Four types of urban austerity: public land privatisations in French and Italian cities

Four types of urban austerity: public land privatisations in French and Italian cities


Written by:

Félix Adisson and Francesca Artioli

First Published:

19 Mar 2019, 9:36 am


Four types of urban austerity: public land privatisations in French and Italian cities



How is the policy paradigm of austerity actually shaping our urban built environment? One of the typical measures in the austerity toolbox consists of reorganising and selling public lands and buildings, with the aim of cutting real estate management costs and boosting land disposal revenue. While similar public land austerity policies are at work in western countries as diverse as the UK, Finland, Canada, France and Italy, both their processes and outcomes differ between these countries and their cities. In some cases, the privatisation of public land only involves rent maximising strategies. In other cases, newly-developed privatised land projects include redistributional goals. Our published article explores why and how similar national public land policies framed by the same policy paradigm of austerity result in very diverse urban outcomes. To do so, it compares the processes of privatisation and redevelopment of public (military and railway) land in 9 cities in France and Italy. 


Existing urban austerity research literature provides limited theoretical explanations for differences in urban processes and outcomes. In response, the paper provides a comparative model which reasserts classic variables in comparative urban politics – namely intergovernmental relations and local policy capacity. We suggest that this model can be used most extensively for studying urban austerity. It results in defining four types of urban austerity: gridlock austerity characterised by cuts in government expenditure that are exacerbated by scarce local resources; locally mitigated austerity arising from local policy capacity that counterbalances national austerity measures; nationally mitigated austerity resulting from the persistence of a redistributional intergovernmental system in a context of national austerity reforms and low local policy capacities; and opportunistic austerity occurring when intergovernmental redistribution combines with high local policy capacity, i.e. where local governments can curb national austerity policies in ways that are favourable to their agendas.


The paper shows that two very similar countries such as France and Italy follow divergent trajectories regarding the privatisation and redevelopment of their public land. And this, despite the fact that the policies about the “necessity” to sell railway and defence landed properties in order to “rationalise” public real estate have been basically the same since the 1990s. In France, the financial and discursive pressures conductive of the release of Railway and Military land have been mitigated by both intergovernmental and local initiatives, and sometimes opportunistically seized by local policies. This has produced extensive privatisation yet includes redistributional outcomes in the new developments (in terms of affordable housing, public facilities, etc.). We consider however that the recent decrease in the grants from the state to local government is likely to change this model of redevelopment that relies extensively on local public investment. By contrast, in Italy, the last fifteen years have been mostly earmarked by blockages in the sale and redevelopment initiatives of defence and railway areas. This is explained by the combination of the lack of resources for land development in local government and the lack of intergovernmental policies and negotiation. As a result, the processes have been marked by a high level of contestation coming from both the local governments concerned and various organised groups of the civil society. That being said, we indicate some recent changes in the management of public land in the country, thanks to the acknowledgement that civil society, not the real estate market, can be the solution for taking charge of the reuse of these areas.


In our view, the paper raises three relevant issues for urban austerity literature and, more generally, for comparative urban studies. First, at a theoretical level, the paper stresses that the study of urban austerity policies requires an understanding of both the distribution of budget constraints between the national and local levels and of intergovernmental relations. Indeed, a purely top-down view of the relations between central and local policies is insufficient for understanding local variation. The second point relates precisely to the comparison – here developed between both country and cities –which appears a key methodological approach to understand the effects of austerity on the urban processes and built environment. It directs the attention to meso-level explanations relying on institutional and political differences between cities and countries. Thirdly, we would like to stress the importance of empirical fieldwork for urban research: our results come from an extensive number of interviews with a wide range of actors situated in different cities and state organisations. ‘Desk-based research’, limited to policy statements, documents and reports, would have driven us to conclusions on similar processes urban austerity in France and Italy that were the exact opposite of what is occurring on the ground.


Read the paper on Urban Studies – OnlineFirst here.