In his article for Citiwire (http://citiwire.net/post/1432/), Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group calls for American cities struggling with the decline of their traditional manufacturing bases to look to Barcelona for inspiration. Where American policy-makers would, according to Peirce, bulldoze the abandoned relics of a city’s industrial past to build a new business park, Barcelona’s politicians instead considered how to transition the former hub of its cotton industry into a knowledge-based economy fit for the 21st century. Recognizing that their ability to attract the kind of talent needed to effect such a transition depended upon the creation of a suitably attractive environment, leaders from both sides of the political divide came together to develop an imaginative array of policies designed to achieve this. They split the city into 100-square meter blocks where decisions required the agreement of 60 per cent of landowners, and offered these landowners the chance to build at a higher density than was normally permitted if they released 30 per cent of their holding for public investment. The publicly-held land could then be used to help create what Peirce describes as ‘a lively urban environment… shaped to include attractive green spaces, restaurants and entertainment, bike lanes, and plentiful public transit’. Such an environment was thought to be preferable to the staid, detached ‘corporate campuses’ and thus far, at least, the Barcelona model appears to be working. Josep Pique is the CEO of 22@Barcelona, the entity created to manage the district, and he is keen to point out that the economic success they aspired for has not come at the cost of social responsibility. According to Pique, social housing and internships for local students are just two of the initiatives that are helping to ensure that those residents who lived in the district before its overhaul will reap the benefits of the regeneration strategy. Peirce certainly seems impressed, as he notes that ‘the physical result is an amazingly eclectic neighborhood’, where the old and new sit ‘cheek by jowl’. So what can America learn from Barcelona? Well, there is no doubt that America is on board with the idea of the knowledge-based economy. Silicon Valley is but the most famous example of the myriad districts around the nation that epitomize the term, and the means to attract the requisite talent are at the very center of Richard Florida’s ‘Creative Class’ theory. Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that there are not places in America where leaders share similar aspirations to create an attractive, mixed-use environment, often incentivizing developers to help achieve this. For those of us that have learned about planning in the Washington DC area, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington County might be the foremost manifestation of such practices. However, such places are the exceptions that prove the rule, and even the most progressive American politicians would surely balk at the prospect of asking developers to give up almost a third of their land holdings in the name of the common good. Peirce sees the American obsession with property rights as a major stumbling block, especially as property owners are also required to pay 50 per cent of street infrastructure improvements. He also questions whether American cities could ever reach the broad political consensus that is required to enact such a bold strategy. On the other hand, he asserts that ‘we Americans can’t keep saying “no” and “can’t” forever’. So, America, maybe it is time that a prominent politician – perhaps one who is au fait with the seminal work of Jane Jacobs, for example – finally had the courage to say “yes, we can” for a change. If such a politician were to be voted into a position of real power, we might really begin to see some progress.
%d bloggers like this: