The city of Reggio nell’Emilia (better known as Reggio Emilia), located in the hearth of Emilia Romagna, counts a population of 172.000 inhabitants. 27.000 of them are involved in activities promoting social cohesion.
These numbers, which highlight the existence of a strong social capital, help us understand the peculiarity of the approach adopted by the city administration. According to Valeria Montanari, Councilor for innovation, administrative simplification, participation and care of the neighborhoods, this peculiarity lies in the idea of “the city as an infrastructure that is made available to people”. In line with this view, the administration guided by Major Luca Vecchi, elected in 2014, has been promoting citizens’ participation in policy making, allowing for “the co-design not only of the actions, but also of the objectives that the city wants to pursue”.
The choice to adopt a governance paradigm based on participation and collaboration implies the willingness to challenge and to change the traditional role of the public administration and its relationship with citizens. A process of institutional and bureaucratic innovation is being developed by the administration, which rather than simply providing services to their citizens aims at becoming an enabler for participatory paths and practices, bringing citizens at the center of the decision-making process. As explained by Nicoletta Levi, who is in charge of the service Policies for Responsible Protagonism and Smart City, what is being done in Reggio Emilia is strongly experimental, and this requires the administration to continuously stop to understand in which direction they are going. Collaboration might create a strong tension between the rigidity and division that characterize the public administration functioning and the strong flexibility and interconnectedness typical of the reality we live in. To be able to create a dialogue with the civil society the public administration should undergo a transformation and should learn how to work horizontally and be more flexible.
Being aware of this framework allows us to fully understand the innovative processes activated by the city in the last years.
The QUA Program – (Neighborhood as a Commons)
The city of Reggio Emilia has been directly affected by a law that entered into force in March 2010, which prevents cities with less than 250.000 inhabitants to organize their territory into districts (circoscrizioni in Italian). Rather than being an obstacle, this law became an occasion for the city Reggio Emilia to think of new forms of decentralization and city management and to focus on the needs of its citizens. What is particularly interesting about the approach adopted by the city of Reggio Emilia is the choice to work at neighborhood level and to adopt neighborhoods as the unit of measure.
This is evident when we look at the project QUA (neighborhood as commons) which aims not only at strengthening citizens’ participation, but also at giving citizens a protagonist role, both as single individuals and as associations and informal networks. In December 2015 the City Council of Reggio Emilia approved the Regulation for citizenship labs (full text in Italian is available here). The Regulation establishes collaboration, stimulated and supported through participatory paths, as a crucial feature in the relationship between citizens and the local administration for the care of the city and of the community itself.
As explained on the official website of the city, this document is freely inspired to the Bologna Regulation, but it has a strong territorial connotation as it is adapted to the peculiarity of the local community and environment. Therefore, it underlines how neighborhoods should be understood as commons, meaning with this as fields where associations, informal networks, citizens and administration can connect and can develop together a new idea of participation and active citizenship.
The city has been divided into 19 neighborhoods, or territorial areas (ambiti territoriali), which are being the theater for the establishment of Citizenship Laboratories and Citizenship Agreements, that are being developed and coordinated by the new figure of the Neighborhood Architect.
The Regulation sets a procedural path, made of 9 phases, to be followed by the Laboratories. The Architect plays a fundamental role in the whole process as he is, using the words of Nicoletta Levi, an “activator of social resources and a mediator between center and periphery and between public and private”.
The project has been met with great interest by citizens, and the participation has been high. By December 2016, 9 agreements had already been signed, 896 people had taken part in the participatory paths and 64 projects had been defined. Between these projects we find really different experiences, ranging from the creation of a book-crossing network involving local libraries, community centers and citizens, who imagined and produced structures to be placed in public spaces that allow for the book exchange, to the development of Participation Houses (an example here), places located in the neighborhood that can facilitate interaction and dialogue between a variety of local actors. Furthermore, these projects also include the creation and management of urban gardens (one example are the gardens managed by the cultural space L’orologio) and the development of Wifi communities, like the one that has been put in place in Villa Coviolo, an area located at the South-West of the city .
CO-Reggio Emilia and the path of #CollaboratorioRe
The commitment of the Municipality towards participation and collaboration in decision making processes and in city making is at the bases of the CO-Reggio Emilia  project, that was promoted by the local administration in collaboration with the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia and with the scientific, strategical and organizational support of LabGov and Kilowatt.
The process began with the activation of the participatory path of #CollaboratorioRe, which brought together citizens, associations, private actors, cognitive institutions and members of the local administration (as envisaged by the quintuple helix approach of urban co-goverance) and allowed them to collaboratively shape the future of the “Chiostri di San Pietro” area, a urban commons holding a particular relevance for the city and for its inhabitants.
As explained by Valeria Montanari “#CollaboratorioRe aimed at creating the first incubator of sharing and pooling economy of Reggio Emilia, a new urban actor that will revolutionize the way we think about the city and will emphasize the role that civic collaboration should play in the care and management of the urban commons”.
What makes the experience of #CollaboratorioRe particularly relevant is that while working on the regeneration of a physical space and on the creation of this new urban actor, the city is also activating a broader reflection on the idea of knowledge and culture as commons by working on the relationship between technology and culture and by attempting to reduce technological inequality through education and informal exchange of information.
The experience of Reggio Emilia shows us that when institutions are willing to accept the challenge and to transform themselves, a paradigm change is really possible. By adopting a view of the city as an infrastructure that is made available to people, institutions and citizens are able to come together and collectively design the future of their neighborhoods, of the urban commons and of the city itself.
This article is part of the CO-Cities Series
 As explained by Valeria Montanari in a short interview with LabGov.
 The quintuple helix approach is explained in C. IAIONE, E. DE NICTOLIS, La quintupla elica come approccio alla governance dell’innovazione sociale, Brodolini Foundation, 2016. The document is available at this link: https://www.labgov.it/2017/01/25/la-quintupla-elica-come-approccio-alla-governance-dellinnovazione-sociale/
 Y. BENKLER, Commons and growth: the essential role of open commons in market economies, The University of Chicago Law Review, 2013, and C. HESS, E. OSTROM, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, from theory to practice, The MIT Press, 2007
Reggio Emilia è una città caratterizzata da un grande capitale sociale: su 172 mila abitanti, 27 mila sono impegnati in attività di coesione sociale. Questi numeri ci aiutano a capire la particolarità dell’approccio adottato dell’amministrazione locale che, come ci spiega Valeria Montanari, Assessora ad Agenda digitale, partecipazione e cura dei quartieri, è legata all’idea della città come infrastruttura a disposizione delle persone.