Travelling from London to Barcelona by super-fast train offers a good opportunity to consider the relationship between investment in infrastructure and how well cities are doing. Today, thanks to the TGV, the trip takes a little over nine hours, with changes in Paris and the Spanish borders, and offers a relaxing alternative to taking the plane. But it is also transforming provincial cities that were once considered poor relations of their capitals. Young people go to university and then stay on because the cities are cheaper, and offer a better quality of life. In turn this encourages knowledge based firms to expand in the provinces, the classic example being Montpellier, with its dynamic science parks.
Ambitious Mayors get re-elected by producing changes everyone can see. So high quality public transit systems and pedestrianized streets and squares draw people into the historic centres, and boost the appeal of living there. Rising property prices in turn attracts private investment, and in due course the investment in public transport and the public realm is reimbursed from rising land values. The key, of course, lies in a taxation system that rewards public investment rather than private consumption. By giving cities more control over taxes, spatial inequalities have been reduced. In the process, jobs are created not just in local services, such as bars and restaurants, but also in the firms that make the equipment, and in ongoing maintenance.
Paradoxically Spain, which surveys show has some of the happiest people in Europe, also has one of the highest unemployment rates. Even in the poor and arid region of Estremadura there are few signs of an economic depression, except in the smaller and more remote towns where shops are vacant, and property is harder to sell. Also funding for infrastructure projects has been slashed, with unfinished high speed lines to Portugal, and between France and Spain, where the local and regional authorities have other priorities. Today there are very few beggars or rough sleepers, though a waiter in Madrid told me that the restaurant where he worked had taken on three fewer staff on the grounds the business no longer could afford them. Perhaps young people are simply spending more time at home with their parents?
Overall, in the forty years after Franco, Spanish cities have clearly recovered their ancient pride and vitality, and the resultant boost to wellbeing is tangible. Good wine and food are relatively inexpensive, and the weather helps. Furthermore, though debts may have been incurred, the well-patronised trains and renewable energy systems are a lasting investment, unlike buying expensive cars or ramping up house prices. By building housing at high densities around the historic centres, the disparities between rich and poor are being minimised. Perhaps if our cities embraced Continental lifestyles, we would share the benefits of the much maligned European Union?