New Urban Activism & The Social Movement In Madrid


The economic crisis in Spain receives regular coverage in international news – there is ongoing commentary and analysis about trade, austerity measures, unemployment, implications for the Euro, and even talk of emergence from the recession. But the conversation tends to focus on the financial situation, and not the state of affairs in which years of problematic governance has left Spain’s citizenry.

The stories that don’t make it across international borders so much are the efforts of the folks on the ground, working in their communities from the bottom up to transform the urban landscape. They are fighting back against privatization, bureaucracy, and top-down strategies driven by a neo-liberal approach and the impacts of globalization, which combined created a melting pot of urban problems. What they demand is a transparent, accessible, participatory democracy that responds to the needs of its residents. Their innovation, use of modern tools, and focus on engaged citizenry is remaking the field of urbanism into something that serves citizens better and prioritizes public good over private gain.

This series of posts will provide an overview of this new urban activism and the urban social movement in Spain, focusing on Madrid. To start is an introductory post providing the historical, economic, social and political context from which the movement and strategies emerged. Subsequent posts will highlight some of these grassroots groups and the way they function, the emergent discourse in the field, and the ways the fourth sector is facilitating relationships between stakeholders to support and advance a vision of a new urban landscape.
How did we get here?
Spain’s democracy is fairly young – 2015 marking 40 years since the transition began following the death of dictator Francisco Franco. King Juan Carlos I took the helm and enacted a series of reforms over the following few years to establish the democratic institutions and legal structure under which the new government would operate. Of course, all of this progress did not come to pass peacefully – the late ‘70s and early 80’s were wrought with violence, from both right-wing and left-wing extremists including multiple attempts at a coup d’état.

The 1982 elections saw center-left party PSOE take power. But after almost 15 years and growing social unrest, center-right PP took the majority in 1996 with José María Aznar as president. Under his leadership, the Land Liberalization Lawi was passed in 1998, making undeveloped natural areas available for urban development. The idea behind this law was that with more land available, there would be more opportunities for investment and construction. In turn, this would spur the construction of houses and drive the price of houses down, resulting in increased homeownership and a more affordable cost of living.

And so begins the infamous tale of the housing bubble: The new law did indeed stimulate construction and in one year Spain saw more new houses built than the UK, Italy, and Germany combined.ii A labor reform law further aided construction – this law reduced worker rights but made a wealth of jobs available, which decreased unemployment, and theoretically increased the number of people who could then buy a house. However, things didn’t go exactly as planned.  Demand for houses increased more than anticipated so prices went up, but salaries had stagnated so the cost of living rose; however these working-class residents were the people who were supposed to be buying all of the new houses. The banks wanted to benefit from the housing market profits too, so in order to keep homeownership in the reaches of everyday Spaniards the banks doled out loans with relaxed credit requirements. These risky loans were justified because, of course, the price of property always increases so it’s a good investment.

With rising debt though, all of the players in this property game were borrowing more and more on the future with no real economic growth. As more and more homeowners were unable to pay their loans, they were evicted. With borrowers unable to pay, banks stopped lending money, investors stopped buying the debt and finally, following the US, the housing bubble burst in Spain in 2008. The collapse of the housing industry plunged Spain into one of its worst economic crises, with soaring unemployment, rising inflation, bank bailouts,iii and more than 25% of newly constructed homes sitting vacant.iv Subsequently, the government imposed austerity measures to cut debt, which included raising taxes.

The start of a movement
The combination of rising prices from inflation, unemployment, and increased taxes have, not surprisingly, fueled incredible social unrest yet again. The unrest, though, is not just based on economic hardship; the grassroots citizen’s organization that emerged in early 2011, calledDemocracia Real YA! (Real Democracy Now!), asserts in their manifesto that corruption in the government and private sector is “an obstacle to human progress” and has left citizens voiceless and without real representation. They call for increased transparency and participatory processes in government to create “direct channels” to ensure rights to “housing, employment, culture, health, education, political participation, free personal development, and consumer rights” and for reform in the political and economic sphere that repositions public good over private benefit at citizens’ expense.v Critical of both PP and PSOE, los indignados assert that their needs are not represented by any of the political parties.

