Conversation with Former CEO of Barcelona Regional

Willy Müller

ViewPoints: Barcelona has been the driving force behind Catalonia’s economic recovery. Which Barcelona Regional projects have been key to that recovery and which current projects do you think are most important?

Willy Müller: Barcelona Regional is nearly 22 years old. It was set up in 1993 as part of the Olympic legacy, right after the Olympics. Much of our work relates to infrastructure: Barcelona could see it was entering a stage that was no longer just about the city of Barcelona strictly speaking, but also about some of its outlying areas, which have become part of the city itself. They were places on the periphery of the city. For example, Barcelona has traditionally been defined as a city between rivers, contained between the mountains and the sea. After the Olympics we had to change the scale. Obviously citizens still see it in the same way, but from the point of view of infrastructures, environment and town planning it is different. We treat each of these aspects as a program in itself: the river is no longer a limit, it’s a place of opportunity, as are Besòs and Llobregat; Collserola is a great metropolitan park and should be seen as central to the city. And then obviously there is our relationship with the sea.

The first thing I would say as CEO of Barcelona Regional is that this agency is working between the strictly urban and the strictly metropolitan. We are working on the relationship between the four major sides of the city. The agency has a long tradition of research and projects. One of the things people admire about Barcelona is its long-term transformation, with very little improvisation: we plan things for the medium and long term, in a very efficient manner, and that doesn’t change when the government changes. This is a very important point, because there are cities which exemplify the opposite. We execute plans phase by phase, in the same way as the transformative projects that began in Moll de la Fusta in the ’80s and went on until the Forum was remodeled in 2004. The process has never stopped; we’ve gone from one project to another, building our relationship with the sea.

In Barcelona Regional we carry out internal projects, based on the Mayor’s agenda. We started the great Olympic transformation from Moll de la Fusta. Now we want to start work on a different project on the other side of the city, near the port, the airport and Barcelona’s big industrial estates. We want to re-establish a relationship with the sea. Twenty-five years ago we said we’d reclaimed the sea, but what we actually see today is that we’ve reclaimed one kind of sea: the seafront, the open sea, the beach, the tourist economy. This required major changes to infrastructures. We had to clean up the river. Then we had to build major sewage plants like the one below the Forum, because otherwise the beaches wouldn’t have been fit for the tourism we were hoping to attract – high-quality beaches for high-quality tourism that would have a major economic impact. Today we can be very proud of the project’s success.

The overall goal is to generate a productive economy. We have to start manufacturing things again, to accept that the city doesn’t exist solely for tourism and leisure – this is a very important part of it, but only a part. Starting again from Moll de la Fusta, we need to build a different relationship with the sea. This time it is the waterfront. This switch from seafront to waterfront explains the main thrust of Barcelona Regional’s work. To the east, towards the Besòs, we have built a relationship with the sea by replacing old infrastructures and obsolete factories with Barcelona’s new seafront; on the other side we will be adopting a different rationale, not one of “replacement”. We’re not going to replace the airport, or the port; on the contrary, we’re going to integrate them into the city. It’s a question of superposing, mixing and incorporating into the city what is currently outside it. At Barcelona Regional we have a little narrative that describes this whole process: the point is, we don’t just do the specific engineering works, and negotiate with the port authorities or with the Ministry, or with the Generalitat to make those changes possible; we also construct the narrative of that transformation in our strategies department. Barcelona is valued throughout the world for its narrative, for being able to explain itself, in spite of the years, in spite of changes in government, in spite of ideologies. In this case, the narrative is about building a new relationship with the sea. And we had to connect with Montjuïc: Barcelona has two green eyes and ears, as Manuel Solà Morales used to say: one is the Ciutadella park and the other is Montjuïc. At some point in the course of the city’s history they have been displaced.

Barcelona has always aspired to being a capital city. This aspiration was there in the 19th century, at the Universal Exhibition of 1888, when the fortress was demolished and a park built in its place. The Universal Exhibition was held with the intention of converting a city that wasn’t a capital into one that was. Another exhibition was held 1929 in Montjuïc, with the Mies pavilion, the Magic Fountain, the fair, and so on – all the latest developments of urban planning at the time. Then in 1992 the facilities for the Olympic games were built in Montjuïc. And now it’s the turn of the Ciutadella again, connecting it with Sagrera, and the large green park which will extend from Sagrera down to the sea. In other words, major renewal is going on in all Barcelona’s ‘green eyes’. Ciutadella is flat, so it was easy to transform Poblenou into an Olympic Village, but Montjuïc is a mountain and has been impossible to develop for centuries. Barcelona Regional is working, not only on the narrative of why we should develop the city on this side and how to do that in conjunction with the port, but on how to interpret this new opportunity afforded by the city. If we’ve reclaimed the sea, what kind of sea have we reclaimed? It’s not the sea of waves and beaches. It is a sea of docks, cranes, ships and cruisers that we have to build together. We need to define how the city can incorporate that space into its identity.

