Urban counter-hegemonies for transforming Madrid (full translation)

Back in April I posted a translation of the first half of this excellent blog post by Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago. I finally had time to complete the (rough) translation.

Urban counter-hegemonies for transforming Madrid
Álvaro Sevilla-Buitrago (March 8, 2015)
My translation of the original Spanish

Two weeks ago we participated in an event organized by the Right to the City Circle of Podemos that, under the rubric of Reboot Madrid, served as a space of debate to encourage ideas in alliance with Ganemos and Podemos, the formations that – currently and under the name ‘Ahora Madrid’ (Madrid Now) – converged in a joint bid of the popular front in the next elections to the City Council of Madrid. The discussion in the forum on urbanism (there were three more, on local democracy, urban economics, and rights and social inclusion) was animated, with an audience primarily made up of veteran professionals but also of members of neighborhood movements, critical academics and political groups. In the intervention that launched the debate Teresa Bonilla and Ángela Matesanz, as well as Agustín Hernández Aja, who organized all the events, accompanied me. I am reviewing here the discussion not in the spirit of taking minutes from the event – there were too many topics covered to attempt a synthesis – but rather in the style of personal reflection to share the ideas that were on the table, and in relation to the perspective that I tried to contribute to the debate.

The highlight of the debate: confirming the sense that the ripeness of the present context for forging an encounter between the technical moment, the social moment and the political moment around the possibility to develop an alternative urbanism to that which Madrid has suffered in recent decades. Indeed, the majority of the ideas on the table resonated with claim that the citizen urbanism that the emergent groups were developing, which in turn echoes the historical demands of local social movements. My table companions succinctly explained the fundamental elements of this urbanism to come:

• In a convincing intervention against Madrid regarding speculation and corruption, Teresa Bonilla defended the blockade of all operations of new urban development outlined in the General Plan of 1997 (and its successive modifications) and an audit of the operations that are currently underway: a strategy of social control stifling the local housing blockade that should be seen as complementing a flight from the principles of more involved citizen management that the first phase of the General Plan of 1985 pursued, and in which Bonilla herself participated.

• As a natural corollary to this claim, Ángela Matesanz’s presentation advocated for a recuperation of the consolidated city as a field of key maneuvers in which the future development of the city of Madrid would be at stake. This requires, according to her, an integral policy of urban regeneration actively destined to palliate the social inequalities between neighborhoods, which have grown substantially during the crisis. This strategy should also be critically positioned against the recent turns toward gentrification sponsored at diverse institutional levels, taking the rehabilitation of the historic periphery as an objective principal.

I believe I am not mistaken when I say that there was a general consensus in the room in favor of these arguments and a large part of the suggestions during the following discussion, among them:

• Improve the shortages of public facilities and green spaces in all the neighborhoods of Madrid, to guarantee the equality of access to these basic services
• Review the recent agreements for specific operations of internal reform and urban renewal
• Recuperate the Municipal housing and Land Corporation as a structural organ for progressive politics of social housing and the promotion of public land
• Create a program observing urban inequality in order to influence vulnerable spaces
• Remake the administrative structure to recreate better contact with the citizenry
• Activate Territorial District Councils as organs of citizen participation
• Reconcile the position of Madrid in the network of global cities with an urbanism that guarantees human dignity
• Create a citizen observatory to network distinct spaces of urban reflection on civil society, also establishing a nonorganic relationship between said observatory and local public institutions
• And a classic in these encounters, the restructuration of local finance to disengage them once and for all from the generation of real estate profits through urbanization

In sum, these are only some of the ideas on the table that come to mind for highlighting the two crucial elements of the encounter and the current political moment. In the first place, the fact that almost all these arguments are traditional arguments. These are not new ideas, they were there before Podemos and Ganemos, before the 15M and before the crisis; in fact some ideas are more than years old and go back to the first urbanisms of the Transition. We have seen them appear time and time again in encounters like the one the other day, in recent years and also, in the case of most critical sectors, during the “golden years” of the real estate boom. The second key aspect in my opinion is that the current situation offers the end we had always identified as the “missing” part in the emergence of an alternative urbanism: a citizenry that demands it and the political will to implement it. In this sense, as I said earlier, the present context seems to be a favorable scene for the intersection of these three moments that were uncoupled until now: the technical – that would have long been a battery of propositions to combat the urban waste and real estate armageddon that have assaulted Madrid for decades –, the social and the political.


