How new municipalism shapes public participation: the Summit of Fearless cities

Laura Colini

By Laura Colini, on August 31st, 2017

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Nature is intelligence, diversity, and self-organisation. Municipalism is self-organisation at the level of cities.” Vandana Shiva at Fearless cities.

Barcelona organised Fearless Cities, the first worldwide municipalist summit, in June 2017. The event brought together the voices of mayors, councillors and activists who engage in transforming city administrations through coalitions of civic activism. Their approaches pose new questions around the role of citizen participation and ask what role cities can take against neoliberal processes, beyond the power of nation-states. The municipalist debate is particularly relevant to the URBACT programme, because it has been engaged over the years in creating new spaces for civic engagement in the decision making processes at city level.

With the support of URBACT, I was privileged to be among the 600 people from 180 cities, 60 countries and five continents (plus 170 volunteers who helped organise the summit) that created Fearless Cities. The three-day event brought together those who believed that cities should reclaim a voice from mainstream debates dominated by the politics of fear. In the words of Andrea Reimer, Councilor of Vancouver, in her plenary speech, the event aimed to show “what governments can do if they start from below”. The aim is to organise an international municipalist movement for change that can challenge right-wing populism, xenophobic discourses, austerity, dispossession, ecocides, and economically unfair and neoliberalised powers.

The initiative was launched by Barcelona en Comu, a citizens’ platform that is represented in the municipality of Barcelona by Mayor Ada Colau, who was formerly active in PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) for the rights of those affected by the mortgage crisis.[Colau A. and Alemany A. (2012) Mortgaged Lives Foreword by Gerardo Pisarello and José Coy, English Translation by Michelle Teran ]. Spain’s administrative elections of May 2015 marked an era of new municipalism, with the mayors of Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Saragoza and La Coruna supported by citizens’ platforms (known as “Plataformas ciudadanas”). However, municipalism is not new, in Spain it has roots in the federalist ideas of the libertarian socialist Francesc Pi i Margall 1863 [Francisco Pi i Margall, Las nacionalidades. Escritos y discursos sobre federalismo (Ramón Máiz Ed.), Editorial Akal, Madrid 2009]. Other experiments around municaìpalism were born at the beginning of the 2000s in Italy with the “Charter of New Municipium”, an agreement for democracy and local self-sustainable development signed by several Italian mayors (Magnaghi A. 2005 The urban village: a charter for democracy and local self-sustainable development). But the key inspiration for this new wave of municipalism is the work of Murray Bookchin who spent his life articulating the emancipatory form of “libertarian municipalism”. Murray believed in a social system based on ecology and structured around communes and confederated municipalities beyond the power of the state. He described it as “nonhierarchical ethics of a unity of diversity, self-formation and self-management, complementarity and mutual aid” (Bookchin:166).

Today, the novelty of this neo-municipalism is that public participation is not intended as a piecemeal approach to the design of a square, the re-use of a building or a collective regeneration of an urban area. Municipalism is a new way of governing cities and radicalising democracy, making city councils accountable to progressive citizens’ constituencies and social movements. At the basis is the concept and practice that everyone should be able to enter the political public sphere, no matter their gender, age, race, status, time availability or knowledge. Nobody should be marginalised, and co-responsibility should be fostered and facilitated among citizens who are experts in the territory. Among the changes in order to achieve this, “feminisation of politics is necessary” according to Laura Perez Councillor in the municipality of Barcelona.

The results are certainly interesting, and potent examples of this radical democratic experiment exist across Europe with neo-municipalist administrations in Italy such as Messina, Napoli, and RCGE in Grenoble and others. These governments all use the lens of social, economic and environmental rights-based arguments in every sector of public policies.

The Summit of Fearless Cities shed light on new municipalism across the world in all its forms. From American cities networking to fight against Trump ; to sanctuary cities organising resistance against unfair imposition of federal laws and those protecting undocumented residents against deportation by setting up local strategies such as ID schemes for undocumented immigrants; or the people’s assembly in Jackson Mississippi. In South America there are also municipalist experiences in Valparaiso, Chile and Rosario, Argentina.


Possibly the most impressive expression of municipalism is told by the voice of Sinam Mohamad, from Rojava in Northern Syria during one of the plenary speeches: “We in Rojava have built decentralised, democratic self-rule in an extremely difficult situation. […]Economic embargo, besieged, terrorist attacks, chauvinist mentalities… In spite of all this, we built our municipalism”.

Within the EU, the URBACT programme is supporting cities in using an integrated approach to design economic, social and environmental policies for sustainable urban development. One may question: why might municipalism make sense for URBACT cities too?

Here I borrow the words of Debbie Bookchin, daughter of activists Beatrice and Murray Bookchin, speaking at the Fearless plenary: “All ecological problems are social problems. We can’t address ecological problems without resolving our addiction to domination and hierarchy. We need to fundamentally alter our social relations. How do we bring an egalitarian society into being? The municipality is a logical arena to start.

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