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Urban Policies in Barcelona

Barcelona is the capital city of the autonomous region of Catalonia, the second largest city of Spain and an important economic dynamo with high concentrations of wealth and sharp socio-economic inequalities. Following the creation of Spain’s contemporary local democratic institutions in the late 1970s, the city underwent an ambitious urban restructuring programme that sought to decentralise local state institutions and open them up to civil society, with the aim to reduce inequalities as well as improve and extend welfare provision and public services (Blakeley 2005; Garcia 2008). This governance model relied on mechanisms of participation from a range of local actors, generally organised social and private stakeholders, but under highly hierarchical public sector leadership (Capel 2007, cited in Eizaguirre et al. 2017). By 1986 this approach had translated into regulations establishing a series of participatory initiatives (i.e., public hearings; petitions; right to information) and sectoral and territorially differentiated advisory councils, which played an important role, particularly in social policy (Blakeley 2005: 151; Blanco 2009: 360).” (Bua and Bussu, 2021, p. 7)

New municipalism in Barcelona has been tightly associated with the rise to power of Barcelona en Comu. Nevertheless, it carries its own internal conflicts, negotiations and reformulations that take place when theoretical, activist and institutional approaches and practices towards politics and social life come together. The transformative aspect of municipalism advocated (at least in the beginning) by BeC aimed to go beyond issues of representation, transparency and advisory participation and to open the institutions and apparatuses of the local state to residents, citizens and local movements; to overcome “this exclusionary disjuncture between state-centric politics and autonomous politics” (Mauro Castro Coma and Laia Forné Aguirre, 2021)

. … More complicated and realistic than idealizing autonomy as self-constitution of the poor and pure self-management, is to assume that there is no outside of the state and the capitalist market and that emancipatory politics must enter into a continuous relationship and conflict with both spheres.

New municipalism becomes the governance paradigm / influence in Barcelona with Barcelona en Comu (BeC) coming to power, illustrating the platform approach to political parties and urban governance. Ada Colau and many of BeC councillors came from the social movements and continued to try to keep relations and communication with movements and grassroots organizations (Zechner, 2020). Widened participation at different stages and by individuals as well as by representatives was pivotal for developing BeC programme and policies, and a great number of proposals were developed by citizens through platforms and assemblies (Bua and Bussu 2021). Besides participation, BeC programme entailed policies and projects for defencing and promoting the commons, for re-municipalizing public services, for promoting solidarity economy and cooperativism and to defend social rights and particularly housing (Martinez 2019; Roth et al. 2019; Blanco et al. 2020; Bua and Bussu, 2021, p. 10). However, the crisis conjuncture together with other political interests prevented more radical and extensive changes since the prioritization of debt repayment meant that local authorities’s surpluses should be used for that purpose and austerity facilitated the centralization of certain services and decision-making powers (Blanco et al. 2020).” (Bua and Bussu, 2021, p. 15).

The main aspects of new or platform municipalism as envisaged and implemented by Barcelona en Comu focused on broad-based participation and dialogue (through different forms and formats) and on changing the public-private partnerships promoted and established by neoliberal entrepreneurial agendas into public – commons/cooperative partnerships that would safeguard the commons and would protect (or promote the protection of) social rights (as the names of the new departments also illustrate).

In line with new municipal approaches, the commons feature prominently in BeC discourses, politics and programmes and this implied both greater access to decision-making (especially from civil society, associations and movements) and self-management of resources and services (Bianchi, 2022:2); “creating institutions of the commons” (ibid; Dardot and Laval, 2015) albeit the extent of their autonomy or co-optation is debateable. In this context, the policies and examples of Partimonio Ciudadano and of housing rights and cooperative act as paradigmatic cases for the politics of BeC and the challenges that unavoidably entail.

Urban Policies Overview
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