Valencians should be able to achieve a respectful balance between culture, history, tradition, modernity and competitiveness, as have most enlightened peoples of Europe. It is doubtful, however, that we have learned from the mistakes and excesses made so far, although we might do things better.
■ LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
The Valencian region is currently suffering the effects of an unprecedented economic crisis, the first «global» crisis, which was triggered off by a lethal combination: the excesses of a deregulated financial system; the easing of the Spanish building legislation and the bursting of a speculative bubble in the U.S. housing sector. It has been said over and over again that, in our specific case, three crises overlap: the international, the Spanish and the Valencian, with cumulative yet differentiated features.
Nor need we insist that the Valencian region has been one of the autonomies that has suffered and is suffering the consequences of the crisis and this is explained not only (but also) by the excessive «relative specialisation» in the real estate sector (favoured –as throughout Spain– by access to unlimited cheap financing) but also by the overwhelming lack of proactive policies; also recourse to a soaring debt aimed at maintaining a policy of grandeur of questionable effects on the rate of economic growth.
What needs to be done, or should have been done in terms of spatial planning, is virtually evident by identifying the errors and excesses, especially (although the evil originated further back) from 1998 until the outbreak of the crisis. Errors and public excesses, known and notorious, were not corrected, however, in time. Never has there been so much talk of mismanagement and political and administrative corruption as in the period immediately preceding the crisis. There has even been talk about processes of «hijacking» politics and mob rule.
In the academic field, ink has not been spared denouncing evils and their origins; the dangerous triumph of banality. It has been a full-scale demolition process (even if within strict legality, although not always). We have been guided by what has been aptly called «casino capitalism». Our greatest collective challenge still remains on the level of regional, social and political culture. When culture goes bankrupt, when there is a poor institutional and social density, when democracy is so new and fragile in the collective unconscious, then the opacity and the prevailing permissive complicity dominate in making decisions about spatial planning.
■ REASONABLE GUIDING PRINCIPLES
Any proposal regarding the characteristics of new spatial planning policies for «after the crisis» has to be consistent with a set of general principles, as reasonable as so far undervalued. Principles fall into four basic areas: the political-administrative sphere, the sphere of development of more sustainable cities, the area of transition to a new production model and the sphere of democratic quality.
In the first field referring to the political and administrative sphere, one can set the highly desirable goal of improving multi-level territorial governance. That is, to promote jointly determined decisions, coordination and cooperation between the different administrative bodies without ever losing sight of the fact that any spatial planning policy must always be a horizontal or transversal policy, which requires the old and noble task of talking, discussing and reaching agreement.
Within this ambit, one must also work on the most efficient scale of spatial planning, that is to say, since territorial dynamics do not understand administrative boundaries, what will need to be faced with flexibility, but without hesitation, is the question of what is the most efficient «scale» of spatial planning, which leads to promoting supra-municipal scale, despite implementing the so-called «variable geometry» or, in other words, the possibility that management areas may vary depending on the cooperation target.
To accept the principle of supra-municipal government in many of the «local» authorities (administration of land, infrastructures, environment, water cycle, economic development…) is to admit the need to review the role of councils and the possible replacement of these entities by other forms of supra-municipal government. Finally, supra-municipal scale requires powers to be transferred by the Generalitat (downwards) and by the municipalities (upwards).
Regarding the development of more sustainable cities, this implies a firm commitment to moving towards cities («real» and not administrative, it is understood) that are characterized by the increased use of clean production technologies, an increase in social cohesion, the active respect for the established cultural heritage, and for more compact and less dispersed territorial structures. And that all these advances, articulated in the form of indicator systems, should occur simultaneously and in an integrated way.
The third area to be taken into account is the transition to a new production model, because we must never forget that in policy making on emerging from the current economic crisis, far from land being a passive variable, it must also be taken into account, and considerably so, because it is at the source of many localization, agglomeration and network economies, also because sub-central (regional and local) government plays an essential role in microeconomic supply policies (such as the promotion of innovation and development of intelligent territories, creative economies and urban areas of technology, talent and tolerance). Moreover, the inevitable restructuring of the housing sector and the tourism model with a transition to a more lucrative and less seasonal one, which is more respectful of the environment, are topics that are subject to the joint decision-making and cooperation of all administrative bodies.
Finally, we come to the area of the quality of democracy, being mostly in sub-central governments where, with probabilities of success, measures to increase transparency, information and participation can be taken, and where formulas for e-Government can be developed and where a very wide range of democratic innovations can be tested. It goes without saying that today public opinion tends to identify –in an unfair, but specific way– regional and local governments as a permanent source of corruption and undemocratic practices. We stake our future on a democratic revival of spatial planning.
