First, because at that level it is relatively easy to achieve change. As Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, or Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) preaches and practices, it is the small victories that change the world. Taking action at the local level enables real progress, as opposed to embarking on large projects that never get off the ground. Working with other members of the community to stop an eviction will not change housing laws, but it does prevent someone from being made homeless and it reminds and reassures us that we must take action because we need each other.
This connects with the second reason, which is that small victories have a major psychological impact on people: they show that we can make cracks in the system, even if we cannot break it. And if this phenomenon gains momentum, it begins to thaw the cold pessimism that takes hold of us, and it has the ability to gradually infect more and more people. Thus, in the case of Barcelona, the efforts to stop evictions gave way to the forming of Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform that in 2014 won the elections and is now implementing progressive housing policies. Despite the harsh crisis context, the illusion spread, snowballing into something bigger and bigger, joining other movements, and, somewhere along the line, it proved unstoppable. As a municipal citizen platform, Barcelona en Comú was one of the finalists in the housing category of the first edition of the Transformative Cities Award. In the second edition, the public renewable energy company created by the city council won the people’s choice award in the energy category. Barcelona Energia, which became the largest public power company in Spain, is a project that is key for understanding how local action pushes the boundaries of the possible.
The third reason stems, in turn, from the first two: local action makes it easier to move from protesting to taking action. The experiences that have been nominated for the award since 2018 are a clear example of this phenomenon. For example, tired of being ignored by the state, the San Pedro Magisterio neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, built its own wastewater treatment plant. A similar initiative was furthered by displaced persons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, who decided to take matters into their own hands and secure the resources to build their houses.
Fourth, the local level differs from other, higher levels—for example the state level—in that it necessarily reflects the specific characteristics of the place in question, whether it be a neighborhood, a town, a city, an island, a metropolis, or a region. Every territory is different, every population has its own characteristics, its problems, its resources, its history. When change is activated at the local level local it must inevitably be based on those concrete and complex realities, as the Black community of Jackson, Mississippi, has been doing for years with the construction of a transformative project based on their own reality and their own needs. This makes the proposed solutions generally more appropriate for each specific case, in contrast to what happens when actions, plans, and policies are decided on a not-so-immediate scale, since in order to address a diversity of complex realities it is necessary to simplify them, thus incurring different kinds of mistakes. The women workers of Solapur, in India, were perfectly aware of this when they decided to apply the “gherao” strategy, which involved retaining visiting government representatives so they could take them to see their housing projects and make them understand for themselves exactly what those projects were about.
Fifth, taking action at the local level instead of doing it on other scales enables not only substantive change, such as advancing certain rights or recovering or generating certain resources, it also changes the ways in which political action is deployed. As Nancy Fraser notes in her famous article “A Triple Movement?” (2013), it is not just about pursuing social protection (the left’s project) or freedom (the right’s project), it is also about achieving emancipation. It is about ordinary people becoming political subjects instead of objects of politics, with politics understood in a broad sense that includes not only the institutional dimension, but the community dimension as well. This point is illustrated by almost all of the experiences that are part of the Atlas of Utopias. One example is the organization Communities for a Better Environment, of Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, which works together with a wide variety of organizations, ranging from groups that promote the use of bicycles to groups that provide support to former prisoners. It does not matter if they have different objectives; what matters is that people act together.