Civilising city living

‘We don’t care much about sport in Barcelona,” says Joan Clos, who has probably done more than anyone to transform Catalonia’s capital over the past two decades. “We are not a specially sporting city.”

What about the football team? “Oh that little thing”

You can see why Dr Clos was a controversial mayor of Spain’s second largest city: he (Joan is a Catalan form of Juan) seemed entirely serious. He was stressing that Barcelona had hosted the 1992 Olympics, not for their own sake, but as a calculated catalyst for change.

The Games helped bring about one of the greatest-ever municipal miracles, and Dr Clos is now hoping that he can spread some of the magic worldwide. For he has recently taken charge of the international response to a startling development which has for the first time ever, turned humanity from a rural into an urban species.

The number of people living in the world’s towns and cities has grown fivefold since 1950, and now forms a majority of its population. Every year, another 67 million people – more than the population of Britain and Ireland combined – cram into them. Two hundred years ago, London became the first city since ancient Rome to reach one million inhabitants. In 1900, there were just 11 such cities worldwide. Now there are 442.

It is, as Dr Clos puts it, “a challenge that humanity has never known before”. But the U.K Government has just made his job – as head of UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency addressing the crisis – more difficult.

But to get back to his point. The decision to bid for the Olympics was taken at the start of the 1980s, not long after the first democratic elections following Franco’s rule. “There was an explosion of hope,” he says. “People were expecting a lot from democracy, but there was 20 per cent unemployment and 20 per cent inflation.”

Barcelona – which had been Spain’s Manchester, a textile town at the leading edge of the Industrial Revolution – decided it “needed something to get out of the hole”. It bid for the Olympics on the promise that they would transform the city and, on being awarded them, raised public and private money for massive investments in infrastructure – including building new ring-roads, expanding the airport and improving telecommunications.

It continued after the Games with investments “of 400-500 million euros a year for 15 years in the fabric of the city”, partly financed “by the highest property taxes in Spain”. People were willing to pay? “Yes, because they saw the change and the value that was generated. We turned Barcelona from an industrial city into a post-industrial one.” Now one of the world’s leading tourist and cultural centres, it is Europe’s fourth richest city.

Clos was at the heart of it all. Originally a doctor, he joined the municipal government as director of public health in 1979, becoming a councillor four years later and initiating and directing urban regeneration projects. He spent six years as deputy mayor from 1991, followed by nine as mayor, concentrating on reforming the city’s administration and attracting investment, but getting into rows on issues ranging from charging for parking spaces to enforcing laws against graffiti and prostitution.

Now, as he admits, he faces a far greater challenge. More than 90 per cent of the explosive urban growth is in the Third World, driven mainly by the greatest mass migration in history, from poor rural areas to foetid, but fast-growing slums which will soon house almost a billion people. Other such movements – in Western countries in the past, and China today – have mainly been pulled by industrial growth. But now in the poorest countries, especially in Africa, they are being pushed by lack of work in the countryside: people crowd into the cities in hope of a better life, but there are no jobs there, either.

“We have no previous experience of this,” says Clos. “We can’t learn from history.” He believes that the only hope is for the poorest countries also to develop industries, although this is obstructed by tariff barriers erected against manufactured goods by rich ones – and, he says, would have to be largely powered by renewable energy to avoid increasing climate change. So the man who led Barcelona into a post-industrial age, is now promoting industrialisation elsewhere.

Yet in February, the U.K Government cut off all Britain’s core funding to UN-Habitat, saying that its performance has been weak and it has not controlled costs. Clos tacitly concedes this, stressing he has been brought in to achieve the “managerial reform” he brought to Barcelona, and asking ministers to help him, rather than quit altogether. In return, who knows, they might get ideas on how to capitalise on our own Olympics.