Globalist Paper

Barcelona and Madrid: A Tale of Two Cities (Part I)

How has a high-speed rail corridor changed the profile of Spain’s largest cities?

Spain's AVE train.

Takeaways


  • All that is required to put an up and coming town on the global map seems to be a trove of public money, a star architect and a well-orchestrated public relations campaign.
  • The tension between a vibrant sense of identity in Catalonia and other regions is one of the main sources of Spain's dynamism.
  • The untapped energy unleashed after Franco's centralizing rule gave way to the flourishing of long-existing diversity within Spain.

President Obama has devoted a large chunk of his stimulus package to develop high-speed rail projects in the United States.

While announcing his plan in a recent speech, he mentioned Spain as an example of how this kind of transportation can change a nation.

In the case of Spain, those changes go far beyond the realm of economic metrics to a more complex dimension with socio-political repercussions, both nationally and beyond.

With a new high-speed train linking Barcelona and Madrid, Spain has created a new networked megacity. Speeding through 660 kilometers (410 miles) in just two and a half hours, the AVE train is just the latest sign of global interconnectivity. However, despite the advanced technology, identity tensions remain between the two cities.

That there is a long-lasting rivalry between the two largest Spanish cities is not a secret. As the capital of the Catalan Autonomous Community within Spain, Barcelona is sometimes portrayed as a hotbed of Catalan nationalism bent on becoming the capital of an independent Catalonia.

Without denying that nationalism is an important force shaping the complex interrelationship between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, there are stronger centripetal forces at play. Linguistic and cultural differentiation has to play against a backdrop of economic and political interdependence, migratory flows and the realities imposed by European integration and globalization.

Besides — and this is more serious than it seems — who would miss a Real Madrid vs. Barcelona Primera Liga match?

Actually, the tension between a vibrant sense of identity in Catalonia and other regions is one of the main sources of Spain's dynamism.

The untapped energy unleashed after Franco's centralizing rule gave way to the flourishing of long-existing diversity within Spain. Politically channeled through a quasi-federal system, powerful identities started reasserting themselves in the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and a number of other regions.

But for outsiders, Barcelona and Catalonia were the names that became the epitome of a decentralized Spain. This visibility was mainly due to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Images of Gaudí's unfinished cathedral, Sagrada Familia, provided an almost surreal canvass for athletes jumping, diving and running.

Urban revival, state-of-the-art design and architecture, innovative gastronomy and a lifestyle blending hard work with Mediterranean leisure became associated with Barcelona as a result of the 1992 Olympic Games.

City planners from around the globe flocked to Barcelona to get to know the secret of its success. From Manchester to Berlin to Shanghai, everyone wanted to replicate the Barcelona phenomenon.

The tortoise

Meanwhile, Madrid seemed to be lagging behind. As Barcelona was basking in worldwide admiration, the Spanish capital was often considered a dull, administrative, inward-looking city, unable to capture, let alone project, a fraction of the glamour emanating from its Mediterranean rival.

For sure, Madrid still had first-class museums, an enviable nightlife and the advantage of being the port of call for people all over Spain wanting to advance their careers beyond their regional confines. But it lacked something Barcelona had achieved: an iconic image to be identified with.

Now, when a city reflects on this kind of image-deficit, the obvious temptation is to succumb to the "Paris syndrome."

A leader may conclude "We need an Eiffel Tower," and, presto, you end up with the hugely popular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or the outstanding Palau de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia. All that is required these days to put an up-and-coming town on the global map seems to be a trove of public money, a star architect and a well-orchestrated public relations campaign.

But Madrid did not follow the quick path to fame. On the contrary, it played the long game, and it paid.

For more than a decade, successive local administrations embarked in a frenzy of apparently neverending public works. The aim was to revamp and expand the old transport and communication infrastructure in order to transform Madrid into a national, European and ultimately global magnet for investment and qualified labor.

Obviously, there was a political undertone to the effort. In a Spain of competing powerful regions, the only way the center could hold was by keeping itself relevant. In terms of information theory, when the nodes (i.e., the regions) can communicate with each other without an increasingly irrelevant hub (i.e., the country's capital), the hub has to adapt itself to the new rules of the game — or it risks being sidelined. And those new rules are mostly about networking.

In a world like ours, conditioned by virtual realities, we tend to forget that most networks are still made of real matter, time and space. City dwellers can be enthused with talk of megabits, information superhighways and the like, but they also care about whether transportation from home to office is expedient and safe.

With all that in mind, Madrid took a pass on bionic towers and glass pyramids, and instead concentrated in the apparently less seductive business of building ring roads, radial roads, metro lines, commuter railways and expanding airport capacity.

Locals and foreigners alike had to cope with the inconveniences of dust and noise for years. The taxi-driving community often told an anecdote about visiting U.S. film director Woody Allen, who was asked whether he liked Madrid. He answered, "Yes, but I will like it even more when you have found the treasure."

The power of demographics

Fortunately for Madrid, its expanding infrastructure coincided with a long period of growth in the overall Spanish economy. As a side effect, the country started attracting wave after wave of immigrants.

Between 2002 and 2005, the net immigration of foreigners averaged 550,000 per year. During that period, Spain accounted for 36% of net immigration into the European Union.

As a result of that flow, official figures stated that Spain had 4.5 million foreign residents in 2007, or 10% of a total population reaching almost 45 million. In that year Spain had the second highest absolute net migration rate in the world, after the United States.

The arrival of immigrants boosted internal demand and contributed to the overall economic boom.

However, the arrival of such a diverse population to a relatively homogeneous country has had great repercussions in the identity debate — affecting, in particular, the shifting relations between Madrid and Barcelona.

Editor’s note: You can read Part II of this series tomorrow on The Globalist.

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About Luis Francisco Martínez Montes

Luis Francisco Martínez Montes is a counselor to the Spanish Representation to the United Nations in New York.

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