©Lucrezia Carnelos

Barcelona finds the key to happiness: time

Time: one of the most treasured yet scarcer commodities of the 21st century.

The combination of packed work schedules and personal chores is a significant source of stress the world over. “I don’t have the time,” often uttered breathlessly in-between tasks, is an all too familiar refrain.

Our main mission is to promote a better organization of time in order to foster a healthier, more efficient and more equal society
— Sonia Ruiz, Barcelona's Gender and Time Policies Director

Yet, the Barcelona municipality is convinced that a new approach to time is possible, one that encourages citizens’ wellbeing and a higher quality of life.

A trailblazer in Europe, the Catalan city has been adopting revolutionary time-use policies since 2003. The idea is that time is, first and foremost, a right for all citizens and that everyone should be able to reconcile work and personal life.

Sonia Ruiz, Barcelona’s Gender and Time Policies director.

“Our main mission is to promote a better organization of time in order to foster a healthier, more efficient and more equal society,” says Sonia Ruiz, Gender and Time Policies director at the Barcelona City Council.

Under the slogan ‘Barcelona, city of time and people’, the municipality has been challenging job-centred schedules to help citizens find a better work/life balance.

The aim is to allow people to devote more hours to leisure, family and social activities.

“Barcelona was one of the first European cities and certainly the first in Spain to promote time-use policies. The request for a time revision was initially driven by feminist and social movements and eventually integrated into the city’s policy agenda,” explains Ruiz, who leads Barcelona’s time policies along with Sara Berbel, the city manager .

This sweeping reform has been unfolding through some 70 programmes: from time banks to extended municipal service hours to policies for overwhelmed caregivers and single mothers.

©Vitor Monteiro
A view of the colourful Catalan city

Borrowing time at the bank

Since my mother started to live with us, my hours have changed but thanks to remote assistance I have time for myself
— Maria, Barcelona resident

For many, time is often as scarce as money so one of the city’s first steps was the introduction of ‘Time Banks’ where people can deposit and receive back hours of services devoted to the community.

Reading books to children or helping them with homework, caring for the sick, looking after pets and plants when homeowners are away, taking the elderly for a walk, carrying out home repair works are some of the activities that can be performed and deposited at Barcelona’s Time Banks. In return, the person performing hours of voluntary work will receive similar services from other participants.

The scheme introduces a new type of social exchange to meet the demands of residents of all ages. It helps many break the cycle of isolation and fosters a new type of cooperation, with time as the new currency.

Solidarity is central to Barcelona’s time reform. It implies an understanding that certain categories of citizens are engaged in a particularly fierce battle with time, one that sees them consistently losing.

Since 2008, several programs have been targetting one of the most time deprived members of society: caregiving families.

Thanks to the ‘Time for you service’, for instance, professionals carry out leisure activities and games with people with special needs of different ages, releasing the pressure on family members.

Other initiatives have been offering much needed respite to residents looking after aging parents, helping people like 67-year-old Maria to regain some personal space.

“Since my mother started to live with us, my hours have changed but thanks to remote assistance I have time for myself. Whenever I’m not at home, she can contact the assistance services in case of any problems and I can do my own things, like swimming in my neighborhood’s sport centre,” Maria explains.

©Theodor Vasile Barcelona at night

In the library at midnight

Other projects have a wider impact on Barcelona residents of all ages, stretching public services’ hours to make them accessible to people who are otherwise busy during the day.

The 2020 ‘Libraries and Timetables’ programme, for example, extends local libraries’ schedules to the late evening, to the delight of residents like 21-year-old Marco: “The opening times of my neighborhood library are perfect for me. The night rooms are accessible until 1:00 in the morning. I can practice my conversational skills in English in a group and I can connect my computer to the library’s wifi. There’s a night bus stop near the library and I can also go back home by metro,” he says.

Digital technologies are also lending a helping hand. The city’s ‘Save time with online procedures’ initiative reduces the hours citizens devote to bureaucracy and helps to avoid time-consuming trips to municipal offices.

Self-service kiosks and online application procedures facilitate residents with hectic schedules like 36-year-old Azra.

