Social Street: different directions towards commons’ management of public spaces

Social Street: different directions towards commons’ management of public spaces

Credits: pictures from http://www.socialstreet.it

Four years ago, in September 2013, the Facebook group Residenti in Via Fondazza – Bologna was born: after a fast growth of its members and thank to a strong mediatic interest, the group triggered the Social Street phenomenon. The Social Street is a form of neighbourhood communities, whose purpose is to «promote socialization between neighbours in the same street in order to build relationships, to interchange needs, to share expertise and knowledges, to implement common interest projects, with common benefits from a closer social interaction […] It is a no-profit activity with social purpose. Social Street is not pursuing any political, religious, ideological view. It brings people together with the sole criterion of the proximity between area residents»[1].

Indeed, since every group is organized around a specific urban area – street, square, park, part of neighbourhood – the territory takes on strong importance, because it becomes the basis for the construction of a shared identity among Social Street members. These ones share, moreover, three main values:

  • Sociality;
  • Gratuitousness;
  • Inclusion.

The sociality, as well as being the primary need from which the experience was born, also becomes the most important goal to reach. All the initiatives organized have the single purpose to stimulate citizens in socialising and participating in common projects. Semantically the gift implies gratitude and allows to activate virtuous circles of reciprocity and trust[2]; in addition, every donated goods and services implies a bonding value[3]. Lastly, the access to Social Street is open to everyone for total participation, regardless any ethnical, political or religious differences.

Currently there are 397 Social Street in Italy and 8 abroad – Portugal, Netherlands, Poland, US, Canada, Brasil and New Zealand. In Italy they spread more in the North and gradually less in the Centre-South of the country: Milan 86, Bologna 67, Rome 45, Palermo 21 (data are updated on 13/10/2017). Among all neighbourhood groups there is a huge diversity due to:

  • geographical position;
  • collocation within cities;
  • birth year;
  • type of activities;
  • internal/external governance.

Here what I want to focus on is the external governance, meaning the relational network established by every Social Street with other socio-political subjects of the territory, such as the Municipality, the local administrative institutions and any other kind of associations belonging to civil society. From the beginning Social Street groups chose different approach to deal with this issue. The website, opened by the first Social Street’s founders, underlines that reaching the goal of sociality does not require funding, private spaces to be rent or any formal collaborations with municipalities. Therefore some group decide to follow strictly these guidelines and maintain just an informal dialogue with other urban actors. The fear to be exploited by public administration and the will not to be identified as a possible solution to local collective problems affect this choice as well. On the contrary, other groups that engage in urban regeneration or participatory projects feel the necessity to collaborate closely with public administrations, sometimes even applying for common projects with other civil society actors.

The structure arising from these practices recall the concept of multi-level governance, namely new forms of state power organization based on a double process: an increase in the distribution of power between different levels of government and the creation of policy making coalitions that only in part consist of representatives of the state, opening the participation to private and civil actors[4]. These network-based forms of governance, though, do not always have codified rules and regulations that shape or define participation and identify the exact domains or arenas of power. On the one hand, such absence of codification potentially permits socially innovative forms of organisation and of governing; on the other hand, it also opens up a vast terrain of contestation and potential conflict[5]. The innovation occurs when bottom-linked governance is achieved, that is when bottom-up initiatives combine with top-down policies, including alternative mechanisms of negotiation between various groups and networks, potentially empowering local government and embracing who disagrees with mainstream policy formulation and who presents alternative creative strategies[6]. In Italy, already in 2001, the constitutional reform of Title V – Article 118 – defined the principle of horizontal subsidiarity, underlining the support that State, regions and municipalities must give to the free exercise of general interest activities by citizens as individual and as organizations. Moreover, in 2014 the City of Bologna implemented the Regulation on civic collaboration for the urban commons, that allows to establish collaborations between local governments and citizens in order to care, re-generate and manage urban commons, tangible and intangible, functional to the individual and collective wellbeing.

Going back to Social Streets, there are many examples of both choices.

The first Social Street, Residenti in Via Fondazza, strongly claims its independence from every type of stable and formalized relationship with the public administration. This choice, nevertheless, does not prevent its members from organizing many activities and events for the realization of which they regularly ask for permissions about public spaces’ use to the City of Bologna. One of the services that this group has implemented is a system of bike sharing, after the request to the public administration to install more bicycle parking spots. Some residents have offered unused bicycles to the neighbours; now these bicycle are identified by a signboard saying that they belong to the Social Street. When one of the members needs a bicycle, he/she can directly ask for the key to the greengrocer of Via Fondazza, use the bicycle until he/she needs it and bring it back to the square at the end.

Credits: picture from the Facebook group “Residenti in via Fondazza – Bologna”

From three years, Via Fondazza is also the location of Muri Di Versi, an event of poetry, music and culture aiming to animate the surrounding area and to invite everyone to socialise exchanging every existing type of art.

Credits: picture from the Facebook group “Residenti in Via Fondazza – Bologna”

Similarly, one of the Social Streets in Verona, Residenti in Via Venti Settembre, refused the Municipality request to work closely for drawing a call for new Social Street creation. Furthermore, even if the members adopted a garden placed along the street and the small building inside it as location for their weekly meetings, taking care of both regularly, they prefer to ask the City for permission about public space use each time, instead of setting a permanent collaboration.

Credits: picture from Facebook group “Residenti in via Venti Settembre – Verona – Social Street”

Opposite attitude characterizes decisions taken by other groups. Another Social Street of Bologna, Residenti in Via Duse, was the first group of citizens to sign a collaboration pact with the Municipality through the Regulation mentioned above. Thanks to this partnership, citizens have obtained the possibility to use and take care of a public notice board, otherwise left unused, for advertising their activities/events/projects and for exchanging useful information. Moreover, they managed to associate with other civil actors active in the same urban area, such as a neighbourhood committee and a cooperative of architects, in order to develop together participatory projects and to rent an indoor space where to gather in.

Credits: picture from Facebook group “Residenti in Via Duse e dintorni Bologna – Social Street”

Similar is the case of Residenti in Via San Pio X, Social Street in Trento, where the members, animated by strong interest in networking with the local area and in spreading a conception of common management for public spaces, are collaborating with public institutions and many associations and schools. They took care of regenerating a public wall along the street; since one year and a half they garden regularly local flowerbeds; a notice board and a book-crossing library have been installed. Besides, the Social Street implemented a project within schools, spreading among students the idea of active citizenship and of common responsibility towards the local territory.

Credits: picture from Facebook group “Residenti in via San Pio X e dintorni Trento – Social Street”

Preferring to avoid the use of money, other Social Streets simply signed the collaboration pact with their own Municipality: it is the case of Residenti in Via Pitteri, in Ferrara, for example, where members, among many other activities, take care of a little urban area and a park, receiving in exchange from the City the material to keep it clean and the maintenance necessary for structures.

Credits: picture from Facebook group “Residenti in via Pitteri e dintorni – a Ferrara”

In conclusion, Social Streets can take different directions when they network within the city. This does not mean though that the groups, not willing to establish collaborations, are less careful about the local territory or about collective needs, but it only means that the latter are diverse in every context. Different are also the population living in a specific area, services offered by public institutions or third sector, the geographical configuration of the space. Therefore, it is unreasonable to identify the most efficient practice, rather it is important not to forget an analysis of geographical, social, economic and political aspects of local contexts, considering the path-dependence rooted in every Social Street and, generally, in every bottom-up movement.

 


Il fenomeno Social Street ha appena compiuto quattro anni dalla nascita del primo gruppo di residenti. Dopo una breve introduzione riguardo ai principali valori alla base dell’idea, in questa riflessione si vuole portare l’attenzione sulla differenza che caratterizza i vari gruppi. In particolare, i diversi approcci con cui ogni Social Street si rapporta alla pubblica amministrazione e agli attori di terzo settore, delineando diversi assetti di governance.

[1] http://www.socialstreet.it/

[2] Riccardo Prandini, 1998, Le radici fiduciarie del legame sociale, Milano: Franco Angeli.

[3] Jacques T. Godbout and Alain C. Caillè, 1998, The World of the Gift, Canada; McGillQueen University’s Press.

[4] Pradel M, Garcìa M. & Eizaguirre S., 2013, Theorizing multi-level governance in social innovation dynamics. In: Moulaert F., MacCallum D., Mehmood A. & Hamdouch Abdelillah (Eds.), The International Handbook on Social Innovation. Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdisciplinary Research, pp. 155-168, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

[5] Swyngedouw E., 2005, Governance Innovation and The Citizen: The Janus Face of Governace-beyond-the-state, Urban Studies, 42 (11), 1991-2006.

[6] Eizaguirre S, Pradel M., Terrones A., Matinez-Celorrio X., Garcìa M., 2012, Multilevel Governance and Social Cohesion: Bringing Back Conflict in Citizenship Practice, Urban Studies, 49 (9), 1999-2016.