Interview with Joan Clos, Mayor of Barcelona
in SHS Newsletter 06
This year, Barcelona is the capital of cultures. From 9 May to 26 September 2004, the city is organizing the International Forum of Cultures, in which UNESCO is one of the main partners. Joan Clos, Mayor of Barcelona, here tells us more about the Forum, and about the increasing role of cities in the promotion of democracy and human rights.
What was the origin of the “Universal Forum of Cultures” and how did it come about?
We decided to organize the Forum in the mid-nineties, after the Olympic Games of 1992 in Barcelona. A lot of Barcelonans had expressed the wish that the city should have a new international event that could unite it behind a big project. That is why we decided to call in the Forum. But instead of choosing one of the existing events on the international agenda, we decided to create a new one in order to innovate and to open more space for public debate and public gathering.
What is the purpose of the Forum?
It is to gather different cultures of the world for a discussion of three main topics: cultural diversity, sustainability and generation of conditions for peace. These three topics are very relevant to us here in Barcelona because in terms of cultural diversity we are a bicultural and bilingual society, and in addition to this we are receiving a huge wave of new immigration from different parts of the world. The topic of how to create better conditions for peace was a must, because we are living in a world which is challenged quite frequently by the new dangers of conflict and terrorism. Cities themselves are exposed to social unrest and uprising. This is why we decided that peace – not just peace in itself, but the question of how to generate and create conditions for peace – should be one of the topics of the Forum. And the third topic of sustainability was relevant too, because we wanted to include infrastructures such as a sewage treatment plan and a factory that produces energy within the fabric of the city in a sustainable manner.
But is there a link between the three themes?
Yes, of course. If we don’t accept cultural diversity and if we don’t accept that we need to sustain our environment, the conditions for peace cannot be fulfilled. So the first two topics set the conditions for the third one.
You mentioned some of the social conflicts that humanity is faced with today. Could you give some concrete examples and tell us how they relate to the problems you encounter in your work as Mayor?
Recently, we have had to face the challenge of terrorism not just at the level of the State, but also within cities such as Madrid, where we have witnessed a devastating terror attack. Besides that, we have had to deal with the Iraq conflict, and the same social problems related to immigration from which many European countries are suffering. Those are three clear examples of how our societies are reaching their limits in terms of sustaining peace. This is why we wanted to propose a dialogue on such subjects, in order to go deeper into these questions and see how we can adapt our urban cultures to these new challenges of cultural diversity.
Are these issues related to globalization?
The question of globalization is wider. It is the whole world society which is changing. In Europe, the old model of the welfare state is being challenged; its role and economic means have diminished, which of course also affect cities. In many spheres of society, new challenges are emerging that we even didn’t know of in the more comfortable society of the sixties or even the seventies. In the seventies, the oil crisis and, later, the liberalization of society kicked off a process of change, which moved our societies from the 20th to the 21st century. The word “globalization” covers part of this development, but it has become charged with connotations, and this is why we didn’t want to focus only on globalization. Different parts of the world are in fact improving their economy and millions of people are improving their living conditions. On the other side, a large part of the world has become worse off. That is the reality nowadays, and it is in this reality that we can find the seed of more conflicts or the seed of a solution for the future.
But do you think that some of these emerging trends you have just described are particularly affecting the social fabric of cities?
Yes, of course. The evolution of cities is becoming day by day more indicative of what is happening in the general population, because most of the world’s population is now living in cities. The move from rural areas to city life is probably one of the most impressive trends in modern human history. In different parts of the world, notably in the poor countries, this move is taking place under very bad conditions. It is creating a new form of urban poverty, which also entails a great deal of new conflicts in cities, especially in the mega cities of the Third World. This question of new urbanization in the 21st century is therefore very relevant for the issues of development and peace.
When you say new urbanization, could you be more specific?
For most of the 20th century, migration was mainly related to industrialization and, in particular, to one aspect of industrialization, namely manufacturing. Today, this influx of people from rural to urban areas is taking place without an increase in the creation of workplaces. People come to the city expecting that they will find a better future there, but without the city necessarily having the means to develop that. You see that in the favelas or in the slums of most of the big cities of the world.
Barcelona has been chosen as the Headquarters of a new organization, the United Cities and Local Governments ...
This is an initiative of the main associations of cities which decided to merge and to create a united association of cities around the world, in order to have a stronger position to engage in the dialogue with international institutions, such as the United Nations system and the World Bank. We are very pleased they have chosen Barcelona for their Headquarters and we support this organization because in Barcelona we feel that the future of the world is very related to cities and that cities should play a new role in world politics. Everything that can help cities express themselves and say what they want is good news, and this is why we are so pleased with this decision.
This new organization has also been called “the UN of Cities”. What can cities do, that governments can’t do?
