What is a Caring City?
Around the world, in different ways, the Coronavirus pandemic clearly demonstrated the inherent contradiction between, on the one hand, a form of production based on profit and, on the other, social reproduction; in other words, the capital-life conflict (c.f., XXK/SOF). The defunding of public health care systems and progressive privatization of social infrastructure are signs of this desire to profit from all spheres of life and, in many places, are the cause of mass death. The pandemic and its political management exposed the capital-life conflict more clearly and demonstrated, in turn, that that conflict is part of the capitalist system itself.
At the same time, the pandemic reminded us once again what social labor is truly necessary. Along with health care attention, this refers to care work, childcare, education, food provision, and cleaning; in other words, all the work traditionally carried out by women, largely in the private household and often at the expense of their (economic) independence and possibilities for personal development. This is how the gendered division of labor produces a binary division and, thus, is established as the fundamental basis of the gender hierarchy.
Some people can make up for the gaps in public infrastructure by buying care services in the market, but the rise in prices and increasing precarization and poverty affect ever more people. Therefore, they are forced to turn to family members or social networks to receive that care. Both the economic, as well as the emotional, costs are privatized.
These problems will only be able to be truly resolved if care work is socialized and democratically organized. This requires a struggle at the local level, which is where people care and receive care. In fact, in many places there are already movements seeking to organize care work in a democratic and situated way that is oriented toward their needs.
What would a city look like that centers the needs of its inhabitants, especially those who tend to be forgotten? How could we enact this vision? What measures would be necessary at different levels of government (national, regional, communal)? How do we imagine popular co-management?
Some interesting examples of the “caring city” approach have arisen from the municipalist movements in the Spanish state. In 2017, the left-wing city government of the Barcelona en Comú platform proposed a “set of measures to democratize care in the city of Barcelona” as a fundamental pillar of its “rebellious governance”.
In order to ensure a genuine paradigm shift—including in terms of administrative procedures—Mayor Ada Colau made the strategic decision to not leave the drafting of the set of measures up to the Office for Feminism, but rather entrusted it to the Office for Social and Solidarity Economy, which collaborated closely with the Office for Labour and Economic Policy. In this sense, economic policy measures must extend beyond questions of business and labour market policy, be expanded to encompass the entire (also unpaid) care sector, and prioritize approaches of self-organization, cooperatives, and an economy rooted in solidarity. The aim was to work together with all the other departments concerned to set a “precedent for a public care policy” (Ezquerra and Keller 2022, 4) that would encompass all areas of care work and provide for it to be redistributed among the various actors—that is, the state, the market, private households, and public service structures. At its core, the objective was to combine tangible improvements in everyday life with the long-term goal of establishing a gender-equitable care economy.
Most of the projects pertaining to the 68 individual measures set out in the plan concerne a “socialization of care work” (ibid., 16) and are geared towards establishing new public infrastructures such as family centres and crèches, expanding those that already exist, and increasing access for vulnerable groups. The newly introduced tarjeta cuidadora (care taker card) provided relief to people with special domestic care-giving responsibilities by granting them privileged access to urban care infrastructure and social services. Private providers, especially in the field of geriatric care, would be impacted by changing the requirements for receiving contracts, in order to improve the quality of care and working conditions in their establishments. Finally, in each municipal district a post was created for a care economics expert in order to provide concrete guidance for this restructuring and to ensure it was accordingly supported through public relations work.
Similar approaches were also employed by municipal governments in other Spanish cities. In Madrid, for example, the left-wing government headed by the Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now) coalition passed a similar action plan entitled City of Care ("Madrid, Ciudad de los Cuidados 2017-2021") during its term in office (2015 to 2019). In order to achieve gender equality, it also focussed on increasing the broader societal and municipal responsibility for care work. In addition to redistributing care work and improving the services on offer, the plan placed a particular emphasis on questions of democratic participation and supporting instances of local self-organization. Pre-existing social practices and initiatives for shared care work received practical assistance in order to further develop their work. This aimed to reinforce the social fabric as a whole—a move predicated on the idea that, as components of a Caring City, (grass-roots), democratic decision-making processes and participatory requirements planning cannot function without a strong social fabric.
The Madrid action plan also incorporated a number projects and initiatives grounded in feminist urban planning. Laying out a city in a gender- and care-sensitive manner transforms how public space is used, which in turn facilitates a shift in terms of people’s everyday lives and social relationships: for example, parents get to know one another in the playground. If the playground is not tucked away in a hidden corner, but is rather an integral component of a city square or park where there are also facilities and activities for people of other age groups and interest groups, then parents will also come into contact with their neighbours and elderly people. Wide, well-lit footpaths with open, visible greenery work to ensure that women and queer people in particular feel safer in the space and move more freely. This also facilitates other social relationships, which in turn can serve as a basis both for collective care work beyond public infrastructure and for direct democratic co-determination and planning.
