Before and after the pandemic: a city of solidarity, creativity and participation


Manuela Carmena

Jun, 2020

Much has been said in these months about the strange confinement of large cities which, with their concentrated populations, might have been more prone to contagion. This seems to indeed be the case; however, along with so many other issues relating to this tragic pandemic, it will have to be calmly considered once the crisis has subsided.

The city has always been a space of freedom, annexed from the domains of kings and lords. The city is a public space, for everyone. As such, solidarity, creativity and participation are the three great concepts on which cities must be based, and on which, in my opinion, their management must be focused. This is at least what I tried to do when I was Mayor of Madrid: to strengthen solidarity, to promote creativity and to encourage/develop participation.

In my opinion, these three concepts are of essential importance, both in the very conception of the city, and in its management. They are a definition of its essence, and at the same time constitute the objectives for achieving its development.

If we define ethics as that virtue which seeks to ensure that the essence of things is acted upon, I would argue that these three principles are in turn the design of what the city «should be.» In my opinion, this has been true in the past, currently, and even in an immediate albeit limited future, beyond the pandemic, albeit limited.

Photo_ Thierry ben Abed_ on the balcony_ CC BY 4.0


First of all, the city must manifest solidarity. This solidarity, however, goes beyond the more common, yet limited, concept of solidarity. It is not only a question of the necessary exercise of compassion and empathy with those who need it most. The solidarity I am referring to is civic solidarity.

Civic solidarity implies, above all, that all citizens, in return for the rights that the city offers them, must accept a series of obligations in solidarity, so to speak. These obligations allow everyone to equally enjoy the city itself, and what it means.

We can think of the city as if it were a human body. A reality resembling a united, venous system that connects each and every one of the parts of that body. If any part of it loses its blood supply, it can atrophy. The simile is especially valid in relation to public, collective health. In the face of the pandemic, this is all the more clear.

Of course, before June 2019, when I was designing these concepts and objectives for the city of Madrid, I could not even conceive of the terrible pandemic we are now experiencing.

Freedom must also belong to everyone. However, it cannot be exercised by some at the expense of others. As we have seen in this extreme case of pandemic, the collective health of all can demand measures that restrict individual freedom. The «freedom to infect,» which also entails the freedom to be infected, cannot be permitted.

However, this extreme situation that has pitted individual freedom versus common interest and freedom is not new. It has been visible in less extreme, or more gradual, public health cases. The supposed freedom to drink alcohol before driving, to smoke in enclosed places, or to pollute serve as less pronounced examples. These conflicts with the common interests served as precedents to the pandemic, which is also a question of public health.

The city as a public space is «voided» when it ultimately is unusable. We witness this in vacated cities. It becomes nonexistent when it no longer serves its citizens as an accepted measure of collective protection. The city is an act of solidarity-based protection. This is a defining characteristic of a city, or it should be.

However, we cannot forget that prior to COVID-19, the city suffered a serious and increasing health problem due to pollution. While it manifests differently, it can be considered another «pandemic.» Fortunately, the effects of pollution do not materialize with the virulence and speed of COVID-19. However, both pandemics must be addressed to mitigate or decrease their harmful effects with public, collective action. There must be an attempt to reduce contagion, as well as to pursue clean air and eliminate pollution. If someone does not respect these rules, he or she does not exhibit solidarity with the city, either in terms of respecting laws that reduce contagion (that may be caused or suffered), or those that protect air quality. In both cases, the city demands responsible behavior from the individual, because it needs it. We all have to fulfill our part. However wealthy you are, no one can buy virus-free air; no one can purchase contamination-free air. Fortunately, air cannot be privatized. Health cannot be either, although by privatizing health you can dream it could be.

If the city and its citizens do not embrace the principle of civic solidarity, we will not be able to maintain a healthy city. If there was any doubt in this regard, the current pandemic now proves it.

The pandemic is an absolute shock. However, it prompts reflection beyond the pandemic itself, reflection on the ordinary life of the city. The pandemic, urgent and dramatic, inspires and engenders civic solidarity. This is paramount to the everyday functioning of the city, and it must be maintained.

The city has always been a space of freedom, annexed from the domains of kings and lords. The city is a public space, for everyone. As such, solidarity, creativity and participation are the three great concepts on which cities must be based.

Civic solidarity encompasses, and indeed manifests itself, in what is increasingly viewed as an essential part of urban relations: care. Initially there was charity, or beneficence (which some social sectors still maintain), followed by social assistance or social services, which are sometimes even considered rights. When understood as rights, a new category surfaces: care, a manifestation of the support and services we provide to each other. Care becomes an essential and inherent part of our advanced, essentially urban, societies.