Barcelona has an amazing ability to balance innovation and tradition. It’s something you rarely find anywhere else. We have a Roman city, a medieval city, a 19th century city, a modern city, a postmodern, modernist – an advanced city, as we call it now – and perhaps a smart city too, and we have it all in one, without sacrificing one aspect or replacing it with anything else.

The second part of the agenda is to export our know-how. It’s a two-way process. We have a lot of visitors who come to enjoy this city, but we also go abroad. We are very good at reproducing the ‘Barcelona model’. It allows innovation to coexist with protection, and it offers special know-how specific to implementing design, bridging the distance between ideas and reality, adopting a pragmatic approach, seeking consensus rather than confrontation and looking for ideas from the bottom up. We are working in seven cities in China, in Moscow, we’re advising Rio de Janeiro and we’ve undertaken projects in Lima. People can see what we’re doing and we can also share our experiences.

VP: You’ve said the city should serve people, and you talk on your website about “many slow cities in a smart city” – how do you actually achieve that?

WM: ‘Smart Cities’ is a generic term, a necessary one, partly in response to technological advance and the ability to generate products faster than we can introduce them. It’s on every city’s agenda. We had two concerns: the first was to interpret it for our own particular case: we’ve always said that in the expression “Smart City” we are the “City” part. Obviously there’s a Smart world associated with business, with applications. I don’t think there’s a better scenario anywhere to introduce that than Barcelona. But we are the “City” part, and Barcelona Regional is a public agency. Our main priority has to be helping to improve people’s lives.

The area in which the “Smart” world has developed most is security. It’s part of the democratic system: the public wants security without a violation of privacy and personal information. Apart from that, we are interested in trends. In architectural design there has been a move from design to domotics. And the question we ask ourselves here is how to take what we’ve already done for the home to the city level.

I am much less concerned about applied technology, because we live in a world full of it, with its obvious advantages. But our question is, ‘How do all those things affect how we design the city?’ The way we communicate, how residents influence the process and how we as professionals are prepared to change our traditional way of designing things make Barcelona a model in this respect. Until very recently, we would design a street based on experience, ratios, the accumulation of years and years of trial and error, giving us the necessary information to decide things like where the pavement should go, how many cars you can get into in a particular street, etc.

But in the future the world will be radically different: sensors will be sending information every three seconds and erasing what was sent before. That’s urbanotics. We’ll need to be able to interpret this transformation of the way information is managed. It will be less concerned with gathering raw data than with permanently destroying specific, non-generic data: who you are, where you’re going, what time you come back, why, what car you’ve got, etc. The question is: how do we, as an agency, approach designing the city in this way? A great challenge lies ahead, affecting how we learn, how the city is managed, how to enable residents, representatives of the public and professionals to share decision making, and a “new deal” in terms of how technology is applied.

We understand the concept of the slow city because we see it as similar to the neighborhood; a unit of approximately 50,000 people. So we could identify small cities within the big city. And the relationship with people is fundamental. I think part of the challenge of the Smart City is to involve citizens more closely in the decision-making process; the outcome of those decisions enables them to see that they are the managers and creators of their own city. I think the positive aspects of technology – apart from the negative aspects of security, its controlling side – are what will bring us closer together. But without losing sight of our aspiration to be a global city committed to competing with the rest of the world, in this, the century of the city.

VP: Talking of challenges, I’d like to ask you about inequality. How can we design a fairer city? Will these technologies help us?

WM: One of the things we’ve learned after so many years in town planning is that it can only do so much to improve things. We can demolish slums, tear down walls, build better homes, but town planning can’t control the quality of education or improve income distribution. There was a time, it’s true, in the ’60s and ’70s when the theories of town planning as a transformative social force were being taught. Obviously it does have the capacity to transform. But it doesn’t have sole responsibility for resolving something that’s not within its sphere.

Secondly, a hyper-connected city where accessibility focuses on people rather than vehicles or anything else will obviously tend to redress imbalances. What do we mean when we talk about equality in town planning? At the very least, I would think, easy access to the city centre, how far away my local metro station is, my supermarket, and so on. There are ‘black holes’ in cities. We can see this when we look at Montjuïc. The problem is topographic, we can’t avoid it; the mountain has always been there and it’s difficult to get over that. Or there’s a river, or historical ‘accidents’. But we’ve created other barriers ourselves and they need to be removed, because access to the city centre, the market, public transport – all of that is equality in urban terms. The ultimate goal of making this an efficient system is to give everyone equal opportunities.

VP: Barcelona is an exporter of know-how, but also learns from others. The 2012 “Urban Research and Knowledge Symposium” was organized by the World Bank in partnership with Barcelona. What did Barcelona learn from this initiative?

WM: About 300 urban management delegations come to Barcelona every year from all over the world. They come to see what different departments of Barcelona City Council are doing and to exchange experiences. There’s no better place than Barcelona for a discussion of this kind, in my opinion. We have two things: firstly, our experience. Secondly, a beautiful city. And over the years we have made very positive advances. But we need to avoid the temptation of becoming complacent. We have to keep generating innovation because that’s what we do. And in a globalized world in which we aspire to being a global capital, we can’t do it on our own. We have to continually exchange experiences.
When we brought the World Bank here there were three days of discussion with a number of special guests. It’s a model that works, not only regarding the subjects we’re here to discuss but also for social networking, what’s being said on Twitter, and so on. But a different kind of management is also useful. In Hong Kong, for instance, we created the Urban Exchange Platform. It’s a bilateral grouping, in this case between two cities. At the end of the day Hong Kong is a city-state, and has a very different government, but its circumstances and situation are the same as the big cities. The platform has been working for the last three years. We’ve also held two symposiums, the first one last year in Hong Kong and another earlier this year in Barcelona, at which we put specific issues for our city and theirs on the agenda. And then we translate those experiences into real terms. We establish one-to-one links between cities where we think this will work to make it a genuine exchange, and not simply a conference.

We admire the creation of the Hong Kong Skyline and its relation to the landscape, its ability to innovate, the amount of design, architecture and innovation per square meter, all with Smart City indicators. It’s the city that is least dependent on the private car, and it has an excellent public transport system, one of the best-run health systems in the world, etc. We can learn from each other. When they look at us they see other things: the great city we’ve built, people’s relationship with the sea, the relationship with public, as opposed to private, space and infrastructure. Our viewpoint is vertical and theirs is horizontal. Everything we do with Hong Kong, we want to do with Rio de Janeiro, LA, and with NY, where we are drawing up an invitation to tender for social housing that both cities can take part in. I think we can be powerful, global city actors or global capitals, establishing the kind of links that are actually an agenda for exchange.

VP: Let’s talk about the transformation of the Plaça de les Glòries: how do you see it?

WM: I see it as an architect. But above all, as the CEO of Barcelona Regional, because we were involved in one transformation of the Glòries for the Olympics, and then in the second stage of the infrastructure project, the tunnel proposals, etc. before we started working with the City Council. We have been involved in the project for a very long time.

I have to say it is consistent with what we’ve said about government action: the importance of people. We don’t want motorways in what we consider central areas of Barcelona. So what is a central area and what isn’t? In 1992 Les Glòries was probably still on the periphery, on the outer limits of the city. But we can’t go on seeing it like that 25 years later: Les Glòries is a central space. And therefore the absolute logic of prioritizing people follows: there must be no motorway flyovers in central areas. It’s this government’s policy, and it’s also common sense.

In addition to this, there’s collaboration with the local residents, transforming it into a central park. We know this is a high-density city, with few green areas. In a Mediterranean city it’s more difficult for us to create spaces of this kind, whereas cities further north are better able to incorporate urban woodland and have a much more favorable climate for maintaining it. In the 1990s we created a series of blocks that are, amongst other things, a reflection of our Mediterranean identity. We have been able to reinterpret that, removing wide roads with fast-flowing traffic, slowing it all down to a human pace, and bringing nature back into the city. That’s what Les Glòries is all about, in a way. As trees and plants grow, it will take on even more meaning.

VP: Could you tell us a bit about Barcelona Regional’s research department? What are they working on?

WM: We have a medium- and long-term agenda for the big decisions of the next four, eight or twelve years. There’s a lot of research relating to the move towards ‘smart’ city planning. Mobility is an obvious part of it – the traffic light is 150 years old, and we’re still using them when cars are already capable of driving themselves. Research affects mobility and how we design streets: if there are no traffic lights, what will we do? Will we have pavements that provide some of the information? There are various related issues. I use the traffic light example because it is almost as old as town planning itself – and yet we still have them.

VP: A final message for the international business community?

WM: I think we need to send a message that Barcelona, apart from being a great city to live in and walk around in, because of its climate, its people, its culture and its ethos, is also a great city to invest in. That would be my message. And at this point, it’s probably preparing to become a Mediterranean capital capable of being a mini-financial city that can manage investment in property or infrastructure projects locally, from here. We are moving towards a broader Barcelona, in which investment opportunities will be attractive for various reasons. It’s a city with projects: it has a business culture. And, it’s a beautiful city to live in. It has a culture of wellbeing, the sea, the beach, a good climate, and I think these factors are very influential when companies are deciding where to locate – where they want to make their investment decisions from. I would like to encourage them to come and invest in Barcelona.

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