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Fearless Cities: the new urban movements

A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

August 16, 2017
15 min read

Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes

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As dusk sets on a warm June evening in Barcelona, an enthusiastic crowd of activists, young people, pensioners and political tourists settles down to watch a conversation between Ada Colau and Manuela Carmena. The mayors of Barcelona and Madrid were elected as part of a political tide that has swept citizens’ groups with roots in the indignados movement into the government of cities across Spain.

The event marked the start of ‘Fearless Cities’, a gathering of over 700 people, representing dozens of experiments in taking power at city level, to empower citizens’ movements worldwide. More than a coming together of a series of local experiments, it marked the ‘coming out’ party for a new global social movement.

Occupy the institutions

Most Red Pepper readers will have heard how, in June 2015, Barcelona en Comú (BComú) – a citizen-led platform spearheaded by the housing rights activist and feminist Ada Colau – took control of the Catalan capital. Evolving from Spain’s Occupy movement (15M) and powerful solidarity networks such as the Mortgage Victims’ Platform (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, PAH), many of the Spanish indignados felt they had hit the limits of protest. When millions of signatures to abolish Spain’s cruel mortgage repossession laws were ignored, and with corruption and clientelism rife, it became necessary to change who the movement made demands of.

In a story that was echoed in other Spanish cities, from Madrid to A Coruña and Zaragoza, citizens started to wonder what would happen if the movement tried to occupy the institutions too. BComú began by producing a ‘code of ethics’ designed to guard against the institutionalisation of those preparing to run for public office, and undertook a city-wide process of co-authoring an emergency action plan that included measures to halt evictions, fine banks leaving multiple properties empty, and subsidise energy and transport costs for the unemployed and those earning under the minimum wage. From the beginning, this was not a simple return to electoral politics but an experiment in transforming local institutions. It was to use municipal institutions not instead of movement organising but to support, expand and generalise the movement.

Understanding the new municipalism

Although many commentators have focused on Barcelona, activists within BComú have long suggested that ‘the municipal movement must be internationalist’. Only BComú had the global profile needed to call the Fearless Cities gathering, but the new municipalist movement that it is part of is about much more than Barcelona – it’s about the blossoming of examples around the world where citizens are successfully winning their cities.

In early June, Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected as mayor of the state capital and largest city in Mississippi, on the promise of making Jackson ‘the most radical city on the planet’. Lumumba works closely with the civic platform, Cooperation Jackson, that aims to anchor the city’s economy in ‘worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises’. In an otherwise highly conservative Republican state, Jackson is pioneering a strategy for the self-determination of black working class communities.

In Valparaíso, Chile, an Autonomist Movement (Movimeinto de Autonomista) candidate was elected mayor at the head of a coalition of community and neighbourhood associations tired of the corruption of the major parties. In Naples, Italy, Critical Mass (Massa Critica) has forced the mayor to concede legal protection for the commons. In Beirut, Lebanon, the anti-sectarian, anti-establishment Beirut, My City (Beirut Madinati) built a strong neighbourhood organising platform that saw it win around 30 per cent of the vote in the 2016 city council elections. And from Zagreb, Croatia, to New York, the list of radical civic platforms standing up to entrenched political interests continues to grow.

Each of these stories is unique – there is no single ‘model’ of radical municipalist organising. But there are a number of principles and practices that the new municipalist movements share.

Common experiences

The political theorist Margaret Kohn once defined municipalism as ‘a politics of everyday life concerned with the issues that immediately affect citizens, including education, policing, jobs, culture and services. Municipalism is a political approach to community.’

According to Kohn, the experience of Italian municipal socialism in the late 19th and early 20th century built on these foundations by fostering a form of ‘governing through participation’ in associations that blurred the line between the state and civil society. The role of the municipality was to foster associations that challenge concentrations of power in the hands of a small elite. Capturing the city hall was never an end in itself but rather one method in expanding the scope of experiments in popular participation.

While the new municipalist movement shares some of these characteristics, this isn’t history repeating itself. Neither organised from above or coordinated by a central committee, nor fuelled by some shared set of theoretical texts or prefigured programme, the new municipal citizens’ movements have arisen out of the failure of national political parties or street-based organising to deliver transformative change. At the same time, the continued erosion of basic living standards and increasing inequality driven by the myth that there is ‘no alternative’ has increased awareness that revolutionary change extends beyond ‘economics’ to every aspect of our lived experiences.

This provides fertile ground for the development of a progressive post-capitalist politics that can win. As movement-parties negotiate the contradictions and compromises of being on the streets and in the municipal institutions, there will be mistakes and misgivings – and failures. Yet these experiments are forging new paths that cut through many of the traditional divisions that characterise politics – public/private, institution/movement, global/local, bottom-up/top-down, and state/non-state. This new municipalism may be picking-up where the alter-globalisation movement left off, retaining and reinvigorating the concepts of prefiguration, experimenting with ‘diagonal’ methods for dispersing power, and fuelling the expansion of non‑state, non-market ways of organising our societies.

The feminisation of politics

Women are at the forefront of many of these citizens’ movements – reflected at Fearless Cities in a weekend of seminars and workshops where about two-thirds of the contributing panelists were women. Only a few days after the event, the movement-party Future City (Ciudad Futura), based in Rosario, Argentina, announced a 15-strong electoral list for the coming regional elections. All of them are women, including Caren Tepp, one of the group’s current councillors in Rosario. Referring to themselves as the mujeres sin miedo – women without fear – Ciudad Futura typifies the central role women are playing in the new municipalist movement.

As BComú activists Laura Roth and Kate Shea Baird have argued, however, achieving gender equality in institutional representation is only one factor in the feminisation of politics. Swapping the genders of political representatives is insufficient unless coupled with a challenge to the fundamental character of politics itself.

The gathering, hosted by Barcelona En Comú, ‘marked the coming out party for a new global social movement’

The feminisation of politics means expanding the domain of what counts as ‘political’, challenging who does and doesn’t have a right to speak, and moving away from a culture of confrontation to one of collaboration. As Ada Colau suggests, ‘You can be in politics without being a strong, arrogant male, who’s ultra-confident, who knows the answer to everything.’ The feminisation of politics means encouraging a political style that openly expresses doubts and contradictions – backed by a values-based politics that emphasizes the role of community and ‘the commons’. It means being able to ‘be in politics, aiming to win, but with doubts and contradictions, and being able to show this like normal people, and talk about it openly’. This open spirit is at the centre of the new political culture that the new municipalist movements are attempting to build.

The expansion of the commons

‘The commons’ is notoriously hard to define, except by considering what it isn’t. The commons – in contrast to the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ – isn’t simply about who owns and manages resources. Instead, the idea of the commons rejects the claim that we live in a world of resources to be exploited, and demands a radical rethink of how we relate to one another and to the world around us. The commons is much broader than an economic strategy for resource management; it’s about building forms of autonomy and social solidarity as the substance of our day-to-day lives. This is a new front for political organising, and what this means in practice is being experimented with across this movement.

In Messina, Sicily, the movement Cambiamo Messina dal Basso created an institution called the Commons Lab. Through this, citizens have co‑authored the rules for the management of commons, urban gardens and a newly established participatory budget.

In Naples, where the progressive mayor Luigi de Magistris received 65 per cent of the vote in last year’s elections, the administration passed a law designed to identify ‘areas of civic importance ascribed to the category of the commons’, providing the basis for establishing the first Department of the Commons. Most immediately, this process identified seven of Naples’ social centres – the historical backbone of Italian social movements – and legally recognised them as ‘commons’. While some accused the municipal government of legalising the illegal occupation of public buildings, de Magistris defended the move:

‘These are not occupied but liberated spaces. When groups of citizens take them over, clean then, repair them, open them up to the collective with social, sports, or cultural activities, these spaces are returned to the citizenry. They are a new commons and they should be treated as such.’

Can Batlló in Barcelona is another such space, reclaimed by the local community for shared activities and micro-scale businesses. Barcelona City Council is working on a new model of ‘citizen patrimony’, which would formalise and expand a network of spaces across the city where the municipality provides greater resources and public infrastructure for self-managed common use. Ultimately, this could lead to the development of ‘public-common partnerships’, encouraging the expansion of non-state, non-profit entities run by and for citizens, such as day-care centres that – although funded by the local state – are run autonomously.


The collaboration between citizens’ groups, cooperatives and municipalities is also at the heart of many of the attempts to return public services to public ownership. That’s a trend that has escalated, with ‘more than 800 cases of re-municipalisation in recent years, involving over 1,600 cities’ according to Olivier Petitjean, co-editor of a new book on Reclaiming Public Services.

There are many reasons why cities and regions want to take services back under public ownership, but reducing cost (especially for poor people), improving the quality of services, and increasing financial transparency are recurrent themes. Efforts to create better conditions for workers are another key driver. In the energy sector, which accounts for around a third of the cases where services have been returned to public ownership, the shift is often driven by efforts to tackle climate change.

