© 2024 Eddyburg
Edoardo Salzano
2. The city as a common good in the European experience
29 Ottobre 2008
2007 Word Social Forum Nairobi
The paper translated and presented at the conference by I. Boniburini, WSF2008. Nairobi


There’s a growing movement in Europe, which claims the city as a common good. Let’s start from the three single words forming the expression.


In the European experience the city is not simply a cluster of houses.

The city is a system in which the houses, the places allocated to the communal activities (schools, churches, public squares, parks, hospitals, markets etc.) and the places for the working activities are integrated and as a whole are serviced by a network of infrastructures which link the various parts and provide water, gas and electricity.

The city is the home of the society.

For a settlement to be considered a city, it needs to be the physical expression and the spatial organization of a society, which is a whole of families and individuals whom are bonded by common identities, mutual solidarity and shared rules.


The city is a good and not a commodity. The distinction between these two words is essential for surviving in the modern capitalistic society.

Good and commodity represent two different ways to see the same objects.

A good is something that has a value in itself. The value of a good is determined by the use that people make of it or could make of it. A good is something that helps to fulfill elementary needs, needs for knowledge and the need of love and pleasure. A good has an identity and each good is different from another. A good is something that I use without alienating or destroying it.

A commodity is something that has a value only when I can exchange it with money. A commodity does not have a value in itself, but only in term of what it can add to my material richness or to my power. A commodity is something that I can destroy for making something else that has a higher economic value. For example if I consider the natural landscape a commodity, I can destroy it for mining. All commodities are similar and interchangeable and can be measured only in term of money


Common does not mean public, but sometime it is useful that it become so.

Common means that it belongs to more people united by voluntary binds of identities and solidarity. It means that it satisfies a need that the single persons cannot satisfy without being together with others.

In the European experience each person belongs to more communities: the local community, the neighborhood, the village, where I was born, where I work, where I live, where the people that I am linked with are.

But each person also belongs to wider communities, which share the same history, language, use and traditions, food habits, songs, etc.

For example I, Ilaria, I live in Venice, I study in Florence, but I am also Italian and European. Each of these communities ties me with my life and history.

To belong to a community make me responsible for it and for what is going on there. I will fight in order that in my communities, the abuse of power, inequalities, injustices, racism, and discrimination are banned.

To belong to a community make me aware of my identity and the fact that I may differ from the others, but my diversity is a richness fore everyone, as well as the diversity of other people, cities, nations make me richest.

Ultimately we all belong to the same community, the plane heart, which we share.



The common spaces in the formation of the European city

In the tradition of the European cities, the public spaces have always being important. They are places where we can meet, trade, celebrate religious and civic events, perform common activities, use common services and amenities.

From the Greek city to the Roman one, from the medieval to the renaissance city, the role of the ‘piazza’, square, has been decisive. The square is where people met, and public buildings overlook: the market, the law court, the church, the town hall.

The public squares were the pivot of the arrangement of the city. There the members of became citizen, therefore member of a community. There they celebrate their rituals, exchanged information and feelings, there they looked for and offered jobs, there they enjoyed feasts or emanated judgments or gave warnings, alerts.

In the big cities instead of having just one square there was a network of squares, all connected in the urban layout of the city. Each of them was devoted to something specific and special: The square of the market, of the Duomo etc.

If the city was organized in suburbs, each of them had its own square, but those small squares were a sort of satellites of the main squares or of the network of the squares in the cities.

The squares and the streets that connected them composed the frame of the city. The houses and the workshops were the tissues of the city. A city without its own square was like a human body without the skeleton

The common spaces in today’s European city

Today things are changing. In the past century happened events that have deeply undermined the common and collective character of the city. It prevails an idea of human being, economy and society that take to the supremacy of the individual instead of community.

The ground on which the city was founded was considered, in many European cities until the XIX century, the patrimony of the community. With the triumph of the capitalistic bourgeoisie, the land has been privatised. The speculation over the urban land leaded and still leads to build more and more buildings to be sold as residences or offices instead of buildings for communal use. The spaces allocated for collective functions are less and less.

It has been devastating the expansion of the use of private cars and means of transport, especially in the areas with high population density. It would have been preferable to use public transport, because the cars have thrown out citizen from the squares and roads.

The need of the people for common spaces has been instrumentally utilized for increasing artificially the consumption of commodities. The producers of affluent merchandise, more o less useful, have built or contributed to build artificial common spaces: Mall, outlets or other forms of enclosed spaces. They are fake squares, fake markets, privately managed, attended by a multitude of people more then by citizen, which are considered first of all clients. A citizen is some one with the consciousness of his/her dignity, rights and duties) while a client is simply someone with money to spend.

Movements for claiming the public spaces

In the last years in many European cities the decay of the common spaces have been opposed by making wide pedestrian areas, restricting the vehicular traffic in the city, developing public transport, cycling tracks, and pedestrian routes.

Whereas this is not happened, the life has become very difficult especially for children, elderly and women.

In all Europe many movements, associations, committees claim more, in term of quantity and quality, common spaces, to make the cities more liveable. Even in the USA there are manifestations of this kind, a cultural and social tendency to oppose the excess of individualism. It is from an American association, International Making Cities Liveable Conferences, that are suggested, following a meditation on the European urban experience, 10 points for making public spaces.

I would like to highlight on few of them:

The open public spaces must be at the very Centre of neighbourhood. The public spaces don’t live only as a scenario, but typically as focus of a community.

