QUA – quartiere bene comune
Citizen participation in neighbourhood planning
Until a few years ago, citizen participation in the Italian region followed a decentralised model based on municipal district councils. That model did not prove successful and was eventually abolished; in response, the municipality of Reggio Emilia tried to take this public administration crisis as an opportunity for restructuring, and in 2015 created the Quartiere Bene Comune project. Roughly translated as ‘Neighbourhood as Commons’, the project aims at experimenting with a different administrative model, based on the spatial unit of the neighbourhood and the principle of shared responsibility.
The Quartiere Bene Comune project uses the format of ‘Citizen Agreements’ to create a pact between the local administration and other involved stakeholders (citizens, the private sector, etc., and any other involved actor, depending on the case). This pact is for the design and implementation of specific projects aimed at improving the quality of life at the neighbourhood scale. Additionally, the position of ‘neighbourhood architect’ was created, to function as a facilitator and stable point of contact between the administration and the public.
To date, 160 projects have been implemented via 27 Citizen Agreements, involving a total of around 2400 public & private stakeholders.
The project resulted from an initiative of the local public administration of the Municipality Reggio Emilia. In terms of who can collaborate and be involved in the process, it adopts a notion of community that is highly open and based on who actually lives and is engaged with a neighbourhood; as such the project is open to individual citizens (regardless of nationality and resident status) as well as associations operating in any field, from entrepreneurial and commercial activities to professional organisations and any other group, either for- or not-for-profit, that may have an active role in the neighbourhood and in the implementation of each project.
On the municipal side, the organisational change led to the creation of a ‘Department of Competitiveness and Social Innovation’ that offers ‘participatory policies’. This is an organisational unit with the explicit purpose of enabling the development of the ‘collaborative city’ model, via ‘protocols of collaboration’. Included in that service is a new working group of ‘neighbourhood architects’, tasked with being responsible for the overall project in one neighbourhood each, and with being the facilitator between the Municipality and the public.
The operational methodology for the process of each project is also specified by municipal regulations which outline four distinct steps: (i) the ‘neighbourhood lab’, an exploratory phase wherein thematically organised focus groups identify needs, priorities, feasibility and potential solutions, (ii) the ‘neighbourhood agreement’ that assigns and formalises the role of each party, (iii) the ‘project management’ phase, which is actually the period for concrete implementation, and (iv) the evaluation phase, wherein the results are assessed (still, collaboratively) and potential follow-up needs identified for future projects.
The ‘Neighbourhood as Commons’ initiative is innovative in its focus on shared responsibility between citizens and the local administration. At the same time, it is a good example of a ‘paradigm shift’ of structural changes, whereby a municipality can utilize traditionally bureaucratic tools (department restructuring etc.) to actually foster a more open, collaborative form of administration and citizen engagement. This, in turn, leads to enhanced social cohesion through active contributions and a sustained feeling of belonging at the neighbourhood level for all involved actors.
This initiative has also already produced concrete results that will likely be long-lasting, such as the case of ‘Chiostri di San Pietro’ (Saint Peter Cloister) for example, a historically significant building complex re-designed to serve as a social innovation hub with a focus on new technological tools; a project produced under the framework of a ‘neighbourhood as commons’.