New municipalism, democratic public ownership, and the politics of the common

Dr Bertie Russell, Dr Iolanda Bianchi, and Lavinia Steinfort

Funding period: 1 April 2023 – 30 September 2024
Type of funding: Seminar Series

Host institutions: Universdad Autónoma de Barcelona (Spain), University of Antwerp (Belgium), and Transnational Institute (Netherlands).
Dates: September 2023 (Barcelona), January 2024 (Antwerp), and September 2024 (virtual).
Lead organisers: Dr Bertie Russell (Universdad Autónoma de Barcelona), Dr Iolanda Bianchi (University of Antwerp), and Lavinia Steinfort (Transnational Institute)
Contact: Dr Bertie Russell

Abstract: Over recent years, new municipalist movements have made their way into the governments of several cities. Most visible in Europe and Latin America, hybrid political organisations binding urban movements and existing progressive political parties have approached the local scale as an entry point for a radical change in urban politics (Russell, 2019). These initiatives can be situated as part of a wider radical municipalist hypothesis that emphasises the central importance of place-based interventions in underpinning wider systemic transformations. A characterising feature of these initiatives is the call for a renewed centrality of the democratic public ownership and management of local goods and services (Cumbers 2012). By the adjective democratic, we do not refer to the representative model of democracy in which what is public is identified with the state, but an understanding of democracy in line with Purcell’s (2013): as a collective and perpetual struggle to manage people’s affairs by and for themselves, where the current representative model of democracy is constantly challenged by a push toward direct, participatory and associative forms of democracy.

This interpretation of democratisation leads us to an intersection with the emerging paradigm of the common (Laval and Dardot, 2019) as a tool for democratically rethinking the contours and forms of the local state through the principle of self-government (Bianchi, 2022). Building a common-inspired approach to local public goods and services means allowing citizens to self-produce and self-distribute them with ample financial and/or infrastructural support from the local state, such as when public housing is delivered through cooperative housing projects. Elsewhere, innovative forms of co-ownership between public and civic partners demonstrate the potential for hybridity in the provision of services and the formation of public-common partnerships (Russell, Milburn and Heron 2022) such as when energy infrastructure is co-owned by citizen cooperatives and municipalities. When these are not possible, commons-inspired approaches involve letting the local state produce and distribute public services in-house, but through shared decision-making with civil society, as in public utility companies with participatory governing structures. This is often achieved as part of a wider drive towards the remunicipalisation of public goods and services (TNI 2017).

To date, the paradigm of the common has influenced the struggle for the transformation of the local state and its public goods and services both explicitly and implicitly (Fundació Sentit Comú, 2022). This has not only led to the democratisation of public goods and services, but also challenged the very notion of the public, with some pointing towards the possibility of a becoming-common of the public (Méndez et al 2021). Across different contexts and scales, this has meant contestation both over what ought to be considered part of the public, and what it means to govern this in-common. This struggle has been strongly pursued by self-defined new municipalist governments, such as Barcelona, Naples or Rosario. However, it can be identified in multiple contexts, from small and medium-size cities to rural and peri-urban environments, that are not associated with the recent new municipalist wave (TNI, 2021). The critical scalar perspective that is characteristic of radical municipalist thinking nonetheless runs through these cases, helping demonstrate that radical municipalist practices and concepts are equally applicable outside of strictly urban environments. This indicates the development of a new political orientation, which is still embryonic and unevenly distributed across geographies and scales, that mobilises the local scale to question, redefine and radically democratise the existing neoliberal-influenced and post-democratic state apparatuses (Crouch, 2000).


This event series will bring together early-career and established researchers in a series of hybrid events that will be hosted by the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (ES), the University of Antwerp (BE) and the Transnational Institute (NL). These events are designed to produce four key research outputs that will have enduring societal and academic impact: the publication of an edited academic book (proposal in review with Bristol University Press, eds. Bianchi & Russell), the online publication of a collaborative authored report, early-career chapter contributions to a TNI-edited civil society collection, and the establishment of an ‘action-research alliance’ that will guarantee the development of the research beyond the duration of the seminar series.

The event series is focused on developing a shared conceptual framework and research agenda responding to contemporary academic debates, grounding them in ongoing developments of common-based approaches to democratic public ownership in and beyond the urban dimension.

The key objectives of the event series:

  1. To develop a clear and shared conceptual framework that grounds future research and practice on new municipalism, democratic public ownership, and the politics of the common, and which bridges a gap between siloed academic knowledge and civil society debates;
  2. To enable cross-fertilisation and de-colonisation of knowledge on new municipalism, democratic public ownership, and the politics of the common;
  3. To establish relationships and spaces for engagement between researchers, civil society and those public authorities seeking to implement commons-based approaches to democratic public ownership in and beyond the urban dimension, with a view to future research collaborations;
  4. To provide early-career training that supports researchers in co-research methodologies, co-writing and publishing for non-academic audiences