■ SOME PRIORITY ACTIONS
These «guiding» principles are such that they support or can support a range of regional actions, among which we judge as a priority those referred to below.
That regions are a set of cities held together by communications networks is an obvious reality, as similarly is the fact that the efficiency of an urban system depends on both the proper functioning of the nodes (the cities) and the efficiency of the networks that link them. So, what can be improved, in terms of infrastructure? Well, basically, achieving a better balance between road and rail networks. Regarding the first, the investments made in recent decades have led the accessibility provided by the road network to be considered high. Likewise future developments should be considered carefully and limited to the elimination of occasional obstacles and avoid increasing the capacity of the current network by starting questionable actions, such as the second by-pass around Valencia. A very different matter is the lack of rail infrastructure. Railway investment in densely populated areas (metro or tram), improving RENFE Cercanías (local railway service), the coastal railway, the completion of the Alicante-France AVE (high-speed railway) by removing the Tarragona-Castellón bottleneck, and the construction of the freight rail network proposed by FERRMED, all seem reasonable priorities for the coming decades.
The Unwanted Outputs
Land is not just a passive support for the activities located on it. It provides (with the help of infrastructures and its cities) agglomeration, location and network economies, but also «returns» to society the costs obtained from its use in the form of negative externalities and environmental risks which, if they are not internalized by individuals and businesses, must be supported by the community, i.e., by the public sector.
In this chapter of undesirable outputs, we could include a range of issues, which are unfortunately all too familiar: the awful state of waste management (including its collection, treatment and disposal); the need for investment in the water cycle (especially the shortfalls remaining in the field of water purification and the pending promotion of much needed desalination plants); and, the destruction of natural areas, especially coastal ones, as a result of urban encroachment. Steps must be taken (be they by allocation or mitigation) in these three areas.
Nature Parks and the Natura Network
The huge expansion of urbanised land in the last decade has been partly offset by the increase in natural parks and protected natural areas that belong to the European Union Natura Network. While this is certainly good news, even so, one qualification is needed: too often public effort just ends in a formal declaration of protection. Therefore, there is a need for decisive action to gain public appreciation of this natural heritage and an acceptable per capita income of those inhabiting these places. Both objectives require a level of public investment that has been lacking or, at least, does not reach the desired amount.
Since 1998, we have again suffered a process of overvaluation of real estate assets or, as popularly termed, a speculative bubble, which is so patently evident that even the most reluctant have been forced to acknowledge it. Apart from the destruction of an economic structure closely linked to the construction industry, with the resulting exponential increase in unemployment, the mark that the boom has left on our land is difficult to ignore. In little more than a decade we have artificialised over 50% of the land devoted to urban uses before 1987, with the aggravating factor represented by the high concentration of construction encroaching upon coastal areas (10 km of the coastline). We have seen the landscape deteriorate and natural resources squandered. We have witnessed the proliferation of low-density highly dispersed settlements, which are socially very costly.
We have been able to establish the harmful effects on public ethics of this veritable gold rush and how corruption and collusion in public-private urban businesses enjoyed the complacency of a population that, somehow, became extensively involved (or would like to join) in this euphoria. We have confirmed the significant transfer of profits from productive sectors with problems to real estate sectors, where the rates of return were very high. We have identified the presence of a strong demand for foreign investment drawn by the honey of cumulative annual price increases for homes and building-land of over 10% in real terms. And finally, we have experienced firsthand the effects of falling over the cliff (without the soft landing that some had forecast).
Have we learned the lesson? This is doubtful when we read in the press or in some technical report that a number of large projects approved in the past (like Rabassa, Cullera, Catarroja, Manises, El Puig…) have not been revised, and new ones continue to be approved (Marina d’Or as flagship and in good company) for when the «good times» return.
The trouble is that neither are the «good times» likely to return (with an excess of completed and unsold homes of nearly a million in Spain and 15% for our area), nor should we want them back, particularly given the social and environmental costs incurred by having a Valencian Region all «tiled over».
It would be necessary to carry out a thorough review of the spatial planning model and projects approved but not yet implemented, the suppression of low-density sprawl, the difficult conversion of so-called residential tourism that has condemned much of Valencian tourism to a condition of banality, and, above all, the institution of a code of rules, simple but severe, aimed at preventing municipalities from continuing to suicidally re-qualify land for urban development. We have enough to «digest» with existing stockpiles.
A new land policy also calls for renewed regional planning policies. There is no doubt that this is an uncomfortable topic for regional government (Generalitat Valenciana), the larger and local councils and political parties, so concerned with the number of seats and balance of power. The reality, nevertheless, is very obstinate and, ultimately, there will have to be acceptance of change if this means another more logical and efficient model of spatial planning, which differs from the fierce defence of the positions gained and the perpetuation of non-dialogue between levels of government, which has become a habitual form of non-government.
