Change that comes from the cities.

Daphne Büllesbach

Daphne Büllesbach

Since the Midde Ages, urban development has accompanied historical progress on our continent. Cities are simultaneously stage and main actor in any process of economic, cultural and social transformation. New modes of production and work organisation or the increasing land and real estate speculation are fundamentally urban phenomena. These processes generated new contradictions and imbalances often exacerbated by austerity policies. Reactions to these processes have made cities places of resistance and innovation.

The European Commission (EC) 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 concentrated, placing the cities at the core of the challenge to manage the world’s resources sustainably and climate-friendly.

Such considerations are even more important when considering the legitimacy and agency crisis of EU institutions and of nation-states for dealing with these global challenges. Precisely in such a critical context, cities — as was the case in crucial moments of transition in European history — can play a leading role again. They can be places of actual reinvention of democracy by taking advantage of the relative proximity to citizens and direct involvement in decision-makings. Thereby they can provide citizens-led answers to major challenges of our contemporary world, acknowledging that of course also other levels of governance, regional or supranational, need to contribute in bringing solutions to the table.

Governments of change

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. These new municipal governments in Spain are, in essence, one of the most important achievements in urban struggles for democracy and social justice.

In just two years in office, the new governments in these cities have introduced important innovations in local governments. They focused on strengthening transparency and on returning to citizens’ direct participation in the decision-making process, e.g. in Madrid through the digital platform Decide Madrid. They chose to invest more resources in new welfare policies to counter the advancing mass impoverishment generated by the crisis. For instance, they intervened in urban planning, initiating housing policies more favourable to low-income residents. They have set up programs supporting a fairer and more inclusive social economy by changing the rules of local tenders and procurements to be oriented towards social interest and the Commons rather then purely economic considerations. These processes are not only happening in Spain; we have also seen cities such as Naples in Italy “re-municipalising” essential local public services such as water or energy grids.

Cities of refuge

In contrast to national and European policies many cities are welcoming refugees. This is an active engagement from the part of those cities to go beyond the ‚lack of solidarity’ debate on the level of national governments in Europe and the shameful number of 9000 reallocated refugees from Turkey and Greece since the EU- Turkey deal promised 120,000 refugees to be reallocated. Gdansk, Thessaloniki, Napels, Grenoble and many more cities are proposing themselves as shelter cities and want to bring refugees and newcomers to their homes, motivations are both humanistic or value driven as they are based on economical and demographical considerations in ageing societies. The most striking initiative in its concreteness and feasibility is led by Gesine Schwan in partnership with various cities, f.i. Gdansk in Poland. She advocates for a direct financing mechanism to be implemented by the EC to directly support cities with the economic integration and sustainable social and cultural inclusion of refugees.

Beyond the nation states

“We, the cities have the knowledge, the value of proximity and the strength of collective intelligence to address these global problems.” This is how the three female mayors of Barcelona, Madrid and Paris, spoke at the UN Habitat Conference in Quito, which also brought about the New Urban Agenda. They urge that financial resources and real powers — to address challenges such as growing social inequalities, threat of climate change and welcoming of people fleeing from wars, persecutions and misery — should not be in the hands of the nation states, but in those of cities.

It is not surprising that today we are speaking of “rebel cities”, using political economist David Harvey’s formula: in Southern Europe (but not only, as our mapping work shows), an alternative government policy at local level marks a possible path for the struggles against austerity, social “precarisation” and mass-impoverishment. And it also turns out to be an effective antidote to the aggressive growth of the populist and nationalist Right, such as the Front National, the AfD, the Polish Pis Party or the 5 stars movement, which are the dangerous European declinations of US-style “Trumpism”.


Daphne Büllesbach is the Executive Director of European Alternatives, a Europe-wide civil society organization devoted to exploring and developing the potential for transnational politics and culture. She founded the Berlin office back in 2013 and leads the organisations’ flagship event, Transeuropa Festival. The bi-annual event takes place in Madrid in 2017 and brings together activists and artists debating issues such as the refugee situation, management of the commons or the seizure of institutions by new political forces. She is a member of the board of Institut Solidarische Moderne in Germany and the cultural association Zemos98 in Spain. In May 2017, her co-edited book: Shifting Baselines of Europe was published by transcript in Germany.