An association of Bologna women turned an unused city-owned building into an 'ethical boutique'. It's one result of a new city policy that encourages citizens to volunteer their time and talents while governing their use of public assets. Rete Civica Iperbole

The policy connects citizen volunteers with government backing and assets.

BOLOGNA, Italy—A few years ago, a group of women in their 50s living near Bologna’s Piazza Carducci grew tired of seeing paint chipping from worn-out benches in the square. They didn’t just complain to city officials. They made a generous offer: The women were willing to repaint the benches themselves.

What should have been an easy “yes” from the city turned out to be a lot more complicated. Bologna had policies in place to allow formally structured civic groups to do good deeds on behalf of the city. But just an individual or a few of them? That scenario fell into a bureaucratic hole. Legal and safety concerns—what if somebody got hurt while painting?—made it difficult to give a straight answer.

Eventually, city officials found a way to say yes—and even gave the women some paintbrushes and gloves for the job. But the episode inspired Bologna to entirely re-think the way it handles collaboration between citizens and city authorities. Bologna wanted to find a way to support the enthusiasm of citizens who want to help their city, not stifle them.

The result is a groundbreaking policy for Italy and much of Europe. It’s called “The Regulation on Collaboration Between Citizens and the Administration for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons.” Since the Bologna City Council adopted it in 2014, the regulation has become something of a model in Italy, where cash-strapped local governments can use citizens’ help. Some 60 municipalities have followed Bologna in adopting it.  

The Bologna policy does two main things.

First, it creates a clear pathway for individuals to volunteer their time and talents on projects requiring municipal assets or cooperation. Second, it spells out the types of in-kind support city authorities can offer citizens or civic groups, whether it’s paintbrushes, vacant property or technical assistance from city staff. The terms are spelled out in a document called a “collaboration agreement,” a draft of which is posted online for public comment before coming into force.

Already, the regulation has governed more than 130 agreements between citizens and the city. Many of the projects involve cleaning up city streets, parks and squares, removing graffiti and other maintenance of public spaces. But there are a number of social initiatives as well. Some citizens have volunteered to train elderly persons in the use of computers and social media; to aid women victims of violence; and to teach Italian language and cooking to migrants. The full list of collaboration agreements is here (in Italian).

A series of workshops held from October to December asked citizens to ‘co-design’ Bologna’s future with its city leaders. (Rete Civica Iperbole)

A number of the efforts are aimed at strengthening the social-safety net for Bologna’s poor. For example, a women’s association called Re-Use With Love made a collaboration agreement with the city to turn an unused city-owned building into an “ethical boutique.” Volunteers receive donations of clothes, shoes and accessories and organize appointments for needy residents to shop—the goods are free. In addition to the space, municipal support includes city-sanctioned advertising of the effort and training of volunteers.

“Residents surprised us,” says Donato Di Memmo, head of the city’s office for the promotion of citizen participation. “They sometimes proposed ordinary projects such as the maintenance of green spaces. But they also proposed initiatives we did not expect at all, such as projects involving school students, refugees or people with disabilities. All were visible efforts of taking care of the urban commons.”

Collaborative city

It’s no surprise that Bologna would give birth to this kind of thinking. Home to the oldest university in the Western world, Bologna’s cultural vibrancy is fueled by a steady churn of creative young people. The city has always been something of a political laboratory for the country, with a reputation for good governance and experimentation. Years ago, publicly supported kindergartens and senior centers got their start here.

While the new regulation on the urban commons is Bologna’s latest innovation, it builds off a variety of citizen-engagement strategies that as a whole form the “Bologna model.” Some of these collaboration strategies flow from city leaders down to the citizens. Others flow from the bottom-up.

One example of a citizen-driven initiative is the movement known as “Social Streets.” It started on Bologna’s Via Fondazza, where residents launched a Facebook group dedicated to encouraging neighbors to get to know each other. Over time, group members initiated more concrete actions such providing 15 bikes for a rudimental system of neighborly bike sharing. Social Streets groups now have launched on 400 other streets and squares worldwide, including 57 in Bologna alone.

“We are re-creating a sense of community,” says Luigi Nardacchione, a resident of Via Fondazza and co-founder of the Social Street movement. “But we’re also managing conflicts and different ideas on the future of the city.”

Residents of one street in Bologna turned an abandoned community billboard into a focal point for the neighborhood. (Residenti in via Duse e dintorni Bologna Social Street)

Then there are the top-down efforts, which have taken a variety of forms.

One is a municipal program called Incredibol. Since 2010, this program has been offering abandoned buildings to startups in hopes of spurring neighborhood regeneration as well as new jobs. A separate initiative in the digital space, known as the “civic network,” essentially lets citizens blog from within the city’s e-government portal. A third initiative turned the creation of a new logo for the city into a participative process. Designers created an online logo generator that turns citizens’ feelings about the city into a graphic image.

Recently, the talk in Bologna has been of citizens and city leaders “co-designing” the city’s future together. At a series of workshops held from October to December, Mayor Virginio Merola and his deputies looked to citizens to help identify priorities for urban regeneration in each part of the city. The workshops were called Collaborare è Bologna (“Collaboration is Bologna”).

Preserving spontaneity

Not everyone is keen on collaborating with the city in these ways. Particularly within the Social Streets movement, some say it’s important for the Facebook groups to remain independent of the municipality in order to steer clear of politics and preserve their spontaneous nature.

But some of the Social Streets groups are embracing the municipality’s stance on collaboration. One of the Social Streets groups, on Via Eleonora Duse, struck a collaboration agreement with the city last year to use an abandoned community billboard. (These are metal structures for posting notices, which in Italy are regulated by local authorities.) The group’s goal was to engage older residents or anyone else not part of the online conversation on Facebook. Event announcements and other common postings in the Facebook group also get posted in hard copy on the billboard.

Painting and graffiti removal is becoming a community activity in Bologna. (Rete Civica Iperbole)

Another group that has made a collaboration agreement is the women from Piazza Carducci—the ones whose interest in painting benches started Bologna down this path in the first place. Led by Anna Rosa Gianninoni, a doctor living in a building on the square, the 13 women have named their group “I Love Santo Stefano,” a reference to the name of their neighborhood. Recently, they set out to clean up walls, floor and columns of an historic church. In exchange for the free labor, the city offered brushes and graffiti remover, as well as gloves, dust masks and protective suits.

Bologna’s new policy didn’t create the urge of citizens like these to help their city, says Matteo Lepore, Bologna’s deputy mayor in charge of innovation. But it did make it easier for them to act on that urge.  “The regulation was just an opportunity to give value to the collaboration among people,” Lepore says. “That was already existing in many fields of urban life.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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