A calm but urgent debate seems to be called for regarding the importance of the element of scale when it comes to governing the territory. Perhaps we should proceed along the lines indicated by the initiative of the district magistrates in Catalonia and pay much more attention to the supra-municipal phenomena triggered by the Chevènement Law in France. In any case, independently of the reconsideration called for earlier, inter-agency cooperation between authorities with responsibilities in the same area would have to set aside once and for all their place in the field of mere rhetoric.
A Land of Cities
An overriding aim is that Valencians should freely enjoy friendly cities that are more liveable, creative, cultured and democratic. Fortunately, we have a dense network of fairly well structured cities with many medium-sized cities. Even so, these conditions are necessary but not sufficient. The network of cities, dialogue between town mayors and interchange of good practices must all be encouraged.
We must also dramatically increase the quality of local democracy, let people talk and listen to them, keep them informed and involve them in decision-taking. This is a cultural problem. Not of political culture but of culture tout court. If you do not open the windows, and opacity continues to reign, governments and politicians will still enjoy democratic legitimacy but will not deserve the respect of the citizens nor acquire moral authority.
Conflicts are inevitable and a driving force of progress. They reflect the diversity of interests and ideologies, and a conflict-free society can only be a politically and socially repressed society. If, as stated in the old medieval adage «the city air makes us free», we need more city, more neighbourliness, and more participation. If citizenry alienation dominates local life, then society as a whole will suffer, and freedoms conquered and states of welfare achieved will be jeopardized.
The Financial Crisis
Zero-cost policies are virtually nonexistent. In this article we have proposed a lot of actions some of which, it is true, have a distinctly qualitative aspect. Even so, many others require financial resources, which at this point in time seem unlikely to be at our disposal.
And the reason is a deep financial crisis, which, closely linked to the overall economic crisis (falling revenues and increased social protection expenditure with the advent of high deficits) is, in our country, reaching alarming proportions due to the levels of per capita debt assumed by the Generalitat (regional government) and many municipalities (with a significant domino effect between administrative bodies). Therefore, if we wish to speak of «our land after the crisis», we cannot but claim as a prerequisite a radical financial restructuring plan. Without that support, many of the proposals made here will remain as no more than declarations of good will.
Towards a New Spatial Planning Culture
We need a new land for after the crisis and we should not be too pessimistic. The famous inscription on the door of hell in The Divine Comedy («lasciare ogni speranza») will always have a following among the sceptics, but do not forget that, while reprehensible acts were being perpetrated, something was changing too (perhaps in reaction) in the collective imagination.
The discourse of a «new spatial planning culture» has caught on strongly in academic and professional fields. After the Manifiesto por una nueva cultura del territorio of 2006 (concerning land management), others have followed like the Manifiesto fundacional por una nueva cultura del agua (concerning new water policies) and other manifestos and declarations aimed at better protection of the landscape. Up against real estate speculation, unsustainable practices in urban planning and widespread urban corruption, this citizens’ movement has achieved extraordinary growth in Spain and in the Valencia region.
The «Salvem» groups, the platforms for «defence» or «custody» have made their voices heard and the media have echoed it. The new paradigm of sustainability has caught on and public authorities (not all nor in all places) have started another discourse more in line with the interests voiced by citizens.
However, we cannot be sure of having learned from our mistakes because, perhaps, the experience of previous speculative bubbles was not heeded. It is not certain that the land-squeezing culture has disappeared. Consider that during the boom years, land became a «Gold Rush». Now, in the recession, however, it may happen that the need to fight against unemployment may backfire against the land and this serves as an excuse to return to our old ways, rather than encourage the definition of an alternative model.
The most enlightened peoples of Europe have been able to achieve a respectful balance between culture, history, tradition, modernity and competitiveness. In Valencia we can do the same. It is not certain that we have learned from our mistakes and excesses, but we insist, this time, as the Lewis Carroll’s character in the chapter entitled «A mad-hatter’s tea party» in Alice in Wonderland: «…we might do something better…».
Joan Romero. Full Professor of Geography, University of Valencia.
| © A. Ponce & I. Rovira
To overcome the current crisis, it is necessary to achieve a more balanced infrastructure, removing obstacles in the case of the road networks and enhancing rail investment, both for commuter and high-speed travel, completing the Alicante-France AVE (high-speed railway), among other actions.
«It has been said over and over again that, in our specific case, three crises overlap: the international, the Spanish and the Valencian, with cumulative yet differentiated features»
«We must never forget that in policy making on emerging from the current economic crisis, land is also an issue, and considerably so, because it is at the source of many localization, agglomeration and network economies»
«Public opinion tends to identify regional and local governments as a permanent source of corruption and undemocratic practices»