Bologna Celebrates One Year of a Bold Experiment in Urban Commoning

Bologna's Mayor Merola about to give civic collaborators keys to the city at the recent Civic Collaboration Fest

It all began with park benches.

In 2011, a group of women in Bologna, Italy wanted to donate benches to their neighborhood park, Piazza Carducci. There was nowhere to sit in their park. So they called the city government to get permission to put in benches. They called one department, which referred them to another, which sent them on again. No one in the city could help them. This dilemma highlighted an important civic lacuna -- there simply was no way for citizens to contribute improvements to the city. In fact, it was illegal.

Fast forward to May 16, 2015. The mayor, city councilors, community leaders, journalists, and hundreds of others gathered at the awe-inspiring MAST Gallery for the opening ceremony of Bologna’s Civic Collaboration Fest celebrating the one year anniversary of the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons, a history-making institutional innovation that enables Bologna to operate as a collaborative commons. Now Bologna’s citizens have a legal way to contribute to their city. Since the regulation passed one year ago, more than 100 citizen-led projects have signed “collaboration pacts” with the city under the regulation to contribute urban improvements with 100 more in the pipeline.

It was an impressive event filled with ceremony, emotion, historical significance all in a context of tough political realities.

The MAST Gallery in Bologna

City Councilor Luca Rizzo Nervo opened the ceremony with a rousing speech. He said a new day was dawning where “no you can’t” was turning into “yes we can together,” where citizens are self-determining, and where a new, empowering relationship between citizens and city had begun. He said he was tired of the old, pessimistic rhetoric and that the regulation opened up a new, hopeful development path that takes “active citizenship” to the next level. He ended with a vision of Bologna as an entire city powered by sharing and collaboration as part of a global network of other cities on the same path.

Administrator Donato Di Memmo, the urban commons project leader, spoke to the importance of the urban commons for urban art, digital innovation and social cohesion and the need for improvement in the application of the regulation. He said that relationships are the starting point and that with training and more visibility the regulation could meet the high expectations for it.

We heard from the leaders of three projects that had signed pacts. Michela Bassi spoke of the impact of her Social Streets project, which has moved from a network of neighborhood Facebook groups to a nonprofit with a set of tangible projects including an outdoor ad turned into a neighborhood bulletin board. Veronica Veronesi introduced Reuse With Love, a group of 50 neighbors who joined forces to fight waste and improve the lives of children and the poor. Annarita Ciaruffoli of Dentro Al Nido (Inside the Nest) spoke of how the regulation was helping to restore schools.

Stefano Brugnara, president of Arci Bologna and spokesperson for the Bologna Third Sector Forum, an association of local nonprofits, spoke of the durable role of nonprofits under the new regulation; that they don’t get subsumed by it, but rather can be strengthened by it, especially if there’s transparency in its application. His comments hinted at a concern that nonprofits would be weakened by the regulation.

Giovanni Ginocchini of Bologna’s Urban Center commented on urban transformation from a physical standpoint including fighting graffiti, renovation of the city’s famous arcades, green lighting in public spaces, and better social housing.

While the proceedings included a diverse set of stakeholders, Mayor Virginio Merola was clearly the headliner. He gave an engaging speech filled with emotion and historical reflection. His main point, which was a reminder of Bologna’s long history of civic innovation, was that Bologna’s people and their cooperative culture are the city’s most important assets, the thing that sets it apart. He said the regulation was taking this tradition to the next level.

Mayor Merola giving a citizen a key to the city. Said citizen beams with pride.

He got emotional at points in his speech, pausing to hold back tears. This stirred the audience. He connected. He spoke of the need for citizens to love each other and to have the freedom to do the best for oneself and others. He said it’s easy to get depressed by the daily news, but that the DNA of Bologna is the ability of citizens to fulfill their dreams. He spoke about the increasing diversity of the city – only 30% of residents are Bologna born – and the need to focus on commonalities, common assets, human rights, and equality. He urged the audience to create an intelligent city – one based on great relationships – as opposed to a merely smart city. He concluded that while there’s a need for much more citizen action, that this doesn’t mean the end of hierarchy. The city still needs dedicated civil servants.

