Local government & the commons: the time has come


From Barcelona to Cleveland, from Paris to Belo Horizonte, cities are increasingly questioning the growth machine urbanism of the past 30 years. This new municipalist movement is not about adding social and environmental concerns to a traditional urban agenda; this is a change of the political and economic model.  A model that seeks to redress the failings of liberal economics, by building a more economically and socially just alternative.

In June 2017 the new municipalist movement gathered in Barcelona – a city at the forefront of progressive urban policy – for Fearless Cities, the first international municipalist summit.  Community organisations, city-mayors, councillors and citizens from six continents met to discuss the potential of cities to ‘spur democratic transformation across the world’. The dense three day programme included sessions ranging from remunicipalisation to developing feminist economies, through to bringing radical democracy into the city council.

The commons: the cornerstone of new municipalism

The conceptual cornerstone of new municipalism is a reinvigorated notion of the commons. The commons have been traditionally associated to a fairly limited set of fixed physical resources like pastures, irrigation systems and fishing zones and consequently kept out of the urban policy discourse for many years. Instead, the new municipalist movement draws on an expanded notion of the commons, as proposed by Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler, economic theorist Michel Bauwens and organisations like Commons Transition or the European Commons Assembly.

In this new account, the commons are not specific physical resources, but a way of managing resources of all kinds.  As such, a school, a large enterprise or a waterfront, are conceived as collective properties of communities, which should be controlled by the community and from which the community as a whole should benefit.

The heart of the new municipal agenda across Europe and beyond is about schemes that reintroduce, promote and deepen a community-oriented management of resources. It is a plural agenda, not fixed to one big policy or idea, but one that allows for diversity and coexistence to flourish. Some of the key initiatives and policies of this new agenda include:

  • Establishing ‘collaboration pacts’ and collaborative economy incubators, as in Bologna or Ghent.
  • Development of cooperatives, social enterprises and grounded SME, as done in Barcelona, Cleveland (USA), Jackson (USA) and Preston.
  • Remunicipalisation of public services – including energy provision, water provision and social services – as largely practiced in France, Austria, Germany and Norway.
  • Promotion of self-managed social centres, as in Naples.
  • Community land-trusts to counter gentrification, as in Leeds and Oakland (USA).

An economic and political change of model

Two crucial elements distinguish new municipalism from other approaches to urban development.

  1. A new conception of the local state

The first element is a new conception of the local state. The new municipalist movement conceives the local state as a facilitating institution that empowers, coordinates and up-scales social innovation from community organisation and social enterprises. This conception of the local state – which some now label ‘partner state’ –  is rooted in the acknowledgment that communities can be very effective in self-provisioning cultural/social activities and employment. So, rather than the local state providing local communities with services, new municipalism is about creating the conditions for community organisation to operate and grow.

However, new municipalism is not a process of hollowing out the local state. New municipalism is also about the local state as a municipal enterprise. As such, there is a retained appreciation that foundational goods and services – such as electricity, water provision, public transport and formal schooling – are out of reach for community organisation because of their scale. Therefore, the state should ensure that these goods and services are fairly priced and accessible to all citizens.

  1. A bold rethinking of local economic development

The second key element of new municipalism is a bold rethinking of local economic development. In the new municipal vision, local economic development should be about building an economy that is plural, fair and democratic. Municipalist economic policy breaks with the orthodoxy of corporate investments, large-scale property redevelopments, and mega events. Instead, it focuses on growing public and social economies, i.e. economies that have fairer wages, higher workers’ control and more environmental/social responsibility. This is about building in local wealth through the actual functioning of the economy, not as after-the-fact redistribution.


Faced with ongoing economic, social and environmental problems and crises, it is time to be bold and accelerate innovative ideas.  As the UK remains in the thralls of Brexit, the time is ripe for the local government community to pick up on the new wave of ideas.  CLES continues to advance this new municipalist agenda.  The alternative is here, we now need to amplify and accelerate it.

Luca Calafati is an international intern at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and a PHD candidate at the University of Milano-Biccocca. Neil McInroy is the Chief Executive of CLES.

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