Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Outcry over irresponsible spending on a beautification project have led to 40 arrests in the city of Burgos already.
The northern Spanish city of Burgos has been hit by five days of demonstrations and riots this week. Protestors in the working class district of Gamonal have been fighting riot police since Saturday, putting up barricades and setting trashcan fires, leading to 40 arrests.
The level of unrest aside, what makes these riots so unusual is the specific object of protestors' ire. Plans to turn the district's main street into a traffic-calmed, bike-friendly boulevard with subterranean parking have caused an outcry that has turned explosive. Given that many cities would welcome this sort of plan, the level of anger is striking. Why is the boulevard being resisted so bitterly?
The answer comes down mainly to the perception that the city is mismanaging its money. The city has earmarked roughly €8 million for an essentially cosmetic project – one that will also replace free parking with paid spaces – while badly needed government services are being cut elsewhere to help the city manage its debts.
As a 35-year-old unemployed woman told El Pais: "We have to pay our debts and create a surplus of social benefits before creating this reform that will only beautify the city." A spokesman for the local residents association commented elsewhere that, "the situation here is already bad enough. Most people here are workers or lower middle class. Here what people want are public nursery places." In other words, local residents feel like they are being given cake, when what they really need is bread.
There are certainly figures to back up their resentment. Spain's regions have been hit hard by budget cuts that have seen the scope and quality of public services badly diminished. Youth unemployment is a staggering 57.7 percent.
Gamonal is a busy but un-photogenic quarter of 1960s high-rises that seems an unlikely candidate to become a center for strollers and cafés. The overhaul plans look decent enough in this video, but it’s unclear how much of an economic lift they would give the area beyond construction jobs.
Demonstrations this week have been so intense that this morning, Burgos' mayor announced that work will be halted while talks are carried out. But the fight in Gamonal is about more than just a local issue. It has struck a chord across Spain, with sympathy demonstrations planned today for six other Spanish cities, including one in Madrid's main square. The anger reflects widespread frustration that Spain’s elite is not listening to the concerns of ordinary people. There's also a sense of disenchantment with the idea that grand urban projects are a surefire way to bring jobs and prosperity, a sentiment substantially earned by ongoing failures.
There's even Europe-wide (and possibly worldwide) resonance to the Gamonal protests. Across the continent, we see urban beautification plans proposed as solutions to any number of knotty social problems, whether it's pedestrianization plans in crisis-hit Athens or a blueprint for a futuristic elevated cycle highway through one of London’s poorest districts. The reaction to projects like these is often cautious approval – any investment is better than nothing. But when such plans take place simultaneously with cuts to education and training, or alongside lack of investment in genuinely affordable housing that will allow residents to remain following improvements, attitudes shift. Urban improvements are supposed to boost general human happiness, but in cases like Burgos' they can seem like false fixes that fail to address the more complex, deep-rooted issues that shape people’s lives.
Top image: Spanish riot police walk down a street during a demonstration against construction plans to turn the Vitoria main avenue into a boulevard in Burgos. (Ricardo Ordonez/Reuters)