminist architects, demands housing that promotes equality and enables the home to adapt to changes in the family dynamic that occur over time. 

Image from the Vallès School of Architecture (ETSAV)’s Ressò sustainable community architecture project, the winner of the innovation prize in the 2014 international Solar Decathlon.
Foto: Sandra Prat

The five different proposals could lead to a city project that overcomes the housing dystopia with real, proven situations. Not one of them falls into the “smart city” trap, which is the town planning equivalent of using deodorant without showering. They are five consistent ingredients, constituting sustenance, not cosmetics. These are the five projects that bind the rice to the bottom of the paella. 

There are different interpretations regarding the etymological meaning of the word paella. The majority point to the Latin word patella, which describes a pan with two handles. Some defend its Valencian origin: from the Catalan words plat, platell and platella. In old and Latin American Spanish there is also the word paila, which is a large and fairly shallow metal pot. 

However, the hypothesis that best suits the purpose of this article upholds that the origin of paella is baqiyah, an Arabic word meaning “food leftover from the day before”. It is the most suitable theory because it steps away from the idea of the container and focuses on its contents. The contents are the leftovers, what is there. At home, food is not discarded – people make the most of what they have. The same thing should happen in the city, which is everybody’s home. The city of the future has already been built: this is it. 

Let’s not overcook the rice 

The Torre Via Júlia social housing project, included in the “Export Barcelona. Social housing in context” travelling exhibit, which includes twenty social proposals by Catalan architects.
This exhibit is one of the invents included in the second edition of the Cities
Connection Project.
Foto: Vicente Zambrano

It’s time to start cooking. Let’s mix some cooperative approaches with views on gender and typological experiments, social policies with legal opportunities, and environmental awareness with countercultural and anti-regulatory efforts. Urban planning has an inherent ability to bring these mixtures together and turn them into reality. However, doing so requires clear political will and a perspective capable of confronting important matters without abandoning urgent ones. To start with, projects should be carried out on a limited number of well-chosen sites. Approaching public housing policies solely on the basis of quantitative welfare logic is unrealistic. The location within the city is key, and harmony between the housing and the public space, absolutely vital.

The idea is to generate small-scale social housing and rented accommodation, in developments of two, four and twelve units, on sites that make the most of the city as it is now, by following the logic of the three Vs: value, visibility and viability. These places of opportunity exist within the compact city: narrow buildings against solid dividing walls; height extensions to existing constructions that rush through planning permission; and interstitial housing units. It is a question of taking advantage of scuffs in the urban fabric and being in contact with infrastructures. Moreover, there are places of opportunity along coastlines and riverbanks, as well as existing roads. 

It also involves making the most of a productive framework that has been crippled by the economic crisis: small developers, construction-based trades, the 50% youth unemployment rate. 

Can Caralleu social housing project, included in the “Export Barcelona. Social housing in context” travelling exhibit, which includes twenty social proposals by Catalan architects.
Foto: Vicente Zambrano

It’s about making more with less, on an experimental basis, so that constraints and legislative contradictions may be overcome. The elements must fit in with the existing neighbourhoods and encourage income diversity through a variety of types of homes, as well as different prices and access mechanisms to suit the incomes and life plans of their occupiers. 

The idea is to start by organising joint binding tenders with equal conditions for small businesses, in which it is imperative that older professionals work alongside young people. They have to be a sum of tenders, the reward for which is coordinated implementation, which overcome the conventional “competitiveness” and “excellence” formula in favour of collaboration and diverse disciplines. 

By doing it this way, adopting the strategy of an urban orthodontics team that is going to fill, restore and salvage units or fit a “crown” or “implant” at most, we will be able to go about creating a social housing stock of rental properties that can mitigate the extremes of the market. Anything else is like a set of dentures against the delicate natural landscape surrounding the city. 

We have put in too many shellfish. Paellas shouldn’t have so many molluscs. That would be a seafood platter. Our dentures have gotten caught on the leg of a lobster. We need to add more rice. And we cannot just add it around the edges like a side of boiled rice. The rice absorbs the flavour of the ingredients from the depths of the paella and distributes it between the diners. That is where its democratic power lies.

Can Travi social housing project, included in the “Export Barcelona. Social housing in context” travelling exhibit, which includes twenty social proposals by Catalan architects.
Foto: Vicente Zambrano

Collective yes, and collective to the limit

The Plaça de les Glòries, a problematic public space. Time will show if it works well and if the administrative decisions taken were correct.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

Few European metropolises have been able, as Barcelona has, to connect urban renewal with a transformation in their social and public life. Teeming with metaphors and narratives, the success of our renewed democracy was radically based on the transformation of the raw material of the city where social life took shape; its public and collective spaces.

Firstly, there was a massive creation of public spaces (parks and squares, beaches and seafronts) on which to build and give shape to easily identifiable meanings and references, where the novelty of space and its physical quality were easily accepted by the public and were to foreshadow the physical appearance and the expectations of urban renewal. Secondly, the ability of the community to “contaminate” and take possession of the very character of private spaces (places and buildings), giving them a new collective meaning, helped to create a city with a greater wealth of places and complexity of meanings. As Manuel de Solà-Morales said, the force in this duality consisted of “urbanising the private, in other words, turning it into part of the public sphere”. The mixed-use building of L’Illa Diagonal, where the ground floor merges with the pavement, was to exemplify this idea.

The ability of the public space/collective space duality to transform has been irregular, because neither the availability of physical space nor the city planning objectives have been consistent over time. The creation of squares and parks that were such a feature of the early years of democracy resulted from the opportunity and the availability of

spaces in which to give material form to the transformation: obsolete factories and large chunks relocated to the outskirts, spaces that were the result of local government planning and existing sites to be redeveloped.

In the absence of an overall model, the coherence of the architectural narrative also gave cohesion to the image of public space redevelopment, above and beyond the specifics of each context and the particular wishes of each place, and we saw the birth of what architectural literature applauded as “Barcelona Public Space”.

L’Illa Diagonal, a successful example of public appropriation of a private space thanks to a design that’s permeable to urban movement.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

Additionally, the evolution of the council structure and the gradual subdivision of city authorities over the last two decades, together with the unfolding of the metropolitan mosaic (“a city of cities”, “the city of neighbourhoods”) and the new sensitivity towards communities, neighbourhoods and citizens, have often led to public space projects being simplified, paradoxically in favour of grass-roots architecture. The proliferation of little spots, spaces inside street blocks and squares full of subjectivity and personality, exemplifies architecture’s new role. What gives these spaces such a different tone is not their design or specific features, nor their inherent and necessary sensitivity to citizens and neighbours, but the autonomy of the land to the detriment of the relationship between things.

Once the gaps have been used up and the holes in the city have been filled, the transformed infrastructure creates greater urban opportunities where the distance between infrastructure and public space projects becomes even more apparent. The covered sections of Ronda del Mig and Travessera de Dalt and the recent redevelopment of Plaça de Lesseps are great examples of this limited methodology. The contribution to the dynamics of the city and its social success become “suburban”, in that they have minimal capacity to create general urban meanings and to capture collective imagination. Any comparison to the major infrastructure transformations that took place in the eighties (Moll de la Fusta, Ronda de Dalt, Trinitat), when infrastructure and public space were both the subjects of the same line of thinking, can only consolidate this perception. 

The transformation of Plaça de les Glòries plays a direct role in this debate. Despite the titanic efforts of local government and the exemplary work of architects and engineers, the patent lack of connection between the underground hustle and bustle (packed with metro lines, train tracks and road tunnels) and the square itself decreases any mutual awareness between the surface and underground. A central space or a hub of connectivity? It could be both, or neither. The way the built space actually behaves will determine whether the authorities made the right decisions or not. 

New thinking on the collective space 

Given this situation, the collective space re-emerges as a new territory to explore, with blurred and highly ambiguous borders and as yet no precise model. If in the nineties, the notion of collective space anticipated community ownership of private property as a civilising act, the noughties brought a broader notion that looks at the exclusive nature of the public sphere.

In parallel to this, the emergence of a significant group of new urban features, both public facilities and private buildings, puts forward models that deliberately question the strict dividing lines between public and private. Some of them are originally public buildings, such as art factories (Fabra i Coats in Barcelona, Matadero in Madrid, Kaapeli in Helsinki and Space in London), where art cooperatives are mixed with housing and communities and citizens stop being passive actors for entertainment’s sake and collectively become the living protagonists of the space. 

When it comes to the private arena, the way work spaces have mutated (Repsol Campus in Madrid, Red Bull in London) foresees forms of production without fixed spaces, organised, where the basic work structures are defined on the basis of collaboration and cooperation. 

In line with their more urban nature, initiatives such as the NDSM wharf, the Hallen district and the Kromhouthal in Amsterdam are bringing the idea of on-going participation to neighbourhoods, homes and free spaces, where fusion and creativity are blurring the original community framework and giving it a stronger collective character. 

The results have some interesting characteristics. The ownership of the space is ambiguous – neither obviously public nor private – and there is a promiscuous combination of uses and spaces. By shifting social change to public spaces as universally accessible urban locations, they become places for exchange, relationships and production, quite different from their peaceful, neutral image. Heterogeneous in its layout, both individuals and groups come together in the public space, shattering the idea of it as a bucolic place for leisure and turning it into a place for doing things, and for doing them together. 

This evokes a new line of thinking and proposals that reclaims the best aspects of public space and contemporary features to reinforce citizens’ ownership of them, going beyond the communitarian view (the space as a resource for subjective communities) and intensifying the collective view (the space as a resource for anonymous and different individuals). In other words, that which recent urban theory defines as a space’s information, production and participation capacity. In a space that has been redefined like this, people necessarily leave behind their role as passive spectators and become actors.

As Manuel de Solà-Morales predicted, the collective space constitutes the future wealth of cities. The social shift, the need to redefine new models of production, the changes to the urban models (from housing to amenities) all predict that the collective factor will burst onto the stage as the key argument in the cities of the future. And not just as the crosspollution of spheres and spaces, but as the multiplication and in-depth intensification of a social change. Collective yes, and collective to the limit. 

