Missing Biopolitics: Governance Vs. Governmentality in the Management of the Neighborhood Movement in Madrid

By Álvaro Sevilla Buitrago,

1. Introduction:

Up to now, the term “governance” has been widely recognized and used to describe the new exercise of political authority in a context of interaction between political, economical and social actors, emphasizing the legitimation of policies through the achievement of “consensus by participation”. In the field of town planning, it has been used both for pushing innovative ways of cooperation and for justifying old partnerships in a fashionable way. However, governance-oriented experiences and the incorporation of participatory processes into urban development have hardly modified the general tendency towards the “normalization” of public space and city life produced by town planning throughout twentieth century.

Following the work of a small but fruitful international group of scholars and social researchers, we propose as alternative the development and application of the theory of “governmentality” to the field of urban studies and urban planning. Coined by Michel Foucault, the term refers to the framework of government technologies employed to guide and shape the field of possible action and behaviour of individuals or social groups – that is, the ways to render a population governable, manageable.


Community life: neighbors’ association party

In this paper we suggest that the history of the neighborhood movement in Madrid can be analyzed through this “ecogovernmentality theory”. Beginning in the 60-70s with a double claim –social democracy and equality in the access to urban services–, the neighborhood movement was gradually assimilated in the local dynamics of urban development, accepting the trend towards the building of a “normal city” and the hegemonic production of space, and forgetting its wish for an alternative social model. Through the study of a recent public urban renewal program in a neighborhood in the northeast of Madrid (Barrio del Aeropuerto, near Barajas Airport), in which the author has worked as urban planner and participation manager for the local government, we analyze the evolution of the relationship between public agencies and neighborhood movement during three decades. The plan resettles 567 families to create a strategic mixed-use quarter near Barajas Airport. Read in terms of “consensus” and “participation” with a governance approach, the neighbors’ consent after decades of struggle can also be understood as the outcome of the technologies of the self operated by real estate marketing and the housing policies of local, regional and national governments during the last decade, in the midst of the great spanish housing bubble.

2. How a community is governed? Or rather: How is it rendered governable?

In our enquiry into the ways to govern a city, we can start from two canonical interpretations of the relationship between space and power. In Michel Foucault’s work:

The body exists in space and must either submit to authority (through, for example, incarceration or surveillance in an organized space) or carve out particular spaces of resistance and freedom –‘heterotopias’– from an otherwise repressive world. (Harvey, 1989:213)


Town planning constitutes the organic technique in the gramscian sense– that tries a hegemonic resolution of the conflict for the benefit of the dominant bloc, dis-organizing the multitude’s autonomy and re-organizing, through rationalization, its life path after that. On the other side, the multitude must trust the inner strength of its material practices to resist and fight the handling of the territories they had appropriated. In this way, the meaning of space and its social coordinates can be defined through an antagonistic dialectic: depending on the prevalence of one practice or the other, we may talk about a territory in which the multitude reproduces itself in a mainly heteronomous or autonomous way. As social change develops, this cycle will be repeated over and over again, starting from the new meaning or configuration achieved for a concrete territory each time and producing the progressive obsolescence of every social space-time existing in any consecutive historical phases.


3. The drift of the Neighborhood Movement in Madrid

A great part of the neighborhood movement history in Madrid could be understood from this perspective. Appeared in the early sixties and institutionalized in the late seventies, the neighborhood associations have played an important role in local politics. In their initial phase, the lack of basic services and the abandonment by the public administration radicalized these associations and turned them into a vehicle for underground political parties during General Franco’s dictatorship. In this context the neighborhoods’ demands developed in two contradictory directions, demanding urban services and infrastructures, and defending a widely autonomous social democracy model at the same time. After the recognition of their political role, their inclusion in the local government dynamics during the transition to democracy gradually moderated their demands. From that moment on their goals are focused on the defence of neighborhoods ́ environmental integrity and their right to achieve an urban standard that has progressively materialised in the collective imagery, under the influence of the first democratic comprehensive town plans. A poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, called L ́Appennino and published on 1957 in his book Le ceneri di Gramsci, shows perfectly this secret desire of the dispossessed from the periphery to access the life style of the bourgeois city:

Un esercito accampato nell’attesa
di farsi cristiano nella cristiana città,
occupa una marcita distesa
d’erba sozza nell’accesa campagna:
scendere anch’egli dentro la borghese
luce spera…

An army camped waiting
to become Christian in the Christian
city, occupies a rotten expanse
of filthy grass in the vivid country:
he too hopes to descend into
the bourgeois light…

Inside this “normal city”, desired by everybody, there seems to be no place for radical challenge, with the exception of minority groups.