“I’ve had to fill a lot of paperwork so that my family in Peru could join me here. Since I work far away from home, I was able to find the information I needed on the Barcelona Municipality website. Thanks to this system, I was able to take care of the forms during my free time on Saturdays,” Azra says.

A new type of poverty: time deprivation

In modern days, individuals spend an increasing amount of time at work, to the detriment of their private lives. This deficit has created a new category of deprivation: time poverty.

All single mothers have one thing in common: they might enjoy a stable economic situation or have a good job but they’re all poor in time
— Sonia Ruiz, Barcelona's Gender and Time Policies Director

It affects people who have enough money and who can’t be technically considered poor but only because they spend long hours at the workplace, Barcelona city officials say.

Time deprivation weighs more heavily on women than men and one of the goals of Barcelona’s time reform is to address this gender disparity.

“Lack of time fosters inequalities that affect people differently depending on their class, age and especially gender. All single mothers, for instance, have one thing in common: they might enjoy a stable economic situation or have a good job but they’re all poor in time,” Ruiz says.

Gender-related time poverty is an all-too-common problem around the world, studies show. The ‘Guide on Poverty Measurement’ of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), for instance, illustrates a penalising time deficit just around the corner from the European Union’s borders.

Turkey stands out in the charts, with a time poverty rate among full-time working women of 70% versus men’s 37%. UNECE data also highlight peaks in Albania and Serbia where women “perform more than twice as much unpaid labour as men.”

©Mosa Moseneke
Children playing at a square in Barcelona

Any help a parent can get

In Spain, the Covid-19 pandemic exasperated gender imbalances. “With the 2020 lockdown schools remained closed for months, placing an extra burden on families and especially single mothers, who make up over 80% of single parents,” says Ruiz.

The emergency has prompted Barcelona to come to the rescue by devising programmes like ‘Concilia’, ‘Reconcile’.

“The project offers free childcare services to people who need to go to work or to run errands and who don’t have anyone looking after their children. It started in October 2020 in seven of the city’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods and it will now be expanded to an additional five. It proved to be a great help for single mothers, but everyone else can use it,” the Gender and Time Policies director says.

A similar set of initiatives targets time-deprived parents of both genders. Projects like the 2005 ‘Open Schoolyards’ extend playgrounds and public spaces’ openings outside of school hours so that parents like 39-year-old Ramon can hang out with their children on their days off. “My daughter and I go to the school playground which remains open on Saturdays,” he says.

Health consequences

In Barcelona, the reshuffling of hours and services is propped up by the idea that a better organisation of time has a direct, positive impact on people’s health and overall wellbeing. The recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine have illustriously emphasized how disturbances to the body’s internal clock have a direct link with diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and mental dysfunctions.

“The issue is particularly relevant in Spain where meals and social activities are pushed forward in the day, setting in motion mind and body disruptions,” Ruiz says.

“In Spain we tend to eat our lunches very late during the day, at around 14:00 or even 15:00. We also have late dinners and go to bed very late which causes disturbances to our body rhythms. This is why we’ve created a series of programmes on local television to raise awareness about the connection between time management and health. This tv campaign encourages residents to embrace a healthier time schedule by, for instance, moving up their lunch and dinner times,” she adds.

Exporting the time-reform model

In later years, Barcelona has broadened its time revolution by inviting others to join in.

The 2011 Time Pact now includes 131 businesses and some 240 civil society organisations in Barcelona, from health to trade unions to women’s to community-based organisations.

In addition, the municipality awards and offers grants to local businesses that show a commitment to the work/life balance of their employees by adopting measures such as avoiding work on rest days, cutting the number of work meetings or guaranteeing the right to digital disconnection.

The city’s latest efforts are concentrated on further extending the reach of its time-related interventions.

In recent years, the Barcelona Time Use Initiative has been aiming at exporting the time revolution’s know-how and best practices beyond the local and national confines.

The new Barcelona Declaration on Time Policies is part of this drive. Starting from October, the Catalan city will work in tandem with private and public institutions, organisations and research centres around the world to devise new time solutions for a fairer society at both a European and local level.

Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer