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AN INTERVIEW WITH JOAN CLOS, MAYOR OF BARCELONA
by JosÚ M. Gˇmez and Eugeni Madue˝o

 

- Where is Barcelona headed, with you at the helm?

Towards its destiny as a leading European city. And it’s heading in that direction with a great deal of impetus.

- What sort of a city is it going to be?

A central one. Now that there is a lot of talk of the disappearance of cities as we know them in Europe, with the emergence of a more regional type of city, with a less clearly defined and more extensive structure, I think that Barcelona is demonstrating its intention of continuing as a city in the widest sense of the word, a city with central functions, the centre of a metropolitan reality.

- A reality whose consolidation has met with considerable and deliberate obstacles.

Obstacles that have been overcome. It’s something quite magic, and I think it has to do with Barcelona’s vocation. The questioning of the city’s central function has come to nothing in the end, because that function has resurfaced and asserted its primacy. I think that it can be attributed to the vitality of Barcelona’s citizens and the city’s will to continue as a centre, now a metropolitan and regional one. People want Barcelona to maintain this symbolic function, one that is not terribly precise or well-defined, but one that is no less real for all that, since everyone recognises and accepts it. Just look at how people come from all around to look, to use and to take advantage of this city, which is also theirs.

- As far as uses and functions are concerned, in what direction is this Barcelona, this metropolitan-regional centre, headed?

In the first place, we have to consolidate this reality, and promote and project it, and do even better. In the second place, Barcelona has to take advantage of and participate in the changes that are occurring as a result of the technological revolution, and must transform itself into a model for the future. We are now living in a society centred on communication and information, and the impact of this focus on how work is organised, on how we get along with each other and on what society is like are no longer something to be considered when planning for the future, but rather our day-to-day reality.

- In this discussion, there is a basic contradiction between day-to-day reality and administrative or political reality. You are the mayor of Barcelona in a formal sense, but in fact you’re much more than that, since the actual Barcelona isn’t just the territory defined by the laws governing its administration, but in fact the reality that has come about naturally. Do you also consider yourself mayor of the real Barcelona, or at least of the one that you can get to on the underground?

Yes, of course, because in a way all of us together form a reality that has Barcelona at its head but that reaches far beyond it. This reality transcends administrative limits and is much greater, since more and more people now live in Barcelona and work outside the city, or vice versa. In the past fifteen years, the city has mushroomed into the surrounding territory, and as a result of this expansion, and also owing to a higher standard of living and greater purchasing power, the ring roads were built, the trains belonging to the Catalan Autonomous Government have improved their services, as have the local trains run by RENFE, the national railway, and all of this together makes it quite obvious that reality has prevailed over administrative laws. The facts show that while the dissolution of the Barcelona Metropolitan Corporation (CMB) was insufficient to change the course of history, life and government are, fortunately, two very different things.

- How strong is this Barcelona in comparison with other European cities?

We are a reality comprising 4.2 million inhabitants, residing in different municipalities, but when we compete, or strive, or produce, we do it on the basis of this wider ensemble. We also form a joint market with huge potential.

- And in terms of specificity?

We’re succeeding in forming the centre of this urban and demographic reality. We’re searching for approaches that allow the city to be reconciled with the people who live there. I can assure you that other European cities are finding this very difficult. For example, it doesn’t work like that in London. The City doesn’t belong to its residents, but to its property-owners. In the heart of London, there is no conventional democracy, but rather a census-based one. Only property-owners can vote there. And what’s the result? Well, for example, they want to convert Trafalgar Square into a pedestrian area, because it’s a traffic nightmare, and no one can take such a step, no one knows where to begin, and no one has the power to do it. This goes to show that London needs a mayor, and that Mrs. Thatcher, in her stubborn insistence that London does not need a local government, was quite mistaken.

- Reconciling the city with its inhabitants means banishing the automobile, and your government has been rather timid in this area.

It means following through with a line of action centred on bringing traffic under control. It’s admirable how the people of Barcelona accept this process, how these changes are being carried out with no problems, even when they’re very expensive. For example, the granite kerbs that we’re installing are by no means cheap, and the people accept this without complaining, because, besides understanding the budget, they appreciate the quality of the work being carried out, the value added by the high-quality urban fittings that we are putting in place. And because of the sense of ownership that Barcelona’s citizens have with regard to their city, seeing it as an extension of their own home, as shared property.

