New municipalism and the governance of urban transitions to sustainability

Blog post by Siddharth Sareen and Katinka Wågsæther

7 Sep 2022, 11:18 a.m.
Siddharth Sareen and Katinka Wågsæther



Discussing energy poverty with impacted stakeholders in Barcelona, June 2019. Copyright: Siddharth Sareen


Cities have much to contribute to global climate change responses. They are hubs that concentrate resources and needs. Cities thus create opportunities and open up scope for change. Urban change laboratories are important because conventional planning has not led to adequate action to limit global warming. Yet we lack understanding of alternative governance paradigms. How do they work?

This gap led us to examine the promise of new municipalism as an approach to urban sustainability transitions. Our study asks what potential social movements that are centred on a democratic transformation of the local economy and state hold for climate mitigation. We bring together these sets of scholarship – on urban sustainability and new municipalism – in a novel manner, which leads us to highlight three key concerns.

We ask if new municipalism can:

  • shift to inclusive and innovative decision-making and policy development;
  • shift to aligned policy and legislation with multi-scalar coherence; and
  • shift underlying processes and mechanisms away from incumbency and infrastructural legacies.

These dimensions of institutionalising social movements are vital for them to enable the destabilisation of current, highly consumerist socio-technical regimes in favour of new, transformative forms of urban governance. We term them critical governance shifts.

To understand what forms such transformation can take and the challenges underway, we attended to two of the most prominent cases of new municipalism: Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid. There is great enthusiasm associated with the post-neoliberal world order orientation of these cases among practitioners and scholars engaged in a collective endeavour to reframe citizenship, governance and the commons. We examined how these examples – with roots in anti-austerity movements to combat neoliberal urban agendas during the 2010s – have facilitated the provision of leadership and institutional arrangements geared towards urban transformation to sustainability.

Encouragingly, we find scope for collective decision-making (a key characteristic of new municipalism) to achieve inclusive, innovative policy pathways, and to implement experimental knowledge and learning in complex real-world urban settings. New municipalists in power do intervene in prevalent neoliberal trajectories. Yet soberingly, we also find that structural forces of neoliberalism – which manifest through, e.g., spatial planning that favours economic elites – exercise powerful constraints on the deep political change project embodied by new municipalist movements.

This leads us to dwell on the contested dynamics of institutionalisation involved in the transformation of cities, whose governance takes place at and across multiple scales. We identify potential, but also structural limits to rapid and deep change.

New municipalism offers a governance structure based in the practice of public participation, and constitutes a real alternative for inclusion and innovation through citizen-led decision-making and policy development, with the potential to translate experimental knowledge and learning into decision-making and policy impact. Yet inclusive neighbourhood-oriented decision-making alone does not fundamentally challenge the drivers of neoliberal governance.

These limitations are apparent in relation to the lack of policy and legislative alignment and coherence across vertical scales (across levels of governance) and horizontal scales (across space). Consequently, new municipalists struggle to move underlying mechanisms and processes away from incumbency. Despite emergent local pushes for deep political change, such as efforts to remunicipalise services and secure more just urban development, the influence of powerful neoliberal mechanisms in our cases during 2015-2020 proved pervasive.

In sum, while local government can and must play a central role to promote and enable urban transformation, we argue that fundamental change requires coordinated thrusts and support across the governance assemblage. Our study therefore emphasises the importance of not only urban agency and leadership, but of an accompanying push for greater coordination across scales of action to reproduce, embed and institutionalise change. This entails a concerted effort to ensure federal support to decentralised initiatives as manifestations of virtuous new municipalism. We posit this challenge of institutionalisation not as a failing of new municipalism, but rather as essential in order to grow beyond local pockets such as Barcelona and Madrid and to gather critical mass.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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