In the pandemic and confinement, either its realization absence, we come to understand what care, in a broad sense, means. Healthcare workers are the protagonists in our «care.» At the same time, many other jobs, previously even considered as marginal (due to how they are valued in the labour market) have emerged as «essential» in maintaining life in confinement.

In this paralysis of care, we should keep in mind the 2019 feminist protest. It was unusually powerful. Although it did not paralyze all care, especially that care provided women, it was enough to suggest what could happen in the future.

Civic solidarity implies, as could not be otherwise, that all members of the city obtain a sufficient level of satisfaction. That is why there can be no civic solidarity if some citizens do not enjoy what is understood to be justice. A lack of social justice calls into question the balance of the city. If this balance is not ensured, the harmony of the city hangs by a thread.

Think about what it means these days when more than 70 American cities have declared a curfew. It is impressive that even this has not been able to prevent destruction and fires. It is difficult to understand the level of anger and resentment that has built up, exhibited in the violent responses at night, which are outweighed by the daily, mass, peaceful demonstrations.

I am shocked when hearing the mayor of Minneapolis asking his neighbors to stop destroying the city, because the city belongs to everyone. «We know the unjust situation you are living in,» he said, «but the solution is not to destroy the city. Register and vote, so that things will change.»

Given its continued and repeated presence, we should ask ourselves, aren’t anger and rage, with destruction and arson, precisely an expression of a lack of civic solidarity? Isn’t this violence indicating that there can be no balance and harmony, if there is no «urban» justice?

These violent confrontations demonstrate the constitution of different status of rights in the urban framework. And what is most worrying is not these occasional outbreaks, despite the damage they inflict on the city, but the permanent inequalities. These are the ones that end up generating different cities within the same city, and the overlapping cities are the niches of the very serious insecurity suffered by certain cities.

Insecurity, and the fear of traveling within a city, destroys the very essence of the city. A city, however important and powerful it may be, cannot forsake the equality and justice that guarantee a balanced city.


The second principle that characterizes the city, and in particular a big city, is creativity. In urban management, an equally important objective to that of civic solidarity is that of promoting creativity. This human quality allows for the design of all kinds of cultural, economic or social manifestations that mean more or less essential changes in the way of living, feeling and enjoying the city. Creativity is, by definition, ethical and at the same time aesthetic. Moreover, I would say that it is fundamentally ethical because it is aesthetic.

Creativity is that intrinsic human quality that allows the human being to modify, change, and evolve. It allows him to invent and reinvent himself; this is increasingly demonstrated and occurs above all in cities, and especially in large cities. Some have said that they precisely gather this «creative class.» If only in statistical terms given the concentrated population, one would have to agree.

That is why I say that creativity is ethical insofar as it seeks those behaviours that demand change and, ultimately, the improvement of living conditions in the city.

Creativity is also, and in a very singular way, pure aesthetics. It seeks to generate beauty, and people need beauty. Cities also demand it.

Beauty is that quality or attribute which inspires emotion and pleasure in us, while broadening our capacity for perception.

Cities have always been, and continue to be, an inspiration for both the search for, and expression of, beauty. We all know places, buildings or spaces in our cities that architects, town planners or builders, both of the monumental and of the everyday, knew how to make very beautiful. They are references and contribute to promoting creativity, from historical or modern parks to the most mundane of street corners, embellished with works of urban artists.

In continuous artistic fomentation, the ephemeral art is incorporated. It can be a contribution to the aesthetic content of the constantly evolving city. In 2018 in Madrid, almost overnight, sidewalks were filled with poems by the citizens themselves. More than 20,000 Madrid residents sent in their poems as an authentic expression of ephemeral art. There they remain, undergoing the constant footsteps, and readings, of passer bys.

Even in confinement, which the pandemic has forced upon us, creativity and its capacity to generate beauty have been at the front lines.

Madrid is a city full of balconies, as part of traditional architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries that understood their importance, along with terraces. Later and at the close of the 20th century, there was a setback, as less were built and terraces were closed. This meant that the lovely custom of filling them with plants was largely abandoned.

Confinement has rediscovered balconies and their role in Madrid. From them, health care workers have been applauded, there has been singing and dancing that overcame discouragement, or banging pots and pans in protest of the government. They have become so prominent that specific furniture has been built for them, including minimalist yet cheerful tables designed to anchor to the railings.

But creativity as an essential quality allows people to imagine a better world, and only by imagining it does it begin to be possible. However, special ingredients that serve as its oxygen are essential to make it possible: freedom and tolerance. Without them, creativity is exhausted. It shrinks and dies, like those plants you forget to water.