My contribution, really, attempted to problematize this ideal a priori, taking the discussion a little further, including beyond the frame of conventional urban politics and exploring less evident phenomena. Because, while agreeing with my tablemates the general audience in relation to the diagnosis and treatment, I think there is a series of latent conflicts that becomes inaccessible for the propositions of the type listed above. It is, somehow, a blind field to the technical discourse, including when it is formulated in fundamentally critical terms. When you look at both technical consensus on certain solutions and models, it is natural to ask: if it seems this obvious, if it goes without saying that they are steps to build a more just city, why haven’t they worked yet? Why were they unsuccessful before and why should they prevail in the current scenario?

Until now the response to this dilemma in the type of encounters was, as I have said, to blame the lack of political will and, by extension, the lack of mobilization and public awareness about urban problems. Of course this contradiction can be explained in classical terms as a typical case of hegemony: the coalescing of a wide social majority into a political project that whose interests as a class or social group are contradicted in the medium and long term; a concurrence or support always permits an elite government through consensus, driving this project to its final consequences. Gramsci said that although the state has a central role in the production of hegemony, this battle is mainly waged outside of the public administration institutions – between others, the institutions of civil society, the press, culture…and also the city, architecture, the configuration of the built environment.

From this point of view it is easy to establish links between the theory and what has happened in Madrid’s urbanism – and across the entire country – in the last decades: hasn’t the real estate fever, a project of accumulation that, even hatched by institutions and national and European elites, ended galvanizing the imagination of a wide majority of ordinary citizens? When, for example, the number of known persons that decided to purchase a second dwelling as an investment; that left their shoe stores, fruit stands, and traditional businesses to transform themselves into urban “operators”; that passed over renting property encouraged by the expectation of infinite increases in prices. In effect, the city and urbanism have served as vehicles to secure a hegemony that offered an inexhaustible horizon of national prosperity. It is not that the citizens were living above their means – it is that they were offered and guaranteed the happy perspective of exuberant and indefinite growth…or to use a recently attractive term, “Olympic.” As always, this hegemony sustained itself through a series of images and ideas extremely simple but also tremendously effective in the production of an urban common sense, and collective imagination articulated in a series of notions that naturalized and normalizes on the of the possible formations of social life in the city. Surely those ideas still echo in your memory: “to rent is to throw away money,” “the high price of housing is due to supply shortages,” “the benefit of real estate is not only property right but also a natural right.”

As the mirage of sustained national prosperity turned to stone, the crisis had broken this clumsy chain of self-evident truths. With it that economic and political hegemony that we know so well collapsed, that which built the city as a space of real estate accumulation and speculative machinery. My fundamental problem – and here I arrive at the center of the problematic that I tried to expose in the encounter the other day – is that I believe that this is not only a superficial and conjunctural manifestation of the inscription of hegemony in our urban formations, in particular in Madrid. So to speak, the crisis has eroded only the most obvious layer of that urban hegemony, leaving intact the most profound strata through those who preserve class domination and the use of space as a privileged instrument of that exercise of domination. The major part of the alternative politics that were proposed during the meeting, debated for years and now finally confirmed by popular support and a political will that will influence that support in reality is only on a superficial level, leaving the most profound procedures unchanged by other forms of “common urban sense” transforming our metropolitan organization and our urban experience. Consequently, if we really want to take the present political moment as an opportunity to articulate a radical program of spatial politics, we must explore these most profound strata of urban hegemony, even if it leads us to question the proper instruments and procedures that we have used until now as urbanists and planners.

I mean more structural and deep manifestations of hegemony. These, for example, that build and naturalize a segregated urban layout – the unequal city, the exclusive city – that we accept as normal, a city in which the population is segmented and distributed in terms of rent, where it seems inevitable that they exist in parallel urban worlds, totally distinct, hardly communicating, despite their proximity. These forms of hegemony was have assume as normal, that we have assigned a location, an area of movement, a role in the city, with little room to maneuver. Daily demonstrations of a hegemony apparently do not build an orchestrated, diversely-managed city; what they produce is our behavior in public space which is a passive and gregarious choreography, in which interactions with other individuals or with occupied space itself is inhibited. A form of conceiving the city that recreates it as an object limits us to consumption, accepting that other produce it for us, almost totally limiting our capacity to create and to be cities. Expressions of hegemony that naturalize this form of sociospatial indifference to the point at which some feel bothered before the emergent processes of the reappopriation of space – such as the daily demonstrations and appropriations deployed by the migrant population – and suggest that the streets should be privatized to avoid them.

