Enlightened (or Not) Urban Despotism

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Valencia, Spain, has been attracting the attention of journalists and urban planners in the last days. Once again, city authorities, with mainstream planners' support, have crashed their vision of the city against a traditional neighbourhod. Planners and their clients have decided that their aesthetic plan of the city has more value than the lives of hundreds of people living on the land where their plan is to be executed. That land is "el Cabanyal", an obstacle to their vision of an avenue reaching the sea front.

In order to realize their vision, city authorities started demolishing houses, knowing that the great majority of neighbours, represented by the nighbourhood's main association, are against the plan. Even Oriol Bohigas, the renown architect and planner of 1992 Barcelona Olypics, when criticizing city authorities' plan, is also biased towards aesthetic ideas, in spite of mentioning citizens living there as an issue to be considered.

The case of el Cabanyal, and the debate that it has raised, is a very good example of how pretentiously enlightened despotism typically crashes against real needs and aspirations of citizens affected by urban development plans. What Bohigas is making clear is that Valencia city authorities are despotic with no enlightened justification. In any case, professionals' enlightment or comprehensive vision should never be a justification for acting against the neighbours' will. The foremost issue here, though, is the fact that the neighbourhood's association, thanks to its strength and cohesion of its members, has managed to call the attention of a minister who, with National Court's support, has stopped the demolitions. The lesson here is that the most effective way to reduce despotism, enlightened or not, is a strong and well organized civil society.

Credits: Image of el Cabanyal between Blasco Ibañez avenue and the beach, from Carles Francesc (El País). Image of a street of el Cabanyal, from http://urblog.org. Image of the last demonstration against demolitions in el Cabanyal, from http://theplatform.nuevaradio.org.


  1. Thanks Jordi for your post on this, I have been following this situation on the news in shock - but on the other hand not surprised how powerful interests "purge" certain areas to meet their own ends, as seen in so many cities across the world. Over 100 years old, this traditional maritime neighbourhood was declared an area of cultural interest in 1993 due to its unique streets and modernist buildings. However in Valencia's urban development plan, which includes demolishing 1650 buildings in El Cabanyal to create a corridor to the waterfront, the municipality is withdrawing the protected status of houses and expropriating them to enable their destruction. It is definitely worth checking out this video the programme Callejeros on El Cabanyal from November 2007 when the plan first emerged, getting responses from residents and giving a sense of the urban life, building typology and spacial diversity of the neighbourhood (in Spanish).

  2. As much as I agree with your support for the rights of local communities and the preservation of historic urban fabric, from the picture it looks like the park leading to the sea would also be a beautiful addition to city life. Is there any way of compensating current residents so that it's worth it for them to allow this plan? Sometimes great places - Central Park in New York, for example - require major changes in land use. I don't mean that the rights of local communities should be ignored, but there must be a fair way of working with them on projects that could bring a common good.


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