Overcoming the boundaries of the street

Park Güell, an example of how the “museumization” of the city can end up expelling everyday life from its spaces.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The “museumization” of a city means that the ordinary space used for everyday and community life turns into a place where everything is for entertainment and consumption. However, these two uses do not have to be mutually exclusive; a balance needs to be achieved.

In 1748 Giambattista Nolli published the Pianta Grande di Roma, a map of the city that was different from those produced hitherto, which were usually a set of pictorial representations of important buildings (similar to the tourist maps of today). What is fascinating about Nolli’s map is not just its accuracy, but the way in which it depicts the city. All the private buildings are shaded with hatching, distinguishing them from the public space, which is white, leaving the streets and squares perfectly defined in the urban fabric. To this white space, Nolli also added detailed ground plans of all the churches, chapels and cloisters, as well as internal courtyards, passageways and porticoes. This is how Nolli extended the idea of public space, making it encompass all places for meeting and worship as well as semi-public areas where people were free to walk. His gesture placed public buildings within a context and made it easier to understand the city as an organic system of parts.

Let’s think for a moment about what Barcelona would be like if we followed Nolli’s approach. To the avenues, boulevards and squares, we would add the other social spaces: public facilities. Municipal libraries, public markets, civic, cultural, and sports centres, public schools (and their playgrounds), and art factories. This way, we would understand the city’s public spaces not only as the unbuilt remainder, but as a much more complex structure that organises and stimulates community life. Let’s borrow a metaphor from biology: the streets and avenues are the arteries and veins, while the public facilities are the motor organs that stimulate circulation, movement and life in the city. In this drawing, you would be able to see the distribution of the facilities throughout the city and note how the streets and squares are, in reality, the vestibules and thresholds that link community spaces.

Pianta Grande di Roma by Giambattista Nolli, a map that, for the first time, presented the city as an organic system, revealing the relationship between public and private spaces. 
Photo: Wikimedia

It may seem slightly trivial to use an 18th-century method to study the urban shape of Barcelona, but it is a classic method in urban development analyses. In the 1970s, American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown used Nolli’s method to analyse the spatial richness of the Las Vegas Strip. In this case, to the city’s main street were added the lobbies of hotels and casinos that visitors to the city can freely access even if they are not staying there. This results in the expansion of the street; instead of being considered as a space for traffic bounded by vertical planes, it extends through the ground floors that are in contact with it.

Unlike the map that would be drawn of Barcelona, which aims to show the community structure, the Las Vegas map shows that it is a space built to attract tourists, with consumption in mind. The US city deploys all the potential of its symbolic features, posters and neon lights to persuade visitors, as if it were a huge fair full of attractions.

Incomplete city maps 

The application of the Nolli methodology to Las Vegas is an example of a space meant to attract tourists and encourage consumption.
Photo: Eva Guillamet

However, despite the fact that the Barcelona map would show us the city of the people and the Las Vegas map, the city of consumers, both are incomplete. The Las Vegas map does not explain how to live in the city; we do not know anything about the lifestyle of its inhabitants who, we should imagine, live behind that big lit-up showcase. Likewise, our Barcelona map would not show anything that is for the rest of the world. In other words, the Sagrada Família cathedral, the FC Barcelona Museum, the courtyards of La Pedrera and the vast majority of attractions that “illustrate” the maps for tourists would not appear in our drawing. These maps show a Barcelona that is parallel to the one in which its residents live; they are often distorted maps that only highlight the “points of interest” drawn in an easily recognisable way (like those old maps of Rome), while the rest of the city is a uniform, uninteresting mass.

In the early 20th century, Georg Simmel defined the figure of the stranger – someone who arrives today and stays tomorrow – to refer to immigrants who come from abroad and stay to live among us. The tourism of the 21st century is a phenomenon that has little to do with immigration. Immigrants appear in the census statistics – both the documented and the undocumented. They establish themselves, they create ties with the community, either by grouping together with others who are similar to them or by mixing in with the great mass of nationalities and origins of the modern metropolis. Tourists, on the other hand, arrive but do not stay. They look but they do not participate. For tourists, the city is a show, an object to be observed or experienced as a simulation of what it could mean to live in the city as a local.

Tourists arrive and become part of the city’s flow – with their maps full of icons – but, as in any ecosystem, invasive species can either be integrated or they can disrupt the internal balance by destroying the original system.

The “museumization” of a city means that the ordinary space used for everyday and community life turns into a place far removed from everyday activity, where everything is for entertainment and consumption. The emblematic buildings and tourist attractions that were once part of the structure of the public and urban system are thus decontextualized and placed in the category of the exceptional: the everyday becomes impossible. A case in point is Park Güell. The need to limit the influx of visitors due to the astronomical number of tourists ended up necessitating a way to regulate access, turning the park into a closed, impermeable space where the free movement of the city’s inhabitants has been practically suspended.

In an ideal situation, the everyday and the exceptional would coexist – with their internal tensions and their occasional minor imbalances – in a continual interplay in which the two ways of understanding the urban space would complement each other.

However, far from overlapping with and completing the ordinary, everyday city, the city of consumption and entertainment has ended up invading it by disrupting the balance of life. In the Ciutat Vella district, at the same time as the number of residents is falling, apartments for tourists – that floating population – are multiplying exponentially. Tourists are the strangers who are here today and gone tomorrow. Or rather, those who are here today and tomorrow have a different face and a different accent. A floating population does not stay or establish itself; there is no possibility of integration or addition, and therefore the social and community structure ends up being useless. The city of entertainment demands for itself places and forms that have little to do with the everyday city. The two cities do not have to be mutually exclusive, however. It would be necessary to achieve a balance, a sustainability that would allow us to return to that state of grace in which there is literally “room for everything”.

Beyond the shop windows and façades

© Maria Corte

The “Barcelona model” was founded with the aim of creating a more just city by improving public space and the urban landscape. After thirty years, the shiny surface conceals urgent issues created by a neglected housing policy. 

Barcelona is a dense city, made out of the sum of small parts, both private and public, and most of its neighbourhoods are very diverse. Its small scale, its diversity and its high density are features that explain many of its advantages: it is a city on a human scale, a city that values proximity. It is “the smallest big city or the biggest small city”. These features are also key factors when explaining the challenges it faces: the housing crisis, environmental problems, mobility and the domination of the big over the small, the global over the local, the specialist over the diverse, the “exclusive” (and therefore excluding) over the inclusive and thus shared and cooperative.

Its “almost big” size gives it the muscle it needs to face metropolitan and regional challenges and the specific challenges of being a capital, and its “almost small” size give it flexibility, diversity and agility in local policy-making. The blurring of the lines between these two conditions has often led to unsustainable imbalances which the powers that be attempt to correct with measures that provide no solutions, neither quantitative nor qualitative. But above and beyond quantity and quality, the challenge is to identify who benefits and who and what is put at the centre of the municipal policies from which everything else stems.

The “Barcelona model” that allowed the city to “make itself beautiful” or “be the best shop in the world” insisted that we would achieve a more just city by improving public space and the urban landscape of shops and façades. In the eighties, we were told that we first needed to conquer the public space by pedestrianizing squares and cleaning façades and that, little by little, this “positive metastasis” would end up improving homes and communities. Thirty years later, the reality is different. Over time, this “from the outside in” strategy has been accentuated and has created a city of shop windows and clean façades that conceal urgent problems deriving from the neglect of local government housing policy. The consequences of this lack of attention are alarming. Today, Barcelona has more than thirty thousand families on the waiting list for a home that they can afford, three thousand homeless (nine hundred of whom are sleeping rough), a 10% increase in families in fuel poverty, ten evictions per day, countless empty flats, a type of housing stock that doesn’t match the demand, a system of occupancy still stuck in ownership and rental, and a ratio of social housing under 4%, a ridiculous and unjust amount for a city that exports its urban model around the world.

We continue to repair streets, squares and avenues, improving the image and the performance of a type of commerce and tourism that does indeed benefit many people but that is also gentrifying no few neighbourhoods.

We often say that Barcelona is dying of success. This oxymoron leads to another that is hard to digest and that focuses the debate on the issue of urban regeneration: “improvements make things worse” or, at least, this kind of cosmetic improvement often leads to ethical imbalances, pushing the people they were supposed to benefit out of these neighbourhoods and making their lives worse.

Some people defend positive gentrification, which consists of bringing about transformations that involve a certain degree of social infiltration to promote greater diversity. But a city as small and fragile as Barcelona must watch the perverse economic processes that go with improvements very closely (or even better, from the inside), mapping and, in particular, controlling the abuses of power that arise. Barcelona cannot allow itself to lose neighbourhoods, but in the last four years Ciutat Vella has seen 45% of its inhabitants leave. And if an urgent solution is not found, soon even the tourists will stop coming to this counterfeit city, which more than ever is just a spectre and a stage set of the city they were looking for.

A baseline strategy to improve the neighbourhoods and keep gentrification in check must involve much more social housing and a meticulously executed map of what lies inside this city. Because social housing is not just about building. It also means improving the housing and living conditions of residents, rehabilitating communities and bringing in forms of urban recycling. It means thinking about the city from the inside out, putting people (the ones that are already there) and everyday amenities at the centre of municipal policies, and promoting this kind of positive metastasis that has to link everything together. Starting with the people and ending in the city, and not the other way around as we have been doing recently. 

Barcelona can grow, but it has to grow from within, improving the living conditions of neighbourhoods without pushing out the people who are already there. To do this, we urgently need to re-think the disproportionate amount of space given over to private transport and reclaim it for highquality community use. This will have a positive impact on families’ health and increased life expectancy resulting from improved air quality, less noise pollution, etc. Decisionmaking needs to shift level when planning new strategies to discourage the use of private transport and give strong backing to high-quality, faster, more affordable and convenient public transport, so that the entire city and metropolitan area is included. Public attention has to switch its priorities to pedestrians: this is vital for implementing the right housing policy, based on the idea that housing is not limited to a mortgage payer’s four walls. My home is also the landing in the stairwell, the entrance hall, the street, the café on the square and the tram stop. If my home is also the city, we should be able to renegotiate the amount of cars that are parked there or that pollute the neighbourhood en route to somewhere else. This negotiation is urgent because of the scandalous figure of 60% of the city’s public space being hijacked by vehicles, when only 15% of our journeys are made by private vehicle. 

