The City as a Commons – How Democratic are the Urban Commons?

The City as  a Commons – How Democratic are the Urban Commons?

The 1st IASC (International Association for the Study of the Commons) Thematic Conference on urban commons is approaching. The call for abstracts is out until Aug 10th at 12:00 AM PT. The Conference title unveils the complexity and the ambition of an event that wishes to gather for two days the most prominent scholars and practitioners on urban commons, social innovation, sharing economy, to talk about “The City as a Commons: Reconceiving Urban Space, Common Goods And City Governance”. The Conference is organized by LabGov – LABoratory for the GOVernance of Commons, a partnership between the Urban Law Center of Fordham University and the International Center on Democracy and Democratization (ICEDD) of the LUISS University of Rome ( It will take place in Bologna on  November 6-7, 2015. One of the track of the Conference concerns the Democratic Innovation and how governance of the urban commons could influence it. This is why we decided to interview one of the most prominent international scholars on democratic theory, Professor Nadia Urbinati.

On July the 5th, the Greek citizens went to the polls for the referendum announced by their Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. Greek people were asked to reply to a hard question, which then raised countless debates and opinions starting from the decision whether accept, or not, the austerity policies and economic measures proposed by the European Union and international creditors, to solve the issues about the Greek debt.

Many scholars, professors, writers and academics put the stress on the important fact that Greece is the cradle of democracy, the country where were born the most important historical thinkers of democracy.

Nadia Urbinati is one of those we are referring to. She is “Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory and Hellenic Studies” at the Department of Political Science of the Columbia University, she is also a political theorist who specializes in modern and contemporary political thought and the democratic and anti-democratic traditions. She co-chaired the Columbia University Faculty Seminar on Political and Social Thought and founded and chaired the Workshop on Politics, Religion and Human Rights.

The day before the Greek referendum, the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica” published an interesting article written by professor Urbinati. The title of the article is Greece and the European democracy myth which briefly but effectively analyses the history of democracy and the development of the political thought around this myth.

Some LabGov editors seized the opportunity and had the chance to build up a dialogue with professor Nadia Urbinati, trying to investigate the intersections between LabGov projects and  the academic thought of professor Urbinati:

1) The twenty-first century seems to be identified as “urban century”. Can you create a model of urban democracy in Greece, in Italy, in Europe, or in the world? What features should you get?

Aristotle writes in the collection of the Greek constitutions that there are urban democracies and countryside democracies. However, a good democracy is mostly urban. Democracy, historically speaking, had its roots and developed in urban areas. Cooperation among people is essential to achieve it, regular exchanges are needed. These features are all better achieved in a urban environment. It is even possible to say, that democracy is the best form of an urban policy.
In ancient Greece or during the American or French revolution, participation was limited and fluctuant. Ephialte and Pericles created daily indemnities to allow people to participate. Today the situation is completely different, and there is the co-existence of two apparently opposite trends: on the one hand, physicality is no longer necessary in order to share in power, (the social media allow us to participate without “being there”); but on the other hand, politics lost credibility and attraction at least at the national level. Yet we witness the rise to a re-discover of “locality” and as we know democracy lives in small spaces better than in large ones, closer to us better than far from us.

2) The twenty-first century seems to have also another feature, a prefix. The one of the Latin “cum” or the Anglo-Saxon “CO-“. There are many debate on co-operation, co-working, co-design of the commons (i.e. “beni comuni”), the regained centrality of the community, the importance of communication, the knowledge economy, etc. In Bologna, Mantua, Battipaglia, Palermo, Rome – as well as in other Italian and foreign cities – are emerging examples underlining the need for the community to get involved in public life through public actions and in daily collaboration of citizens. For example, in Battipaglia there is a process of collaborative planning, which puts around the same table to co-design services: citizens, institutions, businesses, civil society organizations, schools and universities. The main goal is to propose a new approach to the city’s development through a fostered channel of both citizens and institutions. In Bologna, we recently celebrated the first year of the Regulation on the collaboration between citizens and Public Administration for the care and regeneration of urban commons (i.e.Regolamento sulla collaborazione per la cura e rigenerazione dei beni comuni urbani“). In Mantua, it has been built a platform of collaborative governance for a development centered on local culture and knowledge. What kind of role can these experiments have in the broader process of rethinking the local democracy? Could – a model of this kind – be the right approach to give Mediterranean countries back the role of “cradle of democracy”?

The founding fathers had this intuition. Altiero Spinelli thought of the unification starting from the local not only the national. Subsidiarity tells us that what can be solved at the local level, should not be solved at the national level. Take the issue of immigration, which is wrongly always thought as a national problem. However, it is in each municipality that lies the seeds of a possible solution: we should involve marginalized people; there are many things they can do, and many sector in which they can play a big role as participant. But in order to do so, a strong local community is needed.

3) Greece, and even more its citizens need to work in order to reactivate their economy: how can an investment in democratic innovations turn into a positive economic investment for the welfare of the local community?
Let’s think of the referendum recently held in Greece; it did not turn out to be what many believed it ought to, but at least it was a strong statement by the Greek people. Most of us had no idea of ​​the meaning of public debt (who owns what to whom?). We need a stronger Europe, with less bias by Norther States against Mediterranean States. And above all we would need bright leaders and with strong European belief. In the US, when the State of California when bankrupt, Washington took the lead of a process of economic regeneration — we have to do the same in Europe too. Innovations, even democratic ones, may have a positive impact on our life; and so we would need to invest in our community, and unleash all their potentiality. Cooperation is the only way forward.


4) According to Professor François Garçon, author of Knowing Switzerland, the debt crisis reflected the indifference of the sovereign people. Greece, which has already taken a first step through a referendum, towards a model of direct democracy on economic and financial choices, could now explore new ways to regain possession of their relays and by doing so revive the economy itself, starting from small urban and regional economies. What is your opinion on that?

On an European dimension: we can and we must criticize the actual governance in Europe. The member states have no equal power and have no equivalence among them. There is not a European demos capable of expressing beyond the states. Treaties are no longer enough, especially in a time of economic crisis. The whole European construction was allowed by very lucky circumstances, like economic growth and reconstruction after WW2. Unfortunately, today’s circumstances are dramatically different. We must return to strengthen the local even more than the national if we want to have a political EU. The state should be an enabler of this change, and lately a partner.

5) How would it be possible, for local community inspired by the Rules of Bologna to interact with each other, and so give their contribution in the creation of democratic and horizontal network of local communities? Can they really change democratic and economic premises

It is a matter of education. Legality begins in interpersonal relationships, and cooperation is already a sign of education. American pragmatist thinkers had understood that for the management of a public good coordination was necessary to make everyone fell responsible. We often use the wrong words. For example the word “owner” is improper. We use the word for understanding reasons, but we rarely “own” something; we rather “borrow” or “share”. The key to success is to set good rules so as to make all the people who are involved in some communal enterprise feel they are partners on a equal foot.