Where should Britain's homes go? Should we favour suburban expansion or inner city redevelopment?by Colin Ward / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
I am one of the few people I know with an interest in cities who has not visited Barcelona. It’s an accident of timing. For decades, I used to say that I would not go until I could sit at a café table on the Ramblas, arguing loudly about sex and freedom with my anarchist friends. By the time this had become possible, in 1975, we met at a café table in the Campo San Polo in Venice instead, laughing over their magazine Bicicleta and arguing about what should happen to the shanty towns on the fringe of Barcelona, housing rural immigrants. Should there be dweller-controlled upgrading on the Latin American model or new municipal estates on the north European pattern? There was nothing to say about downtown renovation, because, like the propped-up Venice which surrounded us, it was only for the benefit of us tourists.
These discussions came to mind when I read Michael Eaude’s TLS review of two Barcelona novels by one of Spain’s best-known writers, Manuel Vásquez Montalbán. “Montalbán,” says Eaude, “is a strong critic of the message successfully sold by Barcelona’s elite that their city is a haven of fine urban planning and good living.” Barcelona is not the only city to sell itself well. Ten years ago, a procession of British government ministers filed through downtown Baltimore, the Barcelona of those days, and I followed in their footsteps. Kenneth Clarke was thrilled, as he remembered the place as “the ultimate rust-bucket dump.” I was impressed, too, by the redevelopment of the inner harbour, with three new shopping pavilions on what used to be the waterfront. Grady Clay, an acute observer of the US urban scene, told me of the incredible sums from the federal treasury that had been pumped into Baltimore’s Charles Centre and Inner Harbour redevelopments. Meanwhile, the inner city, from which the poor were being squeezed out, had at least 5,800 empty houses awaiting rehabilitation. Less than half a mile from the city’s downtown miracle I met some of the hard-pressed people struggling to establish the rights of the poor majority to live decently in their own city.
Reading Montalbán on the tedious routines of getting by in Barcelona makes me wonder whether, just as Thatcher’s ministers were seduced by downtown Baltimore, so Blair’s advisers have been bought by a few delicious urban experiences at open-air Barcelona cafés. My suspicion is heightened by…