Making things happen
The Olympics were an excuse to get down to work and to transform a decaying industrial city into what it is today, a magnet for people and ideas from around the world, but one which runs the risk of becoming a victim of its own success with each new development
There are people who make things happen. And, yes, there are also those who are intensely devoted to hindering them, but today we are concerned with those who know how to get things done. People who create the conditions to surround themselves with the best efforts and collaborators in order to move ahead. This was the magic behind the transformation of Barcelona ’92 [when the city hosted the Olympic Games]. 25 years ago, a few dared to think big and join forces to work towards the same goal, working to overcome hurdles, both large and small. Mayor Pasqual Maragall got Barcelona moving in order to make things happen and the Olympic project was able to bring to fruition the efforts of the best and the most diverse.
Taking over the baton from Narcís Serra, Maragall and Samaranch were, according to Diana Garrigosa [Maragall’s wife], "two roosters who had called a truce". Two conflicting personalities that set about working on the same project. Josep Miquel Abad, President of the Olympic Organizing Committee, still remembers Samaranch as a "great master of pragmatism".
All manner of entrepreneurs, professionals and volunteers opened the city to the world. They reclaimed the seafront, they carried out an urban revolution, they built telecommunications infrastructure, they built the Olympic facilities, they invented an aesthetic with a unique personality, an Olympic mascot that broke with the absurdities of the past, they avoided a "military display", they hypnotized 3.5 billion viewers and they generated an explosion of Mediterranean joy and creativity which hasn’t been seen since. In the words of Jaume Badia in his book Pasqual Maragall, pensament i acció, durant els Jocs [Pasqual Maragall, Thoughts and Actions During the Olympics], "joy dominates everything", and thanks to those days in July, Barcelona was able to enter into modernity.
Maragall’s driving force was key to the enterprise. According to Badia, "the Olympics allowed him to apply his knowledge and implement his political program, while simultaneously fully exercising his extraordinary leadership". In the words of another of his close associates, Xavier Roig, "Maragall encouraged us and gave us clues as to which direction we had to take". His leadership was a positive one. Maragall’s true political legacy has yet to be written, though he must be given credit for his team-building skills and his ability to innovate by observing the world. In addition to his unpredictability, Maragall’s discretion should also be acknowledged. The eccentric Maragall of which much has been said is the same discreet Maragall who, out of the public gaze, would spend a week in each of Barcelona’s neighbourhoods and who every Christmas Eve would have dinner in one of the city’s soup kitchens. Political communication has changed as much as Barcelona has over the last two decades, where nowadays everything is broadcast live on Twitter.
The Olympics were an excuse to get down to work and to transform a decaying industrial city into what it is today, a magnet for people and ideas from around the world, but one which runs the risk of becoming a victim of its own success with each new development. Barcelona needed a project and it undertook an urban transformation and received an injection of self-esteem. The city reinvented itself.
Now, 25 years later, we have an extraordinary city, but one which faces challenges that lead one to wonder who is looking out for Barcelona and what the city’s joint project is for the present.
Success has brought with it certain problems for Barcelona’s residents. Some, such as tourism and the access to housing are directly related to its success, while others are indirectly related, such as pollution.
In the last 16 years, the annual number of overnight stays has increased from 3 million to nearly 8 million, and the exodus of local residents due to rising property prices is unquestionable. Barcelona continues to suffer from the upset caused by the dissolution of the metropolitan corporation, restored in 2010 and currently made up of 36 municipalities and more than three million people in the greater Barcelona area. They collaborate on services, but not on policies regarding key issues such as housing. The Catalan government has still remains afraid of a greater Barcelona.
The capital has traditionally been a city ruled by the left, and indeed the current mayor has her origins in social movements. She has good instincts, an ability to connect with the city and to choose the right symbols. But she has only 11 councillors out of 41 and arrived in office with no clear strategy, aside from an appreciation of the fatigue brought on by tourism and the ill feeling over access to housing and its rising cost. The governing party have begun to appreciate the need for a strong policy instrument for coordinating the metropolitan area, and its ingenious announcements (the removal of symbols related to the Franco era and slave trading, the legalisation of illegal street traders, gender awareness in its communications and children’s storybooks) lack sufficient impetus. Barcelona needs quality growth rather than degrowth, a government team that is not afraid of investment. This is compatible with a policy of genuine social housing and decisions which improve services, rather than a municipalization of services that is more ideological than effective. Ada Colau’s advantage is that the opposition is weak, with a leadership which stubbornly remains an obstacle to regeneration.
Barcelona’s residents don’t need spectacular initiatives. They want to reclaim the city and the quality of life that made it world famous in the first place. To achieve this, it must focus on a major initiative to guarantee basic services, with ambitious leaders who are prepared to compete and to loyally cooperate with the city’s residents.