The active participation of Spanish citizens in the city.

The case of Seville

Alejandro Muchada et Pablo Alvero, 2012

Collection Passerelle

In Spain, the housing issue is the eye of the storm of the crisis. Five million vacant homes, five million unemployed and 300,000 families evicted from their homes: these figures illustrate the radical polarization of Spanish politics and territory. Accelerated modernization, « peaceful » democratic transition, and the forced adoption of European norms have marked the recent history of the evolution of Spanish society, its management capacity, and its participation in its own development model. Inevitably, but also unexpectedly, this model has ceased to function in recent years and has given rise to a citizen’s debate on how to organize welfare.

The production and management of housing is a central issue in this debate, since it has been the medium of speculation and the lever of economic development, in which all have participated: citizens, seeking to own their homes and second homes; speculators, using housing as a currency; and politicians, allowing and promoting unsustainable development with a high cost for the common good.

Seville is one of the main Spanish cities and it has become an example of the situation of crying social needs and political mobilization on the system of access and financing of housing ownership, as well as on the management of public space.

The right to housing in Seville in 2012

Housing, and the construction sector as a whole, has been the foundation of the economic model in force in Spain since its integration into the European Union1.

This economic development linked to the production of housing has been facilitated by different legislation, such as the 1994 Urban Rent Law (which made all rental leases temporary, whereas previously they could be life leases, which encouraged buying rather than renting), or the penalization of the occupation of buildings introduced into the penal code in 1996. These measures promote the right to property at the expense of the right to decent housing2. The 1998 Land Law provided for an almost unlimited extension of the possibility of urbanizing the territory, which further favored the real estate boom. Combined with political mismanagement, this has led to a destructive transformation of the territory3.

Public policies have turned a blind eye to the housing crisis, or even made it worse. This is the case, for example, of the block sale of public land and public housing stock4 carried out by the regional government: the Junta de Andalucía. In other cases, even public agencies have deployed aggressive strategies, acting as «  public speculators " : this is the case in the Las Huertas neighborhood (where tenants of public housing discovered, to their surprise, that they had to pay the real estate property tax), for the residents of the Pino Montano neighborhood (who were evicted by the public housing company, EMVISESA), or for the neighbors of the Casa del Pumarejo social center (who were forced to leave their home by the social services of the municipality, after having suffered harassment methods close to the famous asustaviejas, harassment practices towards the elderly).

The city’s pattern was thus disfigured by a planning that was the main source of municipal funding and was justified by the discourse of «  urbanistic development ", which was difficult to oppose5. The new urban model (the city of speculators) responds to economic interests rather than to criteria of sustainability and diversity. Recently, this phenomenon has been observed in the construction project of the future SE-35 road in Seville, which has a negative impact on the last cultivated lands of the municipal territory (in the northern valley, the Vega Norte) and on the future of the Tamarguillo Park, which has been open for barely a year and a half, and which the road would cross from one side to the other. The reason behind this project, born in the midst of the real estate crisis, seems to be to satisfy the mobility needs of a large multinational furniture company.

The financial crisis of 2008 abruptly interrupted this spiral of economic growth, since the banks were the main urban developers and land speculators. They, in turn, have dragged countless families into the crisis and they are no longer able to pay their mortgages. Thus, the economic cost of the crisis is surpassed by its immense social cost.

Speculation, and the city model associated with it, has been the main cause of a progressive «  social impoverishment ", resulting in social homogenization and individualism6. The increasing poverty and social polarization are pushing the situation to the extreme of a great social crisis, which will explode definitively when the situation becomes unsustainable for the middle classes. The danger to be faced in this social explosion will be the rise of radicalism and the extreme right7. On the other hand, the alternatives involve facing these new challenges as soon as possible, such as urban renewal, and adopting new management models that rely more on organized citizens8.

For its part, citizenship has historically organized itself to resist threats and demand respect for rights. So far, most of these initiatives have focused on concrete needs in specific territories. This tendency is due to the fact that the exercise of thinking about the city as a whole is a theoretical abstraction, whereas talking about a concrete problem is more practical. It is difficult for citizens to visualize how everything is linked, that they are different facets of the same reality9.

Collective initiatives for the right to the city in Seville

The citizens’ groups organized in Seville are characterized by a great variety of organizational modes and lines of action : from social pressure on public institutions to citizen self-management, through mediation in situations of economic, intercultural or legal conflict.

In general, it is a dispersed activism, where the initiatives to search for a synergy, a thread to bring together the different groups of organized citizens, have proved to be complex and unsuccessful. Thus, in a dispersed way, the pressure groups point out the gap between their needs and the spheres of the political decision brought to act on these needs.

The history of the creation of the different neighborhoods, in addition to the «  decapitation  » of the neighborhood movements10 at the beginning of Spanish democracy, was built from a certain generational break in the struggle for the right to the city. Today, neighborhood associations are experimenting with this fault line, since in some cases the youngest participants (from the 15-M movement of the Indignados) have felt the need to create new alternatives of popular organization, clearly distancing themselves from previous forms.