- In discussing the centre, we automatically think of Plaša Catalunya.

Yes, but this is not really the case. Barcelona has a number of central areas. At the moment we’re putting the finishing touches to the boulevards in Nou Barris, on Passeig Valldaura, and in Sant Andreu, on Passeig Torres i Bages, and in this way, we’re extending the symbolic quality of the centre to the city as a whole. During the 20 years of democratically elected local government, the mayors of all of the surrounding municipalities have done more or less the same thing: dignify their downtown areas. For example, the mayor of L’Hospitalet has just presented 21 projects for the 21st century, all based on this concept. Everyone wants to do what they can to prosper and progress.

- If Pasqual Maragall is elected as president of the Catalan Autonomous Government, will you ask him to revive the Metropolitan Corporation?

Yes, because this sort of organisation is still necessary. And I say this with all due respect for the Association of Municipalities, which was formed to fill the void left by the CMB. This voluntary association has been very useful and it has shown the mayors the benefits of joining together and co-operating. In fact, all that we need are a couple of areas of competence, such as town planning or infrastructure, and that will be sufficient. We won’t need anything else. There’s no need to plan more overarching institutions. The time for that sort of approach is past. The Metropolitan Area works quite well with 100 people, we don’t need any more than that. Nor do we need large governments. Or so much planning, particularly town planning. The times when planners demanded to know everything, right down to the width of the pavement in specific place, have passed. The city should not be an expression of the government’s wishes, but rather of the citizens’. It should be more malleable, more expressive, in short, more civic.

- Barcelona’s citizens, particularly the builders among them, have made it clear that their economic sense far outweighs their aesthetic sense. What should the government be doing about this?

It should be intensifying the flow of information and awareness. Things don’t need old-fashioned power structures in order to work properly.

- And what is the role of politics in all this?

What I have just said is highly political.

- Very well, what we mean is politics in the traditional sense of the term. You have said: "The people of Barcelona are delighted to have granite kerbs."

Yes, and what is more, they’re paying for them quite happily.

- But you cannot know what the people as a whole think; you will only know that on election day.

I don’t agree. I don’t think that this is the case any longer. As the distance closes between politics and public administration, on the one hand, and the people, on the other, citizens can participate in more ways than just voting. This is the benefit of subsidiarity. Just look out the window, and you’ll see Plaša Sant Jaume converted into a veritable Roman forum. Over there is a group of trade unionists holding a sit-in to demand a 35-hour working week, over there a group protesting I don’t know what, and before long, others will be arriving.... The reality of city is right here, right now.

- But this is just a part, not the whole.

Then I’ll give you a broader example. There are 124 sports centres in Barcelona, and 119 of them are run by non-profit organisations or clubs. This is an exceptional pattern, and one that we are very proud of. Is it a model for political participation? Whatever label you put on it, it’s an example of citizen participation.

- A participation that has nothing to do with political parties.

Exactly, that’s just it, it’s a type of participation that transcends political parties. You can work in politics through the parties, but that’s not the only way, or even the most important. We learned a long time ago not to take the same road as the Social Democrat parties, managing companies, schools, savings co-operatives, and so on. Now, and I say this in a relative sense, we are truly post-modern.

- That’s all very well for participation from the bottom up, but it doesn’t work going in the other direction, from the top down, because the only way to be elected mayor is by running with a political party. And our parties have serious deficiencies in terms of democracy, and they are organised as a hierarchy. By the way, have you had to bow to the party’s will on many occasions?

No, our relations are good. The party isn’t monolithic. I’m a member of the Executive Committee and the Standing Committee, and we get things done.

- In the past, political parties depended on intellectuals within the party; rank and file members debated the city’s future and decided on what approaches to take. Now, for example, who decides on what is to be done with Poblenou? The party? The councillors chosen by mayor? Who is in charge now, who has the task of thinking globally? You say: "Barcelona will be the city of knowledge," as Maragall said: "We will be the cultural capital in 2001". Very well, our question is this: Whose idea was it? Who took the decision? And the person who did this, what is his capacity and who does he represent?

Ideas emerge from a lot of different sources, and then they are fleshed out. This is how it has always been done. The leading cities in the U.S. are heading in this direction, they no longer depend on financial capital, but rather on capital in the form of knowledge. Financial capital is all around, there’s no end of it. In contrast, the cities that are showing the way to success are those that are able to attract intellectual capital.

- What do you mean by knowledge?