It is essential that we identify the whats (housing and mobility) but it’s even more important to identify the hows.The city should be researching and trying out new methods of participation with which to pilot different forms of activism, trying to reach consensus among technicians and citizens, experts and users, public and private players, large and small, past and future…, from every possible dimension. The priority must be to reach an integrated overview of the issues: we need to create meeting and consensus platforms and launch pilot projects that give a voice to groups who might otherwise be marginalised. We’ve spent too many years making citizen participation a repetitive and adulterated mechanism for justifying processes or, what is worse, for reaching consensus without any depth or risk-taking. The new Council team is, in the majority, made up of activists that know, and have tried out in their own platforms, new and brilliant methods of empowerment and participation. These processes should be scalable and applicable to the whole city, to demonstrate that one can “govern by obeying” with creativity and ambition.

There is a broad spectrum of urgent issues and they are often justified quantitatively with a sudden multiplication of official openings and inaugurations in pre-electoral periods. There are promises to put an end to deficits and to excesses, but as time goes on, the solutions tend to be oversimplified and short cuts are found that skirt around the complexity and the diversity of the original problems. The Barcelona of the future is already built, but the future of its people is not. Urgent issues are not solved with a single brushstroke, or in a single place or following a single short cut. More than ever, we need to take risks and, as soon as possible, test out multiple responses to multiple challenges, to overcome the technical difficulties and political minorities with creativity and drive. 

A quantum leap for the notion of public space

© Maria Corte

Public leadership is needed to mark out the areas to be transformed in the future, to set aside the location and to start designing these public spaces. This is what will ensure that this space will become an important part of the city.

We must not lose our hope of building a better city: the biggest challenge facing us when it comes to the public spaces of the future is to be ambitious; ambitious in the sense of creating a vision of the city that is not obvious, a vision that is therefore controversial. I believe that Barcelona has inherent, major problems that do not even feature on the agenda of local political parties. We have to be ambitious collectively and this in itself poses a challenge, because we tend to be extremely conservative when it comes to urban issues and we generally only reach a consensus when we all join forces behind a “no”. We need to build a collective intelligence in the city: one that suggests, encourages and applies a vision of the future. Complex and initially brave arguments are often used to find clichés that trivialise the debate, thereby justifying intellectual stagnation and a lack of foresight. To propose is to innovate, to act against “how it has always been done”, and this leads to reticence. City planning is a profession exposed to this, but the value of these professionals lies in being consistent, in having the capacity to disagree and to argue for new ways of taking on complex challenges.

There are certain commonplaces repeated in city planning circles that become devoid of content and even end up being the opposite of what they originally meant. One of these is the paradigm of the open city. In Barcelona, large projects have a bad reputation. Yet the open city, in the original meaning put forward by Habermas, Arendt and Sennett, is one that is being endlessly transformed; a city that turns borders into hinges and is therefore invasive; a city that does not end, in which indeterminacy strengthens the passage of time and just allows itself to happen. The question of a city’s degree of openness should not be about the scale of intervention, but about its ability to evolve over time. To accept that the leading role is not played by an architect or an association, but that the intervention has much more life above and beyond whoever designed it.

An engineer friend of mine was telling me that he cannot understand why city councils apologise when construction work is undertaken. He makes a good point: why, when a tunnelling machine is boring its way underneath half the city and we are collectively investing a fortune on it, do we conceal it and only focus on the inconvenience caused? We should get rid of these complexes: “Take a look at this tunnelling machine that is helping to build Line 9 of the Metro with minimal disruption, leaving future generations a city that is connected by fast and competitive public transport” or “a round of applause for the team that works so hard every day to shorten distances”.

In today’s post-property-bubble scenario, the pace of transformation seems much more important to me than its size. When a place is in constant transformation, it is a pain, but it is no reason to bury one’s head in the sand. What is unforgiveable is that everything is closed and walled off. A place’s connectivity must not be reduced by construction work, because otherwise the daily lives of thousands of people are affected: shops are closed, wastelands are created and ground floors become deserted. Sometimes, wanting to finish a piece of the city, even if it is small, can cause a  trauma. In other words: the problem with the Sagrera project is not its size or scale but its implementation strategy, based on a never-ending “closed due to construction work” situation. As things stand, with a strip of tracks exposed like an operated stomach, the authorities are blaming each other and are burying their heads in the sand, unable to turn the space into an opportunity. There is one project by the Alday-Jover architectural team and another by the RCR architectural firm to start colonizing the edges of the site. Both are easy and fast to execute, but have been halted by the change of government, even though they are crucial for starting to transform La Sagrera before the park arrives. 

Overcoming the criticism of the speculative model

I shall put forward three issues which the city should be thinking about. The first is the myth that Barcelona has thousands of empty flats. There are some, but, paradoxically, a lot fewer that what is needed for a reasonably healthy, uninflated housing market. Experts say that with less than 5% of the housing stock empty, the market does not function properly. Barcelona has around 800,000 homes and the banks appear to have 2,400 empty ones. To avoid an inflated housing market, there has to be a large supply and the antigrowth rhetoric only benefits current property owners. I think that this error stems from the old notion that some people have of the property market. Building a city does not mean building flats, but creating centres, places that are there before they are built. This means designing top-notch public spaces that are well-connected, green, appealing and well-structured. Growing a city means being able to make it fairer, better distributed and more welcoming to talent. 

Barcelona (the metropolitan area) has plenty of margin for growth. It is a great place to live and it faces the challenge of attracting talent or people with a desire to build a shared future that is better, innovative and entrepreneurial. We have to move beyond our criticism of the speculative model that ruled prior to the property bubble. We have to get over (and fight) our fear of those shady and lucrative property deals and start to imagine a well-connected and much less unequal metropolitan area. We need to design new areas of the city that are flexible and open, and this is not something one can do spontaneously: public leadership is needed to mark out the areas to be transformed in the future, to set aside the location and to start designing the public space there. This is what will ensure that this space will become an important part of the city. 

The second issue relates to the density of public space and built space. One of the city’s most important genetic features is its living density. High-rise construction is met with disdain. In fact, anything that sticks out is met with annoyance. However, this is an efficient way of leaving a small environmental footprint and providing light and views to all users. Systematically opposing a different project drags the city into mediocrity, the “product” city, safe values and the standardization of the built environment in the shape of Núñez i Navarro apartment buildings and sterile hotels. This false aim of not letting anything stand out is contrary to the city’s essence: identity is a public value that is under threat. Fear of managing the risk must not paralyse us and for this we need competent experts, politicians backed by arguments, responsible investors and creativity from residents. 

Mediocrity is not a question of scale: there are fantastic buildings that are large and tall and there are large buildings that do not add anything. There are also large public spaces that disconnect, just as there are unplanned thoroughfares that magically embody the essence of a public space. However, we must get over our prejudices and dare to think laterally. The clichés that imply that everything big, different or private equals “speculation” is the result of a lack of analytical thinking and simply a wish to please. 

The third challenge relates to how the public space of the future should be planned. In an ever-changing environment, does it make sense to set out today what has to happen three generations down the line? We need to find planning tools that pinpoint locations, set aside areas and consolidate a structured public space, still leaving future generations room to rethink, redraw and rearrange, to suit each project. This could mean, even in the developed world, preaching a “back to basics” approach: I would content myself with a very clear definition of a polycentric city where centres are thought of as “areas of opportunity”, wellconnected by public transport and self-sufficient in every respect (services, amenities, energy, workplaces). Moreover, I would suggest that these centres not be designated as such based on criteria of equidistance or other abstract reasons, but based on their pre-existence.

There are also political opportunities that we must make the most of, beyond all the stale partisanships. Mayor Trias was a big supporter of keeping the domestic character of the Tres Turons and Torre Baró neighbourhoods and I am sure that Mayor Colau will also share this vision, which puts people at the centre of urban policies. If there is political consensus for this more caring style of city planning, will we be able to produce the right technical tools to unblock the absurd situations created by a Metropolitan Plan for the last forty-plus years? We have the challenge of being more incisive and more innovative and of getting out there to defend the value of every urban project, at the risk of being maligned for dissent. The real debate has to be public, interdisciplinary and plural, to stop it from being used by partisan interests. 

Eulàlia Ferrer, managing ‘El Brusi’ from the shadows

The corner of Carrer de la Llibereteria and Carrer de la Freneria, where the families of Antoni Brusi and Eulàlia Ferrer had their respective businesses.
Photo: Dani Codina

Born in 1780 into a family of booksellers and printers, Eulàlia Ferrer first collaborated with her husband, Antoni Brusi, in the management of the Diario de Barcelona. Following her spouse’s death, she headed the newspaper known popularly by the family surname. This prototypic entrepreneurial woman overcame all the obstacles that her profession, society and the law placed in the path of women.

Up until the end of the 19th century, the bookseller’s guild did not allow women to become master booksellers. Women were obliged to transfer their businesses to a man, and therefore they only received limited training in the workshops. The laws in force only allowed women to do jobs that “befitted” their status as women; their destiny was never to work in a business, even if they inherited one, but rather to marry a man from the guild who would be the actual bookseller. From the 17th century onwards, the Ferrer family were printers and booksellers by trade, although it was their wives who had traditionally provided the money and fortune. It was precisely for this reason that Eulàlia Ferrer’s grandfather had adopted his wife’s surname.

Eulàlia Ferrer was born in Barcelona on 12 November 1780. Her father was the well-known bookseller Josep Ferrer, who died when she was still a child. He left the Casa Ferrer bookshop, located at number 22, Carrer de la Llibreteria, to his two sons, both of whom then also died, meaning that Eulàlia inherited the family business at the tender age of twelve. She met Antoni Brusi i Mirabent, a bookbinder and seller by trade, whose shop on Carrer de la Llibreteria, at the corner with Carrer Freneria, was very close to her own. They were married on 5 May 1799. It was probably Eulàlia who put up the capital needed to start up a printing enterprise and extend the store’s business, and although it was quite uncommon in those days, she had the business registered in both their names. 

A period engraving of riots in Barcelona caused by the capture of Montjuïc by French troops in 1808.
Photo: Prisma

In 1808 the war between Spain and the French Empire broke out. The first Napoleonic troops entered Catalonia on 9 February 1808, and four days later a column of 6000 men reached Barcelona, soon followed by another larger contingent. The so-called Peninsular War had broken out.

