Barcelona: The world’s most radical city?
David Thorpe | 27 February 2018
Spain’s Barcelona is spawning a new era of citizen-led activities that rely on co-operatives organising a range of activities, often based on barter markets and including a network of common stores, an alternative currency called the “eco”, a cooperative social fund for financing community projects and a “basic income program” for paying members for their work – all while heading down the smart city/low energy route. Our UK-based Europe correspondent David Thorpe writes about the self-proclaimed “fearless city”.
Barcelona has a long and radical tradition going back to the anarchist collectives documented by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, his book about his experiences fighting alongside anarchists against the fascist forces of General Franco. It is unsurprising, then, that, following the particularly severe effect upon Spain of the banking crisis of 10 years ago, creative grassroots responses to austerity have emerged.
Barcelona is home to a radical grassroots and citizen-led movement that coalesced in June 2014 under the “Yes we can” (Podemos) slogan into the platform Barcelona en Comú, an organisational structure for individuals, activist groups and political parties. This linked networks of local assemblies allowing people to engage in policy decisions.
Ada Colau, a former housing activist, astonished everyone when in June 2015, as part of Barcelona en Comú, she was elected mayor – the first woman to hold the office.
“Democracy was born at local level, and that’s where we can win it back,” she declared.
She had been a founder of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) that was set up in 2009 in response to the rise in evictions caused by unpaid mortgage loans and the collapse of the Spanish property market (she co-wrote a book, Mortgaged Lives, based on her experiences).
In one of her first speeches Colau called for “an end of the political class removed from the people”.
She was not alone: the same year saw radical mayors elected in Madrid, Valencia, Zaragoza and La Coruña and together they announced the Rebel Cities network – a group of cities confronting central government, devising their own policies, and making a worldwide plea for other cities to join. A handbook is available for other cities to follow.
The Catalan Integral Cooperative
From the same movement that gave birth to Colau came the Catalan Integral Co-operative (Integral is perhaps best translated as holistic). Its goal is to build an anti-capitalist co-operative structure not just for the benefit of its own fee-paying members but for the commons as a whole.
“The main objective of the CIC is nothing less than to build an alternative economy capable of satisfying the needs of the local community more effectively than the existing system, thereby creating the conditions for the transition to a post-capitalist mode of organisation of social and economic life,” writes George Dafermos, author of a new report on the co-operative.
Since its formation seven years ago, headquartered in the AureaSocial building, it has been actively involved in developing infrastructures as diverse as barter markets, a network of common stores, an alternative currency called the “eco”, a cooperative social fund for financing community projects and a “basic income program” for paying members for their work.
Its activities are not confined to Barcelona, but extend across Catalonia.
The CIC is a collection of about 10 committees with responsibilities for different topics. For example, the economic management committee, the legal committee, the IT committee and so on. Each works largely autonomously but to coordinate their activities, the co-op holds “permanent assemblies” once a month where members make collective decisions based on consensus.
It has about 600 “self-employed members”. There are also 20 self-managed pantries run by local consumer groups wishing to purchase products made locally or by producers associated in other parts of Catalonia, chosen through an online list of over 1000 items supplied by currently 70 producers and distributed by vans.
According to Dafermos, the co-op is “based on direct exchange and the use of alternative community currencies”.
“The way this ecosystem operates represents the model of the autonomous public market envisioned as a means of satisfying the needs of the local community… a model for the transition to a post-capitalist economy.”
A minimum income scheme
This radicalism extends to the official level. The city is one of several places in the world that are trialling a minimum income scheme – B-MINCOME – in two of the city’s poorest barrios. Here, citizens receive a guaranteed minimum level of income. Receipt for some of them is conditional upon agreeing to some level of community work, by volunteering. Others have other conditions, or none at all, and the results of the trial will be evaluated to determine the most successful model.
The designers of the scheme – which is supported by a grant from Urban Innovative Actions, a European Commission initiative that supports projects investigating “innovative and creative solutions” in urban areas – took experience from the governments of Finland, the Canadian province of Ontario and the Dutch municipality of Utrecht, all of whom have designed guaranteed income experiments in their own areas.
Barcelona is going smart city as well
Barcelona is also smart in the digital and eco senses of the word. As one of the leading smart cities worldwide, 50 per cent of street lighting are LEDs fitted with sensors to switch on when they detect motion and dim when streets are empty, saving 30 per cent of previous energy.
Around 19,500 smart meters monitoring and optimising energy consumption have been installed across the city, including a sensor system helping drivers to locate available parking spaces, reducing congestion and emissions.
There is a Bicing app, providing updated information on the location of public bike stations and bike availability, and the city has one of the biggest free public WiFi networks in Europe.
Smart technology is also used to improve the speed and efficiency of the city’s new orthogonal bus network, and digital bus shelters are also in place. The proposed new bus network is based on an orthogonal grid scheme, which has emerged as the most efficient in urban systems. This network ensures the isotropy of the territory – equally covering all parts of the municipality. This improves connectivity between the lines and accessibility for all users.
The new scheme is not only functional but also more “readable”, and is structured similarly to the metro and a network becomes easily understandable. Furthermore, the great majority of targets are achieved with a single transfer, simplifying use of the bus network and avoiding the current need to know each line individually.
Superblocks cutting traffic
All of this is helping with the superblock project, to be piloted in four areas in the city.
This will remove traffic from city streets to create pedestrian-centric neighbourhoods that improve health and sustainability, and reduce pollution. It was adopted as a centrepiece of the city’s mobility plan in 2015 to remove cars from within the superblocks, “liberating” 70 per cent of the city’s land for public use, according to Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona.
Focus for change
Now calling itself a “fearless city”, Barcelona is positioning itself as a focus for a movement, hosting a Fearless Cities summit in June and a Smart City Expo in November, on defining cities as radical, citizen-empowering places.
According to Dr Bertie Russell, research fellow at the Urban Institute in the University of Sheffield in the UK, Barcelona and Madrid’s decidim process of citizen involvement in decision-making is good because it allows citizens to set the policy agenda, not just react to it.
He supports the trend to “establish non-market, non-public sector initiatives – urban commons – and recognises their right to self-determination”, citing as another example, “Naples’ decision to create a Department of the Commons and provide a legal status for previously squatted social centres.”
A mayor who has reduced her salary and invites other mayors to visit
Local activist Edu Salvador also thinks this is a good approach: “Through her leadership in international conferences of cities, Colau has been active in bringing to Barcelona mayors from main progressive cities of the world. She is a responsible mayor, and has reduced her salary – the salary of the previous mayor was outrageously high.”
Barcelona – home of Antoni Gaudí – is continuing to be every bit as revolutionary as that unique man’s architectural style, pioneering 21st century solutions that address the kind of citizen disillusionment with power that has fuelled reactionary movements elsewhere in the world in the past few years. But by positioning itself within an alternative movement, it is determined that its ideas can be replicated and supported elsewhere.
Read David Thorpe’s surprisingly uplifting post apocalyptic short fiction work set in Barcelona here, published as part of our summer reading, For The Greater Good.
David Thorpe’s two new books are Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Solar Energy Pocket Reference. He’s also the author of Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.