Citizen organizing was budding as a number of groups had been formed by los indignados and came to a head with protests in 2011 across the country ahead of municipal elections, most notably on May 15th. Protesters carried banners emblazoned with Democrocia Real YA´s motto of “No somosmercancías en manos de políticos y banqueros” meaning “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.” The resultant movement, called 15M in reference to the date of the protest, continued as an encampment in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, a plaza in the city center, for the following month with chants of si se puede and numerous clashes with police, as well as other encampments and marches in numerous Spanish cities (Barcelona, Sevilla, Valencia, Zaragoza, etc.). Eventually, the movement devolved and continues today through 15M neighborhood assemblies and countless other groups of citizens demanding change and reclaiming their right to the city.

A new take on urbanism
Before the housing bubble burst, though, groups of architects had been growing critical of the construction trends. Rather than becoming accomplices in building houses on top of houses on top of houses, they had an alternative take on urbanism – of thoughtful use of space driven by ecological considerations, open and democratic decision-making, and engagement of the users of space. In the late ‘90s and early aughts, groups of architects began forming collectives based on these values.

As the social movement grew following the economic collapse, they began to converge with the architecture collectives around a shared vision of public spaces, participatory processes, and sustainability. The proliferation of vacant lots and abandoned buildings resulting from the bursting of the housing bubble became the sites through which they organized and began making a new urban reality, activating spaces that were a drain on neighborhoods into assets that are accessible, empowering, and engaging for communities.

This new urban activism is, in some ways, reminiscent of las okupas: squatters motivated by political and social objectives who practiced autogestión (autonomous self-management), and occupied vacant dwellings starting in the ‘60s and surging in the ‘80s. While employing some old tactics, innovative strategies and methodologies are emerging as well that are turning the tide in urbanism to a new model. The coming posts will highlight this new model and provide examples of how activists are making their vision a reality in Madrid.

The recent election of a mayor from the new Ahora Madrid party,1 Manuela Carmena, makes it quite clear that the urban social movement in Madrid is having a profound impact on society. Through consistent engagement and organizing of citizens and a clear message, the bottom-up movement has gained enough power to take City Hall. The election is a major gain for the movement and comes on the heels of years of tireless work by grassroots groups trying to create a new urban reality.  

As described in the previous post, the urban social movement is driven by los indignados who demand a government that serves its citizens first instead of the private sector, calling for a transparent, participatory democracy that provides public space, protects social rights, and ensures ecological and economic sustainability. Within the past decade, hundreds of associations have formed to take on a particular struggle, such as evictions, or to serve their local neighborhood, from the city center to the fringes of Madrid, all part of this movement. Some occupy vacant sites illegally and others have convinced the municipality to turn spaces over for social or cultural uses. They rely on the free time of those involved to stay organized. Many are part of a network of groups or projects. Together they form a rich and complex yet cohesive landscape of active citizens. This post will delve into who some of these groups are, what they do, and how they do it. 

Activating vacant spaces 
With the bursting of the housing bubble, countless vacant properties dot the cityscape – both empty lots and abandoned buildings. These neighborhood blemishes are being turned into opportunities for activation, to bring about something positive, to make an accessible place for the community. 

One of the most visible sites where this is taking place is Campo de Cebada in the heart of the city. Adjacent to the Cebada Market and across the street from the La Latina metro stop, this outdoor space is the result of the tearing down of a sports complex in 2009 and sat empty due to the economic crisis. Following a White Night2 festival in the space and a subsequent installation in 2010, neighbors wanted to continue using the space for the community, especially since the city was supposed to replace the sports complex with another public space. They organized to discuss how to manage and use the space and to negotiate with the city. Though there were challenges figuring out the management between the city and residents, they eventually reached an agreement. Over the last five years, the space has been transformed through collaborations and projects with artists and architects and is now filled with murals, mobile structures for seating and shade, a garden, and areas for sports and performances. The space hosts all sorts of free, open events – workshops, fairs, a basketball league, festivals, concerts. Members of the community share unlocking and locking duties every morning and night and signs around the site let users know that it is self-managed, users are responsible for keeping it clean, and meetings are open.  It is a bustling space, popular with the youth but full of people from all walks of life. Architect David Bravo Bordas notes that “Administrators would do well to take note of its spontaneity, challenging the official channels with a committed initiative notable for its transparency, participation and social inclusion.”3  

