What Italian cities can teach us about how to establish urban commons - and their value
We are interested in talk about “establishing the commons” at A/UK, because the concept implies a very active form of citizenship.
People may transact through the marketplace, or they may rely on the state, but they are actively responsible for a commons. It’s a resource which is both maintained and kept up by the people, but whose ownership (whatever the asset is, both material and immaterial) belongs to posterity, the future of that community, rather than either commerce or the public sector.
As Alberto Lucarelli, a professor in constitutional law in Naples says: “commons are defined by rights”, and “by the management model rather than simply the property model”:
Commons are those resources that apart from the property that is mainly public, pursue a natural and economic vocation that is of social interest, immediately serving not the administration but the collectivity and the people composing it. They are resources that belong to all the associates and that law must protect and safeguard also in virtue of future generations.
We take these quotes from a site welcome to our eyes, called Cooperative City. Michel Bauwens has just brought our attention to this 2017 blog, Regulating the Urban Commons - learning from Italy. It shows how the awareness and strategy for making urban commons came about - particularly, it seems, from a crisis in the status of a public utility: water.
This debate developed strongly in Italy as a result of the Referendum on the Privatisation of Water, which saw a victory with 95% from the position supporting water as a commons to be protected in public interest and not to be privatised.
Following this episode, which has not yet seen a clear policy developed at national level, many city administrations have brought forward this debate at local level. The concept of commons has extended from water to many other resources, both physical and immaterial.
In terms of physical spaces, open public spaces are rather unanimously recognised as urban commons and regulations in many cities have been developed to legislate the community use of urban gardens, as an example.
Such spaces do not prove to be unproblematic as even through the property remains public, the collective access and the management costs are interpreted differently across the country.
In Rome, the Regulation of Green Spaces adopted by the City Council in 2014 foresaw that all running costs, such as water, and ordinary maintenance, such cutting the grass, should be responsibility of the communities adopting the green space, where open public access must be nevertheless be guaranteed. Given the poor condition of maintenance of public green spaces in Rome, many people accepted these conditions to improve their living standards.
Within this context, the regulation of buildings appears to be far more complex, given the higher number of variables in which the civic and the Public should find terms of agreement. To respond to these challenges, some cities developed a Regulation of the Commons, that would provide a framework for civic organisations and the public administration to find agreement on the shared management and use of urban commons.
The Bologna Regulation is based on a change in the Italian constitution allowing engaged citizens to claim urban resources as commons, and to declare an interest in their care and management.
After an evaluation procedure, an “accord” is signed with the city specifying how the city will support the initiative with an appropriate mix of resources and specifying a joint “public-commons” management.
In Bologna itself, dozens of projects have been carried out, and more than 140 other Italian cities have followed suit. This regulation is radical in giving citizens direct power to emit policy proposals and transform the city and its infrastructure, as a enabler for this.
The key is the reversal of logic: the citizenry initiates and proposes, the city enables and supports.
The Cooperative City blog also tells a fascinating tale how different cities establish their commons, out of different modern (and even ancient) traditions. Take Naples:
In 2016 seven locations in Naples were identified as commons because of the collective commitment of citizens in their regeneration after a long period of abandonment. Before such recognition these spaces were officially identified as illegal occupation of public properties, for which all people involved were subjected to legal persecution.
The innovation of what is happening in Naples stands basically in the fact that the ancient tradition of the Usi Civici (Civic Uses) applied since medieval times to the forests for people to access and harvest wood or collect food, is now applied to urban spaces.
This is the case of the Je So’ Pazzo initiative taking place in the old mental asylum in the city centre of Naples, where a group of inhabitants, many of whom youngsters, have taken over the space to provide a series of local services, such as music classes, sports facilities and many other community-run activities.
Currently the agreement with the Municipalities implies that utility costs of the space are paid by the City Council but all activities related expenses are responsibility of the users. In terms of property rights, the space remains in public ownership and users are granted freely access as long as the activities remain of public interest and open to all citizens.
What is of interest to us at A/UK, looking for movement in society that can support a new political culture of autonomy and localisation, are the moment of opportunity that open up in top-down structures - whether it’s a national debate that has constitutional implications. Or a municipal philosophy that suddenly shifts, due to pressure from below, to a situation where “the citizenry initiates and proposes, the city enables and supports”.
We remain convinced that this happens best when there are self-generated and rich “citizens networks”, sustaining the full human agency of their participants, formulating agendas that more established power structures have to take notice of.
The story of Italian political life is as complex and trouble as it could be at the moment - but this is an example of how change can happen at very different paces.