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Ramon Ribera: "To work out Barcelona's problems we need to go beyond the city"

Ramon Ribera
Rubn Permuy
Interview with the research group leader of the Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory

What is your academic background?

Like many students, I went to university at the age of 18 without really knowing what I wanted to do. In other words, I was interested in lots of things but didn’t know which to choose, and ended up taking Economics and Business at the Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona.

In the first year, I felt much more comfortable with sociology and history or introduction to economic thought than courses related to business administration and management.

I started doctoral courses on economic development and international economics at the University of Barcelona. These courses, which would now be a master’s degree, attached far more importance to the role of the State, for example, or extra-economic aspects, such as the historical processes of imperialism or globalization.

I discovered that for geography the approaches used at that time in economics were also used in the 1960s, and that in the 1970s and 1980s, and especially the 1990s, they had more advanced concepts for understanding this unequal development that attached such importance to purely production or economic factors, such as complex geographical factors, or cultural, political and institutional factors. This is how I started to develop my thesis project on the development of cities in a globalized world, within a political economics department, increasingly seeing the limitations of economics for explaining these issues.

I was lucky to win a grant to do a master’s degree in Economics, Society and Space there. I started learning that economics depended not only on economic factors but on geographical complexities. I learnt new approaches that I hadn’t learnt at the Faculty of Economics, such as the cultural or postmodern shift, Marxist theory and feminist theory, and ended up developing a dissertation about the re-scaling of the State; in other words, in cities like Barcelona, which is my case study.

So I did a doctoral thesis comparing the urban regeneration strategies of Barcelona and Manchester based on the creative industries, where we analysed how, with re-scaling, the cities won more competences to the detriment of the State. But this did not mean that the states disappeared but that there were other forms of designing urban policies at state and global level. I also focused on creative economics, debating, learning and researching how cultural factors are articulated with economic processes. This led me to complete the thesis, read it, defend it and receive a postdoctoral grant at Lancaster University in an interdisciplinary centre they had just created, the Institute of Advanced Studies.

When I finished the postdoctoral grant an opportunity came up through an advert I saw for the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). At that time, I knew people who worked there as course instructors but I knew little about the university itself. My wife and I had just had our first child, and we decided it might be a good opportunity to return to Barcelona. I applied and won the place as professor at the UOC Faculty of Economics and Business.

What have you done at the UOC?

I joined the IN3 research group and then something important happened: the UOC created resident research places in the IN3. I submitted a project on analysing urban governance with the knowledge society and knowledge economy. I was successful and began winning competitive research projects on the urban theme.

A research group on urban transformation began to take shape, which I led until 2015, which decided to transform the IN3 with 10 research groups. At that time I had three postdoctoral researchers working with me, plus some doctoral students. We presented the winning project Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory, and since then I have been group leader with environmentalists, geographers, urban sociologists, political scientists, and so on.

What would you highlight about your research projects?

We have three main strands of research that make up our projects. The first is political economy of the organization; in other words, we are in the era of cities, where increasingly more people live. We want to see what it means to have a more urban population and what the economic and political consequences are.

The second strand of our research is climate change and environmental factors, the political collision of urbanism or of social transformation. For example, one of the burning issues now is how cities can be more resilient.

The third strand within the group is one of the issues that seems clear from the latest economic processes, such as the platform economy in cases such as Airbnb, the sharing economy, automation or what technologies allow. This means a shrinking of the world of work but also new production models that can sometimes be done collectively.

Is your analysis focused on Barcelona?

No, although it does form a substantial part because, apart from the fact that we are in Barcelona, it is a laboratory of urban technologies and innovation models. It is a world reference for good or ill and many researchers from the rest of the world come to Barcelona, and some of them work with us.

