Urban Alternatives is launched by a collaboration of different actors which are united in their efforts to create a more democratic, just and sustainable world. This map seeks to highlight initiatives that work towards this goal. Proposal for initiatives not listed yet can be made directly on the website. This process is open to new collaborations.


Department of the Commons

Citizen Participation Mechanism

What challenges did this initiative look to address?

Before Naples became a ‘rebel city’, it faced two major problems, one of which can be considered a local problem, though both can actually be traced back to more global societal issues. Many of the city’s public property buildings had been neglected and had therefore been in a state of decay for years, sometimes decades. At the same time, the citizens of Naples were disappointed with politics and with the possibility of having a say in it. There were witnessing and experiencing social and environmental injustice without being able to express and exercise their fundamental rights as citizens and people. Citizens rejected traditional parties because of corruption, indiscriminate cuts to social spending and the widening gap between governors and governed. (Eleonora de Majo, member of the City Council of Naples)

What has changed?

Naples is nowadays considered the leading city for defending common goods and common properties in Italy, and for outstanding social participation and political innovation. It was the first Italian city to establish a “Department of the Commons” and the first to change the municipal statute by inserting the commons as an interest to be protected and recognised for the functional exercise of fundamental rights of people. It has joined the network of shelter cities welcoming refugees. Also, it is experimenting new forms of co-decision between citizens and institutions.

“This is an absolute novelty in the institutional and political panorama: between civil society, social movements and local institutions there exists a relation under construction, where each has to preserve its autonomy while building new relations and forms of participation.” (Luigi de Magistris, Mayor of Naples)

More precisely, the organisation of the commons is responsibility of the “Department for the right to the city, urban policies, landscape and commons”. The campaign “A Napoli il bene è commune” (In Naples, the good is a commons) expresses the intention of the Municipality of Naples to build a new form of local public action to protect and enhance those assets of collective and social belonging that are a guarantee of the fundamental rights of citizens.

The department offers three main fields of social participation and action in urban policies, concretely described and easily accessible through its website.

1. Social Enhancement of Spaces of Municipal Property (Valorizzazione Sociale degli Spazi di Proprietà Comunale): “We deal with premises and spaces that are not used to live but to carry out commercial, professional and social activities. We also deal with lands and urban agriculture, abandoned and abandoned areas, quarries and former air raid shelters, etc. We ban them to allow you to use them, stipulate and renew (if possible) contracts and concessions, we recover the arrears and much more.”

This way, the practice of active citizens and social movements occupying and using formerly unused buildings for cultural, social, or solidarity initiatives is recognised and legitimised (while not legalised): “These are not occupied but liberated spaces. There are situations where, for whatever reason, public or private owners leave the buildings to decay, shutting them off from the population and creating empty zones in our cities. When groups of citizens take them over, clean them, repair them, open them up to the collective with social, sports, or cultural activities, these spaces are returned to the citizenry. They are a new commons and they should be treated as such. Not criminalised and evicted.” (De Magistris)

2. Commons (Beni Comuni): The common goods are water, labour, public services, schools, kindergartens, universities, cultural and natural heritage, the territory, green areas, beaches and all those goods and services that belong to the community of citizens. And neither the enjoyment nor the possibility of participating in their government and their management can be hindered. They are tangible and intangible assets of collective belonging that are subtracted to the logic of exclusive use and characterized by shared and participated management. The City of Naples guarantees the collective enjoyment of the common goods and their preservation for the benefit of future generations, through a public government that allows a fair and just use.

The sincerity of these claims was put to the test in 2011, when the Italian people voted in a nation-wide referendum against the privatisation of water and local public services. “While most other Italian mayors during these years betrayed the result of the referendum, Naples decided to comply with it and keep water a public good.” (Eleonora de Majo)

“Naples is the only city among the large ones to have followed up on this request, bringing back water management under municipal control and beginning to develop participatory management for the company, transforming a for-profit company into a public company that is now taking on board the full cycle of water management and has increased the number of employees. We have demonstrated that participatory management can also be an economically viable solution.” (De Magistris)

3. Adopt the City: For some time the Municipality of Naples has equipped itself with instruments capable of giving strength to the will of citizens to be active subjects, building opportunities for participation in the care, maintenance and design of public spaces and collective services for the city.

Citizens actually have the opportunity to “Adopt a Street” or to “Adopt a Flowerbed” in order to maintain and improve them. The programme “Urban Creativity” invites citizens to embellish public space with techniques such as street art. The requirements to apply for these participatory measures are few and the programme is easily accessible via the website.

How did it happen?

The outsider candidate Luigi de Magistris, not supported by any party but by local movements and civil society, won the municipal elections for the first time in 2011 and was re-elected in 2016.

The city became part of the network of so-called ‘new municipalist’ or ‘rebel’ cities that also includes Barcelona, Amsterdam, Messina, Cadiz, Grenoble and others. “All ‘new municipalist’ cities have a common guideline: people before profits and citizens before the laws of the market. This means that political priorities are defined by the respect for social rights, for public and commons properties against neoliberal looting. Therefore, they experiment with innovative models of citizenship and participation, promote public ownership of services, expanded affordable housing, urban ecology and sustainable energy.” (De Majo)

It was in that spirit that the local government put in place the “Department of the Commons” that aims at enabling old and new citizens to be political subjects and designers and organisers of their city.