In Barcelona, buy-to-leave properties have criminal consequences

“The greed of banks destroys neighbourhoods”. Image: Acció Reina Amalia.

The buy-to-leave properties that dot London’s skyline are a riling reminder of our housing crisis: how it has made homes into financial assets, how rising property values have encouraged speculation, and how these forces have pushed people out of the city.

In Spain, though, empty houses have criminal consequences of a different sort. Narcopisos, which translates as “drug flats”, are the dark face of property speculation in Spanish cities like Barcelona and Madrid. These empty properties, many of which are owned by banks and private equity funds, have been converted into distribution points and shooting stations for cheap heroin.

El Raval, a central district in Barcelona, was notorious for a heroin epidemic in the 1980s. Now, the drugs have returned. Armed police break into apartments on a weekly basis, lining users up against the wall outside as local residents congregate to watch. There are an estimated 50 narcopisos across the four-mile radius of El Raval, though figures are difficult to verify, with dealers’ locations changing regularly.

For their neighbours, street life is grimy and antisocial; users come and go at all hours and leave used syringes in their wake. Local activist groups have taken to the streets in anger, bashing pans in traditional Spanish cacerolada protests and rallying together under the banner “contra narcoespeculación” (against narco-speculation).

“After the crisis, many people couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages and were evicted from their homes. Then banks started to swoop in and buy up whole blocks of flats”, Andres Perez Conte of Acció Reina Amalia, a neighbourhood action group in El Raval, tells me.

“We’re trying to get more detailed data, but as it stands, it seems that around 65 per cent of the empty apartments taken over by narcopisos are registered to banks like BBVA and real estate funds like Blackstone”, he says, adding that the city’s rising property values following its tourism boom means “banks just sit on these properties, speculating on their future value”.

I first meet Andres at a neighbourhood gathering where activist groups affix green stickers to a street map marking the presence of narcopisos. Acció Raval, one of the most prominent groups of neighbourhood vigilantes, has created a digitised map of different drug flats across the barrio.

“Some people are calling for more police on the streets to deal with this issue. But we want to avoid the war-on-drugs scenario that can end up basically just pushing out poor people – and instead, we’re focusing on rehabilitating users and tackling the financial speculation that is the cause of these empty buildings”, Andres tells me.


But not everyone agrees with him. The drug squatters have exposed a deeper tension over property rights in the city. For people like Andres, their existence points to a systemic problem whose cause is the banks and private equity firms that hold empty properties. For others, it’s a different problem that causes the narco-squatters: the failure to enforce property rights coupled with Barcelona’s anarchistic political culture.

This division came to a head in a fractious debate on Facebook earlier this year, when the owner of an empty apartment cautioned members of a “Barcelona Expats” group to beware invasion by drug dealers who target the holiday pads of foreigners.

“Respect for private ownership is key [to] any society”, one member said, while another excoriated a squatter-sympathiser to “set down the bong and your dog-eared copy of Proudhon”. Some see narcopisos as the result of moral failings, pitting drug dealers and squatters against those who have worked hard for their multiple properties.

But Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, appears to side with an explanation that points to structural rather than individual problems. In April earlier this year, she got behind a policy that will force banks to hand over repossessed properties that stand empty.

At a talk alongside sociologist Saskia Sassen in May, Colau referred to narcopisos as a “vicious circle”, and cautioned attendees about reactionary approaches that only serve as cover for broader political projects intent on gentrification.

“There are hundreds of flats owned by large banks left empty to speculate. Drug dealers use them – and then the right wing takes advantage of the situation to accelerate the evictions of vulnerable people", she said.

As with London, criminality in Barcelona is a contested concept: its meaning depends on whether or not you’re a property owner.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.