Shifting Institutions | What makes an empty building in Naples a “common good”?

Behind any rebel city there is an active structure of social movements, civil organizations and active citizens claiming their rights to own their cities’ future. Cities that become the space of radical innovation and democratic regeneration when citizens get tired of useless and corrupt bureaucratic processes for regeneration. Cities like Barcelona, where the leader of the radical municipal anti-eviction platform won the city elections last year; or examples like Messina, the Sicilian city where for three years its mayor has been leading the city towards a more participatory and democratic political structure.

Movimenti in Comune - open event in Messina (Italy)

Movimenti in Comune – open event in Messina (Italy)

Naples is also one of these examples: in the Southern city of Italy, more than 20 building are occupied and used for a wide variety of political, social and cultural events that try to achieve better conditions for the citizens. In Naples, the recently re-elected independent mayor Luigi de Magistris, has been in actively engaged with our process of establishing an active network of cities with alternative governments able to speak on behalf of the people. De Magistris first attended our open encounter with Yanis Varoufakis in Rome, to explain to the audience the challenges of building an alternative government, and he also spoke together with Ada Colau and Lorenzo Marsili in Marghera in an open debate with the public to continue spreading the spirit of rebel cities around Europe.

At a moment where European and national institutions are losing support from the citizens, the core idea of rebel cities is rejecting market logic as the only rule establishing order in political structures: instead, rebel cities put the citizens at the centre of the decision-making process. Rebel cities’ governments defend citizen participation in political institutions that protect and strengthen the commons. Naples 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 one of the interests to be protected and recognised as the functional exercise of fundamental rights of the person.


The city of Naples recognised seven public properties occupied by citizens and associations as “emerging commons and as civic developing environments” through a Council Resolution. All these buildings were public properties, which had for years been in a terrible state of neglect and decay. Citizens and social movements transformed these spaces to places “that create social capital in terms of collective uses with a commons value”. The seven properties identified by the Resolution are very different in terms of origin and historical evolution, but they have in common the fact that the Neapolitans were worried about possible privatisation of the buildings or speculation. This concern drove them to take the decision of acting first and restoring them to the public interest.

The municipalist government of De Magistris has allowed social organisations to continue developing processes of cultural creation and productive innovation emergence: Government Resolution no. 446/2016 has as its objective “the identification of areas of civic importance ascribed to the category of the commons”. Immediately after its publication (the resolution is dated June 1 2016 but was publicised recently), some members of the City Council criticised the Neapolitan Government, because according to them it would be better for the city to sell or rent these public spaces to increase the city’s income. The Government was also accused of “legalising” an illegal occupation of public buildings. However, Resolution 446/2016 does not provide leases or concessions for the social movements that occupy the spaces; it only acknowledges the  “civic use” they do with them. It is still not clearly established though who has the official responsibility for maintaining the space (regular checks, cleaning etc), meaning that it it is not clear if it’s the Government’s responsibility, the occupants’ or both. The resolution specifies that “the person temporarily in custody of the property management of municipal assets identified as a “common good” will have to respond to the principles of good performance, impartiality, cost management, and resource efficiency, respecting the public interest”.



The Neapolitan Administration defines as common goods “the tangible and intangible assets of collective belonging that are managed in a shared, participatory process and that it’s committed to ensure the collective enjoyment of common goods and their preservation for the benefit of future generations”. The administration has also created a “Permanent Citizen Observatory on the Commons” in the city of Naples which studies, analyses, proposes and controls the management and protection of common goods. The Observatory has eleven members, are all experts in the legal, economic, social or environmental fields. Seven of these members are appointed by the Mayor and four are citizens selected through simple online procedures.

Following the spirit of the rebel cities, the Resolution 446/2016 is important because it recognises the social value of the experiences living in the occupied spaces  and not only the economic value of the properties. It is also important as it establishes “the recognition of public spaces as part of a process of constant active listening and monitoring of the city and its demands, in relation to the collective use of spaces and protection of the commons”.

To analyse the forms of management and regulation of the occupied buildings, there are already public discussion tables where citizens have co-decision power with the Administration. Each space is different so the required management and the profile of the spaces varies from one to another. They all have in common the protection of the commons and the objective of keeping alive cultural, social and political matters, sometimes even in the form of workshops and training centres for women, children and unemployed citizens.



The final objective of the rebel cities is to reconstruct democracy from the local realities that have experience dealing with embryonic initiatives in a way that challenges the current relationship between institutions and the citizens they represent. But mapping the existence of these spreading realities is not enough: it’s important to acknowledge the challenges that they still face. There are limits, contradictions, and incoherencies in the legal systems that need to be identified and addressed. Committed to the necessity of addressing these challenges, EA has established a stream within our Campus: Shifting Baselines next week, focused just on the process of governing alternative or “rebel cities”.

During the three days of Campus and in the steam focusing on them (shifting institutions), different representatives of European cities and experts in urbanism and city government will meet to organise an exchange of experiences to establish a common background of knowledge that can help them in governing and resolving immediate problems, but also establishing future synergies together. Secondly, the construction on a European level of a network of cities for change, can make the difference in the process of making a better impact in the European institutions. This means that by showing unity and coordination between all these cities, it is possible to prove that “rebel cities are not utopia, they are spreading around Europe”.



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