Empowering cities and citizens

This presentation will be dealing with the empowerment of local institutions within a complex context of multilevel governance. The strengthening of cities will lead us to consider a new transformative municipalism. The transition from classic government to relational forms of governance paves the way to consider both emerging multilevel networks and models of citizen involvement at local level. The case of Barcelona today will be shown as an example of boths trends: initiatives of community engagement in urban policymaking, and local-global action at European and international level.  

1.      Strategic local policy regimes
 Within the golden age of the keynesian welfare state (KWS) (1945-1975), two main models of local government were shaped in western Europe. In the Atlantic fringe (from Sweden to Ireland) cities became the executive arms of the major KWS policies, but without any relevant political autonomy. In the central and southern countries, local authorities were provided with community-building and decisionmaking powers, but they remained –with very limited budgets- at the margin of the main urban and social policy areas.  

Over the recent years, these traditional patterns have shifted along two lines. As a common trend, local governments strengthened in both political autonomy and public expenditure levels. All of them have played expanded and more strategic roles in the various paths of urban and KWS restructuring. But this trend has taken place within a simultaneous process of diversification: different local policy regimes can be identified today. Using the worlds of welfare typology (Pierson, Castles, 2007)[1], table 1 shows their principal features on underlying values, policy agendas and management models.      

Table 1. Local regimes in Europe: values, agendas and governance


Urban agenda

Urban governance



Ecological transition




Urban regeneration




Creative /smart city




Open democracy


2.      EU multilevel governance networks
 Multilevel tension within the process of building policy powers has been  a constituent element of European politics. On the one hand the logic of diversity, embedded in different institutional levels and agendas, made the creation of a single EU policymaking state very difficult. On the other hand the logic of European integration, developed on the basis of the traditional model of multi-sectoral policy harmonization, made difficult as well the emergence of new, local policy powers.

However, over the last decades, an innovative view of the subsidiarity principle has opened the way to a scenario of local empowerment within a multilevel governance model, where strategic europeanization of policies not only exclude but even foster the role of cities and municipal networks at every policy field, from urban to social inclusion strategies, from environmental to local economic development.

Table 2. Policymaking systems: level and model of EU Integration

Model of Integration

  Level of




policymaking state



of policy paradigms

of policy aims

In other words, the traditional models of funcional or dual federalism, where local government was pushed to implementation roles or to a marginal agenda are now being replaced by a relational policymaking federalism. A multilevel governance based on policy networks with interdependencies and shared powers, and with expanded and strategic urban agendas. A model which, crucially, does not accept stable and rigid legal frames of powers allocation, but needs to be managed on the grounds of deliberation, learning and open political negotiation.       

Table 3. Emerging multilevel governance networks

Intergovernmental Relations
(Classic patterns)


Dual state model


 Power relations


  Legal Autonomy






 Local Agendas




 Local Roles




3. Better and fairer cities through people policymaking networks
 It is assumed so far that different local regimes have emerged recently in Europe, with expanded agendas and playing strategic roles. Moreover, cities are today working within a relational and open policymaking federalism which brings multilevel networks at the heart of a changing European governance. In this context, the city of Barcelona shows some features that can be useful to illustrate these assumptions.  

Barcelona may be consider a case of latin-mediterranian city and its local policy regime. It is, on the one side, a densely populated place, where the urban functional, cultural and social class mix is quite well preserved across the neighbourhoods. Beyond this, there is a high density of social ties and networks which give communities a sense of identity,  and strong patterns of urban space commoning. It is not, of course, the entire reality. Barcelona is as well a city which receives every year 20 million tourists, and is perceive by global finantial agents as a platform of high profit for property investment. Both things have great impacts: they tend to erode the urban mix, make housing very expensive, and generate gentrification processes. On that basis, how does local government manage to reinforce an urban regime based on citizenship-building values, and to face the risks which may undermine them ?

