#FEM PLAÇA - NEIGHBOURS AS CITY MAKERS

HOW SOME BARCELONA RESIDENTS TAKE OWNERSHIP OF THEIR PUBLIC SPACES AND USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO ACTIVATE COMMUNITY STREET LIFE.

It is hardly a secret that Barcelona has become a victim of its own success and tourism is causing overcrowding in some of the most popular areas. Last year, more than 6.5 million visitors came to Barcelona (excluding domestic visitors and cruise passengers), a city with a population of around 1.7 million. Every year more than 100 million people walk down the Ramblas, Barcelona’s famous tree line pedestrian street and “above all a business,” according to Fermín Villar, president of the Friends of La Rambla representing the street’s residential and commercial interests.

A recent activity of Fem Plaça is announced through posters in the neighbourhood.

Contested public space

While there are many factors involved in the rapid transformation of the city, the residents of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella have been specifically affected by housing speculation and privatisation of public space. The latter is a consequence of the urban strategies of city councils to accommodate commercial interests of restaurant, bar and shop owners and to market the city as a tourist destination. By removing street furniture – or only providing extremely uncomfortable seating – people are actively discouraged to dwell or gather in public spaces or streets, at least unless they are not sitting in one of the terraces to consume food and drinks. In Ciutat Vella alone the area of public space occupied by bars and restaurants has climbed from 3.494m2 in 2002 to 9.986m2 over ten years. Outdoor licenses for gastronomic businesses in the entire City of Barcelona almost doubled in the years from 2012 to 2014, rising from 2.832 to 4.574.

Two years ago, a restaurant owner asked the city council to take out a public bench in front of his restaurant in Sant Antoni, a central neighbourhood that has become fashionable with tourists in recent years, because it was located within the area of sunshades in front of his establishment. The owner was Albert Adrià, brother of star chef Ferran Adrià, who has several restaurants in the area. Some neighbours chained themselves to the bench in protest, and eventually the city council decided not to remove it.

The disappearance of (non-defined) public spaces to make place for the expanding restaurants and cafes is not a phenomenon restricted to Barcelona. The invasion of tables and sunshades as part of the privatisation of civic space to serve commercial purposes has been observed and generated protests in many cities, such as Valencia and Palma de Mallorca

Community life on the street

These developments are specifically destructive to the social fabric here in Mediterranean cities, where neighbours traditionally used to bring their chairs outside each evening to have a chat and a drink and daily life takes place on the street. 

As available open spaces kept shrinking and spontaneous encounters of neighbours became less and less frequent, the idea for neighbourhood platform Fem Plaça was born. Facebook and social media serve as a tool to announce community gatherings at various spots in the city centre. That way the platform acts as some form of ‘prosthesis’ for the lost street life and casual encounters, which had been ‘amputated’ and disappeared from the neighbourhood, as one of the organisers aptly describes it.  

Times and days of the meetings vary to accommodate activities for all community members, such as children’s play on a Friday afternoon after school or a Vermouth on a Sunday midday – an important weekend tradition in Barcelona. Fem Plaça gatherings have taken place in Raval, Sant Antoni, Barceloneta, but also in neighbourhoods further outside the centre.

Healing the social fabric

During the events, participants and the occasional passer-by can learn about the history of the place and discuss community issues. Everyone is welcome to stop, sit down, have a chat and engage with their neighbours. In a recent gathering in the Barrio Gótico, stories were shared about local worker and activist Josepa Vilaret, called La Negreta, who was executed in 1789 for her part in an uprising against the increases in the price of bread. During the activity, a vacant plot close to the Ramblas was occupied to fill it with community life and build some street furniture. As the plot is unnamed, it was baptized Plaça Josepa Vilaret for the event – also an hommage to the many influential female personalities that are not represented in the city’s street names. 

While many locals are leaving the area, as they cannot afford the high rents, others want to stay and keep the local community alive. With its activities, Fem Plaça not only aims to reconstruct community life, but to make public spaces visible as neighbourhood spaces, and return to the community a sense of ownership and identity. 

Fem Plaça means ‘we make the square’, but the neighbours do not only ‘make squares’, they make the city. 

All photos © Sigrid Ehrmann and Fem Plaça Facebook Platform

 

If you would like to know more about Barcelona and the struggles with mass tourism, here is a documentary to watch:

Bye Bye Barcelona is a documentary about a city and it's relationship with tourism, about the difficult coexistence between Barcelona and it's people with tourism and tourists. It is a documentary that exposes through the thoughts of some of it's residents, the grave effects that mass tourism has in the city.