Debates on the Urban Revolution and polycentrism

Synekism and the origin of cities

Recently I have been working on the concept of Urban Revolution and reading a lot on the origin of cities. In the thirties of the past century, the archaeologist Gordon Childe proposed the theory of an urban revolution taking place after the neolithic (that is agricultural) revolution. He analysed archaeological data from ancient cities and reconstructed a sequence in which the existence of a surplus allowed for more complex division of labour and the emergence of cities. The hypothesis is so widely extended that is accepted as a conventional wisdom.

Nevertheless, from Urban Studies the hypothesis has been questioned. In The economy of cities (1969) Jane Jacobs proposed to inverse the hypothesis ‘Putting cities first’. That means assuming that cities emerged before the neolithic revolution and that this emergence lies behind the agricultural innovations giving place to the agricultural revolution. Jacobs based her approach on new archaeological data, specially the studies of James Mellaart in Çatal Hüyük, Anatolia.The city had no proper streets, but social life took place in the roofs. It was previous to the large city-states of Mesopotamia, and despite there was some forms of agriculture, the economic activity was heavily based on hunting and gathering. Despite that, there was artistic activity and many of the features that we would find in the city-states emerging 2,000 years later. Since then there has been a controversy about the sequence between archaeologists and some urban researchers. The former do not consider Çatal Hüyük as a proper city, whereas urban researchers focus on the insights that reveal complex social life in the settlement.


But why it was so important for Jacobs to show the ‘cities first’ hypothesis? She was defending the key role of dense agglomerations of population in the generation of innovation and economic growth. This was part of her intellectual fight not only against Robert Moses and his plans to reshape New York eliminating dense and compact neighbourhoods, but also against Lewis Mumford views collected in City in History. For Jacobs the city is a form of urban agglomeration that generates innovation and economic growth, and policy-makers were destroying the city giving place to extensive forms of urbanization (departing from a complete different point of view, Lefebvre would develop a similar criticism).

Later, Edward Soja, assuming Jacobs hypothesis, would label this capacity of the city as synekism, summarizing the outcomes of complex social interactions taking place in an agglomeration. For Soja there have been three urban revolutions: the first taking place 7,500 years ago with the first cities, another 5,000 with the first city-states based on extensive agriculture and since 1500 A.C.E. when the medieval city was transformed into the industrial city. The question remains today a key element, as governments at all levels seek for new sources for economic growth.  What are the elements that make some cities successful in economic growth in front of the others? That was the question that Jacobs tried to answer in 1969 and is still ongoing. Three different activities taking place during February have made me think on the role of synekism to understand current trends in metropolitan regions.

The February great race

February has been a busy month. I have visited our colleagues presenting the results of the European Project ImPRovE: Poverty, social policy and innovation, which has focused on innovative experiences on policy-making against poverty in European cities.The project, coordinated by Bea Cantillon, has involved 11 research groups from 9 different countries.

The final conference, that took place in Antwerp, showed the conclusions of the team  and presented ongoing debates on social innovation and policy-making, and the potential and limitations of the approach to understand current changes in welfare provision.

Secondly, in a seminar in Rome we had the opportunity to discuss the role of social movements and the articulation of new political platforms in southern European cities, and specially in Spain and Greece.

In third place,  I had the opportunity to do a class in Lyon (thanks Deborah) based on the concept of polycentrism and the role of small and medium-sized cities in the current configuration of metropolitan regions. The class was based on  an article, available here, that explains how metropolitan regions are compounds of small and medium-sized cities with their own historical trajectories and productive traditions, what influences their strategies within the metropolitan region. At the same time, the article is based on my PhD research.It shows how Small and medium-sized cities find ways to defend their position as a node in a network of cities formed by social, economic and political interactions between municipalities. Whereas the article is based on two case studies (West Midlands Conurbation and Barcelona Metropolitan Region), the presentation in Lyon focused specifically on the case of Barcelona. I include the presentation below:


Both the emergence of innovative practices in policies, the rise of new political platforms and the fight of small and medium-sized cities can be read through the concept of synekism, that is, as outcomes of dense social relations taking place in cities that become institutionalised and give place to formal and informal ways of organizing collective life. That allows for an explanation of ‘putting cities first’ in order to try to understand certain phenomena, as it is the complexity of cities what allows all kinds of innovation and creation, not only that oriented to economic growth.