City governments, or local governments, are very close to the citizens and deal with everyday problems that affect our citizens. They have the power to introduce a new kind of politics, in the sense that in order to improve democracy – apart from big issues that only the State can deal with such as defending the frontiers and the independence of the nation – there is a demand on the political system by the citizens to provide services and to perform better. Today, people around the world are not just asking those in government to give direction and a feeling of meaning and identity, they are demanding them to perform. Therefore, local government is a very interesting level of government because it is close to the citizens. The citizens know very well who the Mayor is as well as those they have elected to local government. They can meet for discussions on the streets every day. It creates the possibility of rehabilitating politics in the best way, because it combines a sense of community with the need to provide services and good performance. I think that this mixture is very authentic in today’s politics, and it is becoming even more relevant every day. In that sense, politicians become public servants because they have to serve the community, not just through rhetoric but also on a very practical level. So I think local governments are very well suited to fulfil an important role in the political scenario. Strengthening the cooperation between local authorities is a way to strengthen democracy.
Your city seems to concentrate a great deal on human rights issues. What in your opinion is the role of cities with regard to the promotion of human rights?
Together with a number of cities in Europe and around the world, we have developed a Charter of Urban Rights, because – in addition to the existing Human Rights instruments – we need to begin thinking about a new set of rights and duties, in order to meet the expectations of a modern and democratic society. Citizens have the right to expect that public servants provide certain services and that these correspond to the ones that are being promised during political campaigns and not changed later on. In that sense, there is a need to strengthen local democracy, and, to that end, I think that a new set of rights and duties is required.
Are you referring to the concept of the “right to the city”?
Yes, the right to the city, which means the right to a peaceful city, an educational city, a healthy city, etc.
Could you give some more concrete examples of how to implement this concept?
For example, we are now trying to improve citizens’ rights by placing in our city an ombudsman to the local authorities; and we are creating a new local justice system in order to install a platform for dealing with conflicts within neighbourhoods, that allows us to resolve the problems without going to the traditional judicial system.
UNESCO has launched the idea of creating an International Coalition of Cities against Racism and Barcelona is involved in the drafting of its charter. What do you think about this initiative?
I totally agree with that kind of initiative. The cosmopolitan city today has a new face and a new structure, in the sense that, in the past, a city used to be a place of national affirmation, but now they are becoming places of international and cosmopolitan affirmation. In our part of the world, we are receiving many people who come from all parts of the world looking for a better life. Racism was eating our souls and consciences during the 20th century and is something that we always need to “revaccinate” against periodically, in order to protect ourselves from this ill. Strengthening the international cooperation in this field is one way to do that.
You have been the Mayor of Barcelona since 1997. What do you consider your most important accomplishments?
I am quite pleased with the fact that Barcelona is increasingly affirming its role as a city. We are not the capital of the State, but we grow, we dream, we change and we transmute with the strength of our own dynamics. In a sense, Barcelona is a city in a pure state. That creates the special “Barcelona feeling”, which I think is the most interesting aspect and very particular to the city. A mixture of pride and existencia, criticism and demand. This is, to my sense, what makes Barcelona different. Concretely, my priorities have been, and still are, the promotion of low income housing, the improvement of the quality of services that the city offers to its citizens, and the investment in the creation and maintenance of a public space. It is equally important for Barcelona to have projects that can help make new strides in the transformation of the city, such as the renewal of the seaside in the Besòs zone with the creation of new public spaces, renewed economic activity, new districts and new infrastructures, hospitals and schools, etc. The Barcelona Forum 2004 has also been a driving force behind this sustainable transformation of the Besòs zone and of the city as a whole. Another important project is the enlargement of the public transport systems and its metropolitan area, such as the new High Velocity Train (TGV) station in La Sagrera. Finally, efforts are being made to improve employment policies and create knowledge-based industries. Barcelona is a city which lives and transform constantly thanks to new ideas; it is a proud and demanding city which fights to achieve and maintain a high quality of life.
The United Cities and Local Governments, the largest local government organization in the world, was launched in May 2004. It is the result of the unification of three organizations: the World Federation of United Cities (FMCU), the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) and Metropolis, the international association of major metropolises. This new organization is dedicated to promoting the values, objectives and interests of cities and local governments across the globe. It promotes the policies and experiences of local governments in key areas such as poverty, sustainable development and social inclusion.
The International Coalition of Cities against Racism is an initiative launched by UNESCO to establish a network of cities interested in sharing experiences in order to improve their policies to fight racism, discrimination, exclusion and intolerance. The cities participating in the coalition will commit themselves to two principles: adherence to an ethical and political Charter; and adoption and implementation of a Ten-Point Plan of Action. In order to respect the specificities of the different areas of the world, a regional approach has been adopted. The first region, under the guidance of UNESCO and Nuremberg, designated as Lead City, has just finalized a draft Plan of Action which will be discussed and approved in December 2004.
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