4. A new community emerging from the existing one: the Barrio del Aeropuerto

A significant part of the present Barrio del Aeropuerto site was initially included as part of the green belt of the first General Plan of Madrid, better known as Bidagor Plan, in memory of its director, Pedro Bidagor. The document, begun during the Civil War, was presented on 1941 and developed in the following years. Even though its intention was to synthesize the existing European town planning principles with Franco’s regime idea of an imperial capital city, the hard post-war conditions rendered it impossible. During the ‘50s the increasing housing shortage ended up with Bidagor’s Plan provisions and expectancies, especially those referred

to the green belts. As mentioned before, the present Barrio del Aeropuerto was partially placed on the green wedge “Sur de Barajas” that linked the second and third greenbelts. The remaining ground was designated to the future creation of «pleasant residential areas in contact with Nature». Both determinations were suppressed in 1957 by Madrid Social Emergency Plan, after which construction was permitted in the whole area.

Between 1958 and the end of the ‘60s the neighborhood was developed by different projects until the completion of 650 apartments and a wide industrial area. The buildings were poorly constructed, which provoked many complaints within the next years. In 1972 the local administration began to take care of repairs, and between that year and 1975 two buildings almost in ruins were demolished. Street lighting was not installed until 1969 and the water supply had to be paid by the neighbors.

These initial conflicts, together with the environmental degradation by industrial areas, the A- 2 highway, the airport, etc., left in the neighbors a feeling of abandonment and harassment by the authorities and industrial interests, feeling which will be transformed into an opportunity for collective organization. During the next decades the neighborhood association, created amidst the effervescence of local social movements in the ‘70s, will constantly search for the necessary means to develop a renewal plan in order to improve the structural conditions of the buildings, avoid the urban blight of public space, and provide the neighborhood with necessary services.

The 1985 Comprehensive Plan of Madrid, approved by a leftist government that was concerned with intervention in the existing city amidst economic crisis, reserved areas for the creation of small parks and sports facilities in the Barrio, which have been maintained until today. The continuing demands of the neighbors’ association have as well achieved the maintenance of the small and green pedestrian zones of the area. Other services, such as a sanitary center and a school, were installed, and afterwards suppressed due to lack of a demographic expectancy in an aged population area. Finally, in 1997, a new Comprehensive Plan of Madrid (PGOU97) foresees the neighbors’ relocation. In order to finance this initiative, office buildings are incorporated to the area.

Ten years have passed until the Madrid City Council, through its Land and Housing Public Company (EMVS), has assumed the initiative to develop the rehousing of the neighbors. As required by them, it will take place in situ, that is, within a program of urban renewal that will allow a progressive demolition and rebuilding of the existing apartment blocks, keeping the neighbors’ allocation in the city. In this sense we consider significant the fact that the neighbors were demanding two houses per family in case they should be moved to a different district, which can be interpreted as a sign of a solid community consciousness, that is not willing to lose its traditional environment, as well as, in less idyllic terms, as a closeness to the logics of recent real-estate accumulation in Spain

On the other side, the neighbors asked our architecture and planning firm, which has supported them for two decades now, to be responsible for the new Master Plan. The EMVS proposed the incorporation of another team to manage a parallel participatory process, but it was denied by the neighbors as well as by us: as we like to say we prefer “face to face” participation, without institutional mediation; we thought this was the better way to listen to the neighbors’ will. So, the communication between them and us has been direct and

continuous during the last three years. The members of the association have had the opportunity to literally draw their idea of the neighborhood, which of course has caused many moments of disagreement, resolved always in terms of their collective desires, even when we sometimes considered a concrete solution not to be the best idea. For us the most important contradiction might have been the neighbors’ denial of our proposal to develop a mixed and partial renewal, keeping the areas that were in good conditions and which generated a greater public use –rehabilitating nevertheless the present buildings–, and limiting the substitution of buildings and urban spaces to the residual and more blighted areas. This solution would have allowed a reduction in the costs of the plan and its environmental impact. Nevertheless the main purpose was, of course, to “save” those areas that presented a well defined mode of collective appropriation of space, with the aim of these remaining as “reserves” of neighbors’ spatial practices, that while preserving the memory of time-space lived by the local folks would also allow an ulterior unfolding of these practices into the new created areas. As mentioned, the neighbors have rejected this possibility, choosing a solution that uses the whole building volume permitted by the PGOU97 in an exhaustive manner.