How to mobilize urbanism to combat and dismantle those deepest forms of hegemony? And, more concretely, how to articulate this project within a governmental program?

In my opinion, it is here where a more incisive academic approach can help. For years, as an urbanist and professional practitioner, I have struggled with various colleagues to use the more or les conventional tools of urban planning to try and propitiate favorable scenarios to the rise of emancipatory spaces to the level of everyday life – I must confess that, in the majority of cases, with little success. We are not seeing in this moment something that more theoretical and scientific work, in particular historic investigation, helps us understand: the tools that we used have in reality been conceived for very distinct ends; in the best cases to respond to radically heterogeneous problems; in the worse precisely to block and remove the types of open dynamics of social space that we try to encourage. With this I want to say that any urban reconstruction project as a territory of collective emancipation shall re-operationalize by force, refute or dispose some of the tools and frameworks available in the conventional practices of urbanism.

With this I do not want to say that we have to totally remove ourselves from institutional instruments that have been develop over two centuries and that, in the best moments, have served to palliate the most perverse aspects of unequal spatial development inherent in capital, that is to say, to create less unjust territorial formations. But if we want to move toward a truly liberating urban horizon, we undoubtedly have to complement this progressive use of some of these technical instruments with the radical re-imagination of tools and legal frameworks used until now, the ideation of apparatuses of governing urban processes and, above all, with a firm commitment toward a strategy that moves toward the de-statification of social space in the medium and long term, at least at the scale of the neighborhood, opening the path to autonomous and self-managed forms of urbanism.

In this sense, I concluded my intervention in the previous roundtable discussion by suggesting that any popular front program for local administration would have to mediate and integrate distinct political times in a strategy and various levels, employing distinct political moments to redefine the panorama of Madrid’s urbanism.

  • In the short term, as a “recuperation” of neo-Fordist urbanism – as a minimum proposal – all the policies that previously would be referred to as obvious and in turn those where there is general consensus, both technical and, increasingly, citizenship should be integrated. An agenda of urban policies to do away with the speculative city and the commodification of social space.
  • In the medium term, as a “progressive” moment of a reformative urbanism, a series of initiatives aimed to selectively rearticulate the frameworks and techniques of planning tools – from the law of the land to the design criteria, policies of distribution of equipment and services, etc. – and a to conceive new tools that permit the doing away with social-spatial inequalities should be put into place. A regulatory tactic to end the segregated city and social exclusion.
  • In the long term, as a “differential” – in the Lefebvrian sense of the term – and revolutionary moment of urbanism based on the principal of radical democracy, administration should be able to undertake a reflexive and critical process to guarantee the cession of the citizenry’s prerogatives, protecting and propitiating the proliferation of autonomous spaces that put their own popular urbanisms into play. They would attempt to articulate the framework for a gradual colonization of the state by civil society at the local and sub-local levels, through self-initiated and self managed neighborhood plans. A strategy of the dissolution of the state for the emergence of the common in which the municipal government would operate as a “night guard,” acting only as an institutional shield to protect this common from the distinct aggressions that it could suffer on part of markets, destabilizing agents, etc.

Definitely, we should try to explore efficient ways to articulate urban politics and autonomous urbanism in a horizon in which urban live, understood in a Lefebvrian key as an opportunity for the realization of the human being, could begin to move forward.

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4 Responses to Urban counter-hegemonies for transforming Madrid (full translation)

  1. Keith Harris says:

    Reblogged this on Becoming Poor and commented:

    For the Lefebvrians!

  2. asevillab says:

    Reblogged this on multipliciudades and commented:
    Keith Harris (My Desiring Machines) has translated the full blog post on the urban perspectives for ‘Ahora Madrid’ (Madrid Now) I wrote some months ago. Eventually ‘Ahora Madrid’ —the local branch of Podemos in alliance with social movements and ecologist formations— won the election and is now leading our city hall. Plenty of tensions ahead in a hugely indebted administration, but also enormous hope that things will finally change in Madrid.
    While many of my remarks about building new popular hegemonies are likely to be postponed due to more pressing matters, it seems there is a clear political will to stop the insanity about urban development and management the city has suffered for decades.
    Many thanks to Keith for the work with this!

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