Merry Christmas post: Summary of the year in Changing cities

In order to celebrate the end of the year and to wish you all merry Christmas, I summarise what I have done so far, and what has happened in cities and urban studies around me.

2015 has been a productive year in many ways. In our research group, we have finished some projects and started others, and we managed to publish some interesting stuff. In the meanwhile, main Spanish cities have seen the emergence of a ‘democratic revolution’ through the victory in the municipal elections of anti-austerity political platforms claiming for less corruption and an alternative management of cities granting greater redistribution and fight against poverty. furthermore, with catalan elections in autumn and general elections in winter, this has been a pretty political year.

The Innosogo Project: social innovation and governance

In January we started the national project INNOSOGO Innovación Social y Gobernanza, prácticas emergentes para ciudades en transformación (Social innovation and governance, emerging practices for cities in transformation) in which we try to analyse bottom-up practices taking place in Spanish cities and their connection with local administration. Are socially innovative practices against social exclusion collaborating with public administration? What kind of governance models allow for greater or weaker collaboration? What are the results of this different patterns of collaboration? The project compares four cities: Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid and Zaragoza.

At the end of the year we have analysed the governance models of the four cities and selected the case studies to start extensive fieldwork on January. Synthesis reports will be soon available, and results will be presented in the next ISA Forum in Viena and in the next RC21 Conference in Mexico amongst others.

You can find more information on the project here.

The Innova project: new forms of production in the city

This year we have finished the Innova Project, a coordinated research project in collaboration with other research groups in University of Valencia and University of Lleida. The projecte attempted to analyse new forms of organisation of economic actors within the city, comparing four Spanish cities: Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid and Valencia. Specifically, we analysed the role of networks of creative workers and its connection with more classic clusters and agglomeration economies’ approaches being developed in cities. The results will be published in different journals and books soon. In the meantime, you can take a look to the summary of the project done by the project coordinator Montserrat Pareja in the final conference of the project together with the other two main researchers of Valencia and Lleida.

A new spring? The ‘democratic revolution’ in Spanish cities

In May 2015 the municipal elections brought new mayors to main Spanish cities, affecting almost all cities studied in Innova and Innosogo projects. In Madrid, Manuela Carmena led a coalition of parties and movements that accessed to the city council with support of the traditional left party PSOE. In Barcelona, the former anti-evictions activitst Ada Colau became mayor through the platform Barcelona en Comú, but in a very fragmented scenario where the vote is highly distributed between seven parties. In Valencia and Zaragoza similar movements reached the city council bringing new proposals for management based on greater transparency and anti-corruption, as well as enforcing redistributive policies to tackle growing povery and social exclusion.

colau i carmena

Colau and Carmena during the electoral campaign

The emergence of these new city councils is interesting for both projects: what are the proposals in terms of economic development of these new political parties? How are they connecting with the grassroot movements that propose new measures against social exclusion? To what extent they are new politics and what are their proposals? The new scene brings a complete new research agenda in a context of general austerity.

 Catalonia as a network of cities

The third large research project of this year has analysed the trajectory of former mayor of Barcelona and President of Catalonia Pasqual Maragall, whose political project was largely based on promoting the role of municipalities in policy-making. The project, being published next year, has been possible thanks to Fundació Catalunya Europa who awarded me with a prize to do the research.

