Madrid vs Barcelona: the two cities at the heart of Europe’s biggest crisis

Young people wearing the Catalan and Spanish flags.Image: Getty.

Who’s that at the door? Chances are it's your neighbour's kids dressed as Dracula threatening to put your windows out. While you pay them off, though, it’s also the perfect moment to wish them a happy World Cities Day.

That’s right – the United Nations has designated the 31 October as the city-ist day of the year. This year, it’s focusing on the theme of “Innovative Governance, Open Cities, to highlight the important role of urbanisation as a source of global development and social inclusion”.

Without wishing to be too facetious, though, has anyone at the UN read a newspaper recently? The aim of World Cities Day is noble, of course, but it will surely provoke hollow laughter in Madrid and Barcelona. At the time of writing the Spanish government is poised to impose direct rule on Catalan citizens. The situation is so fluid that the drama will have undoubtedly moved on by the time you read this.

The novelist and member of the European Cultural Parliament, Laura Freixas, was born in Barcelona and now lives in Madrid. She told me that, in her opinion, since the 1960s, Madrid has admired Barcelona and Barcelona has despised Madrid. “I think Catalan nationalists have convinced many Catalans that Spain equals Madrid equals Partido Popular.”

Freixas says she appreciates the anonymity of Madrid.

“Barcelona has a strong personality, which is wonderful – especially in aesthetic terms – but it is a little stifling too. In Barcelona I have always felt that society was divided between ‘us’  and ‘the others’.” ‘Us’ here refers to 400 bourgeois and Catalan families that dominate the city's social, political, intellectual life. The others are those who arrived later, are not rich, and are not 100 per cent Catalan.

“In Barcelona you are quickly probed - who is your family? What school did you go to? Where do you spend the summers? The answer pigeonholes you immediately, to everybody's relief,” Freixas explains. “In Madrid, by contrast, nobody asks, nobody cares, you are seen as a person, not so much as the representative of a fraction of a social class. Madrid is certainly much less beautiful than Barcelona, it has much less of a personality, but I feel by far more free here than in my home city.”

The Catalan-based broadcast journalist Carrie Frais believes Madrid and Barcelona are in a protracted crisis in which both Catalans and Spanish ‘nationals’ could potentially come out as losers.

“In the long run I do not foresee Catalonia becoming independent,” she says. “But my concern is that the region could emerge from the situation seriously weakened with less ability to negotiate restoring the status quo on their terms. Both Madrid and Catalonia have a lot to lose including their image, the reputation of democratic institutions and most worryingly their economies, which had been performing above and beyond expectations. It will be a long haul to get back to where they were just a month ago.”

The surreal speed at which events are moving was emphasised by Laura Roth, lecturer in the Department of Law at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. She told me that she thinks Barcelona is winning the “legitimacy battle” and Madrid “the coercive one”.

She said: “Most of the things that are happening in the last few weeks were completely unthinkable a few months ago. As long as the international community doesn't intervene, it is most likely that force will be imposed.” The main difference between the two forces is that Madrid has shown it is unwilling to talk, while Catalonia has at least made a few attempts. “In this game of chicken there's one of them that's not willing to give up.

“My personal opinion,” she adds, “is that we're witnessing a transition from the nation-state to new forms of organisation around cities in a global world. But we still need states to function and in our case the European Union is reinforcing the old scheme.”


Robert Fishman, Conex-Marie Curie Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Carlos III University in Madrid said the ruling party in the Spanish capital prides itself on its unwillingness to yield. A referendum accepted by both Madrid and Barcelona would have been the quickest and surest way to resolve the crisis. But the adamant opposition of the Madrid government to this option made it impossible – even though opinion polling clearly showed that independence would have lost in a legally sanctioned vote.

Part of the problem, Fishman says, lies in the two cities’ vastly different economies. Infrastructure investment has focused on Madrid, with all the benefits that implies. Changes in the post-industrial economy have had a more positive economic impact in Madrid than in Barcelona, too: the latter’s economy relies more heavily on manufacturing than the capital, where most corporate HQs are based.

“However,” he adds, “there is a great deal of economic activity in Barcelona that centers on cultural creativity.  Young and creative people tend to be more drawn to Barcelona.”

