The increase in longevity and urbanisation in Spain leads us to an unstoppable reality: the ageing of the future will be urban, and cities will be older than they are today. For older people, staying in the familiar space has many positive effects and can be the key to better health and greater social integration. However, for all these benefits to be possible, it is necessary that the opportunities for access to the material and symbolic goods offered by the city are equal for all people throughout the life cycle. This is a statement that we can hardly maintain if we analyse the current configuration of our cities.
I recently spoke about whether or not my grandfather (94 years old and of La Mancha origin, but who adores Madrid to unsuspected limits) has the right to the city. Some people might, perhaps without reading the content, have thought that I was denying him that right by posing the question. No, not at all. I claim the right of my grandfather, like that of any elderly person, of any person with mobility problems and of any person without mobility problems, to be able to participate in the use of urban space. To enjoy it, to use it, to take advantage of it, but not to suffer from it. My demand is to look at the configuration and conservation of space with wiser, more inclusive eyes, so that they allow fairness in the use of space and do not expel anyone.
By urban space we mean squares, streets, parks, wide and narrow pavements, roads leading to buildings and shops. Public space is where we do life, where we get to know each other and ourselves. Where we free ourselves from the restriction of enclosed spaces, but always contextualised by the rights of others (because my rights end where others' begin). Public space is where we can meet, where we can socialise, meet new people and recognise old friends. Public space is a space in which to "be", a space for everyone to dominate and use, where passage cannot be restricted by criteria of private property. Or at least, from my perspective, it should be.
I am concerned that this public space is limited by business; that the expansion of bar terraces, fairs or stalls will displace or limit the use of what belongs to everyone. This does not mean that I do not enjoy bar terraces, fairs or stalls. It simply means that I am concerned that squares and pavements are being invaded by bar tables, for example, and that they prevent wheelchairs and shopping trolleys from getting through. I am concerned that we have fewer benches in order to have more space for seating that does make money, because it is associated with drinking. I am concerned that we are following a trend towards fewer benches per hectare, benches that are also part of the public space, that belong to everyone, where you can sit down to rest and chat with a stranger. The problem with terrace space is that it is private: if you don't use it (because you don't feel like it, because you don't have the money) you can't use it. And that, of course, generates an inequality in the right to space. The kind of relations you create in that privatised public space will necessarily be different, as it expels certain users and follows strict rules of use. On a bench will sit a few lonely children, a poor lady, a tired passer-by, an old man watching people pass by. This is not the case on bar terraces. I worry that we forget how useful benches are in public spaces and how much we have lived on them. Benches are the scene of first kisses, and also of last kisses. Benches are spaces that bring grandparents and grandchildren together, that unite us with strangers and where mothers (and increasingly fathers) talk about their children's school progress. Benches are part of our personal history (who hasn't cried or laughed sitting on a bench in a public space?) but above all of our culture. Mediterranean culture looks to the street, seeks open space and social gathering in the square, in the street, on the bench. We propose solutions with attractive names, such as the 15-minute city, forgetting the Mediterranean city, and we are not capable of reclaiming a space as much ours as the bench.
The contemporary city, however, seems to be obviating the role of benches in urban space. In fact, the more central the neighbourhood, the less public space there is to sit on and the more space is occupied by the private. A colleague of mine, José Ariza de La Cruz, demonstrated this with a graph and a map:
The data are quite evident and obvious: in the most central districts of the city of Madrid, one use (economic) seems to have taken precedence over another (public). While I am not against the presence of terraces on the public streets, I do believe that their occupation of the public highway should be done in moderation. There is undoubtedly a need for a profound reflection on the part of the administrations, but also on the part of the citizens, so that they can demand what kind of city they want to be. In a city where car use already predominates, what kind of experience of public space can we have if we flood the streets with terraces or privatise the space through different activities? When we decide to occupy a square with an economic activity, what happens to the elderly people who used to sunbathe in the morning on the benches in the area? What happens to the children who used to play in that space after school? Public space is the space where loneliness and inequality are fought against.
Reclaiming the space of the city is also about fulfilling the right to the city and it is also about social integration.