The former mayor Pasqual Maragall

The former mayor Pasqual Maragall

Conferences and publications

Finally, the year has brought the participation in conferences and the publication of some articles. Here is a short list:

  • Participation in a Workshop in the framework of the Expo 2015 in Milan on urban Laboratories already explained here
  • Participation in the RC21  Conferece in Urbino with the presentation “Changing models for growth? Governance of large metropolitan regions in Spain” with Fernando Díaz Orueta, Maria Luisa Lourés, and Santiago Eizaguirre based on the research conducted during the Innosogo Project

Publication of articles is always painful. This 2015 I have been able to publish some works already waiting to appear:

  • An article on Environment and Planning C: Making polycentrism: governance innovation in smalland medium-sized cities in the West Midlands and Barcelona metropolitan regions.
  • For the next year a spanish version of this article will be published in Revista de Estudios Regionales
  • An article with Marisol García and Santiago Eizaguirre in City, Culture and Society: Social innovation and creativity in cities: A socially inclusive governance approach in two peripheral spaces of Barcelona.

Unfortunately many other articles and chapters are waiting to be published next year.

Well, and that’s 2015 for changing cities and its author. I wish you all a merry Christmas and a productive and fruitful 2016, which for sure will be more urban than ever. As usual, a video to celebrate the holidays







Origen, potencialidades y flaquezas del concepto de innovación social

el otro mundo posibleEl uso continuo de conceptos nuevos para definir y analizar fenómenos sociales es una tendencia ya antigua pero en crecimiento en las ciencias sociales. La necesidad continua de producir nuevos conocimientos y de tener un impacto en la literatura existente y el sistema de producción científica basada en artículos explica en parte esta tendencia. Hoy nos centraremos en uno de estos conceptos de moda que han surgido recientemente para analizar el cambio social: el concepto de innovación social. Después de un tiempo largo usando el concepto de innovación social en nuestras investigación sobre ciudades, siguen asaltándonos dudas sobre su origen y significado, así como su utilidad analítica para entender la realidad. Las reflexiones que aparecen aquí, muy genéricas, entroncan con las más específicas que en su momento publicó Rubén Martínez en su blog en el marco de su investigación doctoral (podéis leerlas aquí).

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Detroit: the fascination for urban decay

Since its bankruptcy, Detroit is receiving increasing attention from the media and from urban researchers. Here you will find a brief analysis of the literature.


For Europeans of my generation, Detroit was a faraway industrial city with lots of problems and violence that we could only see in movies. In Beverly Hills Cop (Superdetective en Hollywod in Spanish, 1984) Axel Foley was travelling from a decadent Detroit to Beverly Hills to resolve the murder of his (ex-convict) friend.  In Robocop (1987) the city council of Detroit privatises the police service in a context of a city hit by unemployment and violence. Robocop fights drug lords in derelict factories whereas there is a project to refurbish the city centre into the ‘Delta City’ project, a new town centre providing millions of jobs and urban regeneration (yes, many have seen the movie as prophetic). Later, thanks to Michael Moore we knew a bit more about Michigan and its industrial basis, social and racial segregation and rising inequalities. No much more from Detroit was known until the financial crisis, when all the media started to analyse the case of Detroit as a failed city, and also urban studies started to take a look on the city. Abandoned houses, lack of public transportation, decline of manufacturing activities, decreasing of population by a half and bankruptcy have brought international attention to the city. In the most read newspaper in Spain, El País, there has been an article on Detroit every three or four months.

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Urban laboratories: a useful concept for social sciences?

simcity_3000_by_jordan90-d4x922xThe concept of urban laboratory is being increasingly used in policy-making and social research to understand processes of creation of knowledge in cities. The idea of city as a laboratory means that there is some kind of experimentation with city life in order to understand and to intervene in the reality. In these ‘laboratories’ there is analysis of how inhabitants use the city and interact amongst themselves and new solutions are tested in order to improve city life.

These days I have had the opportunity to discuss on the subject of urban laboratories with Bas van Heur and Gabriele Pasqui in a workshop organized by Marianna d’Ovidio (Università Milano-Bicocca) in the framework of the Expo 2015 in Milan. The departing point of the session was a symposium in IJURR on urban laboratories (vol. 38 num. 2) coordinated by Bas van Heur and Andrew Karvonen published last year.