The open public spaces must also be the Hinge between the neighbourhood and the city - between indoors and outdoors. The door from which you enter in the neighbourhood and the door from which you go out from the neighbourhood and you enter the city.

The open public spaces must be the sites where happened the events that can interest the community: the festivals, the market, the site were the major or the candidate for the elections encounters the citizens.

The ‘campi’ of Venezia described by an English architect

The urban and architectural design is definitely indispensable for obtaining good public spaces. But is not enough. The city and its spaces are made of stones, concrete and other materials, but also and above all by the relationships that are established among the people and the places.

I am lucky to live in a city where the public spaces have been preserved and are as they were centuries ago. The have retained the same shape, architecture and the relationship between the people and the places are also maintained.

I am talking about Venice and its ‘campi’, as they are called the squares. An English architect, Suzanne Crawford Lennard, described them as:

Open irregularly shaped paved space surrounded by buildings

Almost every campo contains a church, which still serves the community, and a well head which, though no longer a water source is still a gathering place.

The campi vary in size. They provide settings for a variety of social situations, some more suited to small-scale neighborly social scenes, others offering the opportunity for larger festivities and community events.

The absence of traffic ensures that all sounds on the campo are human sounds-conversation, laughter, footsteps, and children’s voices.

There are several entrances and exits, but streets do not connect directly across the campo, so the campo never appears to be merely a temporary widening of the street. Rather, it is very clearly the center and focus of community life.

Small businesses, services or workshops are located on the ground floor, ensuring a high frequency of interaction, and makes it possible for people with very different backgrounds and trades to observe each others' lives and to make friends with those dissimilar from themselves.

The campi of Venice and the festival of “l’unità” in 1973

Venice is a very ancient city but in the last century has been abandoned by its population. Only in the last decades it has re-borne.

An event, which has contributed to the re-discovery of Venice by its same citizens, Italians and Europeans, was the festival of the Unità in 1973, a national-wide, political kermess. The festival gathers thousands of people coming from all parts of Italy. Generally it takes place in the suburbs of the cities.

That year was decided to do it in Venice, in its campi. At least 15-20 campi were involved. In each one there were performances, entertainment, debated, open-air refreshment points and restaurants referred to traditions of a specific part of Italy.

The city for a week changed face. Everybody discovered the beauty of the spaces occupied by the people and their encounters.

Since then inhabitants and tourists live and experience the campi. They are the open space of each single home, the place where friends meet, where you know new people. They are the places where the hart of the city beats.

The centre of Rome occupied by the inhabitants of the suburbs

An episode very meaningful regarding the importance of the public spaces in the re-establishment of the relationship between society and city, happened in Rome, the capital of Italy.

It was in 1976. At that time Rome had about 2 million people, a beautiful and famous historical center with ever expanding suburbs, poorer and more deteriorated as you went from the center towards the periphery. The center was occupied by the well-off and tourists, the suburbs by the poorer. The baraccopoli, the italian word for slums, of the city were places where the criminality grew, where the youth roamed without having an alternative to the games of power.

In those years Italy was still subject to the terrorism.

An intelligent major, Giulio Carlo Argan, and a young town councilor, Renato Nicolini changed radically the social climate of the city, modifying the relationship between people and the space.

The cultural activities were taken out from the small theaters and museums. Large mass manifestations like film marathons of popular films, street theatre, music and dancing, were organized in central places of the city.

Young people in the evenings abandoned their slums and hurried to the city center, in its squares, in its archaeological places. The families took their dinners in the spaces where the most popular films and shows were screened.

The citizens re-conquered, or perhaps conquered for the first time, the most beautiful places of their city, ones from which they were so far excluded.


The two episodes that I mentioned indicate some ways for re-building the common role of the public spaces through interventions that oppose the individualistic tendency prevailing in desegregate societies. In Europe we can work on the heritage of our ancient cities and their places. In other part of the worlds you can work with other values. Binds among families, group of families, villages, communities and their languages, dialects, and traditions still testify the vitality of common values in many societies.

In many African cultures, the concept of private property did not exist. The land was a common good, which could not be subtracted from the community. This is a common value. The privatization of the urban land in Europe has been one of the causes of the degradation of the city.

To start from the common interest of local communities, enriching their life with common spaces which function well is a good commencement. That’s why the Toi market initiative seems particular interesting and I hope that the community develops their ideas and visions under their own responsibility.

But to do a step does not mean to make all the way that the step had announced.

The aim should be, as the experience of Rome as shown, to take over the entire city. Each community, village, neighborhood is part of a vaster organism: the city.

Like in many other part of the world, from Asia to Europe, from Africa to America, the city is divided in parts, which do not communicate; moreover often they are in conflict. It is an inhuman situation, which is experienced, although in a very different way, both in the ghetto of the poor and in the enclaves of the rich.

Staring from the public spaces the city can become an environment favorable to the life of human beings, if we will be able to return to the city its original role of home of the society. Its form and function will be, overall, at the service of those needs, which the individual is not able to satisfy on his own, but can be satisfied effectively only together with the others.

The city as a whole and in its parts have to be seen, felt and organized as “common goods”.

Goods and not commodities. Therefore object services, which have a value in themselves because they cannot be exchanged with others or with money. Common and not private, material and immaterial elements, which can be enjoyed, used by single members of the society, but they belong to the community as a whole.

The paper was translated and presented at the conference by Ilaria Boniburini, that has contributed to its editing. Here you go to the italian text


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