The new urban agenda establishes the right to the city at the heart of the local regime, which is built through a set of common good policies on the housing, environmental, social and economic dimensions. But is crucial that those policies are to be deliver by a governance system of open policy networks which enable the involvement of residents, communities and their organizations. The challenge is then making policies work not only for citizens but by citizens. This option might be seen as a complex and even inefficient way to reach policy outputs. But there are at least three type of arguments which support the approach. Firstly, an argument of values: people participation in policy networks as a means to deepen democracy; secondly an argument of power: to make effective the right to the city a more democratic power structure is needed, a new balance of power relations that transfers influence from corporate actors to the people; and third, an argument of knowledge and complexity, as we are living in cities of increasing social diversity and shared knowledge, and therefore nobody is able to grasp enough experience or expertise to ensure good policy outputs. Good governance becomes, instead, a set of social learning processes. In summary, citizen involvement in the urban governance arena as a way to deliver more sensible and fairer policies.

Table 4. Policymaking: levels of social and knowledge diversity

Social diversity





  Urban policymaking
  As rational top-down

  Urban policymaking as
  collective negotiation


  Urban policymaking as
  operative experimentation

  Urban policymaking as
  Social learning processes

Which are the real ways to put in practice citizen involvement in urban policymaking? Based on the Barcelona experience, 6 strategies can be listed as governance proposals to empower residents, communities and social organizations.

Empowering by networks of policy coproduction
- Coproduction of urban policies. Coproduction is policymaking in common. It is a step beyond a traditional stakeholder approach to policy networks, and beyond conventional citizen participation. The starting point is that the public is wider than the institutional, it becomes a shared space where partnerships between local state, citizens and community agents may provide new grounds for policymaking. Coproduction may involve a process of participatory budgeting, whereby people codecide priorities and investments; common policy planning on key broad areas (education, social inclusion, mobility or ecological transition); and action networks to implement policies and programmes.      

- Community Development Plans (CDP). It is the area-based dimension of policy coproduction. Barcelona is divided into 73 neighbourhoods. The CDP is the development strategy of each, on the grounds of a communitarian evaluation of needs and potentials, which gives way to a popular planning process on a comprehensive policy approach. So the CDPs are intended to improve the community life with better health, education, care, housing, public space etc; but are intended to do so by enabling the involvement of the people, and by interconnecting policies and actors. Local public services work together with grassroots organizations; and professionals of different policy areas start to bring together resources, actions and aims.  

Empowering by networks of citizen management
- Remunicipalization and democratic management. Over the past decades a strong movement led to urban commodification, that is, the transfer of basic goods to the market. This trend is now on the road to be reversed. But not to go back to a system of bureaucratic provision. Instead, the remunicipalization of services and common goods –from children and home care to energy and water supply- open the way to new forms of cooperative and decentralized public management, open to people engagement and under social and democratic control.   

- Citizen management of centers and urban spaces. Another relevant feature in local policymaking was externalization, the private management of public services, on a competitive contract basis. This trend even reached the network of neighbourhood-based cultural and civic centers, owned by the Council. Recently, the alternative explored to reverse this has consisted of a model of citizen management. It implies the community managing the centers by means of a network of social organizations. They propose a project which is publicly evaluated and it becomes an agreement signed by both sides: local authority and the community network. This model has also been extended to public spaces with non-executed planning provisions (“urban empties”). The overall result is now a pluralist network of public-community parterships running urban, social and cultural projects both on centers and streets: networks for the involvement of citizens in the building of common spaces.

Other forms of empowerment: direct democracy and social innovation
- Local direct democracy tools. Citizen involvement in local decisionmaking is about networks and open deliberation, but is also about the devolution of direct capacity to local residents to make a concrete decision on a city issue through a consultation or a referendum. Direct democracy tools should embrace processes of appropiate information and spaces of public debate. They should guarantee as well that the result of the referendum will be consider a binding decision, with the obligation to be implemented.  

- Support to social innovation practices. The recent crisis and its impacts on the most vulnerable groups and urban areas, as well as the austerity policies with social cuts, have provoked the development of social innovation practices. As defined by the EU, they are initiatives focused on building new types of collective answers to emerging human needs, beyond the institutional sphere, and oriented to empower people and neighbourhoods. They may range from community food provision to children shared caring and networks of knowledge or time exchange. The challenge for local authorities is to set up resources and schemes of recognition and support without eroding the autonomy of the social innovation practices.

Coproduction, CDPs, remunicipalization, citizen management, direct democracy and social innovation can be considered as a set of keystones to build the new urban regime in terms of common good and people involvement. These strategies, which are now being implemented in Barcelona, are coherent with the two initial assumptions: the local level is playing a set of reinforced strategic roles, and it is doing so reversing both bureaucratic and market models, by building urban governance networks as a pluralistic arena of citizen involvement in the common good city.   