In the symposium, we can find different examples of the use of the concept urban laboratory, not only from policy-makers, who label some initiatives as urban laboratories, but also from researchers themselves, who consider certain cases as urban laboratories of experimentation of new solutions. The special issue asks for the relevance of the concept for urban studies, analysing the main elements of a laboratory and to what extent we can consider the city as such. A key question in considering the city as a laboratory is the difference between a controlled environment and the unpredictability and complexity of the city, and the role of the experiments in the city in its transformation if the variables are not covered. Nevertheless, the use of the concept of laboratory, brings us the idea of certain people and instruments being used on a standardized way, the idea of measuring and the idea of controlled inducement of changes. Karvonen and van Heur’s approach to the issue finishes with the idea of three achievements of urban laboratories: situatedness, change-orientation and contingency.

After van Heur’s presentation, the discussion of these ideas brought the author and the two discussants (Gabriele Pasqui and me) to the fields of agency and context in this production of knowledge. Agency refers to the idea of who is the one who experiments and what are the objectives of this experimentation. For instance in Barcelona the idea of urban laboratory is focused to the experimentation of private companies to develop their products for smart cities: indicators for car parks, smart lighting and a large etc. This is completely different from an approach based on collective experimentation or involvement of citizens in new solutions. The second issue refers to context: if urban laboratories are bringing conclusions based on experiments that can be extrapolated to the ‘urban context’ in general, what role are local specificities playing? what about the specific social configurations of a locality affecting, let’s say the use of car, how pedestrians use the street or the different ways of using the public space? Besides some questions were raised on the transformative potential of urban laboratories and its progressive values which are not inherent to the issue. If urban laboratories are conceptualised as patterns for knowledge creation, we must ask ourselves on what is the purpose of this creation, what are the interest behind it and who is going to benefit from the results.

We can find examples of urban laboratories in lots of different cities. In Barcelona the former 22@ district has been transformed into a urban laboratory, whereas many universities have created interdisciplinar centres to experiment with the city, for instance in the University College of London. You can surf the website for more examples. You can also follow Bas van Heur through twitter @basvanheur.

Reference article:

Karvonen, A, van Heur, B (2014) Urban Laboratories: Experiments in Reworking Cities International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(2): 379-392

Greetings from Changingcities (and a short summary of 2014)

Last year I was complaining that I produced only six posts, this year I produced only three, counting this one. But I don’t give up, and I will continue posting in the eighth year of Changing cities as the current blog. Looking in perspective I could have written more this 2014 as it has been a year plenty of interesting professional activities:

  • I have been in Ankara for the Intensive Program of the European Spatial Development Planning Network (see here) and I have visited Japan (for the ISA Conference) and Paris ( a short research stay in the Centre d’estudes Europeenes in Science Po). I had also the opportunity to participate in the third Annual Conference of the Center for Metropolitan Studies in Berlin, strengthening opportunities for collaboration. Unfortunately I didn’t find time or energy to write about Japan and the biggest city in the world: Tokyo.
  • For the first time in two years, our research group CRIT has been funded to develop a new project on Social Innovation against social excluison in Spanish Cities (INNOSOGO) and we have been working hard in the development of our other project on new forms of economic competitiveness of cities (INRED).
  • And finally, a new article co-authored with Montserrat Pareja (Towards the Creative and Knowledge Economies: Analysing Diverse Pathways in Spanish Cities) has been published in European Planning Studies, while another (Making Polycentrism) has been accepted in Environment and Planning C.

In our nice southern European city, Barcelona, 2014 has been the year of consolidation of the trends of growing social exclusion and economic growth. The city economy is performing extraordinarily well, specially in comparison with other southern european cities, thanks mainly to Tourism. At the same time, social inequalities continue to grow, with Nou Barris (my district of birth) as the poorest district of the city and the district with more evictions of Spain, and Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, the bourgeois district, increasing wealth (see map below). It has been also a year of hard work of citizens, who are organizing themselves to revert this situation and to bring back the city council to redistributive policies and citizens’ participation. Unfortunately, some of them have been forced to move to other parts of the world seeking better opportunities, but we will bring back them as soon as possible.

desigualtats Barcelona

Family income Inequalities in Barcelona, where 100 is the average of the city (data from 2012, now it is even worse).

