Struggles occur at the intersection of overtourism and the manufactured exoticism of tourist attractions within urban public spaces and their everyday practices. Since 2017, the public square Plaça Sant Felip Neri in Barcelona has been temporarily closed. The crowds of tourists led the director of the school that is situated within the square to enforce the closure of this otherwise public square in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic in collaboration with Barcelona en Comú – a citizen platform and political party in government that was founded by Ada Colau, the current mayor of the city. The measure was justified by past incidents of tourists jeopardizing the safety of the school children. In the wake of the pandemic, conflicts have once again risen in regard to the closure of the square with new political actors, such as retailers and the parents of the children in the school. This interview was conducted on 07.15.2021 with Anna Regàs, the school principal of Escola Sant Felip Neri. It is part of a series of interviews on urban conflicts in overtouristed cities.
MTR: Daniel from ABDT (Assemblea de Barris pel Decreixement Turístic/Assembly of Neighborhoods for Tourist Degrowth) told me about your initiative to close the Plaça Sant Felip Neri to tourists. Can you tell me a little about how this came about?
AR: Yes! The square itself is interesting because it has a rich history, but it's not historic in an architectural sense – the fountain itself is new. This school was built in 1957, and has two façades that do not correspond to that date; they have been relocated from other parts of the city, being originally located in Via Laietana and Carrer de la Bòria, and later stored in Plaça de Lesseps in Barcelona. When the Gótico de Barcelona was planned, the façades were brought here [Anna refers to the reinvention of the Barri Gòtic of Barcelona, a 20th-century project of historicizing monumentalization in the city center – see image 3]. The façades are not authentic to the square, but people believe that they are. From the very beginning of the school, the square was used as a schoolyard. Gradually, the increasing number of tourists in Barcelona affected the number of visitors to the square to a point where the situation was no longer sustainable. A luxury hotel was built nearby, and the square was promoted by tour guides. Tourists came to us en masse. They took pictures of the children and played soccer with them while sometimes even unintentionally hurting some. Then, four years ago, when Barcelona en Comú came to government, we asked the municipality what we could do with the square. They then authorized us to close the square for the times of the morning and lunch breaks. We put up fences.
MTR: How have you been doing since you established the fences? Are there any conflicts with tourists?
AR: Not with tourists. The tour guides respect our decision. That means that the tourists don’t enter. We also have no problems with the hotel on the square. From the beginning, the hotel had an attitude of collaborating with us as neighbors. That’s why at the beginning of every school year, I send the school calendar to the hotel. There is an ongoing dialogue between us. We have parties in the square with the children, and celebrate carnival or Castanyada, which is Halloween in Catalonia. But ever since the pandemic started, new conflicts arose with local merchants. The Barcelona City Council offered the possibility to ask for the occupation of public spaces. We requested the closure of the square for the entire day, and the council granted it to us. But the shopkeepers didn’t agree to the proposed arrangement. Right now, there are three shopkeepers near the square who are asking for the square to be reopened, otherwise they will lose customers. At the moment, since there are no tourists at all, the pandemic has affected the livelihood of the shopkeepers. They have complained through a participatory element in Barcelona, which is called the Consejo de Barrios (Neighborhood Council). As a result, the district administration has told me that it will withdraw the last authorization for the permanent closure.
MTR: Who did you work with to close the square temporarily? Did you seize the moment when Barcelona en Comú came to power?
AR: Yes. When Barcelona en Comú came to power, a different vision of the city coincided with the totally uncontrolled tourism which was left over from the previous government. I think Barcelona en Comú has not managed to control tourism, but it did manage to humanize the city a little.
MTR: Is it the vision that helped you move forward?
AR: Yes. Barcelona has a completely different vision now. We found out that while Barcelona en Comú is a very socially activist government, engaging with more regulated forms of politics remains very difficult for them. It's complicated for sure. But at some point you have to turn activism into politics. Anyway, Barcelona as a city and all of its neighborhoods have always been organized in associations.
MTR: What role do the children play in the school’s decisions and in closing the square?
AR: The children choose their own rules of coexistence. From the age of six, they commit themselves to complying with the rules they choose for themselves. It is an approach to coexistence which they apply not only in the neighborhood, but wherever they are and in whatever they do. The norm is not coercive or restrictive, but rather self-regulatory. When we live together, we need self-regulation. We teach them that when there is a breach of norms it does not generate a conflict, but rather a set of questions: what is happening to us, or how can we avoid non-compliance? The children need autonomy of coexistence in terms of conflict resolution. All this comes from a philosophy of pedagogical principles that respect the individuality and diversity of the child, be it of sexuality or gender-identity, and on the respect for sharing and knowledge. For the children, the square is the school without claiming ownership over it.
MTR: What role does the square play for the school and neighborhood?
AR: The parents defend the usage of the square as a school space because it improves the social life in the neighborhood and the relationship between the school, families and the children within the neighborhood. It humanizes the neighborhood that has lost touch with those who live in it. It used to be a neighborhood full of merchants, which by now are big corporations. All the grocery stores have disappeared. In other words, the neighborhood as an entity no longer exists, although there are a few social entities that still function in it.
MTR: Have you thought about the possibility of not using the fences in the square and integrating the tourists into a shared space?
AR: Based on our experience with tourism, this possibility does not exist. The imposition of the tourist is the occupation of space. When we are tourists, we are by definition invasive and do not respect distance. Without the fences, there was no way to reach a consensus on sharing the space.
- IMAGE CREDITS
During Ada Colau's first term as the Mayor of Barcelona (2015-2019), the school administration of Escola Sant Felip Neri requested the temporal closure of the Plaça Sant Felip Neri. The school argued that the use of the square by tourist tour groups is not compatible with its use as a schoolyard, and obtained permission for its temporary closure. Photography © Marta Torres Ruiz