Many inhabitants of Barcelona chose to leave the city, including the Brusi family. Together with their employees, they packed up the printing press and headed for Tarragona, which was still free of the invading French. Once there, Antoni Brusi offered his printing services to the army commanders, even though doing so meant exposing Eulàlia and the whole family to the risks and sacrifices that come along with war. Thanks to his printing press, the authorities that had held out in Catalonia enjoyed the great advantage of being able to transmit their orders quickly and broadly. They also printed all kinds of proclamations calling for rebellion, as well as publishing the Gazeta Militar, which was printed in the most unlikely places. 

When Tarragona fell to the French, the Brusi family lost virtually all its printing materials and machinery. They hurriedly set sail for Palma de Mallorca, with their children, two brothers and three apprentices in tow. On the island, they enjoyed a period of some peace and quiet and set up a new workshop, a business that prospered and helped them to get back on their feet. In 1812 Antoni Brusi made several trips to Catalonia to attend to the businesses they still had there, and Eulàlia Ferrer took care of things in Palma. 

In 1813, in the dying days of the French occupation, the whole family returned to Barcelona. Besides the Gazetathey printed a great deal of material for the Spanish army which raked in financial profits that they subsequently invested in new projects. As for their family life, the Brusis had had six children, of whom only two girls, Antònia and Eulàlia, managed to survive. 

The cover of the newspaper from June 6th, 1814, the first edition they published as owners once the Peninsular War was over.
Photo: Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat

On 28 April 1814, the French finally withdrew from Barcelona and absolute monarchy was restored under Ferdinand VII, along with very strict press control. In return for services rendered, and by virtue of a royal privilege that established a single publication in Barcelona, Antoni Brusi was granted the publication and ownership of the Diario de Barcelona, a daily newspaper founded in 1792, which, for a short period during the occupation, had been published in Catalan and French. From that time onwards, Eulàlia Ferrer and her husband dedicated all their time and effort to publishing the daily. Not long afterwards, in 1815, Eulàlia gave birth to her seventh child, Antoni, although this did not keep her away from the publishing business, and husband and wife continued to work side by side.

In 1819 they added a type foundry to the press, and a year later introduced lithography to Catalonia. They were highly innovative, applying steam power, relatively unknown in Catalonia at that time, to the workshops. The Brusi family also broke away from the prevailing traditions by recruiting talented and erudite people of eminence for the newspaper, who authored highly-celebrated and novel articles. Unfortunately, Antoni Brusi passed away two years later, having fallen victim to a devastating epidemic of yellow fever. In those sad circumstances, Eulàlia Ferrer took over the management of the printing business and steadfastly upheld the company’s interests. 

For a short time, the Diario de Barcelona lost its privilege of being the only daily newspaper in the city. Changes in government permitted freedom of press, spawning a proliferation of other publications. However, in 1823, severe restrictions were enforced once again and the Diario de Barcelona recovered its absolutist privileges, which it maintained until the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833, when once again it had to face up to competition. In the meantime, the Brusis’ youngest child, Antoni, received a good education to ensure that he would be able to head up the family business in future. He spent several years studying typography in Europe and modern daily newspaper printing methods. In 1838 he returned to Barcelona to visit his mother. He saw that the family business was far from buoyant, and decided to settle in Barcelona to take over. 

Eulàlia realized that the time had come for her son to manage the company, leading her to retire. Antoni Brusi junior gave the paper the push it needed to become the journalistic benchmark of Catalan conservatism, and it eventually became popularly known as the Diari dels Brusi, and even as El Brusi. The name of Eulàlia Ferrer disappeared from the documentation related to the business that she had put so much into, although she did enjoy the satisfaction of seeing it boom. She died in 1850 at the age of seventy.

An illustration on the newspaper that appeared in the Guía satírica de Barcelona (Satirical Guide to Barcelona) in 1854.

Known as Eulàlia Brusi after her marriage to Antoni Brusi, she was a publisher, bookseller, printer and the manager of the Diario de Barcelona for 20 years. She was also involved in various legal proceedings brought mainly by the official association of booksellers of Barcelona simply for practicing her profession. However, the crucially important aspect lies in the fact that she was the epitome of an enterprising woman, who made the most of her circumstances and demonstrated a great capacity to overcome the obstacles placed in her path, as a woman, by her profession, society and the law.

The social economy, between utopia and possible change

To transform the economy so that society changes: this is the goal of hundreds of examples of social economy, born and raised here in Catalonia. We take a look at three of them, with Dídac Costa and the alternative currency ecoseny, Xavi Teis of Coop57 and Aina Barceló from Som Energia.

Somewhere between utopia and a change of economic paradigm, there is a space where the fabric of the economy is being transformed. This space is gaining ground because so many people feel they’ve been pushed out of the system or are simply tired of it, and have decided to change it from the bottom up. These are the people who, little by little, are driving this change. In different fields and with very different personal and professional experiences, we have three examples in Dídac Costa, Xavi Teis and Aina Barceló.

Dídac Costa, specialist in social currencies and one of the people behind the Ecoxarxa Montseny exchange network.
Photo: Eva Guillamet.

Dídac Costa was a sociology student at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) in 1997, when he first heard talk of social currency initiatives in Latin America and the United Kingdom. These currencies took a new approach to the role of money and were to be found at the heart of local exchange networks that aspired to put money at the service of people and not the other way around. Soon after, he started travelling to gain first-hand experience of them: with an Erasmus grant, he went to London and then travelled around Latin America, first to Chile, to learn how exchange networks function in communities that work on an alternative physical currency. Fascinated by them, he studied the various models in existence and wrote about them. “I selfpublished a simple edition of my book Com crear xarxes d’intercanvi a la teva comunitat [How to create exchange networks in your community] in 2001 in Argentina, with my very last savings”, he explains. “With the country in freefall, I got it printed on the cheap in Buenos Aires and went around Latin America with a cart, selling the book.” Then, in 2002, he took an active role in an exchange network in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

With all these experiences in his backpack, he returned to Catalonia in 2004. He introduced a system of local currency to the Xaingra exchange network and helped to start up another one in his neighbourhood. In 2009 he went to live in the Montseny area, where he met a group of people who wanted to set up an ecovillage. He joined them and they ended up organising a network that ran on ecosenys as their own currency. “After three months, we already had a fair with two hundred people, and after eight months there were six hundred of us. This led to the Ecoxarxa Montseny [the Montseny eco-network] which was then replicated in other places”, he recalls.

“It’s a silent revolution, a peaceful and creative one that is transforming the very core of society, which is money”, he believes. “Social currency is one of the paths to revolution. As our hacker friends say, if you use the master’s tools, you will not set yourself free.” And that is why he wants to change the tool. “It’s a social technology that has no limits; the only limits are people’s imaginations and the prisons of the mind.”

Optimism is a duty 

Xavi Teis, economist and person in charge of communication for Coop57.
Foto: Eva Guillamet

On the path to social transformation, the destination is as important as the journey. That’s what Xavi Teis thinks. He is thirty-two years old, an Economist and the communication manager for Coop57, one of the country’s first financial services cooperatives, twenty years old this year and often cited as a model of ethical banking. But Teis reminds us that this is not a bank. “We try to speak about ethical finance”, he says over morning coffee in the Sants district, where Coop57 has its head offices. Xavi Teis is a gifted speaker when it comes to explaining the sphere and the purpose of his activism. “It’s about applying social, environmental and ethical criteria when we decide where to invest the savings of some clients to meet the funding needs of others.”

That is the purpose of Coop57, which arose from the struggle of some of the former workers at the Bruguera publishing house when they were made redundant in the late eighties. With their pot of redundancy money, they set up a contingency fund to help develop self-managed erative projects. Later, they expanded into the social and solidarity economy and have undergone huge growth since the recent economic crisis. “In times of scarce liquidity and financing, we have to provide as many loans as we can to give financial solutions to organisations that carry out vital social tasks”, he explains. “If you want the economy to change, you have to try to make an impact in every sphere”. They support cooperatives in the metals industry and many other areas: regional environmental associations, cultural and educational organisations, etc. 

Teis studied Economics at the UAB. “When I graduated nobody had told me about the social and solidarity economy or about ethical finance”, he says. It was then he discovered ethical banking. He became interested in the subject and volunteered at Finançament Ètic i Solidari, where he worked for three years developing awareness-raising campaigns, until 2013, when he joined Coop57. “I really enjoy it. It’s a very stimulating project, because we try to offer a practical tool for building things we hope will improve the conditions in society.” Teis always talks about it with a smile on his face. He believes in smiling and optimism. “Optimism is a duty nowadays. Because to achieve social change, we also need to be happy.” 

Claiming energy

Biomedical engineer Aina Barceló, one of the activist partners of the Barcelona chapter of Som Energia.
Foto: Eva Guillamet

Aina Barceló’s activism is different from that of Dídac Costa and Xavi Teis. While they have ended up working in areas that are more or less linked to their areas of study, she has got involved in a project unconnected to her education. Barceló is a biomedical engineer and is one of the activist partners in the Barcelona chapter of Som Energia.

This energy services cooperative has undergone spectacular growth in the five years since it was set up in November 2009 on the initiative of a group of former students and lecturers from the Universitat de Girona and other collaborators, who had taken note of other, similar projects in Flanders, France and Germany. Som Energia has expanded as a network across the whole of Spain, but mostly in Catalonia. Today it has almost 23,000 members and 25,000 electricity supply contracts. 

Aina Barceló speaks to us as a spokesperson for Som Energia, but any of its activists could have done so. Because Som Energia is playing in a different league, not that of the big electricity companies: it’s the league of renewable energy, of a commitment to ethical projects and of a democratic corporate structure where word is spread from person to person and publicity campaigns are based locally. 

This is what Aina does: get deeply involved in spreading the word about what Som Energia is and how it works, that it offers competitive prices with customer service, a method of operation and a power supply that are diametrically opposed to those of the big electricity companies. Som Energia is one of the biggest examples of the social economy in Catalonia. That’s why, as Barceló says, the big electricity companies are worried. “Now we are starting to scare them.”

I refused to be a tourist

The outside world seems to have pigeon-holed Catalans as unsociable people, obsessed with work and somewhat disinclined to offer you their friendship just like that. While I tend to avoid clichés, the differences with Chilean culture – where friendship is cemented before you have even downed your first glass of wine – are notable. Newcomers from the other side of the ocean are also surprised to discover that people tend to gather in public places rather than in their own homes, and that home gatherings are only forthcoming after a formal invite.

The roof of Gaudi’s La Pedrera, before the renovation of the building and the mass arrival of tourists, when its apartments were still offices and private residences.
Photo: Colita

At the beginning of the 1980s, the airplanes taking off from the international airport in Santiago, Chile, heading for Europe did not just carry tourists. One decade after the bloody coup d’état that had brought down the government of Salvador Allende, many Chileans were still taking the long and harsh road to exile. This included a substantial contingent of young people who, having been kicked out of university for defending democracy, were obliged to cross the Andes in order to finish their education, find a job or simply evade the deadly repression of the dictatorship.

It was one of the above reasons that led me, in September 1982, to swap the impending southern spring for the fading summer of what was then a football-crazy Spain. The Spantax plane set me down in Madrid, home to a large and highly supportive Chilean community. Nevertheless, my path would ultimately lead me to Barcelona, a city that had long attracted me like an irresistible magnet, seducing me with the sweet and as-yet indecipherable echoes of songs that someone had brought from the other side of the ocean, lyrics sung in a seductive and unfamiliar tongue. Thus, when the time actually came for me to set off on a journey for which I had a return ticket that I fully intended to use, the decision had long since been taken. 

I took the night coach to Barcelona. The uptown part of Avinguda Diagonal literally paraded before my hungry eyes, which, on reaching the square then called Calvo Sotelo, were drawn to what looked like the scene of a film shoot, leading me to guess that I was indeed entering an extraordinary city. This hunch turned into certainty when the friends who so warmly welcomed me took me for a walk down the Rambla, as sensuous as it was immodest. A freedom impossible to conceive in our tortured, dark and dismal Chile of those days. 

Culture in the street

I settled into a small room at the top of a stately building on Carrer de Rosselló. I could glimpse the roof of La Pedrera – still unspoiled by tourists – from my tiny balcony, and two strides out of my doorway were enough to take me to the mythical Punyalada. My landing in the city coincided with the time of the local festivities of La Mercè, an explosion of marvelous revelry. At that time, these local festivities still belonged to the people of Barcelona, and I experienced them from within, immersed in the unknown maze of Ciutat Vella, encountering, with every corner I turned, an unexpected explosion of music, dancing, fire and magic.CULTURE IN THE STREET FOR EVERYONE! How could I ever convey the emotional impact of it all, and how could words ever describe the feeling kindled in my soul by the unprecedented light of the city, which seemed to say to me, with every step I took: “Welcome, welcome!” It is true that the Barcelona of that time was still untouched by the “Barcelona, get pretty” campaign, and that the façades of the Eixample houses still stared back at you with their almost slapdash and uniform grey appearance. But to my mind, the city appeared to exude a miraculous sheen.

A few days later, I enrolled in the PhD program at the Information Sciences School of the Universitat Autònoma, which brought me into contact with the university community that had been my academic point of reference when I studied journalism at the Universidad Católica de Chile. However, that course was but a stepping stone towards what was to be my life’s great adventure. One year later, I began to write in the now-defunct El Noticiero Universalthe delightful Ciero, which heralded the beginning of a professional sojourn that is not yet over. 

There are different ways of living in exile. In fact, there are as many ways as there are circumstances and people who are forced into such a grim experience. One way is to utterly negate the culture that welcomes you, as a kind of visceral cry against the tragedy imposed. I know of a Chilean, who went into exile in the USSR, who refused to learn Russian. “Why should I,” he is said to have protested, “if all I want is to get back to my own country?” I saw attitudes that were not too dissimilar in other Chileans living in Barcelona at the time: fellow countrymen and women wallowing in nostalgia for their distant homeland, which they reproduced, day after day, in so many different ways. I, on the other hand, decided to learn about this new land from within, without any baggage. 

La Rambla during the winter of 1988. Photo: Colita

Of course, the process was by no means easy. As far as the outside world is concerned, Catalans are supposed to be – and I had also arrived with this information – dark and elusive people obsessed with work and somewhat disinclined to offer you their friendship just like that. And although I detest clichés, the differences with my culture – where friendship is cemented before you have downed your first glass of wine – were notable. First of all, I was very surprised to see that people tended to meet in public places rather in their own houses, and that such home gatherings are only forthcoming after a formal invite; just the opposite of that permanent and unforeseeable trickle of friends and relatives that I was accustomed to. 

I was also surprised by people’s punctuality, how they kept their promises, well-mannered people who greeted you when walking into or out of a lift, their sense of responsibility and duty, their respect for others and their privacy, the clean streets (at least to my mind!), the civic-mindedness of citizens when asking their turn to be served or to have their bus ticket punched without anyone checking them, and particularly that feeling of safety when you walked through the streets, sadly lost today. “In this city, you can sit down to talk to somebody in a bar and leave your bag next to you without the fear of someone stealing it,” I once wrote to my family in a letter. Of course, that was the Barcelona of the 1980s. A pre-Olympic Barcelona – perhaps not so beautiful, but more genuine. A Barcelona that no longer exists, relentlessly engulfed by mass tourism that invades its streets but sees nothing. 

Conquering the language 

I enjoyed the immense privilege of never being a tourist. One might say that I dived straight into the deep end of Catalan society. Thus, my first obsession was to conquer the language. At that time, Catalan was just starting out on the difficult road towards standardization. Not everyone spoke it properly, let alone wrote it. In a way, that actually aided my learning process, which was spontaneous. I actually taught myself, and it did not prove to be too challenging. Learning the new lingo was a win-win situation for me in all respects. From the outset, it changed the way in which I interacted with people. I became warmer, closer. Of course it also led me to expand my cultural heritage, but more than anything it helped me to glean a better understanding of people who, while they actually did take some time to grant you their friendship – another cliché I like to believe – when they did, they did so sincerely, forever. 

Now, more than 30 years on, I can say that I feel more from here than from there. Sometimes I am still surprised when people ask me where I am from. I still reply “from Chile”, but while my homeland is still deep in my heart, I tore up that return ticket a long time ago. And that decision – never easy or straightforward, sometimes even painful – heralded a commitment and a duty for me. A commitment to learn about and respect the land I have made my own, and a duty to contribute to enriching it to the best of my ability. And the truth is I believe that as a journalist I can continue to accomplish these two aims gradually, every day. A true privilege. 

The social challenge. Building a barrier against inequality

A neighbourhood meeting descended from the 15M movement, in the Plaça de la Vila in Gràcia.
Photo: Dani Codina

Barcelona is experiencing a blossoming of group initiatives and citizen selfmanagement. This begs the question of whether these initiatives are replacing the obligations of the public administration. A barrier against inequality can only be built if the public administration takes its role seriously and helps to construct a dialogue with an organised citizenry. 

In October 2015, the University of St Andrews in Scotland published the report Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities, which recognised a widening gap between the rich and poor in eleven of the thirteen most mportant European cities between 2001 and 2011, which it claims could be “disastrous” for social stability. It does not mention Barcelona, but reveals Madrid to be the city where inequality grew the most over the ten-year period. The study identified four pillars which prop up what it refers to as segregation: globalisation, inequality, the restructuring of the labour market and property speculation.

All four of these pillars are currently prominent in Barcelona. In fact, one of the first measures approved by the new municipal government, just one month after taking office at the City Council, was to assign 2.5 – 4 million euros to an additional child benefit payment for vulnerable families. In 2013, the Federation of Organisations for the Care and Education of Children and Adolescents (Fedaia) reported that 25% of children in Barcelona are living on the verge of poverty. How did it come to this? What is more, the

outlook continues to worsen. On 20 October 2015, Agustí Colom, the councillor for Employment, Business and Tourism, published a report revealing an increase of lowincome households from 21% in 2007 to 41.8% in 2013, while the proportion of people on middle incomes fell 14.3% to 44.3% over the same period. In other words, the crisis is increasing the number of people on low incomes and reducing the proportion of middle-income households, or, to put it another way, those with work are getting poorer and inequality is increasing.

From outrage to protest and mobilisation

Tourist Barcelona and social marginalization are evident in this picture, taken on the Rambla del Raval.
Photo: Dani Codina

The year in which the academics who conducted the European study concluded the fieldwork for their report was the same year in which Barcelonians began to vent their anger. In March 2011, Stéphane Hessel visited the city to present Time for Outrage!, a brief but conclusive book that acted as a trigger for many young (and not so young) people to start to see the crisis as the business of a financial system that rewarded profit regardless of the means and which funded political corruption so that nothing would stand in the way of business. Also in March, Ada Colau, the current mayor of Barcelona, answered questions about the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) in the dining room of her home, with a blue plastic curtain acting as the door to her kitchen. Colau was an activist for a movement that was gaining momentum, which has arguably become the most important movement in 21st-century Spain. In her home, Colau warned: “One day, thousands of people that are building local alternatives may occupy the streets”.

From 15 May 2011, people started to occupy the squares: the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona, the Puerta del Sol in Madrid… It was in these squares that some of the answers and actions to address the problems of globalisation, inequality, the restructuring of the labour market and property speculation were first formulated, in what was known as the 15M Movement.

A protest in favour of public education and against the policies of Minister Wert, in October 2013.
Photo: Dani Codina

Ancor Mesa Méndez, in 2011 a Social Psychology PhD student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), has lost count of the number of times he crossed the Plaça de Catalunya during this occupation. He had become fully engaged in association activities one year previously, as a consultant for the Federation of Neighbourhood Associations of Barcelona (FAVB) where he still works, and the 15M Movement struck a chord with his twenty-something mentality. During those days and nights in May, Ancor, like many of his fellow citizens, began to wonder about these collective, cooperative, self-managed and horizontal movements that suddenly emerged as a response to globalisation, the restructuring of the labour market and property speculation – all pillars of the St Andrews report. Inequality had yet to make an impact on public discourse in Spain. What is more, in 2011 the Partido Popular (People’s Party) abolished the teaching of Education for Citizenship, replacing it with a study of the world’s conflicts.

A PAH demonstration against evictions in February of the same year.
Photo: Dani Codina

Ancor, who was born in Tenerife, had never experienced anything like a neighbourhood group. In Barcelona, working on his thesis and living in temporary accommodation (due to the price of rent, belonging to a generation at risk and as a consequence of living in a city defined by its demographic mobility), he also failed to lay down roots in any particular neighbourhood. This occupation, this “conclave without boundaries of free people coming from different places”, as Ancor defined the 15M Movement, really spurred him into action. “I began to wonder how to use all the energy that was being pooled to formulate collective policies daily at a grass roots level from the neighbourhoods”, he recalls from the FAVB meeting room situated behind the Plaça Reial, in what today is a valuable library of books on popular and neighbourhood struggles of the seventies and eighties, which fought for and won cultural centres, schools, public transportation and hospitals. 

A sleep-in at the Hospital Clínic in December 2012 against austerity measures and the privatization of the health system.
Photo: Dani Codina

The role of neighbourhood associations

“No-one was better at challenging the way daily politics are conducted in the aftermath of the 15M Movement than the neighbourhood associations”, maintains Ancor, who is currently the sociological leader of the Barri Espai de Convivència programme, an analysis of Barcelona’s neighbourhoods compiled with the participation of all the neighbourhood movements. According to Ancor, this research project came about because “the groups see themselves as agents for their environment, with an open-minded and collective approach to problems”. 

“Pren els barris” [Take the neighbourhoods] was the slogan under which the camps in the squares were gradually dispersed. Sants, El Raval, Gràcia, Fort Pienc, Barceloneta, Horta, Nou Barris… they were all covered with posters announcing “popular assemblies”. The year 2011 laid the foundation for the following years: 2012, the year of deprivation; 2013, the year of protests against the cuts and austerity and of the democratisation of poverty; 2014, the year when even in Davos talk turned to the need to reshape capitalism. 

Firstly, in 2011, the major debates surrounding inequality in Barcelona were hitting the headlines: settlements, evictions, reform of Guaranteed Minimum Income benefits, childhood poverty and impoverishment of working people. IDESCAT (The Statistical Institute of Catalonia) reported that 1.5 million Catalans were living in poverty, one million of which in the province of Barcelona. 

Furthermore, the City Council itself reported that, since 2008, all districts with a household income greater than the city average had seen their wealth increase, whereas earnings fell in districts with a household income below the average. 

“Iaioflautes” banners in a protest for healthcare, education and housing in May 2012.
Photo: Dani Codina

Various groups have taken to the streets dozens of times over the last four years in what have been called “waves”: health groups protesting against cuts to healthcare (white T-shirts), education groups (yellow T-shirts), cultural groups (red T-shirts) and social services groups (orange Tshirts). Neighbourhood residents, as well as people affected by the same common problem, joined the groups and took the demonstrations to the squares and the streets. This led to the foundation of the Nou Barris Cabrejada campaign, which brought together multiple disparate entities from the district: Apropem-nos, Quart Món, the “iaioflautes” (a civil rights group comprised mainly of the older generation), residents protesting against the abolition of the Dependency Law and cuts to the Guaranteed Minimum Income. In the Plaça de Sant Jaume, no sooner had one demonstration ended than another would begin.

Cooperative movements that empower 

The financial services cooperative Coop57.
Photo: Dani Codina

Secondly, 2011 saw the birth of a citizens’ empowerment movement that turned Barcelona into an urban laboratory of cooperative groups and self-management. This represented another step away from the classic dichotomies between state and public and private and commercial, with the public revealed to be the common element.

The Observatori Metropolità de Barcelona (a Barcelonabased research group) recorded fifty self-managed initiatives across the city’s neighbourhoods in its Comuns urbans a Barcelona study. According to the study, “At a time of cuts to public services and welfare and a curtailing of rights, we wanted to see what kind of city model is being envisaged by community management practices”. The name if its website leaves no room for doubt about its nonconformist nature: Stupid city, an ironic name for a project to study a city built on collective intelligence, juxtaposed against the smart city, which, in their eyes, excludes many of its residents.

Germanetes community space, managed by the Eixample Neighbourhood Association and Recreant Cruïlles. This is one of the projects that already work as part of the initiative driven by the City Council to give a social and community function to unused municipal lots.
Photo: Dani Codina

These cooperative, self-managed or citizen-led movements concern themselves with such issues as energy (Som Energia), local ownership of public spaces (Germanetes in the Esquerra de l’Eixample neighbourhood, the Plaça de la Farigola in Vallcarca or the Pou de la Figuera in El Born), health (the Espai de l’Immigrant), telecommunications (, housing (buildings occupied by the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or the La Borda squat in Can Batlló), public amenities (the former factory, Can Batlló, and the Ateneu de Nou Barris), care and finances. 

Coop57 defines itself as a “cooperative of ethical and solidarity-based financial services”, a para-banking entity independent of the Bank of Spain that invests the savings of its members into social projects, whether they be local associations, cooperative housing projects or cultural foundations, etc. Guillem Fernàndez, of the credit department, lists the requirements that an organisation has to meet to be approved for Coop57 funding, which sound like the Ten Commandments of the Indignados movement. “Projects must comply with social principles, have their roots in the area, have a highly-developed collective network, and with the difference between the lowest and the highest wages not exceeding a ratio of 1:2”. 

The fact that this in no ordinary financial institution leaps out at you as soon as you arrive at their branch in the Carrer de Premià, in the Sants neighbourhood. There are no screened glass counters, no queue number machine, and employees are not dressed in suit and tie. Their philosophy is assembly-based with a flat, commission-based organisational structure; principles that it shares with most 15Minspired movements. 

Germanetes community space, managed by the Eixample Neighbourhood Association and Recreant Cruïlles. This is one of the projects that already work as part of the initiative driven by the City Council to give a social and community function to unused municipal lots.
Photo: Dani Codina

For Coop57, founded by employees of the dissolved publishing house Bruguera, the camps of 2011 were not the beginning, but rather the peak of activity. Savers fed up with evictions and disgusted by the preference share institutions that took their savings to other types of financial institutions flocked to Coop57, just as they did in 2003 during the Iraq war protests. Throughout the seven years of economic crisis, Coop57 has designated more than 43 million euros to social economy and solidarity projects in 1,160 transactions. 

Fernàndez claims that the initiatives and entities that have recently been coming to Coop57 relate to the dismantling of the welfare state. He lists educational, housing, health and food-related initiatives. “To what extent should we fund projects if they continue to pick up the slack in spheres that State doesn’t enter, or end up undoing what remains of the welfare state?”, he asks. 

He is not the only one. To what extent are citizen-led movements replacing the State in the fulfilment of its obligations? This is the question that began to resonate in 2015. 

What do you need public services for?” 

The anthropologist Manuel Delgado is extremely critical of the space occupied by these initiatives. “If I were the State, I would ask: what do you need public services for if you believe so much in community initiatives?” This is a real sticking point for him. He has no doubt that all these selfmanaged initiatives allow society to function without the support of the State, and that they become a kind of substitute that neglects to complain, in the form of social struggles, to the Public Administration that it should be a “truly public” state. Is there any other way? “Decisive and clear actions, for example, concerning housing”, he proposes. “It’s complicated because it basically means doing the opposite of what we have always done until now: selling land, instead of buying it. And the same goes for fuel poverty”.

According to the PAH, in 2015 there are still 22 evictions every week in Barcelona and housing continues to be an unresolved issue in the city. There are 2,591 bank-owned apartments that have stood empty for more than 24 months. Only 2% of housing stock is social housing. In October, the City Council gave an ultimatum to the Company for the Management of Assets proceeding from the Restructuring of the Banking System (Sareb): either Sareb releases 562 empty apartments for social housing, as required by law, or the City Council would take them to court. The transfer of empty flats is provided for by article 7 of the law approved this year by Parliament pursuant to the Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) pushed through by the PAH and the Alliance against Fuel Poverty. 

A few weeks ago, the SomAtents newspaper group published a debate on Housing, in which numerous social parties with an interest in housing in Barcelona were invited to take part. The debate took place in the Plaça de Joan Corrades, in Sants, opposite a building occupied by the PAH. The meeting went on for more than an hour beyond its end time and was opened with the following words from Josep Maria Montaner, Councillor for Housing for the Barcelona City Council and representative of the Sant Martí district: “After unpaid labour, the second element of public control inflicted by capitalism is the difficulty of accessing housing. We believe that over the next four years we can improve housing conditions in Barcelona: by tackling the housing crisis; by ensuring that empty apartments are made available for social use; by building new housing as sustainably and as fairly as possible; and by initiating a regeneration programme as part of neighbourhood improvement schemes. Innovation lies at the heart of our proposal, based in particular on new ways of life and new forms of ownership”.

Alternative ways of living 

The Can Batlló space, in the Bordeta neighbourhood, has been waiting to be renovated since 1976, when it was set apart for public facilities, social housing and green space. In 2011, the neighbours initiated an experiment in self-management in part of the space, which they dedicated to social and cultural activities. Social housing promoted by the La Borda cooperative is also planned for this space.
Photo: Dani Codina

Are there alternative ways of living in Barcelona? Carles Baiges is an architect and a member of the LaCol architects cooperative. He graduated from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) with the understanding that architecture is a form of social action/intervention, and since 2014 has been one of the sixty cooperative members of La Borda, the cooperative that provides housing under a cession of use scheme to be established in Can Batlló. 

It works as follows: the City Council relinquishes the property for 75 years and the asset is collectively owned by the cooperative legal entity. Each household (so-called “cohabitation unit”) invests 15,000 euros as share capital of the cooperative, and subsequently pays a membership fee below the market price: 450 euros on average and 500-600 euros for large apartments. Alternative funding for the estimated 2.4 million euro construction will be provided by the Coop57 cooperative. La Borda is following in the footsteps of the Danish model, established a century ago, and the Uruguayan Federation of Mutual Aid Housing Cooperatives. In Denmark the model has been so successful that in Copenhagen alone there are 125,000 homes in the cooperative. As Carles Baiges explains, the initiative started from the grass roots level, by an organised citizens’ group looking for alternatives to the housing model. He talks about self-builds, about “living, not speculating”, about communal areas, getting to know your neighbour, the connection between the “cohabitation units” and Sants, and of course of the “replicability” of the model. “Like most young people in Spain, my financial situation is fairly uncertain and it is difficult to find adequate housing, but we also have the will to change the ownership model”, he declares. “I don’t want to move to the countryside and I believe that we can live more communally in the city. The apartments could be smaller than average, but the idea is that the people live in the communal areas”.