It is said that 2015 is going to be a year of changes. Let’s see what happens. I want to wish you a happy 2015 with lots of luck and positive energy.

Feliç any nou!

Feliz año nuevo!

Frohes neues Jahr!

Happy new year!

Cambios en la gobernanza global y auge de los independentismos

Cartel de CiU: "La España subsidiada vive a costa de la Cataluña productiva". En este post voy a intentar encuadrar el auge del independentismo catalán en el contexto global. Lo haré siguiendo una aproximación materialista, así que no esperen encontrar debates sobre el ‘derecho a decidir’. Solo argumento sobre las causas materiales que han hecho crecer el proceso.

Los que nos dedicamos a estudiar la gobernanza hemos visto como la globalización lleva parejos dos procesos paralelos: uno de internacionalización y creación de entidades supranacionales y el otro de descentralización y una creciente importancia de los territorios subnacionales. Este proceso ha transformado el estado nacional como tal, que ha delegado competencias por arriba y por abajo. Estos procesos de descentralización, no han sido solo políticos sino sobretodo de carácter económico, con el crecimiento de unas zonas ricas y la caída en picado de otras zonas, antaño líderes del crecimiento industrial. La transformación del estado ha conllevado el aumento de la competencia entre territorios y el fin o debilitamiento de las políticas redistributivas dentro del estado en el marco de la creencia económica keynesiana, que  partía de dar igualdad de oportunidades territoriales en lo económico, desincentivando la localización de empresas en las ciudades más ricas y fomentando a través de políticas fiscales, entre otras, la localización en ciudades menos desarrolladas. La globalización ha conllevado el auge de algunas ciudades y la caída de otras, con la consiguiente creación de una jerarquía global de ciudades, a la cúspide de la cual encontramos las grandes ciudades globales que describiera Saskia Sassen.

En esta situación, los territorios más ricos han ido demandando mayor autonomía de los estados, oponiéndose a contribuir a las políticas redistributivas de cohesión territorial. Este proceso está teniendo lugar en mayor o menor medida en todos los países y a distintas escalas y se ha exacerbado con la crisis económica durante la cual los territorios mejor posicionados han empezado a desarrollar políticas de protección ante la crisis y la necesidad de aumentar el gasto social.

Por poner tres ejemplos: en París, los municipios ricos, con la ciudad de París a la cabeza, se han negado a crear un sistema redistributivo dentro del área metropolitana; en Catalunya se ha generalizado la visión de que existe un expolio fiscal por parte del gobierno central y que Catalunya tiene que recibir tanto como aporta; y ya a escala europea los países del norte se muestran recelosos del gasto excesivo de los países del sur. En estos tres ejemplos encontramos una visión extendida entre gran parte de la sociedad (Parisina, Catalana, Alemana) de que los territorios más ricos se tienen que desentender de las políticas de cohesión territorial, y que estas ya no son deseables. O no lo son más allá de la jurisdicción propia. La alcaldesa de París, la socialista Anne Hidalgo, justificó la negativa a una redistribución fiscal más grande dentro de la región metropolitana por la necesidad de seguir financiando políticas sociales dentro de la ciudad de París. La justificación fue necesaria porque su posición significaba ponerse en contra al resto de alcaldes socialistas de la región y a buena parte del electorado tradicional del partido socialista en los bainleus de la Ille-de-France. El mapa de abajo muestra las desigualdades entre municipios en términos salariales.


