Spanish cities and their future: from the programme to the city model

<a href="http://www.ie.edu/eng/sobreie/sobreie_expertos_detalle.asp?id_exp=340">Gildo Seisdedos</a>. Professor. IE Business School

3 July 2007

Municipal elections should focus on the future of cities and not on global issues. We, as voters, should demand an electoral program that seeks to improve quality of urban life.

Municipal elections have always been an excellent barometer for measuring how well our cities are managed. After all, voters decide who will be in charge of urban policy for the next four years.

In case of these May 27 elections, the panorama was not too bright. Local authorities were caught up by issues that had little to do with the real problems at hand, rather than with the challenge of turning Madrid into a competitive city with quality of life and social cohesion.

Last March, a conference was held in Madrid under the seductive title of Rethinking the Urban Policy Agenda. There, experts in urban policy and mayors from all over the world reached the same conclusion: The great questions concerning humanity are all of an urban nature. What’s important isn’t just that half the world lives in cities, but also that cities generate 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. Cities also act as the breakwater of immigration, and are the cornerstone of competitiveness, thanks to showcase projects, creative clusters or international events.

Did we see any mention made of this in the campaign? Unfortunately, no. The municipal elections are still considered to be of utmost importance. Indeed, to date, whoever has won the municipal elections has gone on to win the next general election. Is this by chance or is it a genuine omen? Who knows? Whatever the case, it definitely works against our cities. Instead of coming up for debate, important urban questions concerning the future are buried under a pile of issues that have little or nothing to do with the cities themselves.

Be local, my friend!

Consequently, as citizens, we need to search, compare and, if we find anything better, buy it. Look at what the current government of your city has done over the last four years. Analyse whether your city is growing or shrinking, whether it is faring better or worse than its neighbours. Think about the facilities and new infrastructure that has been created. Consider whether there has been improvement, enthusiasm and capable management. Ask yourself: what exactly have they done?

Then listen to the proposals put forward by the various candidates. Consider their star proposals. Assess whether or not these proposals will meet your city’s needs. Think about the city that they envision for the future. Ask yourself: what exactly do they plan to do?

And then make your decision. A bit of advice: beware when the political debate has little or nothing to do with your city. We need to help urbanise our politicians, at least during the municipal elections. Insist on clarity and simplicity. At business schools, we say that a person incapable of explaining his strategy in five minutes or less has no real strategy. If someone succeeds at explaining clearly and succinctly his plans for your city, then you are on the right track.

Though this type of clarity is an exception these days, rather than a rule, we should seek to turn it into the norm. This might even enable us to make a real choice, based on municipal election campaigns in which each city debates the urban model it wants and not international geopolitics.

From the electoral programme to the city model

A change is also needed in the way city proposals are presented. If the truth be known, nothing is more boring than a municipal election platform. Although national and regional election platforms don’t make for a gripping read either, they do at least reflect what legislative changes can be expected in the future. That’s not true for municipal elections. Cities, in general, legislate very little. Instead, they grow and they change. In municipal elections, voters should decide what future they want for their city. They need to hear a proposal for a city model.

What is a city model? A city model is, above all, a strategy. The physical transformation of a city is not an objective in itself. We tend to stagger from one trend to another. Conference centres, tramways, tunnels, etc. are all expensive assets that are needed only in so much as they help guarantee the competitiveness, sustainability and social cohesion of their cities.

A city model should be explained to citizens in a graphic way that describes the main projects in the pipeline. Today, there are tangible examples of cities that have done this successfully.

The new city professional

A new type of city professional is needed to make this transformation happen. So far, architects and lawyers have been the main influences on urban planning. But the changing environment requires an interdisciplinary focus that specifically addresses urban problems. City strategies no longer have a place in a general urban plan. This new urban approach is discussed in the book, First Aid for Cities, which we recently presented at the Instituto de Empresa Urban Management Forum. This book shows a new form of strategic urban management: A policy that goes beyond the design and construction of buildings and infrastructure to include environmental services, easy access to the information society, physical mobility, telecommunications, the promotion of arts and culture, as well as city marketing, new urban financing and service efficiency.

The future of our cities, which is ultimately our future, is on the table.

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