HOW MUCH CITY DO WE REALLY HAVE?

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Generalized access to private transport has turned us into citizens of Catalonia-City. This assertion is evident in our everyday practices, which often involve intensive to-and-fro movements between our homes and places of work, shopping, studies or leisure. We might even say that today Catalonia is operating as a single city made up of different urban systems integrated by an increasingly powerful communications network.

This fact initially appears to be a positive one because the wealth of nations stems from the power of its cities. Cities are first-rate economic powerhouses; they generate economies of scale and are a source of creativity and added value. If our cities have good connections, between each other and with the hinterland, we are then in a position to redistribute wealth and guarantee equal access to urban services for the whole region. Therefore the fact that Catalonia operates as a genuine city brings us closer to the desirable horizon of a better quality of life for every Catalan citizen.

However, this Catalonia-City, so evident in quantitative indicators such as the consumption of time and energy in daily movements, is frankly uncertain and even remote in qualitative terms. There is no doubt that significant investments have been made in urban development which have enabled us, in the last 30 years, to occupy double the area we have occupied over the last two millennia. But if we analyse the resulting urban product, the outlook changes considerably, and we have to ask ourselves a very basic and simple question: how much city have we actually constructed? City, in this case, being understood not only as a network of infrastructures and services but also somewhere that is imbued with public spirit and environmental quality. How much city do we really have?

It is true that the urban improvement policies developed up until now have allowed us to consolidate a well-articulated system of mature cities. However, we have still not taken on board the regeneration of peripheral interurban areas which have been relegated to a secondary position with regard to both planning and investment and in terms of our citizens’ own civic conscience. Perhaps this is because we have not had the necessary methodological bases or legal and political frameworks; or perhaps it is because the “other city”, the one which up until recently we preferred not to see, requires a momentous effort to be made without any immediate rewards. Whatever the reason, the Catalan technical and political agendas of the 21st century must inevitably tackle the urban improvement of the suburbs that are becoming increasingly pervasive.

With this objective, the current times of crisis can also offer us time for reflection in which to gauge how we can give renewed value to the investments made during the boom times; time to transform subdivisions into sustainable neighbourhoods, and industrial estates into industrial ecosystems. In short, time to grow inwards within the framework of new ways of inhabiting and producing. To address this challenge we will need new methodological foundations as well as a more proactive attitude from our governing bodies and civil society; but above all we will need a profoundly open and creative vision, because the best Catalonia-City not only calls for good management of our available resources but also, most importantly, the capacity to visualize this scenario.

Pere Vall-Casas
Associate Professor of Urban Planning (Esarq-UIC)

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