· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Showcase Cities, Agora Cities. A vision of Barcelona built on solidarity

A globalised city like Barcelona can choose to either continue on its current path towards becoming a “showcase city” – one that is eager to please tourists and investors, or rebuild the city, basing it on the idea of an “agora” city – focussed on the needs and aspirations of its people. The social and solidarity economy has a few ideas that might set it in the right direction...

Recently, a group of individuals produced a contextualisation document on the solidarity economy in Barcelona, outlining a future strategy for the city’s solidarity economy over the next ten years. This document was based on the draft document by Jordi Estivill, [1] which discussed the idea of a city like Barcelona struggling between being “showcase” or “agora”.

Discussing this idea and the challenge of addressing the role of a solidarity economy in a globalised city like Barcelona is a chance to reflect on the type of city we want to live in: a showcase city that revolves around the decisions and actions of those who don’t actually live there; or a collective ‘agora city’ that is home to a thriving local economy, focussed on the needs and aspirations of the people living and working there.

We will discuss the effects that the “Barcelona showcase” has on the lives of its citizens, in particular those caused by the overwhelming presence of multinationals and, of course, tourism. Lastly, we will describe the strategies developed by Catalonia’s Solidarity Economy Network (hereinafter the XES) to work towards agora cities.

Showcase cities, agora cities

I often walk around my city and feel proud; it makes me happy and gives me goose bumps. Other times I find it hard to live there and it disgusts, upsets or revolts me. I feel proud and happy when the streets and squares are filled with performers and music; when people I admire share their words and thoughts in open spaces; when I take to the streets with strangers to protest or demonstrate; when people from different walks of life fly flags of all colours and hold up cardboard banners; when I take to the road on my bike; when I’m running in my trainers or walking, shouting and singing at the top of my lungs in the streets; when I go shopping at the market on Saturdays; when I chat with the baker, the postman and the neighbouring building’s doorman.

I feel angry and deeply saddened when I see lots of people living on the streets, sleeping outside banks; when the Ciutat Meridiana neighbourhood is called “eviction city” and La Mina neighbourhood (a neighbourhood that the city has abandoned) is called “lawless city”; when I see a new building converted into a hotel or an empty space turned into a betting office; when I hear about the 7am traffic jams on the radio or see pavements overflowing with items, making it impossible for me to get through; when I remember places that I don’t go to anymore because they’ve become overtaken by tourists; when police brutally take their anger out on those least able to defend themselves; when class discrimination is full of racism; when instead of public benches there are dozens of terraces designed for tourists.

The physical space of a city reflects what goes on within it; it is also the social relations within a city that constitute its creative force. Some people in the city make the street a meeting place and others see it merely as an economic equation. In a recent interview with the Observatorio del Cambio Rural (Rural Change Observatory) in Ecuador, David Harvey explained that cities are created by the people who live in them. However, this occurs amidst capital circulation processes that increasingly and exponentially need to “progress” by purchasing and selling land, constructing buildings and new infrastructure, determining mobility standards and gathering data to sell in the future.

These processes interfere with our lives, despite the fact that they make no economic, social or environmental sense because they only serve for speculation purposes “and to perpetuate capitalist class relations”. According to both Harvey and Henri Lefebvre, asserting the right to the city (defined in 1968 [2]) requires theoretically and concretely fighting capitalist urbanisation and, more importantly, fighting the production method that it helps to perpetuate.

My agora city makes me happy; my showcase city revolts me. Many locals in Barcelona live in this permanent state of conflict while trying to assert their right to the city; a right which, as stated by Harvey, is not material or territorial, but rather political: the right to self-determination and to transform the environment in which we live. According to Harvey, the question we should ask ourselves is: “What type of city do we want?” This particular question must go hand in hand with “What kind of person do we want to be?” and “What type of social relationships do we want to prioritise?”

Barcelona: a brief analysis of the showcase city

Many people see Barcelona, named one of the ten most “instagrammable” European cities in 2018, as a souvenir, profit or speculation city. In order to briefly analyse the showcase Barcelona that serves multinationals, I will focus on three closely related sectors: technology, tourism and urbanism.

In February 2018, a study entitled “Barcelona als ulls del món 2018” [3] (“Barcelona In the Eyes of the World 2018”) was published. According to the study, the Catalonian capital boasts a positive image of a rich city that attracts developers, investors and businesspeople, with an emerging technological and biomedical industry linked to vibrant creativity, ideal for “culturally restless urbanites”.

Barcelona’s new image, which allows people “to develop their skills and fully pursue their professional ambitions, while at the same time being able to enjoy life to the full”, [4] is based on the following six pillars: connection, initiative, soul, contrasts, talent and commitment. I will focus on “connection”, which I believe best illustrates the way in which the showcase city generates inequalities. Firstly, it is stated that “the privileged geographical location of Barcelona and its infrastructures makes it well connected to the world.” It also happens to attract hefty private investments.

All-important technology

Barcelona was a world leader in international conferences in 2017, hosting 195 conferences and 2,134 state business meetings with a total of 674,890 participants. These were in addition to the World Mobile Congress, a mobile phone “super-conference” attended by major multinational corporations (this conference boasted the most participants, with a total of 109,000 in 2018).

In 2017, the city was home to 18.3% of technology businesses in Catalonia and represented 48.4% of jobs. [5] Although Barcelona is renowned for being a technology hub, there are still digital divides between neighbourhoods, ages and education levels. [6] 16% of the city’s households have no Internet access (38.3% in Torre Baró, Ciutat Meridiana and Vallabona) and 3.7% cannot afford it.

Along with Amsterdam, Bristol, Paris, San Francisco and Seoul, Barcelona is considered to be one of the most collaborative cities in the world, cities in which “public and private initiatives are established to favour a collaborative economy, which grant people more power, aim to put an end to social inequalities and help to improve quality of life.”

That is all well and good. But we should not confuse chalk with cheese and lump together respectable models that encourage innovation and collective wellbeing (co-working areas, consumer groups, time banks, complementary currencies, second-hand exchanges, etc.) with massive technological service platforms (related to tourism, mobility, property, etc.) that profit from exchanges between people.

These are big aggressive companies that speculate on data and have stratospheric investments... which are not profitable! These companies, known as “unicorns”, attempt to dodge state and local regulations and clearly have a detrimental impact on peoples’ lives. Therefore, in 2018, 42 cities from around the world gathered in Barcelona to sign the Sharing Cities Declaration in order to limit the atrocities experienced by citizens as a result of platform capitalism, as coined by Nick Srnicek. [7]

All-important tourism

In her thesis “Barcelona, destinació turística” (“Barcelona, Tourist Destination”), Saida Palou explains how Barcelona has promoted itself since the beginning of the 20th century, projecting certain values and an image of itself that is adapted and rewritten depending on how the city is perceived by outsiders. This was not coincidental, but is the result of a collusion (or conflict, depending on the period) between the city’s political models and the private economic interests of its ruling classes.

This is most probably why all local governments, with no exception, have agreed on (or surrendered to) the “need” to promote (in other words, sell) the city in economic terms, entrusting para-municipal organisations to do this. These institutions, focussed on tourism, economic promotion and attracting investments, have opposed local policies on many occasions.

It is boasted that “Barcelona has one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, a high-speed railway network [...] and one of the fastest-growing international airports in terms of flights, passengers and connections over recent years” (50M passengers in 2018 and 70M forecast for 2026). Barcelona’s popularity has also given rise to the neologism barcelonización (barcelonisation), [8] coined to convey the extent to which the city has become a victim of its own success. As Carlos García explains, Barcelona is a prime example of the consequences of overtourism in international publications. In fact, the World Tourism Organisation chose Barcelona, along with seven other cities, to study the phenomenon and propose measures to counteract this issue.

All-important urbanism

“Barcelona als ulls del món 2018” also explains that the city strengthens connectivity “thanks to the social fabric of neighbourhood life and other cities in its metropolitan area, [...] it has areas where companies, properties and businesses coexist, and promotes initiatives and platforms that contribute to making it a smart, advanced city.” In the study’s introduction, Gerardo Pisarello, councillor for the city’s municipalist movement, Barcelona en Comú, stated that “Barcelona is not a city to be speculated on.” Multinationals, however, know that it is exactly what it is.

Blackstone, currently the biggest property speculator in the world, capitalises on empty, debt-ridden properties in Barcelona, and profits from its popularity with international buyers whose significant socio-economic power gives them supposed “right of way” to a cosmopolitan city, consumers with a globalised cultural outlook, for whom bars and restaurants have to stay open around the clock. This is why Barcelona, the second most expensive city in Europe (per square metre), is also the city where affordable housing is the main concern [9] for those that live there.

And the concern is not unfounded, as Blackstone is just the tip of the iceberg; Barcelona has a strong presence of investors in property trading. “The low profitability offered by other investment products, the fall in stock prices over the past twelve months, and the good health of the real estate market, with prices constantly increasing (both sales and rents) means that investors have made a sharp turn towards real estate assets. These operations require almost no financing and help to drive up prices.” [10] Properties in Barcelona are not for living in, but rather for generating wealth, and there are consequences. A study conducted by the Centre d’Estudis Sociològics (Sociological Research Centre) in 2018 stated that 27% of locals had left or are thinking of leaving Barcelona, mainly due to economic reasons.

Moreover, although Barcelona currently seeks to be a city that “allows for both personal and professional growth while at the same time [making it possible] to enjoy life to the full,” [11] the Catalonian capital is also a city with glaring socio-economic inequalities. Property accessibility has been an issue in the city since the end of the nineteenth century, and this has been exacerbated by the arrival of multinationals (which, it should be said, the city itself sought to attract, in particular, since 1992).

Proposals for the development of agora cities

The XES, whose headquarters are in Barcelona, promotes an agora city model that focuses on developing socio-economic links between citizens. It does not aim to satisfy capital needs, but rather people’s needs, supported by local relations and generating a social market.