Another unused space around which community members have rallied is the Mercado de Frutas y Verduras de Legazpi, an old, vacant fruit and vegetable market in Arganzuela on the south edge of the city center. In September of 2014, 70 community members from various neighborhood groups met to discuss a joint project of community programming in the market and formed Espacio Vecinal Arganzuela (EVA). Since then, they have laid out a plan, including more than a dozen proposed projects including dance, arts, gardening, a food cooperative, a cinema, and more. The city, who owns the market, has other plans for the space: privatizing it and filling it with a spa, fitness center, and shopping - uses that would certainly generate economic profits, but which do not meet community needs. EVA continues petitioning the city and has presented a 20 page plan outlining the justification, uses, and management plan. While they still do not have access, they’re coming up with creative ways to do whatever they can. They recently converted a tiny strip of land alongside the market into an urban garden sprouting lettucezucchini and tomatoes; and they host film screenings, projecting the films onto the outside of the building and using the adjacent lawn for seating. 

In addition to these two examples are dozens if not hundreds of other groups also working to reactivate spaces to serve their communities. Still battling the municipality is Patio Maravillaswhich developed out of an abandoned building and is home to numerous community groups. After multiple evictions and threats of eviction, they are now onto their third building. And then there’s La Tabacalera: a former tobacco factory that sat empty, the community fought for 10 years to gain access to the space for public use. Now it’s run by the Ministry of Culture with part of the building housing contemporary and visual art exhibits through Tabacalera Promoción del Arte under the Ministry, and the rest of the space ceded to Centro Social Autogestionado La Tabacalera, an autonomous, community-managed social, cultural, and arts center. And down the street from La Tabacalera is Esta es una Plaza which rebounded after being bulldozed by the municipality and continues to serve as a lively community space with a garden, weekly bicycle workshop, children’s play area, theater space, and plenty of seating and shade for meetings, socializing, and relaxing, but after five years still has not been able to reach a legal agreement with the city. These snapshots provide some insight into the types of groups, what they are doing (or trying to do), and both the challenges and successes 

Better together 
Common challenges of citizen-led efforts are limited capacity (time, technical knowledge and skills, manpower) and burnout. But through networks and collaborations, they are able to not only alleviate some of these issues but also have a bigger impact, by sharing resources, best practices, and ideas; coordinating events; and presenting a cohesive front. Networks may be based on type of activity (food cooperatives, urban agriculture, 15M groups) or by locality. A few examples follow: 

La Red de Huertos Urbanos de Madrid (ReHd Mad) (Madrid Urban Agriculture Network) formed as a network of urban agriculture groups, as a means of mutual support, knowledge and tool sharing, and as a means of connecting decentralized entities to meet, organize, and communicate. Today, there are more than three dozen huertos urbanos across Madrid, each conducting their own activities and maintaining their own spaces; the network brings them together. Be it advice on problems with plants and access to water or a collaborative bike tour of huertos in an area, the mutual support of the network both helps each of the huertos urbanos function individually and gels them into a cohesive collective connected to the larger movement. 

Based in the neighborhood of TetuánPaisaje Tetuán represents a union of projects and sites aimed at beautifying the environs, providing opportunities for community engagement, and reclaiming spaces around the neighborhood. Actually an initiative born out of the municipality to improve the landscape of neighborhood, in partnership with Intermediae,4 it manifested in multiple phases of projects creating huertos urbanos, plazas, and urban art. This multi-pronged approach has enabled Paisaje Tetuán to build relationships with multiple other groups, to explore a variety of interventions, and to provide a means for community members to shape their neighborhood. 

Another way groups are connecting is through collaborations with collectives of artists, architects, engineers, and planners working with grassroots groups to help them design and create spaces that serve the community. These collectives will be explored more in the next section. 

