Understanding the relationship between urban movements and institutions constitutes our sixth challenge—a challenge that a researcher often shares with the main players in the events. The people involved in the movements frequently see public institutions as foreign territory and adopt an antagonistic attitude towards them. Conversely, institutions usually see urban movements as a threat to their own programmes or, at best, an obstacle that has to be overcome. Academics and the media often not only share some of these crossed perceptions but also help to consolidate them.
A more subtle examination would suggest, however, that to fully achieve their objectives, urban movements must be able to bring their demands and aspirations to fruition by reconfiguring them as compulsory rulings. Therefore, no movement can spurn its relationship with the institutions: it has to attempt to exert an influence at an institutional level, to occupy spaces and, if it has an alternative project, to completely take over institutional government. Surely one of the most interesting aspects of the developments in recent years is the step that some urban movements have taken from considering the institutions as an enemy fortress to viewing them as an arena where stands can be taken, and even as a tool that can be used for transformative purposes (Blanco and Gomà 2016; Nel·lo 2015a).
This is a step that involves considerable risks, as demonstrated, for example, by the decline of the neighbourhood associations in Barcelona and so many other Catalonian cities after 1979. That year, with the return to democracy in Spanish local governments, some of their leaders went into the city councils, which in their turn took onboard some of the citizens’ demands. The subsequent deterioration of urban movements was pronounced and lasting (Andreu 2015). In the current situation, the risk is again to renounce at being simultaneously part of the movement and part of the institution. It is not by chance that this is exactly what conservatives of all kinds are clamouring for: a choice between one or the other. Thus, citizens are told to choose between collective and institutional action, community leaders or elected representatives, self-management or public policies. Whereas in fact, the opportunity for transformation surely lies in a capacity to maintain and uphold a dual amphibious nature, to be at one and the same time both movement and institution.
Furthermore, the existence of urban movements can, in certain circumstances, significantly enhance institutional action that has transformative aims. The network of associations and social innovation initiatives that have emerged in recent years can be a powerful ally and effective collaborator in pushing ahead policies and running services. The joint formulation and implementation of policies between citizens’ organizations and public administrations can improve the efficiency and democratic quality of administrative processes. Moreover, cooperation with community initiatives can reinforce institutions that have become circumscribed and weakened in administrative, economic and political terms. There are still considerable risks involved, however: on the one hand, cronyism can arise between institutions and citizens’ groups; on the other, it is important to prevent the delegation of managing services to society from becoming an excuse for a progressive withdrawal of the public administrations. Following this path could lead, however paradoxically, to a place not far removed from the New Localism or Big Society advocated by the British Conservatives.
The relationships between the movements and institutions are thus replete with both opportunities and dangers. Prejudices and sectarianism constitute serious impediments for any creative approchement between the two camps. Dichotomic or manichean views of these two realities as opposed and watertight compartments lead more often than not to unproductive conclusions. Instead, we need to grasp the continuity between citizens’ activities and the institutional sphere, between urban movements and city government, between society and politics.