The mayor has been criticized as “the mayor who cries” and for not having a vision. I got word after the ceremony that the mayor said the urban commons is now his vision. I was blown away by how aligned his and Luca Rizzo Nervo’s vision is with Shareable’s and our Sharing Cities Network. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that our vision is aligned with theirs as Bologna has a thousand year history of civic innovation that includes the first university in the Western world, self-rule as a independent city-state during the Middle Ages, and more recently the rise of the region’s famously large cooperative sector. One conclusion of Robert Putnam’s influential book about Italy, Making Democracy Work, was that Northern Italians were richer than their southern cousins because they were civic, not the reverse as he had previously thought. The mayor’s speech about the cooperative spirit of Bologna was not hot air. It had the weight of history behind it. It spoke to a necessary and feasible revival of it.

After the mayor spoke, and on the invitation of our host, Christian Iaione of LUISS LabGov, Fordham University professor Sheila Foster, commons activist David Bollier (who also posted about the event here), and I gave short talks about the urban commons. Sheila focused on the potential of the urban commons to foster human development. David spoke about commons-based economic development, and Bologna’s potential to inspire other cities.  And I spoke about the how living day-to-day in the commons builds citizenship.

The ceremony was concluded in the most fitting way possible. All the leaders of projects operating under the regulation were invited on stage. The mayor gave each a USB key to the city with a copy of regulation on the drive. The USB key was the brainchild of Christian Iaione and Michele d’Alena, the civic collaboration fest project leader. What a great idea. It created a joyful moment that symbolized a shift in power from elected leaders to citizens.

One of the many keys that Mayor Merola passed out at the Civic Collaboration Festival

The next day Christian Iaione, Elena De Nictolis, Alessandra Feola and Elia Lofranco of LUISS LabGov gave a delegation, including Sheila Foster and I, a tour of projects that were active that day. Our first stop was one of seven citizen groups painting buildings in the city’s historic center. Painting is a big deal because of an abundance of graffiti and the need to maintain the ancient buildings, which is crucial for quality of life not to mention tourism.

A group of volunteers from nonprofit Lawyers at Work painting under one of the many arcades in Bologna's historic city center

There I saw the regulation’s multistakeholder collaboration in action. The painting crew was a nonprofit, Lawyers at Work. The municipal waste management company Hera had dropped off the painting kit earlier in the day. It included paint that met the city’s historical code, brushes, smocks to protect clothing, cones to mark off the work area, and more. Hera had also cleared the painting project with the building owner and city. The city hosted an online map that showed all the projects active that day and their location. Citizens could track and join projects online or do it spontaneously. A neighbor had joined Lawyers at Work when they happened by the worksite, something that happens regularly with Bologna’s urban commons projects. Neighbors also share project activity on social media which can spark even more activity and civic pride.

A screen shot of a real-time map developed by the city to track urban commons project activity

My idea of placemaking was radically upgraded by witnessing the regulation in action. Here the making part of placemaking was brought to life in a vivid and dynamic way. No longer was placemaking for urban design experts who plan everything out in advance, but rather it was for everyone in a real-time multistakeholder dance that included both planned and spontaneous elements. I began to see the possibilities of an entirely new way to live in a city that was even more creative, spontaneous, and social than what cities already offer.

In between stops in what turned out to be a long, vigorous walk, I had the chance to chat with Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione who had just co-authored a soon-to-be published paper conceptualizing the city as commons from an administrative law standpoint. Two points stood out in our conversation. First, that a new era was dawning where citizens are active co-managers of the resources they use in cities instead of passive recipients of services. Secondly, that the old idea of commons needed an upgrade in the urban context. Most academic studies of commons revolve around relatively isolated natural resource commons like forests, fisheries, and pastures. Urban commons must by necessity be embedded in a dense weave of institutions. They can’t be as independent of the market and government as the natural resource commons that Elinor Ostrom was famous for studying. Room must be made for urban commons in a city’s administrative law and processes. In addition, they must be productively linked to other sectors of with a city. This arguably makes urban commons more complex to set up, but could provide more protection for them than what’s typical for natural resource commons, which are prone to enclosure. This highlighted the importance of Bologna’s urban commons regulation. It has opened space for the urban commons to flourish in Bologna and is already leading the way for other cities in Italy and beyond.

After a couple of other stops, we ended our tour at Piazza Carducci. I wanted to see where Bologna’s urban commons began. I got my wish. The park was ordinary, and that’s just the point. The most extraordinary social innovations can begin in ordinary places with a simple wish. This was such a place, and it was beautiful to me for that reason. All of us gathered on one of the benches for a picture to commemorate the pioneers of Bologna’s urban commons, the women of Piazza Carducci.

Sheila Foster, Christian Iaione, the LabGov team, and myself on a bench in Piazza Carducci

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