Quartiere Bene Comune

Reggio Emilia (Italy)


Photo (c) Comune di Reggio Emilia Born in 2015, as a response of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia to the demise of the decentralisation model based on circoscrizioni, Quartiere bene comune in its first round (2015-2019) led to the signing of 27 Agreements with over 730 actors, giving rise to 160 social innovation projects in different neighbourhoods and in different areas of public policy. With these projects, we addressed the needs of almost 14,000 users. The intervention model is based on the adoption of a collaborative protocol, a process of dialogue and encounter with communities to share the entire life cycle of a project: listening to identify opportunities for, co-design and co-management of the solution and, finally, shared evaluation of results and impacts. 

The implementation of the participatory process Quartiere bene comune can be attributed to two primary reasons. The first reason can be traced back to the early 2000s when various Italian cities began experimenting with the regulation of common goods following the reform of Title Five, particularly Article 118 of the Constitution. This reform introduced the concept of Shared Administration, rooted in the principle of horizontal subsidiarityThe principle of subsidiarity is the principle that if a lower body is capable of performing a task well, the higher body does not have to intervene, but may possibly support its action. Local authorities, influenced by this constitutional change, began to focus on common goods and sought to develop tools that would facilitate horizontal subsidiarity. Bologna, as the pioneer in Italy, adopted the Labsus regulation, which provided an administrative mechanism for individual citizens to make decisions regarding the use and management of public spaces.

The second reason for the emergence of Quartiere bene comune was as a response to the decline of the decentralisation model based on the Circoscrizioni“Circoscrizioni” in the Italian municipal decentralisation are a legal system, a body for participation, consultation and management of basic services, as well as for the exercise of delegated functions, established by the municipality with competence over a part of its territory comprising one or more contiguous boroughs.. This transformation can be linked to the year 2014 when a significant change occurred due to a legislative decree, which resulted in the representatives of the Circoscrizioni not being re-elected in their respective territories during the administrative elections. Consequently, political representation in the form of a local president and District Council, as well as the organisational structures supporting decentralisation within the municipality, abruptly disappeared.

The Circoscrizioni not only facilitated administrative and political interactions but also provided a means for citizens to actively engage in municipal affairs, thus upholding democracy at the local level. Faced with the sudden absence of this system, the idea of finding an alternative solution, which eventually led to the development of Quartiere bene comune, took shape.

The area in question hosts a diverse array of third sector organisations, encompassing voluntary associations, social promotion groups, and cooperatives. It has a notable history of activism, characterised by a strong inclination towards public involvement and governance. This inherent sociological and anthropological aspect of the local population provides fertile ground for experimenting with this kind of participatory and deliberative solutions.

It is evident that Quartiere bene comune is being implemented in a region where community engagement and volunteering are well-established practices. The architects of this initiative considered the contextual variables at play, drawing upon previous experiences and the existing sociopolitical landscape. With the absence of local representatives, the necessity to address this gap led to the formulation of a protocol for community engagement and the establishment of public-private partnerships, where “private” is interpreted broadly to encompass entities outside the Public Administration. To align with their objectives and address the prevailing challenges, they adapted prior experiences, the communal history, and the broader context, primarily building upon the Bologna regulation. As a result, they devised a framework for community engagement and territorial division into neighbourhoods, informed by a phenomenological criterion that best suited the real-world context and local identity.

The process of Quartiere bene comune has undergone institutionalisation and is now integrated directly into the budget of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia. This budget allocation is designated for the management and financing of neighbourhood agreements and falls under the purview of the department responsible for participation policies and city relations.

During the most recent four-year period under scrutiny (2015-2019), it is noted that approximately €800,000 was spent on current operational costs, while approximately €1,300,000 was allocated to public works, specifically for neighbourhood infrastructure improvements.

The Quartiere bene comune participatory process is open to the engagement of various stakeholders, including citizens, individuals, associations, schools, and parishes. All these entities have the opportunity to engage in discussions and sign agreements for collaborative projects. The process is designed to bring together a diverse group of participants, even individuals or groups who were previously unfamiliar with one another.