The city, in its continuous evolution, must reinvent itself, overflowing with creativity. Only by relying on creativity will we be able to imagine the new reality, which will be born later on temporarily, as a partial overcoming of this terrible pandemic, and as a response to it. We will have to take advantage of this situation, which still carries concerns and limitations. If we manage to overcome it, real reinvention will come, for the better. We will conquer the social and municipal weaknesses that this pandemic has revealed to us.

In the face of potential change and innovation, this has to be the attitude with which the citizenry undertakes and encourages the outpour of imagination yet to come. Creative imagination to contemplate how to redesign free cities, without fear of disease, insecurity or the wrath of those unable to enjoy the city, those who we will fight hard for so that they can enjoy it, too.


And finally, the third concept, participation. It goes beyond just a principle. It is the overarching principle of all the other principles and concepts. The city has to be managed by everyone. There can be no city without participation.

The need for participation has been advocated in all social discourses, at least in the past 25 years. And it is logical that, once the need has been recognized, how to structure it remains a constant challenge. The essence of the city functions poorly with vertical hierarchies, which limit the potential management capacity of each and every citizen.

If the city and its citizens do not embrace the principle of civic solidarity, we will not be able to maintain a healthy city. If there was any doubt in this regard, the current pandemic now proves it.

When we speak of participation, however, what do we mean? What does citizen participation in the city mean? Without a doubt, it is based on the need to listen to the community and to take them into account everything that affects their neighbourhoods. But what about everything that affects the city’s projects overall? Should the decisions of the municipal administration be subject to community criteria? And if so, which ones?

What about management and purely municipal activity? Should participation be considered as something within the public-private cooperation space, with public-social participation in the construction of the city?

The pandemic experienced obligatory confinement has revealed an important quality among Madrid’s citizens. I believe that it has shown a responsible and creative civil society-spontaneous creativity and solidarity at all levels. This took the form of recreational and creative activity from and on the balconies, as well as help and care, in several ways.

The applause at eight o’clock each evening was moving, which many of us still participate in today, 90 days later. It is a way of taking care of, as well as paying homage to, those who take care of us.

Well, yes, the citizens have responded. However, a lack of connection with representatives and authorities has also become evident. Something is not working in institutional representative structures. Something seems to be broken.

The fundamental task of mayors is to manage a plurality of interests and initiatives. They have to lead, they have to govern their cities, on behalf of everyone. And they have to do it as if they were conducting an orchestra, as I like to say. But given this simile, how should the orchestra be organised, how can it be ensured all instruments are present and, ultimately, what music are we going to play?

A few months before my term at the City Council came to a close, we had established an institution that I understand has to be one of the new forms of citizen participation. One more to be added to the existing ones. It is the «representation by drawing lots.»

In mid 2019 we created a new body for participation in citizen management. It was made up of almost 50 citizens chosen by drawing lots. With the necessary statistical weightings, by social group, age and residence, they aimed to reproduce as faithfully as possible a very complete universe of the different citizens of Madrid. The aim was to ensure that the sample was not «contaminated» by political or religious prejudices.

Only a few initial meetings could be held, but the truth is that they proved to be very interesting. The spontaneous responses of the citizens were noted. Sensitivities and opinions to be taken into account.

Photo_ Irene López Alonso_ Zebra crossing in the Puerta Cerrada Park, Madrid, January 2019

We cannot ignore the fact that at this time and due to a series of complex circumstances, institutional democracy is not going through its best moments. Perhaps the explanation for all this has to do with the fact that representative participation is still very much anchored in the structures of political parties, which do not respond to alternatives of action that could be demanded today in the cities and, more generally, in the changing society. Political parties have not evolved. Once they have become electoral platforms, it is doubtful that they will respond to the demands of a plural and changing society.

The political parties, instead of becoming the crucible of ideas for the collective from their own and different points of view, have become stagnant in the dry settlement of the alleged ideologies. Simplism, if not hatred, has become their usual expression.

Political representation seems to have forgotten that the essence of politics cannot be other than to improve the life of all. I am a lawyer and I know that the law, from time immemorial, when it wanted to give clear criteria for good management, alluded to that of «like the good father of a family.»

Well, now, in the new world that will undoubtedly come after this calamity, we must insist on how to build and strengthen our city. Solidarity, creativity and participation will continue to be useful principles and criteria for the care of what is ours, of what is collective. But we cannot forget that throughout the evolution of the world those of us who have been experts in caring have been women. For this reason, given the evidence of the protagonism of the so-called feminist culture, we should say that we should take care of our cities as «mothers of families» know how to do.