4.  Stronger and fairer cities through international networks
In the previous paragraphs, the ideas of a reinforced local government level shaping an urban policy regime through networks of citizen involvement have been illustrated taking into account the case of Barcelona. But that is not the whole story. There is a another part: the building of international networks. This can be analyzed briefly along two dimensions. On the one side, a dimension of scale: European and global.  On the other, a political dimension: multilevel networks to involve local authorities on governance with other institutions, and horizontal networks to stregthen the transformative role of cities.  In the crossing of both settings, different experiences emerge.

Table 5. Different models and scales of International networks of cities

           Networks to reinforce cities
           in multilevel governance

                Networks to reinforce cities
                as a level for change  



                   Issue network cities



                Habitat III Alternatives

- Networks of cities within multilevel governance
 UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) , headquartered in Barcelona, is the global network  of cities aimed at being the united voice and world advocate of democratic local self-government, promoting its values, objectives and interests within the wider international community”. UCLG’s work programme focuses on: a) Increasing the role and influence of local government and its representative organisations in global governance; and b) Becoming the main source of support for democratic, effective, innovative local government close to the citizen. EUROCITIES was founded in 1986 by the mayors of six large cities: Barcelona, Birmingham, Frankfurt, Lyon, Rotterdam and Milan. Today, Eurocities brings together the local governments of over 130 European cities. Through six thematic forums and a wide range of working groups and projects, the network attempts to influence the EU institutions to respond to common issues that affect the day-to-day lives of urban Europe, as well as it  offers members a platform for sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas. As the Eurocities Manifesto declares, “our objective is to reinforce the important role that local governments should play in a multilevel governance structure. We aim to shape the opinions of Brussels stakeholders and ultimately shift the focus of EU legislation in a way which allows city governments to tackle strategic challenges at local level”.

- Networks of cities for change
Habitat is the UN summit on cities and urban sustainable development which is held every 20 years. The Habitat III  meeting took place in Quito at October 2016. More than a half of the world population is now living in urban areas, in this sense Habitat III opened up the Urban Age, and a New Urban Agenda was discussed and approved. However, the main institutional actors were the nation-states with their presidents and ministers. Cities and mayors played a quite marginal role. This contradiction was a key factor to fuel the urban alternative forums, where cities and other urban and community agents met to discuss and claim for the rigt to the city and for a system of urban real democracy at a global scale. Habitat III Alternative  and Resist Habitat III final statements may be thus considered as the seed of horizontal networks of cities building a transformative municipalism. 

However, is at European level, where the network of cities for change has gained visibility and has impacted upon key policy issues.  Last year, the political force now in power in Barcelona, Barcelona in Common, launched a framework statement advocating for a strong relationship between new municipalism and the reconstruction of Europe from below:

“We still believe that our response should be based on our local communities, on proximity, on municipalism. The city is the agora in which democracy was born, and it will be where we can win it back. But we must not think about the city in isolation; we have to link up with other European cities that are in a process of democratic transformation. That is why we have to be ready to connect different situations, know-how and processes to create a network of cities for real democracy, alternative economies, human rights and the commons. If we are able to imagine a different Europe, we will have the power to transform it”.

Different networks of cities around key policy issues has been created in Europe. Being some of the most relevant the network of Refugees Welcome Cities, oriented to put together local-level strategies to host refugees from countries with armed conflicts, in the light of the failure of EU-level responses; or the Transition Towns network, where cities share strategies to urban sustainable development ans socioecological change. Finally, it is important to mention, at national level, the network of Cities of Change, created by most of the largest cities in Spain where broad coalitions of progressive forces and citizens movements won last year municipal election and are now governing those cities. The network operates as an stable space for policy coordination on several areas, ranging from housing and urban planning to social economy and open democracy.

In summary, the European Union and the EU governance are facing major challenges. Local governments are increasingly at the heart. Cities are stronger; urban regimes are more likely to channel political innovation in decisionmaking; and those stronger cities are generating international networks to reinforce their presence in multilevel governance and their own policy responses to global challenges.

[1] Pierson C. Castles F (2007) The welfare state reader (Polity Press, Cambridge)