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Barcelona is leading the way to a new social urbanism

‘Good times’ urbanism has created misery for the many. It’s time for ‘social city’ urbanism, says Neil McInroy

‘The only thing that trickles downward is the lives of people, not the wealth’.

So said Oriol Estela-Barnet, director of PEMB Barcelona, during a recent visit to Barcelona. His words reminded me of the work of the British geographer, David Harvey, who wrote in the Limits to Capital that ‘the accumulation of capital and misery go hand in hand, concentrated in space’.

For thirty years, cities have ridden a wave of global economic buoyancy. This prompted a ‘good times’ urbanism which has worked for a few, but not the many. Inequality, poverty and misery are now on the rise in many cities around the world. We need a new urban response. We need to build a more social city.

A new urban response

I was invited to Barcelona by Oriol and PEMB, an organisation tasked with developing the strategic plan for the Barcelona Metropolitan Region. I shared and learned from public officials and academics at the Institute of Government and Public Policy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. I also visited some of the poorer areas and municipalities of the region including Singuerlin in Santa Coloma, and gave a lecture as part of the IGLUS training programme.  I also participated in a city debate with thee inspiring Barcelona-based social innovator Boyd Cohen.

What is clear is that Barcelona did the ‘good times’ urbanism better than many: industrious people and a strong sense of pride and identity were mixed with an urban entrepreneurial attitude, triggering inward investment from the global economy and a new confidence supported by the Olympic Games in 1992.

Secure public finances meant political leadership could invest in the built form and its hard infrastructure. Indeed, its revitalised district centres, decent transport system and public parks and buildings are testament to this.

However, on the back of this, Barcelona has seen a flood of property and land investment, which in turn has hiked up city centre land and property prices, and created negative ripples of housing unaffordability across the Barcelona metro region. Agglomeration economics (dangerously overplayed as the solution to our UK cities) has prompted a fabulously vibrant city centre, buoyed by a huge tourism sector.

However, there are growing diseconomies such as congestion, and negative externalities, including growing anxiety among a workforce trying to make ends meets in an often unregulated labour market. Most alarmingly, while many outlying neighbourhoods are physically transformed, they are socially deprived, with 55 of the 73 neighbourhoods in Barcelona having seen a decrease in income, since 2008. Wealth isn’t trickling downwards or outwards. Great wealth for some has meant misery for many.

Forging a new ‘social city’ urbanism

Moving forward, progressive thinking and practice in Barcelona, and in UK cities, is about a shift toward social growth and developing a more socially inclusive future.  We need a social city.  This is not just about a rebrand of trickle down via inclusive growth. We need to harness the wealth that is already there and create a new wave of radical urban innovation to create new wealth.

This is about a new ‘social city’ urbanism, which remakes our cities for people.

Barcelona has a new mayor – Ada Colau – who embraces this new agenda and who was elected on behalf of Barcelona en Comú, a new citizens movement.  She, like many new mayors across Spain, represents ‘la nueva politica’, a break to the established order and challenge to the old urbanism and mainstream city economics.

Our work at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies is deeply relevant to a new ‘social city’ urbanism.  Indeed, it is heartening, that many in Barcelona showed great interest in our work on community wealth building, anchor institutions, building on the wealth that is there and the assets of its people and communities and local procurement (see here and here and here and here).

The good urbanism of the future will be less broad-brush and more local. It won’t just incentivise big business, but look at new community cooperatives and ownership. It won’t be about top down leadership, but collaboration. It’s not just GVA growth, but wellbeing. It’s about focussing more of what we have, not just what we can attract.

I left Barcelona with great hope, buoyed by sharing, and encouraged that many are on similar paths.  If we are to create greater levels of inclusion, it is imperative that we abandon the ‘good times’ urbanism and prepare for very different times. Today, the global economy is at best sluggish, at worst, teetering on the brink of new turmoil. We now have climate risk and shaky public finance.

Moving forward, we need to reconnect economic activity with social progress and unleash the energy of all citizens. Above all, the social city does not just link city economies to the global economy. It makes city economies work for its poorest citizens.

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