It’s important to note that when urban policies or strategies change city they change context, transform and have to adapt. We must understand why some strategies work and other don’t as well as the mechanisms of adaptation. For example, in the last 30 years many cities in the world have tried to apply the Barcelona model, placing emphasis on public spaces. Applying the Barcelona model as a compact Mediterranean city to American-style cities that are completely dispersed or, for example, to Latin America, where certain cities have problems with violence or fear in the public space, is a problem. In the United Kingdom, where the councils don't have funding to maintain this space, applying Barcelona’s public space model also creates problems.

Are there local problems in the big cities that should be taken on by other bigger authorities?

It depends on who and how. But, for example, a subject that we all understand as urban, as local, and really isn’t or at least only partially, is housing. Of course, in Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain, less so in the Basque Country, we have a serious problem with housing, and in part it’s not a problem of today but has existed for several years. While in the rest of Europe the big cities have an average of 25% of social housing at affordable prices, in a city like Barcelona it's 2%. This is ridiculous and cannot be resolved tomorrow.

Two thirds of the flats or houses in Barcelona are acquired without a mortgage. The buyer is not someone who needs a place to live, which normally requires a mortgage, but an investor. Data published in April showed that around 40% of Barcelona’s residents live in rented accommodation and are under 40 with university qualifications but who probably earn less than 1,000 euros. So we have a problem.

Do many of the problems you mention concern the State?

We cannot resolve the issue in Barcelona only in the city. How you distribute people or economic activity and the infrastructure to have a sustainable region is a metropolitan or Catalan problem, apart from learning from housing or economic policies.

Pollution does not respect borders, you cannot impose administrative barriers. Barcelona is a very compact city. You can cycle or take public transport, but a lot of people live outside the city and work in Barcelona and vice versa. We have a metropolitan area with a very compact city that, as we leave, loses density. We have a transport system geared more towards the car than other more sustainable modes. The prices of rented accommodation in the metropolitan area near a metro or train station are more expensive than those further out, and we have many poorly connected industrial estates. I don’t know whether this is because of low density or because we lack a system of rapid buses, etc. To understand a problem, you have to look at it from all dimensions or from all the spaces involved. This is why we talk about urban transformation and global change.

Are there problems in our cities that already have practical solutions that are applied in other places?

Sometimes we are very obsessed with ongoing and permanent innovation, and the issue is not so much about innovating but observing, seeing that there are aspects that work in other places. The problem is not so much about innovation but adaptation; in other words, how to adapt and how it can work, because sometimes something that works in one place doesn’t work in another. Trying to apply public space in a place where there are no pavements, no public space culture and everyone lives separated and uses the car, is very difficult.

Is it possible to transform tourism considered a problem into an asset?

Tourism is an important part of global cities, especially in places like Barcelona. Tourism has this paradox, it is one of the main economic drivers of the city, whether for weekends, family outings, conferences, etc. It creates a lot of employment and wealth. Another issue we can look at is how this wealth and employment is distributed.

Tourism is an activity deeply rooted in the territory, and sometimes pressure from those affected can improve the situation. It also has a big, sometimes negative, impact. For example, in Amsterdam, there have already been suggestions of cutting tourism in the city centre because the levels are now impossible. It’s about finding a balance, such as gentrifying tourism. If you have parts of the Eixample where there are more beds than citizens and one of the characteristics that Barcelona tourism sells is the life of the city and neighbourhoods, and this doesn’t exist, you have a theme park. In the end it disappears, people get fed up and will go to Valencia or other cities. The asset that makes it different and charming to come to Barcelona vanishes over time and you have to be very careful.

The trend does not suggest the situation will improve.

Yes, it’s getting worse but we must be optimistic, these issues won’t be solved quickly. New production models, new forms such as the sharing economy, perhaps not Airbnb, but modes proposed by the P2P Foundation or social innovation models are interesting. I think we are also making progress and that many people are working in the world to create different city models, different economic models, and different policy models. We must be patient and persevere.

Can you recommend a book about urban transformation and our social challenges?

I would recommend watching the five seasons of the TV series The Wire, about American cities, especially from the second season on the production model. To be optimistic, a book I recommend is Rebel Cities by David Harvey.