Notably, the absence of a recruitment phase ensures that any interested party, whether an individual or someone part of a formal or informal group, can readily participate. The composition of participants encompasses various demographics, including young, middle-aged, and elderly individuals. However, it should be noted that there was limited participation from immigrants initially. In response, efforts were made to develop services and opportunities targeting the immigrant population, often in collaboration with intercultural services, as reaching this specific demographic was acknowledged to be more challenging. The goal was to broaden engagement and inclusivity within the proximity services strand of the initiative.

Quartiere bene comune follows a step-by-step process outlined as follows: 1) Territorial interpretation and listening; 2) Co-planning; 3) Agreement proposal; 4) Co-execution of the agreements; 5) Implementation, management, and monitoring; 6) Assessment and reporting.

The initial phase involves mapping the needs, demands, and resources of the territory, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. This process starts from a cognitive framework prepared by the administration, aimed at facilitating informed dialogues. The intention is to operate on the basis of a shared cognitive framework, facilitating the identification of areas that require attention, areas that are not functioning optimally, and even those that are successful but could benefit from enhancements.

Following the recognition phase, the co-design phaseCo-planning or co-design refer to a participatory approach to designing solutions, in which community members are treated as equal collaborators in the design process. ensues, where solutions are collaboratively devised among the various stakeholders. Citizens often express their preferred solutions, but the objective is not solely to accept these suggestions. Instead, the aim is to establish solutions that align with considerations such as cost-effectiveness, cost-benefit analysis, feasibility, and the legitimacy of the rules. Collaboration with specialist expertise is essential to determine the most appropriate solutions, depending on the specific policy or subject in question. This co-design phase necessitates extensive interaction with the municipality’s services to reach a shared, legitimate, and feasible solution.

Photo (c) Comune di Reggio Emilia

Subsequently, agreement proposals are formalised and approved. These agreements are collectively defined by all involved actors and are a compilation of proposals established during the workshops. Agreements are tailored to each neighbourhood, encompassing all approved projects, each with its descriptive documentation and monitoring indicators to gauge success during implementation.

The pact is signed, specifying the commitments made by each participant regarding the particular project, including its duration. The duration is determined based on specific project needs, ranging from one year to shorter durations, as seen in seasonal projects. Experience and monitoring contribute to the refinement of project timelines.

The involvement of the neighbourhood architectThe neighbourhood architect is the figure for the management of the collaborative process is the neighbourhood architect: a referent of the municipality who is entrusted with the task of generating urban innovation projects, supporting and reinforcing relational networks in the neighbourhoods, and guaranteeing continuity of relations with the services of the authority. For each area, there is a reference neighbourhood architect. is pivotal in implementing the participatory process. These architects are internal actors/members within the municipal administration, stationed at the municipality’s headquarters. The decision to keep these roles internal, rather than outsourcing to consulting companies, is aimed at retaining expertise within the administration. The team comprises eight professionals from various disciplines, including urban planning, architecture, sociology, anthropology, and education, with a coordinator serving as the point of contact. This multidisciplinary approach enables the team to collaborate and offer solutions according to their respective expertise. The team continually updates its skills through training courses, evolving and improving through practical experience in the field.

During its initial round (2015-2019), Quartiere bene comune facilitated the signing of 27 agreements involving over 730 stakeholders, resulting in a total of 160 social innovationSocial innovation refers to the design and implementation of new solutions that imply conceptual, process, product, or organisational change, which ultimately aim to improve the welfare and wellbeing of individuals and communities. Many initiatives undertaken by the social economy and by the civil society have proven to be innovative in dealing with socio-economic and environmental problems, while contributing to economic development. To fully tap the potential of social innovation, an enabling policy framework is needed to support public, non-profit and private actors to co-construct and implement socially innovative solutions and thereby contribute to address socio-economic issues, build stronger territorial resilience and better respond to future shocks. projects across various neighbourhoods and public policy domains. These projects effectively addressed the needs of nearly 14,000 citizens. The initiative operates in accordance with legislative cycles, and as of the interview in September 2023, data from the second cycle had not yet been processed. However, evaluation and reporting activities from the previous cycle revealed certain challenges that have led to modifications in the forthcoming process.

In response to this evaluation, adjustments were made to the agreements between the first and second legislative cycles. It was recognised that the one-year timeframe, which was initially employed, was insufficient to achieve substantial impacts from project actions. The limited time posed a constraint on the comprehensive phases, from defining needs to co-design and implementation, allowing only three months for implementation, which was insufficient. Consequently, projects in the second cycle now span the entire legislative term.

Implementing the participatory process in all neighbourhoods of the city posed considerable challenges, including citizen engagement, explaining the collective nature of participation, establishing public-private partnershipsPublic-private partnership is a form of cooperation between public authorities and private parties with the aim of financing, building and managing infrastructure or providing services of public interest. This form of cooperation with private parties allows the public administration to attract more investment resources and expertise not available internally., and fostering community relations Importantly, there were no policy or intervention constraints, allowing proposals to cover a wide range of areas. During the pandemic period, the Municipality of Reggio Emilia conducted in-depth assessments of citizen needs, which identified three core themes: urban and public space regeneration, sustainable mobility, and proximity services.

In the second round of the initiative, changes were made to the territorial boundaries within which projects could be promoted. This alteration introduced territorial areas, which consist of groups of homogeneous neighbourhoods. The shift was made to avoid the limitation of neighbourhood-based interventions, as larger-scale projects were deemed to have more significant impacts. As a result, Reggio Emilia, with a population of approximately 170,000, was divided into nine territorial areas to promote more comprehensive and impactful initiatives.

Throughout the years of its implementation, for Quartiere bene comune there were certain aspects that did not go according to plan or produced unintended consequences, resulting in challenges. Firstly, the short timeframes for project implementation did not consider the complexity and time required for some projects, potentially resulting in projects that could not reach their full potential within such a limited period. Additionally, even though they were aware of the challenges related to engaging immigrant populations, the first phase did not adequately consider the strategies needed to engage these specific groups effectively. Also, the absence of policy and intervention limits could potentially lead to unfocused or less coherent project proposals, as participants may not always provide a clear problem statement. Lastly, the initial territorial boundaries might not have facilitated the broad and impactful projects that were designed, therefore, as mentioned already, this was altered in the second round in favour of larger territorial areas.

It’s important to note that these challenges and adjustments are common in the development and refinement of participatory processes. They often require continuous adaptation and learning from previous experiences to achieve their intended goals effectively.

The successful implementation of Quartiere bene comune in Reggio Emilia can be attributed to a conducive territorial environment and a Public Administration willing to undertake the associated risks, and invest substantial economic and human resources. Reggio Emilia’s particular character of having a culture of participation, solidarity, and cooperation played a significant role in facilitating the initiation of Quartiere bene comune. However, it is important to note that this aspect alone would not have been adequate. It also demanded a degree of courage on the part of the public administration to initiate an experimental project of this nature. Such a decision involved securing professional and financial resources and staking their credibility on a demanding participatory process. 

This participatory tool, in the form of a participatory body involved in co-governance, has been successful in empowering citizens and third sector organisations to co-govern and create social innovation projects in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The initiative, in its first implementation phase (2015-2019) has met the needs of almost 14,000 citizens through various projects, and the evaluation and reporting activities have shown that critical issues have been addressed, resulting in changes. The success of Quartiere Bene Comune is attributed to the collaborative protocol and the courage of the public administration to launch an experimental project of this kind. Overall, Quartiere Bene Comune is a promising example of how participatory tools can be used to create social innovation and empower communities. 

Based on an interview conducted with Nicoletta Levi (nicoletta.levi@comune.re.it) , manager of the policy department of participation policies and relations with the city service of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia on 13 September 2023. 

QUADERNO is the blog of the project Quartiere bene comune of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia where stories of collaboration between citizens and the local administration in the shared care of urban commons are told. 

This participatory practice has been analysed as a case study also within the EUARENAS project. Further information can be found here.