The final solution foresees the integral substitution of the existing neighborhood. The 567 existing apartments are relocated to new blocks, higher and longest, which may not be an ideal option but which is necessary to reserve land to the new office buildings that will finance the operation. Conflicts with neighbors arise once again when it comes to the design of the buildings. Our initial intention was to create an integrated set conformed by small pieces with variable sizes, creating several interconnected public spaces. Additionally the office buildings would be located in front of the highway, so housing would be protected against noise, pollution, etc. On the contrary the neighbors preferred to separate offices and housing, placing residential buildings in front of the highway, due to the fact that this would allow them to establish a visual communication with the neighborhood located on the other side –a new middle-class development–, the only “human” reference in a site invaded by economic activities. The neighbors have also asked for similar buildings in the new design. This wish avoids comparisons and preserves the present neighborhood homogeneity, characteristic of the Spanish urban developments from the ‘60s and ‘70s. This “will to monotony” has become a principle for the neighborhood, whose president refused the intention of the EMVS to incorporate different projects designed by prestigious national and international architects –a current practice of the company-, with a statement well known in the neighborhood: «This is not a fashion show».

The final design separates offices and apartments in two areas linked by a central square, surrounded by retail located in the ground floor. The whole site is crossed by a linear park connecting the facilities in the east zone with the big park in the west. The proposal has found a general acceptance –more than 80% of the neighbors–; it is significant that those who refuse the proposal mainly adduce their nonconformity with receiving only house-per-house, expressing their wish to receive additionally a free parking lot and sometimes an additionally remuneration too.

5. Conclusion: the dispossession of community

The neighbors’ attitude, gradually focused on the economic aspects of renewal, is obviously influenced by the spectacular real-estate accumulation processes recently developed in Spain,

and especially in Madrid. In the collective imagery every owner has become a potential wealthy person. The weight of these factors, fueled by real estate marketing and the collusive political groups and their media, has broken the weak balance existing within the neighborhood associations between private and collective interests. The result is an unusual receptiveness to urban renewal initiatives including real estate benefits, while the old place consciousness is lost. What remains unnoticed is the implicit erosion of communal ties – communi-ties– behind these processes, both in the symbolic level –place identity and identification– and in the material level –gentrification processes triggered by price increases in the new areas–.

In the Barrio del Aeropuerto this process coexists contradictorily with the preservation of traditional forms of socialization and the will to permanency. Additionally to the wish of remaining in the same neighborhood in opposition to relocation in another area of Madrid, we find persons willing to maintain their more intimate circle who expressed their wish that their new houses would be located close to those of their present neighbors. This is a common case between old widows, who need mutual aid networks for their daily life –though this place consciousness can’t be limited to fixed age groups. In any case we are talking about actions very difficult to achieve, for the management processes employed are not that subtle.

Other aspect that shows contradictory whishes is that of the public spaces and facilities. Nowadays there is a soccer field and some installations where meetings and social events take place, with a highly informal regime of use. As a consequence of the lack of public resources dedicated to its maintenance, the local administration doesn’t pay much attention to these services, and the neighbors have taken the initiative in its management. Probably this phenomenon will be lost when sports and cultural facilities are built, regulated and programmed by public administration.

The process has therefore a tendency to dis-organize existing communitarian ties and to substitute the autonomous ways of life and relationships for others normalized and heterodirected. It is not necessarily a conscious strategy by local administration; we would rather say it is implicit in its structure and techniques, in its own behaviour, in a historical sense whose presence is hidden as time passes. In any case the resulting trend is the dissolution of difference into the “normal city” pattern and the gradual dispossession of community self-organizing capacities.

Read full paper at City Futures ’09

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