A European network of rebel cities?

by Beppe Caccia, June 07 2016.

Ada Colau – the radical mayor of Barcelona. 
PA images/Emilio Morenatti. All rights reserved

In Europe, it is the cities that once again lead the way as places of
radical innovation and democratic renewal – and provide answers to the
challenges we face in our continent.

Since the late Middle Ages, cities in Europe
have played a crucial role as places of production, craft, artistic and
cultural creation, as nodes of extensive trade networks, and as spaces of
individual and collective liberation from previous constrains of servitude.

Urban development has, since then, accompanied historical progresses in our
continent. And cities are, at the same time, the stage and the main actor in
any process of economic, cultural and societal transformation.

In recent decades, after the end of the
Fordist production model, new forms of work organisation – diffused, immaterial
and networked, – as well as the increasing financialisation of the economy that
has led to land and real estate speculation, have again profoundly altered the
nature, role and function of European cities.

The combination of these processes has
generated new contradictions, dramatic unbalances and growing inequalities.
Which have been exacerbated by the management of the crisis in the last eight
years and by the consequences of austerity policies.

But, at the same time,
cities are the scene of resistance and innovation, often in terms of
spontaneous ruptures: the place where social protests erupt and mutual cooperation
unfolds, where street mobilisations and processes of cultural creation and
productive innovation emerge.
The European Commission itself has recently
stressed the leading role of cities and metropolitan areas and the need for
stronger coordination and exchange between them. More than 70% of Europeans
live in urban areas, where 75% of energy consumption and 80% of emissions are
also concentrated, placing them at the core of the environmental crisis. 

Such considerations are even more important
facing the legitimacy crisis of EU institutions and of nation-states. Precisely
in such a critical context, cities – as was the case in crucial moments of
transition in European history – can play again a leading role. They could be
places of radical innovation in politics, spaces of actual reinvention of
democracy. And in this way they could provide answers to major challenges of
our contemporary world.

A long “municipalist” tradition is
waiting to be rediscovered. This tradition seems today to relive in the experiences
of new governments “of change.” Most will know the “Plataformas
ciudadanas” – civic platforms born from the 15M movements that have filled the
squares of the Iberian Peninsula from 2011, and that won in the local elections
of May 2015 in some of the most important cities in the Spanish State, starting
from the election of Ada Colau as mayor of Barcelona, ​​Manuela Carmena in
Madrid and then Valencia, A Coruna, Zaragoza and many more.

In this first year of government such cities
have already introduced important innovations in local government. They
focussed on transparency and on returning to citizens direct participation to
the decision-making process. They chose to invest more resources in new welfare
policies so as to counter the advance of mass impoverishment generated by the

They intervened in urban planning, initiating housing policies more
favourable to low-income residents. They have set up programs supporting a
fairer and inclusive social economy, by changing the rules of local tenders and
procurements. They are trying to “re-municipalise” essential local public
services, after the privatisation spree of recent years.

They decided, even in
contrast to national and European policies, to welcome refugees. 

And, on a
national level, they are organising in a state-level network of “ciudades del
cambio,” cities of change.

What is happening in the Iberian Peninsula is
the spearhead, both from a symbolic and a material point of view, of a
“new municipalism” that is trying to reinvent democratic practices from
the local dimension.

But it is equally true that the whole map of Europe is
dotted with cases of already established or embryonic initiatives, which are
testing new possible relationships between citizenship and local institutions,
searching for creative answers to the challenges of urban development and
social coexistence. 

In this spirit, six months
ago European Alternatives launched an early-mapping work on European scale of
the “cities of change”, i.e. those cases where the initiative from
below of active citizenship meets with innovative experiences of local
governments. The first results are showing a field much wider than expected. In
the North as in the South. In the East as in the West.

Here we can mention only
a few examples: the cities of Birmingham and Bristol in the UK; the Land of
Thuringia in Germany; a Mediterranean metropolis like Naples and a city at the
foot of the Alps as Grenoble; many municipal governments and two regional
administrations, those of Attica and the Ionian Islands, in Greece; Polish
towns such as Wadowice and Slupsk.

Some of these first results were presented
on May 19th in Naples in  a first meeting together with Barcelona en Comù, which is currently conducting
a search for similar experiences. 

But we cannot stop at a simple, albeit
necessary, photographic reconnaissance of what is existing. The experience of
the last year has highlighted the limits and contradictions even of these
alternative realities. The life of every territory is conditioned by huge
interests, crossed by economic and financial flows that are out of local
democratic control. 

The same relations between active citizenship and local
governments often prove to be problematic. And legal and institutional
constraints by higher levels, national and European, severely limit the range
of action of even the most innovative municipal or regional administration. 

To prevent these problems inhibiting any real
change, we think that two parallel streets need to be crossed and intertwined.
First of all, organising the permanent exchange between these innovative local
experiences as mutual learning ground: the transfer of knowledge of single
projects, or single civic participation models experienced by this or that
city, can help to address and to resolve challenges and to adapt and improve
practices already in place. 

Secondly, the construction
and development on a European level of networks between the “cities for
change” can be decisive in increasing the potential of intervention and
political pressure on national governments and European institutions. It can
affirm a real protagonism of the communities and local governments in political
decisions that affect them.

In this perspective, the interaction with
transnational movements and various initiatives “for democracy in
Europe” (DiEM25, among others) is necessarily required. An example come
from the recent meeting of Local Authorities against TTIP, held on April 21 and 22 in Barcelona, and that
concluded with a strong claim to the European Commission signed by hundreds of

European Alternatives is now strongly
committed to these goals. Because we share the thought of Lewis Mumford on the
equivalence between the destiny of cities and the destiny of Europe, of which
cities are constitutive and original elements. And in these turbulent times, a
network of cities of change might just bring the rebelliousness needed to shift
the fate of this continent. 

SOURCE: Open democracy