Did the 15M Movement influence the way the city and society are envisaged? “There are many of us who believe that the entire Can Batlló movement was greatly influenced by the events of 15 May, including the brutal removal of people. Rather than in the so-called new politics, I’m seeing the ‘They do not represent us’ concept in all the movements that progress from protest to action. They may not have come together as a group at the time, but they proved that they could do something. In my opinion, the legacy left behind is the realisation that we had the tools and the ability to do something”. 

On 24 May 2011, just three days before the violent eviction from the Plaça de Catalunya, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (died April 2015) wandered through the square. It was night time and his presence went unnoticed. A young person recognised him and in what he calls a chat, but what in reality became an 11-minute monologue, Galeano reflected into a camera, perhaps a mobile phone: “This is a crappy world which is pregnant with another”. This other world is happening behind the camera. Sometimes he looks at it out of the corner of his eye, sometimes the others look at him. There are young people with sleeping bags who have spent days shouting and arguing that politicians do not represent them, there are yellow T-shirts bearing the slogan “Take the street” on the front and there are green PAH T-shirts. Just before he finishes, he reflects: “I’m often asked what will happen and what will become of this afterwards. And I simply answer that I do not know what will happen, nor do I care; they only thing I care about is what is happening now”.

Access to health

The Espai de l’Immigrant on Passatge de Bernardí Martorell in the Raval.
Photo: Dani Codina

The Ciutat Vella neighbourhood completely reflects the four pillars referred to in the Saint Andrews study: a globalised neighbourhood, rife with inequality, with mafias that speculate with property and gentrified to the last cobblestone. For years, the Passatge de Bernardí Martorell has been excluded from El Raval’s popular streets and thoroughfares, despite the bar and the phone booth business, and despite the fact that it is actually not that different from any other street. The Espai de l’Immigrant [Immigrants’ Space] is located on this street. A group of healthcare professionals came together to oppose the approval of decree 16/2012, which would limit and restrict access to healthcare and leave 873,000 people without medical care due to irregularities in their administrative status. There is an old hotel on this street which is now a social centre and home to the Espai. For the last two years, whether in El Raval’s Carrer de l’Hospital or Carrer del Carme, you can always find people asking where the Passatge de Bernardí Martorell is. 

The Espai de l’Immigrant on Passatge de Bernardí Martorell in the Raval.
Photo: Dani Codina

Doctors attend on Fridays and lawyers on Wednesdays, at the same time that the collective’s weekly meeting is held in the apartment’s kitchen-dining room. The living room is almost a conventional waiting room. There is a landscape picture on the wall, chairs, people waiting with mobile phones, and a voice that calls them up. But the walls are fuchsia-coloured, the air is not close as there is a balcony overlooking the street, and the people speak loudly. The vocabulary employed in the waiting room can be recognised as the language of outrage and protest: colonialism, classism and integration; there is talk of a documentary film festival. 

It is Friday and the doctors are there, but they do not wear white lab coats, prescribe medication or ask for health insurance cards. They are volunteer doctors who, together with social workers, psychologists and lawyers, inform immigrants not in possession of the correct documentation of their rights and assist them in applying for a health insurance card – a process that can take days or weeks due to the language barrier and an ignorance of the bureaucratic system. “They often won’t see immigrants who come on their own, but will help immigrants who are accompanied by a Spaniard in a position of authority, which is borderline racism”, complains Estefanía, a doctor. Accompanying an immigrant means carrying a copy of the law with you, going to the Primary Care Centre (CAP) and sometimes arguing with the official behind the desk. 

They say that this is the “most punk” activity undertaken by Espai de l’Immigrant. “We are not trying to fill a gap that the State should be filling; we are simply providing users with the tools to access the public health system to which they are entitled as registered residents”, explains Elvira, resident doctor at Hospital Vall d’Hebron and volunteer at the Espai de l’Immigrant. 

The Espai de l’Immigrant on Passatge de Bernardí Martorell in the Raval.
Photo: Dani Codina

María (this and the names that follow are not their real names) lives in El Raval and found out about Espai in the same way that most people do: by word of mouth. The socalled Thursday Street Brigade roam the streets of Raval every week to ensure that word gets around, but they still complain that most people only attend after their situation has become serious. That is how María came to be there. She had known about its existence for months, but she only came because she had a broken thumb. She didn’t come because of the pain of the fracture, but because she did not have a blue health insurance card and because she could not pay the “more than 200 euros” that A&E charge for an X-ray and the placement of a splint. The doctors had to explain syllable by syllable that A&E “do not charge”.

At Espai de l’Immigrant they told María that she was entitled to a health insurance card because she is registered. Nobody had told her that before. “Most politicians will tell you that healthcare is for everyone and that they will treat everybody. And by law this is true, but there is a lack of information directed at migrants and foreign citizens about how to access it. This information is completely useless unless the Government invests money and introduces new policies to disseminate the information to the people that most need it”, points out Elvira. 

The Espai de l’Immigrant is working to recover María’s 200 euro payment: the lawyers meet every Wednesday. 

Three Barcelonas 

The three faces of Barcelona can be seen on the corner of the Passatge de Bernardí Martorell 7 days a week. The fourstar Rambla del Raval hotel, the homeless community that meet in the basement of the Comisiones Obreras trade union (there are an estimated 3,000 homeless people sleeping rough) and the constant flux of people with insecure employment: the unemployed, those in temporary work, people with a cart full of scrap in tow. Ciutat Vella has accommodated many of the young people who used to live in the abandoned factories of Poblenou; they now live in empty apartments on shady streets. 

The courtyard of the School of Geography and History on Carrer Montalegre, where many actions against social segregation have taken place.
Photo: Dani Codina

In October, Councillor Colom pointed out that Barcelona’s unemployment rate is 13.9%, rising to 27% among young people. 53% per cent of unemployed people are over 45 years of age and 44% have been jobless for more than a year, with unequal distribution throughout the city and some districts experiencing double the unemployment. The Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, Eixample, Les Corts and Gràcia districts all enjoy below-average unemployment, whereas Sants-Montjuïc, Horta-Guinardó, Sant Martí, Sant Andreu, Nou Barris and Ciutat Vella are above the average. 

Joan Uribe has just arrived from Argentina. Together with 24 other experts, he has been discussing the homelessness situation at the International Gathering on Homelessness and Human Rights. On his Twitter feed, words such as gentrification, exclusion, entitlement to the city and to the street, and the homeless are in every other tweet. He is the Director of Social Services at Sant Joan de Déu Hospital and teaches at the Faculty of Geography and History of the University of Barcelona (UB). 

In the notebook there is a vital question to help understand the upcoming years: Will the future be collaboration between associations and the State? “I’m delighted that you forgot the market”, he replies. “A positive vision of the future would be if social movements, organisations and associations were to work together with the State. There would certainly be friction, but it could be possible to come together to construct a barrier to counteract the logic of the market, thereby building better societies than we have today, at the very least achieving the minimum level that we had a few years ago, and perhaps even going further”.

Can you give an example of these barriers? “In Latin America, some groups started working together to fight for the right to land, housing and the city. After twenty, thirty or forty years, they have not only succeeded in changing the legal framework, but they are also represented in the very forums of decision-making on public policies. In Finland, collaboration between associations and the administration has brought an end to the phenomenon of homelessness”. 

Outside the Faculty of Geography and History and opposite Barcelona’s Centre of Contemporary Culture (CCCB) is an information panel about the dozens of talks which, in their different ways, are helping to lay the foundations of this barrier. There is a shared vocabulary: selfmanagement, ethical finance, responsible consumption, cooperative movements, housing and, of course, the big enemy to defeat, social segregation with its four pillars: globalisation, inequality, the restructuring of the labour market and property speculation. 

A biography of a city

Barcelona. Una biografia [Barcelona: A Biography]
Author: Enric Calpena
Edicions 62 / Destino
Barcelona, 2015

Thanks to his work promoting the history of Catalonia, the journalist Enric Calpena has become one of the most prominent names in contemporary historical literature. With works such as this, he adds to notable 20th-century initiatives such as the series by Agustí Duran i Sanpere, which was turned into a book following its success on the radio, becoming a benchmark work for educated readership.

In Barcelona. Una biografia, he succeeds in giving a voice to a city that for over 2,000 years has made ambition the main feature of its urban personality. The history of Barcelona can be explained through its documents, such as the municipal archives that resulted in the book Autobiografia de Barcelona (2013), or it can be explained through its people, institutions and stones. That is what has been done and presented to us through a story with over 800 pages, in which the journalist interviews Barcelona.

The result is an ambitious literary text that is well-documented, enjoyable to read, rich in anecdotes and always marked by Calpena’s unabashed style, a style prone to impromptu comparisons in order to decipher historical facts that are sometimes too distant and even incomprehensible for modern readers, but one that is also loving, given the author’s esteem for his home city. The Barcelona profiled by Calpena is a city with a privileged geographical position on the Catalan coast, especially since it stands between the two milestones of the ancient western Mediterranean, Empúries and Tarraco. The evolution of this urban enclave is depicted through the different names it has had throughout history, from the primitive Barkeno to Roman Barcino, which became Barsiluna in Moorish times, Barchinona in Christian times, and finally Barcelona in the late medieval and modern age. It enters modernity marked by the fire and destruction of the War of the Spanish Succession and the Peninsular War, while the final chapters focus on the adventure of contemporary Barcelona, bringing readers practically up to the present day. 

The undoubted aim is not to provide an exhaustive overview, but an invitation to enjoy the amazing complexity of Barcelona through the centuries. In many cases, the author – whose work had hitherto focused on more contemporary themes – pays more attention to distant episodes of the ancient Roman or medieval city than to the 19th or particularly the 20th century. An example: the same attention is dedicated to the parliament of 1413 as to the 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship.

