From ‘Smart City’ to ‘collective intelligence’: radical change in Barcelona

Originally published on June 1 on Sustainable Cities Collective

On May 24, Barcelona went to the polls and, by a narrow margin, elected the radical new citizen platform, Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) to form the new government. Its leader, former housing rights activist Ada Colau will be the city’s first female mayor.

Barcelona en Comú investiture

Launched in June of last year, Barcelona en Comú is made up of activists, social movements and progressive political parties who share the goal of “winning back” Barcelona from the political and economic elites holding it hostage and democratizing the city’s public institutions.

Two, very different urban visions went head-to-head in the elections: the professionalized, Smart City of incumbent mayor Xavier Trias, and the city governed by the ‘collective intelligence’ of its citizens, advocated by Ada Colau.

What can the world can expect to see by a Barcelona governed ‘in common’ over the next four years?

Transparency and accountability

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One of the first steps taken by Barcelona en Comú was to crowdsource a political code of ethics for its representatives. The agreement includes two-term limits, a maximum monthly salary of 2,200 Euros, a ban on extra payments for attending meetings, and commitments to transparency regarding party financing and the personal income and assets of candidates. It will set up a new public body made up of professionals and citizens to oversee public procurement, as well as a municipal corruption office where anonymous tip-offs can be made and investigated.

Participatory democracy

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One of the core messages in the Barcelona en Comú campaign was that voting once every four years is not enough to ensure a genuine democracy; citizens must be able to participate in decision-making about all of the issues that affect them. Over 5000 people participated in assemblies, workshops and online to draw up the Barcelona en Comú electoral program, and the platform promises to continue to govern in this spirit and set up new participation mechanisms at neighborhood and city level.

A new model of tourism

Barcelona is a leading destination for tourism and international conferences, but some neighborhoods are beginning to crack under the pressure of visitor numbers. Last August saw a wave of protests in the Barceloneta neighborhood against the lax regulation of illegal tourist apartments, rising rents, and gentrification. In the short term, Barcelona en Comú proposes a moratorium on licenses for hotels and tourist apartments, and a clamp-down on illegal rentals. It also plans to invest the existing tourist tax in public services, rather than in promoting tourism, and promises to involve local residents in the development of a strategic tourism plan. In the long term, it hopes to diversify the city’s economy to make it less dependent on the sector and to ensure that visitors can enjoy a living city, rather than an “empty stage”.

Guaranteeing the right to housing and basic services

Barcelona en Comú has budgeted 100 million Euros to guaranteeing the right to housing, food, basic services, and a city-wide minimum wage. Barcelona is currently the eviction capital of Spain. Barcelona en Comú plans to identify empty dwellings and incentivize their use by providing support for their renovation or insurance against possible defaults in rental payments. It has also threatened to fine banks and investment funds that sit on empty properties. One of the most ambitious parts of the Barcelona en Comú manifesto is the promise to review the privatization of the city’s water service in 2012 and attempt to bring it back under municipal control.

A feminist city

Barcelona en Comú ran as a proudly feminist platform, advocating for the mainstreaming of gender across all areas of public policy, particularly in budget allocations. Its stand-out gender policies include: using the procurement power of the city council to demand minimum standards of gender equality from the companies it contracts; ending the city-wide ban on the use of full face veils in public spaces; expanding public childcare for 0-3 year olds, and working with sex workers to improve their conditions and protect their human rights.

Decentralized green urbanism

Barcelona en Comú has been critical of the multi-million Euro urban megaprojects seen in Barcelona in recent years. Its ‘megaproject’ will be the sum of numerous low-cost neighborhood interventions, reminiscent of the ‘lighter, cheaper, quicker’ philosophy. These will be concentrated in the city’s most deprived neighborhoods and designed with the participation of local residents. It plans to create a network green corridors from one side of the city to the other to facilitate mobility by foot and bike and promote biodiversity. The new government will also attempt to ‘green’ Barcelona, which currently doesn’t meet WHO minimum standards for green spaces, by introducing community managed allotments, planting roof and wall gardens, and connecting the city with its natural hinterland.

Internationalism rebooted

In its initial statement of intent, Barcelona en Comú declared that “a democratic rebellion in Barcelona would not just be a local phenomenon. It would connect with other grassroots initiatives that aim to break away from the current political and financial system from below in Catalonia, Spain, and the rest of Europe”. One of its ten policy priorities is to “make Barcelona an international model of a fair and democratic city”. It has already established links with Syriza-led municipal governments in Greece and the radical left in Portugal, and held meetings with the former mayor of Quito, Augusto Barrera. Expect to see Barcelona reaching out to citizens across the world to share its new, collective story.

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