In order to achieve this, the XES has developed a strategy involving awareness-raising, mapping, self-recognition and the provision of tools to improve the city environment and influence public policies so that they support the solidarity economy as much as possible and integrate its values.

With regards to awareness-raising and mapping, the two main tools used by the XES are the Feria de Economía Solidaria de Cataluña (Catalonian Solidarity Economy Fair, or FESC using its Spanish abbreviation) and the PamaPam website. Not only is the FESC the highest-visibility event of the year for Barcelona’s solidarity economy, but it is also a meeting point for initiatives. PamaPam is a collective tool for identifying and mapping solidarity economy initiatives that allow consumers to make informed and responsible decisions.

While the FESC and PamaPam are key awareness-raising and mapping tools, social audits and the related annual report on “Catalonia’s Social Market”, as well as local solidarity economy networks, are key to our strategy, which is based on self-recognition and mutual support.

Social auditing is a tool to measure accountability, social and environmental impacts and good governance that has been used in solidarity organisations since 2007 (and which has evolved significantly with regards to complexity, technological programming and technical accuracy). Nowadays, social auditing has become a reference tool for accounting and measuring the impact of Catalonia’s solidarity economy. In 2018, 188 Catalonian companies and entities carried out a social audit (450 throughout Spain), which increased to 231 in 2019.

Local Catalonian solidarity economy networks also constitute a fundamental tool for self-recognition and mutual support in organisations located in one area (neighbourhood, town or district). Eleven such networks exist to date: four in Barcelona and seven in the rest of Catalonia. Eight others are in the process of being set up, including three in different neighbourhoods of Barcelona.

These local networks are a very good example of the way in which to build “agora” cities and towns, in the sense that they highlight the collective nature of the work “between cooperative initiatives, grassroots community initiatives, local and alternative means of communication, transversal organisations (such as Som Energia, Fiare or Coop57), social and neighbourhood movements (such as the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), neighbourhood associations, the agro-ecological movement and the economy for the common good)”, cultural self-management areas (“people’s universities”, community centres) and community plans. These networks represent veritable archipelagos of resistance against the force of multinational corporations. This takes the form of self-managed work, collective consumption, defending citizens’ rights, mutual support, etc.

Another proposal made by the social and solidarity economy (SSE) to develop agora cities focuses on direct political impact. The XES has promoted two tools: community auditing, an accountability tool that seeks to continually improve community management processes for equipment and public spaces, and “15 Steps Towards a Social and Solidarity Economy in Municipalities”. Community auditing (which also encompasses the idea of social responsibility) is intended to be a tool that supports and facilitates the local policy of citizen heritage, in that it measures the impact and social return to the community. The “15 Steps Towards a Social and Solidarity Economy in Municipalities” statement is the XES’s most recent line of work and serves to promote local policies in order to develop the SSE in Catalonia.

At the beginning of this article I stated that, faced with globalisation, the Catalonian capital’s solidarity economy is seeking to develop an “agora” or collective city model. It does this not only by denouncing the effects of multinationals on our lives, but by taking a practical approach: proposing self-management alternatives, conscious consumption and democratic production, developing improvement tools for solidarity economy organisations themselves, as well as influencing public policies, particularly local policies. From a personal and collective point of view, the solidarity economy offers a way of living and building social relations that creates a Barcelona that is truly “agora”. This represents a model of social relations that is poles apart from the “showcase” Barcelona designed by corporations, telling us what kind of city we want to live in and, as Harvey would put it, the kind of people we want to be.

By Guernica Facundo

Guernica Facundo Vericat, after working for the public administration, has co-founded companies linked to the field of economic, social and local development. A firm advocate for women entrepreneurs, she is currently a working partner of LabCoop, a cooperative dedicated to supporting new social entrepreneurship projects.

Translated from the Spanish.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti

Photo : FESC, CC BY-SA

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[1Invitació a l’economia solidària. Una visió des de Catalunya. Jordi Estivill. Col·lecció Eines 2, Xarxa d’Economia Solidària. Pol·len Edicions, 2019.

[2Le droit à la ville. Éditions Anthropos, 1968. El derecho a la ciudad. Península, 1969.

[3The study “Barcelona als Ulls del Món 2018” is based on surveys completed by tourists and businesses (online and on-site), locals, journalists from other cities, experts in brand creation and entrepreneurs. It analysed more than 3,000 interviews held between late 2017 and early 2018 and 260,000 tweets on Barcelona, Amsterdam, Singapore and Miami.

[4AlwaysBarcelona, see here.

[6La brecha digital en la ciudad de Barcelona, see here.

[7Platform Capitalism. Polity, 2016.

[8“No, I don’t think that barcelonisation will occur [...] in Madrid, tourism is not as invasive as it is in Barcelona. There is not an invasion here every time a cruise ship arrives.” Manuela Carmena in La Vanguardia 23/02/2019.

[9Enquesta de serveis municipals 2018, Barcelona City Council.

[10See here.

[11AlwaysBarcelona, see here.

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