In Valencia, a local neighbourhood offers an example of how to resist speculative urban planning

Valencia’s fishing quarter, listed among the ten ‘coolest’ neighbourhoods in Europe and winner of the 2015 Europa Nostra award (one of the most prestigious prizes in the field of cultural heritage), is an example of solid resistance against a local council’s ambitions for urban development ambition. (Marga Ferrer)

Neighbourhoods in the limelight usually attract media attention either for being hotbeds of conflict or hubs of investment. El Cabanyal in Valencia, Spain, has fit into both of these categories over the last 30 years. During the first few years of the new millennium, the Valencian fishing quarter was an example of resistance against the predatory ambitions of the local council, which was planning to demolish 1,600 homes so that it could draw a line straight down the middle of it, from the city centre to the sea. Today, after that victorious struggle, with the neighbourhood still standing, investors have intensified their raid on El Cabanyal and gentrified its streets, turning the local resistance movement into an exhibition piece. This is how it is portrayed in the British newspaper The Guardian, which puts it on the list of the ten coolest neighbourhoods in Europe. It undoubtedly warrants a closer look at how it went from being a powder keg to a shop window for tourists, and how its residents have fought to defend themselves, on both fronts.

The history of the conflict in Valencia’s fishing district goes back to the late 1990s, when the political group at the head of the city council, the Partido Popular, agreed on an urban development plan – known as PEPRI – to extend Blasco Ibáñez Avenue to the sea, arguing that Valencia had its back to the Mediterranean. It was the first of a series of hostile incursions into a place that had recently been declared a Cultural Interest Site by the Spanish government The plan meant tearing down homes and cutting the neighbourhood open to lay a stretch of asphalt through the grid of streets. But the local residents came together en masse and put up a determined fight. “We found out that a plan was hovering over our heads and we started to get together in the neighbourhood association to find out more. The meetings became so big that people ended up taking their chairs out onto the street. We didn’t fit inside the association any more so we formed a new group called Salvem El Cabanyal (Save El Cabanyal),” recalls its former president, Maribel Domènech.

For 20 years, they would meet every Wednesday evening at eight o’clock. They mounted their line of defence on two complementary fronts: cultural and legal.

“On one front, we organised the Portes Obertes festival, an initiative that opened up the houses in the neighbourhood where artists could exhibit their work in a show of solidarity,” recalls Domènech. “Few people knew about the neighbourhood, its history, its culture and the festival helped us to showcase this hidden heritage and get Valencians involved in it.” More importantly, Salvem managed to hold out for a long time in the courts. “We established ourselves as a legal association so that we could hire lawyers to defend our cause. We lost the local court cases but went on to win the national ones. In the end, the key was to raise the issue of defending heritage, especially after a ministerial order banned the demolitions, considering them to be an act of spoliation,” says Domènech.

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Meanwhile, the local residents were also fighting their corner on the streets. Salvem members went on a hunger strike that lasted almost a month, hugged the houses, following the example of the tree-hugging women in India, chained themselves to the houses about to be demolished (they knew which ones they were because the electricity company would come and remove the cables from their façades before they were demolished) and held sit-ins on the road, engaging in nonviolent resistance. The bulldozers did, however, manage to force their way in on 7 and 8 April 2010, with the help of the police, who charged at the demonstrators. “Those demolitions were an act of authoritarianism, a symbolic strike against the neighbourhood, because the [then] mayor, Rita Barberá, was obsessed with the urban plan, and knew full well that it would not prosper: there was neither the financial nor the legal security, and no major construction company was likely to embark on such an adventure,” explains journalist Sergi Tarín, author of a documentary on the toughest moments of the conflict.

In the end, another key to keeping the neighbourhood intact, according to Carlos Pérez, spokesman for the Cuidem El Cabanyal association, was the personal involvement of the demonstrators: “The people involved were very much from the neighbourhood, and even gave too much of themselves at times. It was they who put their lives on the line to protect their homes from demolition. Salvem’s strength was that each house was defended by the grandparents, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who had grown up in them,” says Domènech. “It was that rootedness that kept the movement strong during the toughest of times.” Years on, those roots seem to be weakening as investors are lured by the lustre of the art nouveau tiles.

Current challenges: inequality and gentrification

El Cabanyal was honoured with the 2015 Europa Nostra award, one of the most prestigious in the area of cultural heritage. That same year there was a change in leadership at the city council and the problem took on a different form. “It was instantaneous: the Left won, the threat of the extension plans disappeared and the rents went up immediately,” says Carlos Pérez. “They are now around 50 per cent higher than they were three years ago. Investors have set their sights on the neighbourhood. A clear example is La Colectiva, a social centre where all the neighbourhood groups used to meet, which has been bought by the Venezuelan investment fund Long Trust,” explains the activist. It is a development that should come as little surprise, really. During the years of intense resistance, El Cabanyal twinned with Ottensen in Hamburg and Mukojima in Tokyo, to see itself reflected in neighbourhoods that had survived devastating urban plans. They too, however, ended up becoming trendy – expensive – parts of their respective cities.

But in the Valencian neighbourhood, the landscape of gastrobars and real estate posters are not enough to plaster over the social divide inherited from the previous phase. “Here there was a deliberate and purely speculative policy of institutional abandonment: they let it deteriorate to muster more support for the demolitions. The city council assigned municipal housing to people without resources to turn them into agents of that deterioration, so that if its plan did not succeed on its own merits, it could use it as ammunition against Salvem,” says Tarín. “Although the heritage side has been resolved, the social dimension has continued to deteriorate regardless of who runs the city council. The new council team has not been able to deal with the inequalities in the neighbourhood, and that is disappointing,” says the journalist.

The neighbourhood does still however have a network of associations dedicated to supporting residents at risk of exclusion. One of the most active is Espai Veïnal Cabanyal, which bases its action on class solidarity.

“We are now focused on the problem of access to housing. Property speculation has led to abusive price increases and eviction from the neighbourhood. We try to accompany people at risk of eviction throughout the judicial process, standing at the door on the day of the eviction and looking for alternative housing in the neighbourhood,” says Manel Domingo, a member of Espai Veïnal. “We have also, as a result of the coronavirus crisis, created a network of food banks for people who have lost their income. The lockdown has been devastating, especially for those who usually work in street markets or sell scrap metal. Many people in El Cabanyal live from hand to mouth and have suddenly found themselves without any income. They are people living in practical exclusion who aren’t covered by any public welfare assistance,” he says.

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Attempts are being made to fix the problem with band-aid solutions, but they are not getting to the root of it. The locals in El Cabanyal will continue to be replaced by tourists, digital nomads and the creative classes. It remains to be seen whether this process will be sped up by the new urban plan, currently under discussion, which is ostensibly set to turn the place into a tourist attraction. “The new plan – called the PEC – is based on the idea that the neighbourhood can be divided into a maritime strip dedicated to tourism and another part that will be the protected neighbourhood, a museum neighbourhood,” says Carlos Pérez.

“With this new plan, El Cabanyal will end up being an expensive place to live in every sense. Keeping it standing does not mean keeping it alive,” Tarín argues. “It’s not fair that they finance the neighbourhood’s rehabilitation by building more hotels and apartments, as the city council wants,” insists Domingo. Only Domènech finds some solace in the new plan: “In Colombia they have a concept known as ‘imperfect peace’. They don’t aspire to perfect peace but negotiate certain truces to gradually stop the violence. Perfection doesn’t exist, the plan won’t please everyone, but I do want a plan for the neighbourhood to be approved because we cannot afford to be without it when the council here changes political colour. We need that imperfect peace.”

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