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Creating Alternative Urban Imaginaries – From Ideas to Practices and Back

Rubén Vezzoni

New imaginaries of cooperation, care, stewardship and sharing are reshaping the ways in which we inhabit our cities.

Our partners at RECOMS, Rubén and Sergio, have produced a useful booklet to help people navigate these concepts. The booklet was first used to inform a doctoral school in collaboration with the grass-roots municipalist movements of Barcelona, but will be interesting to anyone thinking about community power.

There are plenty of alternatives. Contrary to the Thatcherite slogan, humanity is swarming with ideas, new imaginaries and unexplored social horizons. And this curiosity to experiment with new social and political settings is the essence of historical progress. Institutions such as parliaments, governments, the rule of law, private property, and so on, create stability. They provide some predictability, at least of social events. In a sense, institutional settings are meant to freeze the flow of history, and give a sense of security which comes from knowing with a certain degree of accuracy what lies ahead. However, humanity keeps changing, and so does the natural environment which hosts us. At some point, the institutions that were fitting for the needs of the past may start becoming more and more inappropriate. It is during this institutional crisis that history takes place. We live in a historical moment of transition. Climate change on the one hand and grotesque inequalities on the other are forcing us to re-imagine the ways we cohabit our planet. 

We grappled with all of these ideas during the RECOMS doctoral school: Creating Alternative Urban Imaginaries. From Ideas to Practices, and Back. During the first week of February 2021 we finished a journey that started several months before. Our vision was not to limit participants to be passive listeners during academic lectures. We wanted them to engage with real political action, and Barcelona provided an ideal setting for this. Barcelona is a city in which participatory democracy movements thrive. In 2015, the current mayor, Ada Colau of Barcelona en Comú, was one the first new-municipalist strategists to win elections in a global metropolis. We (Sergio, Stephen, Zhanna and I) conceived the school to be as interactive as possible, with guided tours, itinerant lectures and visiting the neighbourhoods where the changes are taking place. We tried to maintain this approach also when reorganising the event to be held online.

a citizens assembly in Barcelona
Participatory democracy in action in Barcelona

In preparing the school, instead of overwhelming the participants with a long list of references and reading materials, we prepared a concise vocabulary of the essential concepts. After brainstorming among ourselves, with Shared Assets and with all the speakers (and having collected an encyclopaedic number of terms!), we have selected the most pertinent ones for our booklet: imaginary, justice, democracy, commons, ownership, cooperativism, urban metabolism and municipalism. The booklet can be freely downloaded from the RECOMS webpage. Besides some basic descriptions, the texts are filled with critical arguments and questions that are meant to stimulate debates during and after the doctoral school. The overall goal of this booklet is to create a space of exchange rather than a universal and exhaustive text corpus of the concepts.

 The school provided a space for discussion about the communal character of urban spaces and resources, their democratic governance, and how cooperativism is shaping new understandings of ownership. The growing new-municipalist movement provided the backdrop of our conversations. The case study, the city of Barcelona, did not prevent us from discussing the global relevance of local movements for direct democracy. Often, they appear with different labels but with the same political objectives. For instance, in Liverpool activists and researchers are organising around community land trusts to democratise decision-making over land use and support the expansion of the urban commons. Under the public-commons partnership idea they are bending the political imaginary towards land stewardship, rather than ownership. In Spain, where access to land has a less central role than in the UK, similar initiatives revolve around the concept of cooperative collective enterprise. Research cooperatives like La Hidra and ODG provide spaces for knowledge creation outside the often too stiff and conventional walls of universities. An organised network of anti-eviction platforms has emerged in Spain after the 2008 financial crises, the PAH, while housing cooperatives such as Can Battló offer an alternative way of living together for those who do not conform to treating housing as yet another commodity. Dozens of other cooperative projects, such as bookshops, restaurants, software developers, architects and urban planners, are now developing collaborative networks. Examples of it are La Comunal and Coopolis. This ecosystem of “coops of coops” is strengthening ties, positions and opportunities to generate social and solidarity economies.

Bridging ideas and practices, and letting them flow and feed one another, is the take-home message for spreading the seed of grass-roots municipalism in our cities. - @rubenvezzoni

Although some are experienced academic researchers, our guest lecturers were also engaging with transformative practices on a daily basis. Whether editors of a magazine, advisors to public administrations, or members of a housing cooperative, every one of these speakers was working towards making a fair and socially thriving urban environment not only imaginable, but actual. This is not to diminish the relevance of theoretical investigation, but rather to acknowledge the efforts of those who try to keep their feet in both worlds: the world of thought and the world of action. Bridging ideas and practices, and letting them flow and feed one another, is the take-home message for spreading the seed of grass-roots municipalism in our cities.            

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