It’s not a question of co-operation between universities and companies, but instead takes in everything from the smallest details to research and development projects. Knowledge is the invisible component that provides Barcelona, in its urban fittings, with the value added by design, the awareness of the factors that surround the product, and so on. It marks the difference between a functional urban design and one that is created deliberately. It is what marks the difference between an ordinary bridge and the bridge crossing the port, which was created with an infusion of knowledge and intent, because, besides being useful, it also has a message.

- Very well, it’s an artistic creation.

I’ll give you another example. Take our transport companies. Then, you add an in-depth data processing approach and you have logistics. Logistics are the society of knowledge applied to the transport sector.

- Would you say so?

We have this large area where we can apply this concept of the city of knowledge, i.e. Poblenou, where we have the opportunity to harmonise public use with the uses that require us to move towards this objective, so that the application of a strategy determines how land is to be used. It’s the same as what happened in New York, in Soho.

- You and Maragall seem rather obsessed with New York.

Well, New York was a decaying city, one with severe safety problems, and every other kind of problem, as well. But, by chance, the multimedia and publishing industries moved in, and it has been on the road to recovery ever since, because these industries have been accompanied by a series of complementary initiatives, creating an extremely positive interplay. We want the same sort of thing to happen here. Exactly the same. By the way, have you seen The Full Monty.

- Who hasn’t?

Well, there you have an example of city that was unable to make the leap from a successful manufacturing city of the industrial age, to a successful city of the post-industrial age.

- Would you say that Bilbao has made that leap?

- Bilbao has made an attempt. In contrast, Barcelona is like Sheffield, the city where The Full Monty is set. Barcelona had La Maquinista, Espanya Industrial, Pegaso, and so on. If you look around, you will see that Barcelona’s best parks were formerly factories. But Barcelona hasn’t suffered the same sort of crisis as Sheffield. Barcelona has gradually left its industrial past behind, to become ... for example, the leading Mediterranean port of call for cruise ships. And it’s the city that invented the concept of urban tourism, or cultural tourism. A city that displays its Gothic art, its Romanesque art, with Roman ruins under its streets, and just a stone’s throw away, a post-modern neighbourhood that is one of the legacies of the Olympic Games.

(...)

JosÚ M. Gˇmez

One night, around midnight, the telephone rang, and through the receiver I heard the voice of a good friend of mine from London. The thought struck me that maybe his cat had died, or perhaps that his mother was on her deathbed in one of those British hospitals that had at one time been an example to the world but have since fallen on hard times. The English are not in the habit of ringing up at midnight to make small talk.

'What's wrong?' I asked, alarmed.

'I've just seen your mayor on television.'

'Pretty bad, isn't he?' I mumbled embarrassedly, understanding that Michael had called up to offer his sympathy.

'You don't know how lucky you are! If only London had a mayor like yours...' said Michael, sounding as if he was about to begin sobbing.

'Are you quite sure you're talking about the mayor of Barcelona?" I asked suspiciously.

'Joan Clos,' he answered without hesitating.

He then added:

'A very, very important person.'

And before I could get over my surprise, he went on to detail enthusiastically all of the many ideas that Joan Clos had expressed on the television programme in which he had taken part as mayor of Barcelona, a city that, according to well-travelled Londoners, London ought to look to as an example for the renewal of its urban fabric, which, after a decade under Margaret Thatcher's government, had been left in almost as bad a condition as the country's hospitals.

As an enthusiastic reader of Lytton Strachey and his eminent Victorians, I am convinced that only England can produce people so able to combine strength and weakness with mundanity and romanticisim, and eccentricity with conventionality. The mixture of such qualities in the genetic cocktail shaker has given rise to the so-called 'confusing and contradictory English character', making it possible for someone like Michael to squander ten pounds on a telephone conversation -a waste of money for any self-respecting Englishman- to inform me of the virtues of mayor Joan Clos, which had passed me by unnoticed.

I must admit that, ever since that late-night call from Michael, I have a higher opinion of Joan Clos. The English tend to be perspicacious and swim against the ideological tide, making Britain a breeding ground for political ideas worth taking into account.

(...)

That night, I called London. I spent two thousand pesetas on the conversation with my friend Michael, telling him about what Joan Clos thinks Barcelona should be like. Before ringing off, I said: "Michael, I have to admit that you were right. I take back what I said and I confess that Clos is a good mayor."

Michael told me that two cousins of his are now living in Barcelona.