The functioning of the collectives

Organized citizenship must be able to match personal interests and capacities with those of the group. Sometimes, a lack of social and political vision has been observed in some participants, who assert their individual rights without defending collective rights. This has happened in the city’s urban vegetable garden experiments, for example. In general, the facilities demanded by the most active citizens are then made available to and used by a much larger number of people who do not perceive their implications and social value for the community. This is even more evident when the work in a neighborhood benefits the whole city11.

Everyone’s positions and experiences can be very different, and while diversity is a value, it can sometimes make agreements difficult. Even if there are activists, experts in specific fields providing technical support in a disinterested way, to collectives or to affected people, urgency, lack of means and indecision can singularly complicate the process12.

At the level of space, it is common to observe that in the same environment where the population mobilizes to find solutions to problems, different collectives are created and coexist, sharing spaces, concerns, sometimes even members, but these collectives emphasize their differences in objectives, without managing to design a collective strategy13.

Even in the most experienced groups of Sevillian social activism, there are sometimes sterile «  conceptual  » discussions that hinder a «  structural "  consensus: «  what brings us together ". The most common solution to facilitate discussions is the creation of sub-divisions within groups and working committees which may be more operational but do not resolve substantive conflicts.

On the other hand, there are other areas of social intervention where professional commitment can go hand in hand with social commitment. This is the case of municipal social service employees, where there are committed technicians ; or the case of organizations supporting vulnerable social groups (foundations, NGOs). Even so, the opposite case also exists, that is, some people receive a public benefit that they did not ask for and do not take an active part in resolving their situation14.


With regard to citizen mobilizations for the right to the city in Seville, we have first of all highlighted the fact that there is a great variety and diversity of citizen initiatives and resource persons related to the issue of the city and housing. The diversity, the experience acquired and the capacities generated are certain values. There are inevitably positive and negative effects of the history and evolution of neighborhood and citizen movements, of the learning and unlearning of previous mobilizations : the neighborhood movements of the 1970s and 1980s, the Forum for a Livable Seville (Foro por un Sevilla Habitable), Neighborhoods in Struggle (Barrios en Lucha), the 15-M movement, which condition and limit the organizations.

We have observed a clear lack of coordination and knowledge about mutual initiatives, the inability to create stable platforms for coordination, communication, collaboration and cooperation on urban issues, which weakens the whole and deprives it of strategy.

With regard to the internal functioning of the organizations, it is assessed as deficient in most cases in terms of organizational capacities (endless meetings, without objectives or conclusions, unmoderated discussions, lack of prioritization, lack of visibility, failures in internal and external communication, etc.).

In general, there is a lack of collective political awareness (not necessarily partisan politics) in some movements, unable to give a clear and decisive answer to the fundamental questions of an organization : Who are we ? What do we want? How can we get it?

The future of the city and citizenship in Spain will depend on the organizational and coordinating capacity of movements and organizations, on their ability to critically analyze the causes of the situation and on their initiatives to create alternatives to the proposed model. The vital energy that the « 15-M Movement » represents must be channeled towards a possible future. The economic crisis of financial capitalism is used as an excuse to limit social rights and promote a model of organization that causes dissatisfaction and social unsustainability. Housing, as a lived reality and keystone of the house of cards of frauds that is collapsing, is a symbol, in Spain and Andalusia, of the shadows and lights of its organization.

1 José Manuel Naredo, professor and economist.

2 Lawyers from the Grupo 17 de Marzo (March 17 Group) in their conference on housing and civil disobedience, organized by the 15-M movement. Seville, April 2012.

3 Interview with the leadership of the Asociación por la Defensa del Territorio del Aljarafe (ADTA), April 2012.

4 Ventura Galera, coordinator of Arquitectura y Compromiso social, during the congress on housing organized by the 15-M movement in Montequinto (Seville).

5 Interview with Luis Andrés Zambrana, professor and economist at the University of Seville, April 2012.

6 Interview with Javier Escalera, anthropologist and professor at the University Pablo de Olavide, April 2012.

7 Interview with Ibán Díaz, geographer and activist, April 2012.

8 Interview with Ventura Galera, architect, activist and coordinator of Arquitectura y Compromiso Social (ACS), April 2012.

9 Interview with José Torres, geographer and professor of the University Pablo de Olavide, April 2012.

10 The neighborhood movement in pre-democratic Spain is a special case in Europe of active citizen participation. Important ruptures occurred there during the process of «  peaceful  » democratization, creating a lack of continuity with the following generations : Paco Legrán, Conference on the History of the Neighborhood Movement, organized by the 15-M movement, February 2012.

11 As in the case of the neighborhood mobilizations in defense of the Miraflores and Tamarguillo metropolitan parks. Interviews on urban vegetable garden experiences in Miraflores and about La FEA’s Alcosa Park platform of organizations, March 2012.

12 One example is the housing information points organized by the 15-M Movement in popular neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, there is often a need for legal advice in the face of impending eviction.

13 The Alcosa Park or the Casa del Pumarejo are examples of this in Seville.

14 The complete rehabilitation of the southern area (Polígono Sur) is an example. Residents resist and question the program to improve their homes, Interview with SURCO Arquitectura project managers, May 2012.


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