And an independent Catalan state would “find it very difficult to go it alone.  International recognition and trade would be crucial – but as of now the conditions are not in place for an independent Catalonia to gain international recognition”. Moreover, in order for a new and independent Catalan state to be viable, numerous complex budgetary matters – involving public debt, pension payments and so forth – would have to be resolved in negotiations with Spain. “A negotiation process of that nature seems to be quite impossible.”

None of those I asked expected the crisis to be solved soon or satisfactorily – which is far more disturbing than the badly carved pumpkin in your window.

 
 
 
 

Communities can take control of the regeneration agenda. Hastings Pier proves it

The remains of Hastings Pier in 2010. Image: Getty.

I was blown away when I learned that Hastings Pier – once an abandoned and derelict Victorian relic – had won this year’s Stirling Prize. A community-led development has been officially declared the UK’s best new building. This victory demonstrates that excellent architecture and meaningful regeneration can be achieved through projects that are led by local citizens, and rooted in their communities.

I came to know about Hastings Pier through my involvement in the campaign to save London Road Fire Station in Manchester. These two very different structures have a few important things in common.

Both buildings are held in deep affection by their local communities; both recognised as having important heritage value by official bodies such as Historic England – and both were left to decay.

London Road Fire Station: inspiring. Image: Andrew Turner/Flickr/creative commons.

Sadly, it is not unusual for significant buildings to be left to ruin for decades, when owners can’t or won’t act to sell or save them. Situations like these can be described as “difficult” or even “delinquent” ownership.

In such cases, the ownership of the site becomes a long-term stumbling block preventing regeneration – often with a knock-on effect to the wider area. Even where there is the investment and the political will to bring a building back into use, a project can be stalled permanently by a landowner who refuses to cooperate.

Local consultant Jericho Road Solutions, which was involved with the campaign to save Hastings Pier, established the Community Assets in Difficult Ownership (CADO) programme to work with ten such projects, including Hastings Pier and the London Road Fire Station. Between them, these ten buildings have been empty for a total of 224 years, representing a loss to the economy of more than £1bn.

Local community groups associated with each project received grants, advice and mutual support to help them progress.

People power

Hastings Pier was eventually freed from its private owner, Ravenclaw, through the use of a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). CPOs are legal powers available to local authorities, which can force land owners to sell land or buildings under certain circumstances.

A balance has to be struck between a person’s right to own property and the wider public interest. One example of when a CPO might be used would be to acquire land for major infrastructure projects, such as HS2. For this reason, CPOs can be viewed as a threat by local communities looking to protect their homes and land. But CPOs can also be used to buy a site needed to support urban regeneration, or to save a historic listed building which is in urgent need of repair. This latter mechanism was the one used to save Hastings Pier.

In desperate need of some TLC. Image: jtweed/Flickr/creative commons.

In Hastings, the pressure for the CPO actually came from the local community. Councils are often risk averse and prefer to avoid confrontational action such as CPOs – which can result in significant legal costs if things don’t go according to plan.

By 2011, the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust (HPWRT) had been established, and was raising funds with the long term ambition of taking over the pier to run it as a community asset. But the project remained in limbo due to its “difficult owners”.

With expert advice on both sides and a series of productive meetings, the HPWRT and the local council came to an agreement. The necessary building repairs were identified and Ravenclaw were given an opportunity to carry them out. When this didn’t happen, the council was in a position to acquire the pier using a CPO.

The pier was then immediately transferred to the HPWRT, in what is known as a “back-to-back” agreement. The success of this strategy is a credit to the willingness of both parties to work hard at developing a constructive relationship and to try a new approach.


Inspiring change

The CADO programme has recommended new laws to support the regeneration of buildings that are languishing under a “difficult owner”.

But until those changes can be made, I hope that local authorities and government can take confidence from the success in Hastings and view community groups as partners, working carefully to use enforcement powers that are already available to them. These strategies can secure the highest standards in architecture and – unlike much private investment in development and regeneration – the buildings belong to the community.

The ConversationThere are also lessons here for community activists. Those working to influence their local area often find themselves reacting to proposals by developers. Precious time and resources are consumed with this essential scrutiny work to fight inappropriate developments. But the story of Hastings Pier should inspire citizens everywhere, reminding them to sometimes take a proactive approach to pursuing the kind of built environment they yearn for.

Emma Curtin, Architect and lecturer, University of Liverpool.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.