Whether they see themselves as activists or not, participants in the grassroots groups are part of the social movement, engaged in a conversation and activities to redefine the urban landscape. The urban activists are responding to myriad urban problems and represent a range of interests. Tying them together is a shared approach to addressing the problems, a philosophy that is generating new theories on urbanism – on who should make decisions and how, on what should be done and why. This emerging discourse is occupying an ever-more prevalent place in the arena of urbanism. 

The Information Age 
A major influence on this new urban activism is technology. ICTs are an integral element of the functioning of activists. There was much talk of how Tahrir Square protests were organized using social media, and Spaniards had been using ICTs to organize even before the Arab Spring. Ubiquitous access to these technologies has allowed for “fast, decentralized and anonymous ways of disseminating information to spur mobilization,”i whether as immediate calls to action for protests or for ongoing efforts. In this era characterized by private lives and individualization, by communicating on the web, groups can take action on the streets. The role of ICTs in social movements is not only limited to mobilization but also has structural impacts on “the organization, reach, and process of formation of social movements.”ii  

Since the early aughts, Manuel Castells has cited the role of the Information Age in changing the way we organize. He theorized on the generation of networks through ICTs both of related activities in different geographic areas (“spaces of flows”) and distinct activities in a shared geographical area (“spaces of places”).iii Through both types of networking, social movements are simultaneously hyper-local AND global, spatially concentrated AND decentralized – speaking to local urban issues and global influences.  

In regards to spaces of places, ICTs have provided the capacity to unify diverse groups within a locale. Dating back to the Spanish social movement of the 1970s, Castells posited that “demands cover a wide range and, in a way, are the most clear indicator of the urban crisis” – that by recognizing “internal diversity,” activists could understand that “the popular interests coincide” and by recognizing and acknowledging each other, they could unite in their fight.iv Now with a modern technological twist in today’s movement, wide ranging heterogeneous interests are united through networks enabled through ICTs.  Sociologist Andrés Walliser notes that this new urban activism “represents a new paradigm in relation to urban social movements since they are not formed around organized structures, but rather as a constellation of groups with a virtual logic that allows them to operate at the neighbourhood scale.v  

Por y Para 
Critical of the prevailing paradigm characterized by corruption, lack of transparency, and top-down development through which the municipality and private sector make decisions governing public space without involving community members, the emerging ideas on urbanism are a stark contrast to the status quo. The tides are turning to an approach that is por y para la gente, for and by the people. Strategies in this new urbanism are centered on participatory, open, and democratic processes – practicing what they preach. Indeed Castells asserts that groups must themselves have an “objectively democratic character” with “dynamic processes of democratic participation”vi to demand democracy at a higher level. The resultant forms of management and organization are autogestionado, bottom-up, non-hierarchical, and emphasize community engagement. 

You don’t have to dig very deep into literature on the new approach to urbanism and activism to come across the term autogestionado, meaning autonomous, self-managed. It represents the people exercising their right to the city, a reaction to the failure of the government to provide spaces for citizens. Through autogestión, citizens reclaim spaces and take management into their own hands, participating and sharing responsibilities, becoming the stewards of the spaces they have created for themselves. 

Community participation is part and parcel to the new urbanism citizens are advocating for. Following years of urban development that didn’t involve local people, that didn’t give them a say, the activists are now putting this ideology of community engagement and participation to the test. And they are demonstrating how it works themselves, through grassroots groups predicated on openness and active, engaged citizenry that gives them a platform to have a say in the development of a space. Participatory processes also restore value to local knowledge and bring the community with their collective intelligence to the table so it is no longer solely dominated by professionals, policy makers, and corporate stakeholders. 

Similarly, a horizontal non-hierarchical structure has emerged as part of this new paradigm. Driven by the corruption and failure of democratic processes when positions of power are part of the equation, the new urbanism puts all players on an even playing field to ensure truly democratic processes. 

Caution: Urbanism in Progress 
If the sole focus of urban planning is on the product, if the outcome is fetishized, the process is sacrificed. The real users of the space, the citizens, are left out, in favor of the opinions of industry experts and politicians. Too often this has been the case in the past. New urbanism puts the emphasis back on engaging community members in the process, and shifting the trajectory to one in which the process is actually important, not just the end. In fact, it might be said that the process is the most important part. 

Although this makes for a lengthier process, it doesn’t mean that nothing happens in the in the meantime. Rather, new urbanism embraces “meanwhile urbanism,” the result of what happens when planning become an active process, where ideas, relationships, and innovation emerge out of the process itself. Spaces can become functional in the meantime instead of sitting vacant while master plans are developed or while progress is slowed to a snail’s pace with document approvals caught up in government bureaucracy. 

“Meanwhile urbanism” gives rise to another concept that characterizes the new approaches to urbanism: beta permanenteBeta permanente signifies that urbanism is perpetually a work in progress, a trial at something new and improved. The tech sector releases programs and applications in beta form as a way of testing out a draft, a way of employing real world use to figure out the bugs.  In previous forms of urbanism, master plans are finalized behind closed doors and then implemented, and there is no opportunity to test out the plan. Embracing the concept of beta permanente, spaces are in a constant state of being tested, of trying out an idea, experimenting, using the space as a laboratory for ideas, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and moving forward. 

Putting the emphasis on actually doing things in spaces, new urbanism activists act as “do tanks,” in contrast to think tanks where immense efforts are put into research. Think tanks indeed generate incredible data and analyses, but there is a large research-implementation divide, with the emphasis on the former. “Do tanks” may utilize this research, but the focus is on jumping into engaging the space and the community. The hold workshops to self-teach, they engage a range of stakeholders to develop interventions that work for everyone, they are open to new ideas. 

The City as an Ecosystem 
The functionality of the emergent forms of urbanism and activism is predicated on a holistic approach understanding the connections between and amongst people, places, and systems. The approach aims to spread power from the hands of few across stakeholders, disciplines, and scales.  By adding in local voices alongside the usual suspects of planners, developers, banks and government employees, the process is enriched by local knowledge. Conversations amongst these stakeholders bring everyone into the picture and build relationships between them for the process to continue. 

As mentioned above, new urban activists employ networks to build connections between scales – between the hyper-local and the global, focusing on the community context but also as connected to national and international politics, economy, social movements, etc. By networking with other groups, they are able to be simultaneously connected at both ends of the spectrum. Furthermore, by connecting with other groups and aggregating, they build from the middle out, occupying a space in between the bottom-up and top-down efforts. 

By working across disciplines, new urbanism incorporates sustainability by connecting ecological, social, political, cultural, health, educational, and economic interests. These systems are inherently linked in the urban ecosystem and it is a disservice to situate projects solely in one field without considering impacts and connections with others. New urbanism understands the linkages between these sectors of the city and crosses the lines between them, creating projects that have co-benefits. 

New urbanism theories drive practice, and practice drives the theory; at the intersection is praxis, where theories are enacted and practiced. And at this intersection is where the fourth sector, bridging the public, private, and civil sectors, exists. These social benefit enterprises are commonly formed as collectives that serve as facilitators – implementing, supporting and advancing the ideas of new urbanism.  

As described by Paisaje Transversal, they have the “capacity to transform protests into proposals.”vii Castells noted that “The individual and collective support of architects, urban planners, lawyers and engineers, etc., has increased the power of the neighbourhoods, making their demands more securely based”viiiin the 1970s, and in today’s movement the fourth sector occupies a valuable space between the stakeholders, bringing technical expertise, analytical perspectives, and an independent position, giving them credence with communities, private entities, and municipalities. Their strategies and methodologies are based in carrying out the theories of new urbanism in practice.  

Through projects and workshops, the fourth sector is able to dig into the complexities of urban problems, recognizing and embracing the intricacies of the history, place, and people of a community. Their unique position gives them an advantage over typical agents of urbanism from the top that more often than not, ignore or simplify the complexities due to limited capacity or understanding of communities. These projects and workshops engage the citizenry to work from and build community knowledge, empowering them in processes in which they have typically not been included.