In Latin America, too, in the aftermath of the mass feminist mobilizations, we saw an intensification of debates around care relations and the conditions of social reproduction—which also took place recently under the term “caring cities”. These are reflected in both municipal and federal policies.For example, the self-organization of residents in collaboration with the left-wing city council, in Valparaíso and other cities in Chile, made it possible to set up pharmacies that offer important medications at prices far below market value. In a similar collaboration between grassroots initiatives and a left-wing political parties in the state parliament, a previously informal settlement in Rosario, Argentina that was facing eviction is currently being developed into a fully integrated neighbourhood with its own water supply, sewerage system, and internet, as well as social infrastructure like schools, parks, and a sports ground. This is being funded by the federal government, the funds in question raised through a one-off wealth tax imposed by the centre-left government. Yet the project is being designed, planned, and managed by local residents in cooperation with the staunchly feminist Ciudad Futura (City of the Future) party, which is represented both on the city council and in the regional parliament.
In many places, initiatives work through a combination of self-empowerment, organizing, co-determination, infrastructure, and government programmes that support and finance projects. What is required here is a redistribution of resources, rather than—as is so often the case—initiating self-government with the mere aim of providing cheap alternatives to compensate for government failures or gaps in service provision. In this way, other levels of state policy can also be incorporated—whether initiatives to reduce working hours, or financial aid and pension benefits, which affect the scope for care activities in myriad ways.
In countries like Uruguay and Argentina, centre-left governments have also been and are currently working on implementing Sistemas integrales de Cuidados (integrated care structures) at the federal level. Existing programmes and services are being expanded and better connected. Taking unpaid care work into consideration allows for better tailoring services to specific needs and making up for existing deficitis.In Uruguay, for example, a time-use study was commissioned that also covers domestic care work, a campaign was initiated in response to the gendered division of labour, and unpaid care work was incorporated into an expanded gross domestic product in order to generate public awareness of how crucial care work is for society, and the extent to which it is devalued as “women’s work”. In both countries, government plans were drafted in close consultation with local actors and combined with appropriate demand assessments.
These cases from different parts of the world are currently inspiring feminist and urban policy debates in Germany. In concrete terms, the aim is to make Bremen a caring city, which, with a population of around 700,000, is also the smallest federal state in Germany. The socialist party DIE LINKE has been part of the state government since 2019 and, in this respect, is an important alliance partner for social movements. Bremen therefore is not exactly uncharted territory. For a number of years, protests and self-organizing have been on the rise in relation to the issue of care: from union strikes in the care sector or in social and educational services to action groups for better conditions in geriatric care, to “Medi-Büros” that provide access to medical care for undocumented immigrants; from local outpatient healthcare centres (polyclinics) that also incorporate the social elements of health, to feminist strikes that also encompass private households. A great many of these had already come together in 2014 atthe Care Revolution action conference and had established a network in which local campaigns converged and transregional campaigns were initiated.
A number of these concrete approaches and ideas could also be combined into a project of a “Caring City” in Germany: a set of measures to be implemented in both the short and long term, and others that are socially transformative in nature. These include starter projects such as the demand to re-municipalize private service providers in geriatric care or to reduce full-time hours in the care sector to six-hour days as a starting point for a reduction in working hours to be mandated in collective bargaining agreements. This includes expanding healthcare centres and neighbourhood centres that provide support services for elderly people or leisure facilities for children and young people, as well as spaces where communal care work can be performed in parents’ groups or community kitchens. This includes measures designed to ensure the city is accessible to everyone, such as free public transport or a health insurance card that would grant undocumented people access to health insurance. But it is also a question of creating a city in which everyone feels safe and at ease; a city with green spaces and wide footpaths that are well-lit at night, additional measures to prevent sexual harassment in public spaces, and a ban on unwarranted police checks. It also requires restructuring public administration so that gender equality and the guarantee of good care relationships become central to its operations, and that constant reviews are conducted to assess whether public services are truly accessible to everyone.
The question of which ideas should be foregrounded for each individual Caring City project should be discussed and decided at the local level. The long-term objective in Bremen could be the establishment of a care council that would permanently ensure the collective determination of needs and negotiation of interests. The council in question would have to exert organized pressure on political decision-making processes—that is, it would also have to establish a democratic mediation point between political movements and parliaments.
For an Internationalism from Below
These and many other examples demonstrate how people, in very different places, find similar strategies for responding to the crisis of social reproduction, that is, the capital-life conflict. What is needed is the recommunalization, the expansion of and greater access to public infrastructure, and popular co-management. It is imperative to break, in this way, with capitalist property relations and overcome the gendered division of labor.
 The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung has commissioned an evaluative study on this project, which will be published in March 2022 (Ezquerra and Keller 2022).
 As with comparable initiatives in Zaragoza, evaluative studies were also conducted for this project: Salobral 2022 and Jiménez/Moreno 2022 are forthcoming.
Design by Cooperativa de Diseño. Made by Sutty.