It makes me very
hopeful to hear cities increasingly speaking out internationally, especially in
the context of Habitat III. Cities have a great capacity to make a contribution
to this process, and the voices of cities need to be heard well beyond this
forum, as well.
This isn’t to say
that cities want to see ourselves as more central or having a more important
role — it’s that we want to be useful. We want to help. We want to collaborate,
and we want to make our world and our planet a more equal, sustainable, fair
and friendly world. That’s why we’re here. That’s why the citizens have put us
in charge of the institutions that we represent today.
My city, Barcelona,
has always been very committed to defending peace, human rights, solidarity and
democracy. This is because we have something that we’re very proud of: a very
demanding citizenry. We have citizens that every day remind us that we have to
do more and we have to do it better. We should not forget that that’s the very
foundation of democracy — a demanding citizenry that’s committed. Citizens need
to be listened to by institutions, and we need to obey them.
For me, that’s the
most positive and hopeful issue to have arisen in recent years. Increasingly in
recent decades, all citizens have been speaking out more and more. We see this
in the Zapatista movement or the Seattle demonstrations or other demonstrations
around the world where they are demanding more democratic and less neoliberal
democratization. We see this in the Arab Spring or the movements that
celebrated their 15th anniversary in Spain recently. In Hong Kong we’ve seen
activists, and in New York and Paris, where thousands of demonstrators have
discussions in squares and in the streets.
These are just a few
of the many examples we’ve seen in recent years of citizens being active. This
is good news, and it’s hopeful for us. There’s nothing better for democracy
than responsible, committed citizens that speak out to demand more and better democracy.
specifically, in March, it was our honour to welcome one of the pre-sessions
for Habitat III,
focused on the issue of public space. The draft New Urban Agenda includes a lot of material that was worked on in that session that was very
positive. The quality of public space in our cities and in urban environments
is one of the most key aspects in guaranteeing the democratic quality of urban
That is the very
nature of democracy — if we go back to ancient Greece, where people met in
squares on a level playing field with equal rights and equal responsibilities.
It’s the public, democratic space of cities.
Yet there are great
conflicts due to growing inequalities in our cities. Our cities are also
subject to the conflict of private interests who want to privatize common
spaces, and there it’s very important that local governments make our voices
heard and provide public leadership. We need to protect that public space as a
fundamental space for democracy and to provide for the democratic participation
of those citizens that are demanding to be centre stage in developing public
Public space is also
closely linked to another concept that we think is key, and that is the “right to the city”.
This is a concept that we’ve been developing in a number of different regions —
not all regions, but Latin America has been working with this a great deal. In
fact, in Ecuador it’s in the constitution, as it is in Europe.
But I know there are
other regions that are distrustful of the concept of the right to the city,
because they fear, logically, that the right to the city might presuppose more
and greater urbanization. In other words, more cement. Here I just want to clarify
that those of us who talk about the right to the city do not want to see more
cement. That’s not what we mean by it. On the contrary, we want to see more
nature and more green in our cities. We want to make sure that our cities are
much more sustainable.
Today, speaking of a
right to a city means guaranteeing democratic rights in the city for each and
every citizen, no matter where they come from, regardless of their
administrative status, and equally in all territories. So what we’re talking
about here is guaranteeing rights equally for all citizens in urban
environments around the world. That’s what we mean when we talk about the right
to the city. We think it’s a key element that needs to be picked up here.
Let me give you an
example of the importance of talking about public spaces and the right to the
city. Let me give you an example of the daily reality of a mayor — this is my
experience, but I’m sure that many mayors have shared this experience.
This morning, I was
taking my child to a public school in Barcelona. I met another parent who said
that he’d spent five years unemployed, without any income and without being
able to find a job. Then I took a metro, and a woman told me that she’s a
single mother with several children; she has a minimal income and it’s not
possible for her to pay rent. Then I went out to the street, where a family
stopped me and said that they are losing their house because some international
investment funds had bought thousands of housing units as speculation, and it
impacted this family.
So the first thing we
need to do to respond to this is everything that is required of me, given the
institutional responsibility that I represent. But it doesn’t just depend on me.
It depends on states. It depends on jurisdictions that are supra-local. At the
same time, I can’t respond with excuses; I want to be responsible. As a local
government, I want to be able to respond to each and every citizen when what
we’re dealing with is fundamental rights for those citizens.
That’s why we’re
here, and this is something I would very much like to emphasize: We’re not here
to compete with states. Local governments are asking for a more central role
and want our voice to be heard. What we want is for financing mechanisms to be
revised, because clearly they’re insufficient. But when we ask for that, we’re
not asking to play a more important role in order to compete with states or
On the contrary, we
are urgently calling for cooperation that cannot be postponed. All institutions
need to be improved at all levels — regional, local, state and supranational,
such as the United Nations. We’re here to defend fundamental rights and to implement
them, to make sure that they’re respected and that each and every person is
able to live a dignified life — those who live in our cities, especially.
We need to cooperate
more to that end. That’s the message. That’s also the message being sent to us
by our citizens. They are saying, “Don’t fight amongst yourselves. Don’t have
turf wars. Cooperate and coordinate your efforts to work toward specific
In that regard, we
like to talk sometimes about “feminizing” policy, politics and institutions. We
need to feminize politics not just to have more women in places of visibility
and in order to develop policy, but also to radically change the values and
priorities that have prevailed in the last decades of wild neo-liberalism. We
need to work more to network, to put our goals ahead of individual interests.
We need to follow the logic of caring for the most vulnerable.
That needs to be the
top priority, above and beyond economic or speculative interest in the short
run. Clearly that doesn’t mean that we’re anti-economic; on the contrary, we
want investments for our cities, but good investments. We want investments in
the future that will generate wealth and opportunity for everyone in equal
circumstances. We need to cooperate, and from Barcelona we humbly offer our
services in any way that we can.
But we don’t want the
Habitat III conference
in Quito to be just another meeting on the international agenda. We want there
to be a before and an after Quito. We want Quito to change things. We want
Quito to go toward a process of urbanization that is based on rights,
cooperation and the central role played by all of us — and by the cities.
There’s an enormous opportunity here. Quito can be a historic opportunity for
all of us, and we want to strongly call upon everyone not to let this
opportunity pass us by.
This commentary is adapted from an
address that Colau gave on the first day of the Habitat III Local
Authorities Informal Hearings, 16 May, at the United Nations. The
address was given in Spanish, with interpretation services provided by the
United Nations, and its republication here is with permission.