In Stuttgart, for example, the city council remunicipalised the electricity and gas networks in 2014. Its new municipal utility company is now at the centre of a strategy to become a ‘zero emission’ city by 2050 – an ambitious goal for a city of over half a million people that is home to several large manufacturers. The new utility company partnered with a local energy cooperative with a reputation as one of the pioneers of green energy supply in Germany, allowing it to learn from citizens’ initiatives. Taking control of the energy supply also means that the council can better coordinate efforts to reduce energy use.

Elsewhere, too, remunicipalisation is about more than simply a return to the old model of state ownership. On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, private energy companies were replaced by a not-for-profit citizens’ cooperative. The user-owners of the coop set a goal of 50 per cent renewable energy generation by 2023, which may be reached ahead of time – in stark contrast to the fossil fuel-heavy private utilities in many other parts of the USA.

Remunicipalisation has advanced furthest in the water and energy sectors, but it extends across the whole range of tasks that have traditionally been undertaken by local councils, and it has fostered novel forms of collaboration with citizens and workers. A number of French municipalities have taken back control of school meals from corporations to protect local agriculture and improve the quality of meals. In the small city of Mouans-Sartoux in southern France, the municipality bought farmland and now employs a local farmer to provide schools with 100 per cent organic produce.

Remunicipalisation is ultimately about much more than just ownership. The most successful, and innovative cases have given citizens greater control over how services work, with key decisions taken in common rather than imposed on service users.

Redesigning democracy

Increasing citizens’ control is not just about taking over existing institutions, but building new democratic processes that involve citizens in the day-to-day decision making of their cities. Sometimes that means using the local state as a lever to counter national policy failings. Brad Lander, a Progressive Caucus councillor in New York, explains how the city recently set up an Office of Labor Relations to amplify the power of workers in a context where trade unions and labour rights have been under attack for decades. The Office has already helped to settle dozens of labour disputes, and forced employers in the city to provide mandatory sick pay (which US federal law does not require).

In other cases, it involves changing how citizens interact with the city government. In Messina, Sicily, the governing citizens’ platform is creating ‘participatory redevelopment’ plans, with popular assemblies tasked with deciding directly how particular areas are to be redeveloped.

Cities have also embraced the use of new technologies to enhance participation in decision-making. Madrid’s city council uses an open-source software platform (‘Decide Madrid’) to channel citizens’ proposals on how the city should be run. It has already been used to propose and endorse a motion to make public buildings 100 per cent sustainable, and is starting to be used for participatory budgeting.

The municipalities using these online tools are clear that they only work if they are complemented by real-world encounters. ‘After 15M, people wanted more channels for participation,’ explained BComú councillor, Gala Pin, at a Fearless Cities workshop on radical democracy. ‘We adopted a digital platform but are careful to combine that with offline communication, conscious of digital divide.’ The city is also working on a ‘diverse participation’ plan, to encourage participation from people who might otherwise be under-represented, such as migrant women and older people.

All of these new democratic experiments have to walk a tightrope. As Laia Forné, the councillor responsible for active democracy and decentralisation in Barcelona, outlines: ‘Institutions want to produce regulations and static norms… social movements want to create leeway for a changing reality.’ That means building structures that take into account, and work with, conflicts and uncertainties over the future of our cities.

Radical municipalism in the UK

Fearless Cities was a powerful statement of intent – to consolidate a new municipalist movement growing out of various attempts to forge what it means to think globally and act locally. These municipalist projects are beginning to define new ways for progressive movements to organise, challenging and moving beyond dichotomies that have traditionally haunted the left.

One of the key lessons so far is that we shouldn’t despair that we didn’t have ‘our’ 15M movement. A wide range of conditions made these radical municipalist projects possible. As a comrade from Ahora Madrid reminded us, ‘If they can make it happen in Beirut, you can bloody well make it happen in Manchester!’

Another conclusion is that we must be wary of the electoral machine. In every one of the radical citizens’ platforms we encountered, the move into city hall has been a means to an end and not an end in itself. The objective is to use municipal institutions as part of a project of autonomy – to expand the commons, to build non-state institutions and to empower citizens (not their representatives) to control the collective conditions in which they live their lives.

The new municipalism isn’t about winning elections; it’s about building, transforming and distributing power. In the context of a resurgent and refreshingly progressive Labour Party in the UK, we must be particularly careful of mistaking electoral gains for collective power. Nobody will deliver change on our behalf. Nobody will build alternative ways of living, working and sharing for us. We must do it ourselves. It’s time to win back our cities.

Also see: TNI’s open call for stories from Transformative Cities

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes

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