Bologna adopted new regulations allowing residents to partner with the city to revitalize public spaces. The regulations spurred the city to establish district laboratories, where city staff and residents connect to develop citizen ideas and co-design initiatives.
A center of resistance to fascism during World War II, Bologna has a deep history of civic engagement. Since that time, however, much had changed. The large youth population of the city was disengaged, and trust in the political process was low, evidenced by a 30 percent drop in voter participation in 2014 compared to the previous election. Italian law dictated that immigrants from outside the country were not allowed to vote in the city until they had lived there for 10 years, further depressing engagement.
It started small. Three citizens wanted to repaint a park bench in their neighborhood, but just this simple task required them to call five separate city departments. Bureaucracy was preventing citizens from improving their own city. This realization led Bologna to change the way it governs the urban commons – its shared physical, cultural, and creative resources.
The city began by adopting the “Regulation on public collaboration between citizens and the City for the care and regeneration of urban commons.” This new regulation allowed citizens, informal groups of people, and private organizations to enter into contracts, or pacts, with the city to revitalize urban commons, such as public spaces, abandoned buildings, and green areas. The city provides what the citizens need – from materials and tools to business and financial planning assistance – and the citizens provide their time and their skills.
The city also created a dedicated team to manage the collaboration, the Ufficio per I’Immaginazione Civica or Office of Civic Imagination, and partnered with the University of Bologna to create six Laboratori di Quartiere, permanent district citizen-engagement laboratories. The laboratories serve as hubs of collaboration and innovation, where city staff connect with residents and co-design initiatives driven by the talents and ideas of citizens. In addition to the pacts, the city has a number of tools to develop citizens’ ideas that are unearthed through the laboratories, including a participatory budgeting process and IncrediBOL, a competitive program that supports creative startups with free space from the city or consulting services from staff and partners.
The new regulations and infrastructure enabled a wave of citizen-driven projects that have transformed the city. More than 400 collaboration pacts have been implemented, including the cleaning of 15,000 square meters of city walls and the renovation of 110 city benches. As a result of the collaboration between citizens, city government, businesses, and nonprofit organizations, citizen-led efforts have gone beyond physical improvements. Outcomes range from new services to small businesses to public spaces reimagined as cultural institutions, such as a former market turned into a concert hall used by hundreds of local musicians.
The city has helped creative citizens develop a publishing house and a children’s clothing brand, and supported a cooperative of residents as they transformed an empty greenhouse complex in a park into a co-working space, start-up incubator, childcare center, café, garden, and entertainment space open to the public.
Citizen engagement is now on the rise. The laboratories have involved thousands of residents, and more than 14,000 people voted in the first participatory budgeting process. Bologna has once again become a city that is committed to governing for citizens, with citizens.
“I am a simple citizen and I wish to thank you because you involved me. You understood that citizens want both bread and roses, that they want to be involved, so I thank you.”
– Angela Pritoni, citizen of Bologna