This article takes as its starting point a central issue for the urban social sciences: comparison. Local government is a theme where much is singular, contingent and idiosyncratic, and international comparison reinforces this tendency towards diversity. Therefore, the capacity to generalize becomes a real issue. The central argument of this article is that, beyond any first‐level complexity, the organization of the urban services sector in European countries basically follows three major ‘models’. These simplified forms represent ways of combining public policy principles with a market economy. As such, they may be read as specific versions of urban capitalism. All three ‘models’ are European in origin, and nowadays find themselves in competition. In order to establish the features of these models — simplified forms of more complex phenomena — it is necessary to introduce a historical reading of overall choices of institutional and policy architecture. It is necessary to trace the importance of firms and to study the momentum of crisis and tension, as these give an internal view of phenomena that are generally regarded as natural.