The result is an innovative approach that Calpena uses to broaden the horizons of Catalan history, as well as Spanish history during the more recent centuries, going beyond focusing on the history of the city as other journalisthistorians have done with great success, such as Lluís Permanyer, Jaume Fabre or the sorely missed Josep Maria Huertas Claveria. This is not a book on urban history in the strict sense, but it is a good work of historical literature on the role Barcelona has played within Catalan and Spanish history. 

Barcelona is, effectively, a city that endears itself, as Calpena affirms in the prologue. The book is an act of love for the city and its past. Available in Catalan (Edicions 62) and Spanish (Destino) editions, the publishers should also consider English and French editions at the very least. The dissemination of Barcelona and its history deserves it, and its potential readers would surely appreciate it.  

In the infinite city

La filla estrangera [The Foreign Daughter]

Author: Najat El Hachmi

Edicions 62

Barcelona, 2015

El Hachmi had already recounted her experience in two earlier works. While El Hachmi dealt mainly with a relationship with a father in The last patriarch, in La filla estrangera she focuses on a mother-daughter relation ship.

Najat El Hachmi has the merit of having introduced a new point of view to Catalan literature, and even, I would say, to Iberian literature as a whole. El Hachmi has emerged as a unique voice, capable of explaining the experience of the new Moroccan community in our city. Unlike other literary traditions, the Catalan tradition has not segregated a postcolonial literature – for obvious reasons – although globalisation and new migration have made it possible to integrate multiple identities and new perspectives in a literary society that would have otherwise ended up spiralling into a very ethnocentric viewpoint. Authors from around the world who are based in Barcelona – such as the Englishman Matthew Tree, the Czech Monika Zgustova, the Afghan Nadia Ghulam and the Frenchmen Gregoire Poulet and Mathias Enard are, together with Najat El Hachmi, some examples of authors whose work has offered the world a window onto Barcelona.

El Hachmi had already recounted her experience in two earlier works. In her novel The last patriarch (Ramon Llull Award winner), shook literary society with a story that was unsettling – both due to the world that emerged for the first time in our literature, as well as for the story’s literary effectiveness. While El Hachmi dealt mainly with a relationship with a father in The last patriarch, in La filla estrangera she focuses on a mother-daughter relation ship. The author tells the story of a girl born in Morocco, who was transplanted and brought up in a city in inland Catalonia, as she enters adulthood and struggles to become independent of her mother. She maintains a loyal but unhealthy relationship with her mother, with whom she speaks a variant of the Tamazight language. Educated in Catalan, the novel’s protagonist lives straddling two languages, which eventually turn into the field of negotiation between two worlds, a field of forces that not only affect the girl’s social environment.

The great strength of La filla estrangera is the equidistance the author maintains between two worlds and two cultures that overlap without ever becoming identical. El Hachmi unsparingly depicts the prejudices and atavism of the Moroccan community, but also the narrow-mindedness and paternalism with which the Catalans have addressed African immigration. There is no good or bad here. Everyone struggles to be who they are and gets it wrong when judging others. La filla estrangera is, in this sense, proof of the importance of the novelistic genre for understanding the complexity of identity and transforming readers’ views. 

The question raised by La filla estrangera is: “What should I be, in relation to my origin?” In Vic, the protagonist finds a society that is welcoming enough that it enables her to become integrated. Her experience, however, will end up turning Vic into another extension of her maternal prison, and she will be forced to break free and move to Barcelona. 

For the protagonist of La filla estrangera, the big city becomes a space of liberation, after the years of imprisonment living in Vic or suffocation living in Morocco. “I remember walking without stopping along huge streets and being happy to know the infinite city,” she confesses. El Hachmi explained in an interview that “there is a big difference between living in the provinces or in a big city. The big city is often seen as a release, but that’s not always the case. Immigrants arrive and settle here grouped into communities that already come from their home countries […] That’s why there is still this oppressive social control experienced by the protagonist.” 

The golden age of the world’s biggest show

La història del circ a Barcelona

[The History of the Circus in Barcelona]

Author: Ramon Bech i Batlle

Viena Edicions / Barcelona City Council

Barcelona, 2015

Barcelona City Council and Viena Edicions publish the history about the golden age of the circus in Barcelona in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is a work of Ramon Bech, investigator on circus and cofounder of the Circus Arts Foundation.

I see the word “circus” as being associated with childhood. I remember the arrival, around Christmastime, of the circuses that every year were advertised as “the world’s biggest show” and still visit the city today. If I had been asked when the circus came to Barcelona for the first time, before reading this book I would not have been able to answer. The author, Ramon Bech (Figueres, 1967), finds the oldest evidence in the companies of “volatins”, or acrobats, who performed at Santa Creu Theatre on 12 February 1722.

Barcelona was a great circus capital in the 19th and 20th centuries, and was the centre of the show’s golden age thanks to the numerous travelling acts that visited the city as well as the permanent spaces built there so that audiences could enjoy this performing art. Bech takes stock of both these travelling acts and permanent spaces in his book, dedicating the main part to the three emblematic buildings located in the city centre: the Barcelona Equestrian Circus (1879-1895), the Tivoli Equestrian Circus on Carrer de Casp (1897-1907) and the Olympia Circus Theatre (1924-1947). Other emblematic spaces mentioned include the bullrings Les Arenes, El Torín (in Barceloneta) and Monumental. There were also circuses on Paral·lel and in an open area behind Sagrada Família cathedral.

Over 200 unpublished photos and plans of circuses, programmes and portraits of the impresarios and artists take us back to a time and to spaces that have since disappeared. The materials largely come from the archives of the Circus Arts Foundation, an organisation based in Figueres that was cofounded by Bech and Genís Matabosch. Its collection holds the 8,000 negatives and notebooks with notes by the photographer and historian Josep Vinyes, a legacy Bech found indispensable for producing this book. It was also essential to rediscover the few circus chroniclers of Barcelona: Jordi Elias, Sebastià Gasch, Joan Tomàs and the above-mentioned Josep Vinyes.

Until now, the only history of the circus in Barcelona has been El circo en la vida barcelonesa [The Circus in Barcelona Life] (1947), a short book by Antoni Rué Dalmau which was also a starting point for the study by Bech, who spent seven years researching to reconstruct the history of the circus and achieve this so far unique local chronicle.

The result is an exhaustive work that alternates visual material with texts by the author or from contemporary accounts in an entertaining way. Moreover, in addition to the history of circus construction we also find some curious details, such as the fact that in its early days the Liceu Theatre hosted tightrope walker shows, and in 1889 the legendary Buffalo Bill show was set up between Carrer Aribau and Carrer Muntaner. There is also curiosity and rejection in equal parts found in some articles about a trapeze artist called Bella Geraldine, who unleashed passions among male audiences and was the envy of many women.

The overall aim of this book is to pay tribute to and document everything as accurately as possible; from the first acrobatic shows in Barceloneta and at Santa Creu Theatre to the circus numbers in other performance genres such as theatre and music hall, which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The chronicle goes right up to the 1970s, when Barcelona was the first city to host the World Circus Festival at the Palau d’Esports, seen as a competition between circuses.

Short stories about Barcelona

© Judit Canela

Born in 1960 in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, the poet Bassem an-Nabris arrived in Barcelona in 2012, invited by Catalan PEN through the “Writer in Refuge” program, which enables writers who are persecuted to stay for up to two years.

Bassem an-Nabris spent four and a half years in Israeli prisons as a result of his works. After Hamas came to power in 2007, an attempt on his life was made by the group’s militia. He has written seven books of poetry and two war diaries, and in 2015 he published Totes les pedres [All the Stones], his first book of poems outside Palestine, in Catalan and Arabic. Below are some excerpts from the short stories that make up his latest book currently awaiting publication, Petites històries de Barcelona [Short stories about Barcelona]. Both books have been translated into Catalan by Valèria Macías Pagès.

Messages that don’t get through

On Sundays Fernández blows soap bubbles. He can be seen in Plaça d’Espanya or Parc de la Ciutadella. Equipped with two pieces of string and in the right position with respect to the prevailing wind, he blows small and large colored bubbles. They are so beautiful that they appeal more to adults than to children. Some smile while others get out their cell phones to take photos.
Yet Fernández, an amateur who learned the art of blowing bubbles from a Romanian drifter, does not care whether the bowl on the ground next to him is full or stays empty. He’s happy just to earn the cost of a meal and a drink. He blows the bubbles with all of his soul. He says:
“A creator of bubbles does not need the sophisms of Herr Hegel or Monsieur Descartes. They just need thorough knowledge of life.”
“Come again?”
“Can’t you see the truth of life, mate?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Isn’t life just a simple soap bubble that quickly bursts?”
“Might be.”
“I just like to remind people of the truth about their lives.”
Then he sighs, waving his hand in the air:
“You know what? The worst thing about this is that the message doesn’t get through.”
When it gets dark, Fernández, with his blond hair in dreadlocks and his trousers ripped at the knees, goes to find a bar or a café with his bowl half empty and his strings and liquid soap in a ruckpack. I follow him.
“Hold on, mate!”
He speeds up and turns his head, now angry:
“The message will never get through!”

At two o’clock I came down. In my mind I had only one aim: the night. “But if the city is so lit up, how will I find what I’m looking for? All I have left is Parc de la Ciutadella.”
Coming back from the beach, I get in through the hole in the fence, jumping. I choose a palm tree, lie down below it in the grass and calm down. I rub my face in the short, damp shoots. I breathe in. I lie on my back and look at the stars embedded in the sky. I breathe in. This is the first night that deserves to be called night. I hear a flapping of wings close by, and a blackish bird goes by me. “That’s it…” And I delve into the freshness of the dew and melancholy. 

Fair Mercè, with her tiny features and flirtatious voice, is seduction personified. Her age is the same as her fingers and toes added together. She likes cava, cycling and Lluís Llach. When she hears there will be traditional Catalan dances taking place in Plaça de la Catedral, she does whatever she can to join in the circles forming the dance.
The day before yesterday I went there and I didn’t see her. I asked her friends and they told me she’d gone to the University of Lisbon on a scholarship. I felt alone. Mercè wasn’t in any of the circles today either.
When she joins a circle there is something in her soul that emerges, and you see how the elderly – who are the people who go there most – become radiant in her company. She has infected them with her youth, vivacity and joy. The absence of that kind girl weighs heavily on my heart.