Tell me which city you like...

Article published on May 19, 2003
community published
Article published on May 19, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

...and I'll tell you what sort of person you are. With local elections looming in Spain, it must not be forgotten that in the big cities votes reflect the type of urban environment people would like to live in.

One of the big problems facing politics today is personalising electoral campaigns. In the case of local elections, this problem is even more manifest because of the proximity: everything seems to be concentrated around one person, the candidate, who is more or less close to the voters and who they consider to be more or less competent. But his candidacy is, in reality, part of an urban project. The question that the voter should ask himself is not, therefore,' Do I like this person?' but actually 'Which city do I like?' and 'Does he like the same city as me?'

Watching from the edge of Europe

Every city is different but today from Oslo to Malaga medium and large cities in Europe have a series of problems in common that they are responding to through both global and specific conservative and innovative policies. It would be wrong to say that in Europe the more innovative alternatives always come from the Left, but it is important to note that the Spanish Right in particular tends to rely on property speculation as the only form of town planning and to concentrate on grand spectacular projects envisaged for the town centre, leaving the suburban areas to cope alone, and in general developing a painfully outlandish urban project between obstinate conservatism and a rather brutal liberalism. From this point of view, it would not be out of place to take a look at what Europe is doing in the field of urbanisation in order to understand that other methods do exist, as incredible as this might seem.

What are the common problems in European cities and what solutions are being found?

'This is my parking space!'

Firstly, there is the obvious problem of the car. Since the 1950s, city expansion has been organised with the car in mind. Every type of inner-city motorway and suburban boulevard has been constructed, squares have been moved, overrun by cars, and this is done so that everyone has the right to park wherever they want. This option appears increasingly obsolete. On the one hand, urban traffic today is so saturated that using public transport, when it works well, is no longer a phenomenon of the poor but of people who are not cunning enough to find a parking space. On the other hand, mentalities are also evolving, from the shopkeeper to the city dweller on foot; today, creating pedestrian zones, or zones where traffic is restricted, is normal practice and considered necessary. From this point of view, it is difficult to believe that in a city the size of Madrid with its excellent public transport system this is no longer done. The fact is that a lot of people in Madrid only seem to have faith in an urban project that allows everyone to park wherever they like, as if reducing traffic constitutes an attack on the personal freedom of the city dweller.

Restricting traffic is closely linked to the development of meeting and public interaction points, from the square to the park or even the high street. Numerous towns exploit these possibilities but they are generally limited to the town centre, thus exploiting the heritage of the town, a choice that holds two advantages: it attracts tourists and allows the construction of monuments or zones that are symbolic of the local identity and favour a feeling of membership to a common area. But too often people forget that one of the functions of an urban public place is to encourage social cohesion, interaction between social groups, and the reduction of barriers between neighbourhoods, classes or ethnic groups. For all these reasons, it is important to establish attractive public places in the suburbs as well: pedestrian zones, urban parks etc. On this level, Barcelona is a recognised example throughout the world, simply because in the 1980s a different, progressive and social urban project was developed that was well led through the different legislatures.

The necessity for social demand

Nevertheless, it is impossible today to reproduce the social and urban climate of popular, democratic euphoria that Spain experienced at the beginning of the 1980s. At present, it is the phenomenon of 'nouveau riche' self-satisfaction that adds to the curious Spanish urban conservatism which ensues from a badly interpreted pride. People note the absence in Spain of phenomenon which have been real motors for development in Europe: gentrification, that is to say the invasion of popular, dilapidated neighbourhoods from the old centres by the young middle class, has created a strong demand for change and a spontaneous movement that has itself generated an un-planned urban transformation, as happened in Chueca. This has been missing in Spain because the housing crisis has not been resolved and because young Spaniards do not enjoy the autonomy necessary for the establishment of urban demand in terms of developing the space. As soon as this type of social development appears, this country will be able to consider itself 'European' from an urban point of view and will be able to establish local political demand represented by new, exacting and truly progressive governing parties.

Beyond these aspects, other areas of town planning should not be neglected and Spain is lagging behind in many of these: for example, the establishment of governmental structures on a metropolitan scale which would propose global and coherent solutions, something that is cruelly lacking in the metropolitan regions of Barcelona or the Costa Del Sol; or, a voluntary policy in the area of public transport extending into the suburbs, or the creation of an underground system, or more recently the promotion of buses thanks to bus lanes, or a return to the tram model. This, much more than the other methods, has the advantage of stimulating the establishment of new town planning and a new way of experiencing the town, an option that no large Spanish town has chosen and that a right-wing mayor is in the process of applying with success in Burdeos, as is a left-wing mayor in Paris.

The fact is that the resulting town is only what the citizens deserve. No town can be changed into a more hospitable model, exude a more welcoming ambience and become more favourable to different types of interaction, both social and economic. To get there the essential condition is the existence of a desire for development that creates a local social movement capable of proposing credible alternatives and making itself heard in elections through the intermediary of neighbourhood associations and urban, artistic, social, professional or media movements. It must use a powerful tool such as the Internet and it must come together physically to discuss or to protest. It is here that the ability of progressive parties to follow these developments, and to understand what the main lines and concrete projects that can constitute a new urban model are and represent them, comes into play, through a candidate obviously; and somebody decent if possible.