Distribución de los ingresos salariales en los distintos municipios de la región metropolitana de París (París dividido en distritos), 2013

La presentación de esta situación a tres escalas distintas sirve para ir al meollo del asunto. La riqueza no se distribuye equitativamente dentro de la región de la Ille-de-France. Tampoco lo hace en el conjunto de España ni en el conjunto de Europa. Y esta distribución desigual depende básicamente de la localización territorial de la riqueza y de como se concentra en determinadas áreas. La pregunta es: donde fijar el límite? Barcelona puede negarse en algún momento a “seguir manteniendo” al resto de Catalunya. Incluso el distrito de Sarrià-Sant Gervasi puede pedir la independencia de Barcelona harto de sufragar las políticas sociales del conjunto de la ciudad, como de hecho algunos de sus ciudadanos ya promovieron. Claro que se puede poner la cuestión justo en la otra dirección: hasta donde hay que ser solidarios? Debería Catalunya recibir compensaciones de la región metropolitana más rica de Europa, es decir, Ille-de-France? Este planteamiento nos lleva a una segunda cuestión que no podemos afrontar si seguimos analizando la cuestión desde la dicotomía territorios ricos-territorios pobres.

Y es que la distribución desigual territorial no se debe al azar o al mérito de unos sobre otros sino a un entramado económico-político (capitalismo, ahora financiero) que garantiza esta distribución desigual entre clases y territorios. Por lo tanto la redistribución no debería ser solo territorial sino entre clases (que además se distribuyen desigualmente entre los territorios). Si lo miramos a escala global, las grandes ciudades globales (New York, Tokio, Londres, Paris) son las que concentran mayor riqueza, si bien acumulan también grandes desigualdades sociales, como ya hemos visto en el caso de París. A esta concentración territorial de la riqueza hay que sumarle, además, los flujos financieros internacionales y una élite, el famoso 1 por ciento, que mueve sus capitales fuera de los circuitos formales. Por esta razón, allí donde se concentra el poder económico aparece también la utilización mezquina de los argumentos sobre el expolio fiscal por parte de los que más tienen. En el norte de Italia, en Alemania, y también en Catalunya (aunque los tres casos son enormemente distintos entre sí).

Dicho de otro modo, la riqueza de Catalunya está concentrada en pocas manos, y lo que hay que discutir es como redistribuimos esa riqueza. No podemos esperar que este debate lo abran los que más tienen. En Catalunya, para evitar ser señalados con el dedo, los miembros de la élite, descendientes de la burguesía que industrializó el país y pacto con el diablo (Franco) para mantenerse en el poder, nos recuerdan constantemente que el gobierno central da mucho menos de lo que recibe. Lo hacen a través de diferentes mecanismos como la infame campaña “L’Espanya subsidiada viu a costa de la Catalunya productiva” que lanzó Converegència i Unió en 2013, estando en el gobierno. La realidad es que el gran conjunto de ciudadanos de Catalunya les sostenemos a ellos, a ese par de centenares de familias que son la clase extractiva de este país y que lo gobiernan formal e informalmente controlando gobiernos y consejos de administración. Les sostenemos a través del robo que perpetran también formal e informalmente: a través de un expolio fiscal a las clases trabajadoras vía IRPF y a través de las prácticas generalizadas de corrupción a través de las que engrosan las arcas de sus empresas con contratos inexistentes, por ejemplo en la sanidad.

Si asumimos que este movimiento no es tutelado desde arriba por Artur Mas, es inquietante que muchos ciudadanos estén dispuestos a movilizarse por la independencia de Catalunya sin plantearse siquiera cambiar las relaciones de poder internas. También lo es que muchos de los que dicen querer cambiar dichas relaciones de poder argumenten que para hacerlo hay que sumarse alegremente al proceso liderado políticamente por Mas firmando pactos con la oligarquía y participando de las puestas de largo de un movimiento tan conservador (en el sentido estricto del término, conservar el poder y el status quo por parte de la élite territorial, o que todo cambie para que todo siga igual). Y ahí la gran victoria de la élite, confundir a la izquierda ofreciendo un proceso democrático al que no se pueden oponer por estar en su ADN. No es que esté mal un proceso democrático en sí, es que para hacerlo con tales compañeros de viaje, igual no valía la pena embarcarse. Habría que recordar una cita de un socialista e independentista irlandés, al que no hicieron caso (y así les ha ido):

If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain.

James Conolly (1868-1916)