Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Uncivil cities

In 2005, I was a witness as a Barcelona resident of a worrying emphasis on ‘incivility’ as a problem. All of a sudden, things that were part of daily life in urban public space, especially in a Mediterranean capital, such as street drinking, skating, prostitution or game-playing, took centre stage and became the object of a deafening policy and media debate. Those things, that we may have seen as annoying but normal, or even been the ‘perpetrators’ of, very quickly became a public problem and portrayed as a clear sign of the decay of Western civilisation. Almost overnight, graffiti and homelessness became punishable offenses, among many other, varied things. Something had changed in the Barcelona of ‘amigos para siempre will you always be my friend’.[1]

Soon after this happened, a copy of Urban Studies’ double issue on ‘(In)civility and the city’ fell in my hands, giving context to the events I had just lived. Incivility was becoming a global issue and different bodies in different countries were looking for tools to pursue a law and order approach to city life. These efforts received different names in different places, but were essentially all part of a global process to turn deviant behaviours into offences and thus turn them into a police matter.

The Barcelona case, however, seemed to have its own dynamic –the role played by the annual neighbourhood festivities, seen by some media as bacchanalia of incivility, or the government crisis the Socialist government at the time was going through, as well as an evident conservative turn experienced by the generation that had lived and been protagonists of the transition to democracy, who now demanded that their ‘right’ to enjoy a clean and non-degraded public space, to rest and to be tranquil and to not be ‘disturbed in the exercise of the freedom of circulation.

I became curious in the interplay between local and global dynamics, and the reason of this ‘defining up’ of deviancy. The international literature gave me clues that resonated with the Barcelona experience, but only in broad terms. The ins-and-outs of the Barcelona case did not match those described in the international literature. Trying to make sense of ‘asynchronic synchrony’ was the main driver behind the paper, written with the hope to get international authors to question some of their assumptions or generalisations, as well as to encourage other to explore similar local processes and contribute them to our scientific field.

Using a combination of urban studies literature, public policy process and transfer theory and media discourse analysis, the paper retraces the policy process of what was called the Civility Ordinance of Barcelona, finally passed on 1 January 2006, in an attempt to contribute a detailed account of the local determinant factors. These are put in light not only of similar processes elsewhere, specially the UK, but also in broader debates on the local security agendas in the 90s and 00s. By presenting a mainly empirical picture, the paper aspires to inform other comparative studies on the role of security and deviancy in urban environments, and on the political role of cities under globalisation.

Now that several years have passed since these schemes were implemented in different countries and cities, and so we can begin to evaluate their impact –and probably validate Bannister and Kearns’ hypothesis, quoted in the paper, that the emphasis on tolerance and respect through civility results in an erosion of tolerance and respect-, and in a time when urban anxieties are centered on the crisis and radicalisation processes, understanding the problems of the civility approach can act as a timely warning sign.

Gemma Galdon-Clavell.

Barcelona, May 2015

[1] One of the landmark songs of the Olympic Games of 1992, symbolising tolerance, friendship and openness.

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