Permanent City Observatory on the Commons - a tool for participatory democracy and “institutional creativity”
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An experiment in “institutional creativity” to promote participation and develop administrative know-how on emerging commons, civic use and popular control. It involves activists as experts in a democratic body capable of implementing a process requiring constant administrative commitment, which cannot be delegated to the traditional systems of the PA.

Description of the tool

The Observatory is a civic participatory body of 11 members, appointed by the Mayor.

Its tasks are:

  • to map unused or underused assets owned by the city or neglected private property to propose their reuse for cultural and social purposes;
  • to contribute to the elaboration of declarations of civic use, supporting the public and participatory self-regulation process of the communities;
  • to perform a guarantee function required by the declarations of civic use;
  • to listen to the needs of voluntary and social realities protagonists of urban regeneration to develop proposals for the collective use of public assets;
  • to collect the demands for the civic use of the goods to be valorised;
  • to express evaluations on the resolutions both of and proposed by the city government concerning common goods, participatory democracy, neo municipalism and fundamental rights such as the right to housing;
  • to open a place of permanent negotiation both in the city institutions and with the citizens to facilitate shared visions on methodologies and practices for reactivating democratic and horizontal citizenship;
  • to express evaluations on the resolutions under the jurisdiction of the Municipality;
  • to invite competent officials and managers to participate in specific in-depth meetings after consulting the competent Aldermen.

Steps of application

The creation of the Permanent City Observatory on the Commons in a perspective of participatory democracy and the respect of fundamental rights in the city of Naples, was very gradual.

The first step was the construction of an open and heterogeneous municipal movement which had its roots in claims for a.o. health, ecology, housing, income and found its basis in the shared demand of a true decision-making power for citizens and inhabitants and a participatory management of public resources.

This movement received an impulse from a fist act of civil disobedience, namely the symbolic occupation of the Ex Asilo Filangieri (L’Asilo)  by the art and cultural workers together with activists and citizens in 2012 as outcome of public water referendum in 2011 and the national wave of occupations by self-governed cultural spaces consequent the crisis of 2008.

The occupation of L’Asilo aimed at giving back public property to the community at large, through civic and collective use.  Moreover, its objective was to raise broader issues concerning the governance of urban spaces and the need for ‘new institutions’, characterised by a true empowerment of commoners, citizens and inhabitants in public decision-making. 

This convergence crossed the administration’s path towards the implementation of Naples as a laboratory city for the commons”.

The formal administrative process was implemented with a progression of acts, primarily resolutions by City Government that can be synthesized as follows:

In 2012 City Government Resolution no. 400 the city public administration responds to the occupation referring to it as an experimental path  “towards a form of democratic management of the monumental common good Ex Asilo Filangieri, in coherence with a constitutionally oriented interpretation of the articles 42 and 43 of the Italian Constitution, in order to facilitate the formation of a constitutive practice of "civic use" of the common good by the community of workers of the immaterial"

In 2013 with Mayor’s Decree no. 314, the permanent citizen observatory on the common goods of the city of Napolì was established. Its functions are the study, analysis, proposal and control over the protection and management of common goods.

In 2014 two Mayor’s Decrees followed nos. 318/2013 and 26/2014 appointing the eleven members of the City Observatory on the Commons: among them seven directly chosen by the Mayor and four chosen among the list of candidates responding to a public notice.

In the meantime, other occupations gave birth to at least 9 more commons, 7 of which were later recognised by the city government. An important step of this movement was to build a network among these spaces that also claimed - even in a conflictual way - a recognition of their self-government. This allowed them to advocate for issues of common interest, and unleash a collective debate that gave birth to an unprecedented institutional creativity. Following this pressure, other steps were made by the administration:

In 2015 City Government Resolution no. 7 approves the procedures for the identification and the collective management of common goods that can be included in the full process of implementing civic and collective use.

  • In 2015 City Government Resolution  highlighted "how public structures and goods can be attracted to the category of common goods when models inspired by a special publicistic regime emerge, if and to the extent that it is guaranteed to a specific open community of reference determined by the use that, irespecting shared and recognized self-regulation processes, can access, decide, plan activities, use and activate the spaces; ... urban civic and collective use being an "autonomous model (a system of self-regulation) … as a set of rules of access, planning of activities and operations, and innovative governance model of public spaces ";
  • In 2016 City Government Resolution n. 446  inaugurates a negaciation path for the recognition as emerging common goods of seven real estate buildings perceived by the citizens as environments for  civic development and as such strategic, being capable of generating social capital, which manifested as factors of aggregation (...) generating systems of self-government and self-regulation inspired by the freedom of access and participation and to  the system of values sanctioned and protected by the Italian Constitution.

Starting from 2015, the network of commons converged in a movement, Massa Critica Napoli, which under the slogan “A City Administration lasts five years, we are Neapolitans all our  lives!”, is a new political project that aspires to build a large popular agora where to discuss and decide on the future of Naples in the form of neo municipalism. It was born before the elections of 2015, with the aim of setting a political agenda for the city from bottom-up, whomever the following mayor would have been.  This movement elaborated on new possible ways to participate in local decision-making. Namely, it advocated for the creation of a public Council of Audit on Public Debt and the renewal of the Observatory on commons, with a larger involvement of commoners in it.  After a path of dialogue and advocacy, in 2018 Mayor’s Decree on 8 march 2018, appoints the new Observatory of Commons, which unlike the previous experiences, was an expression of the cultural and political ferment of the city.

The role of the Observatory opened animated and conflicting discussions: at the beginning the administration perceived the risk of it being a sort of commissioner on some issues. For this reason, the Mayor’s Decree uses very cautious expressions referring to its powers being only consultative. In the practice however the Observatory  took advantage of this formal "weakening" by opening up working groups and meetings faster than what  a “normal public institution'' could do. The “simple” convening of a meeting of the Observatory in and of itself has become a political signal, since the meetings take place not only in the Town Hall, but also in city spaces under eviction, occupied spaces or spaces not yet recognized as city commons. Thus putting into practice a more radical form of participatory democracy and of empowerment of citizens as actors having agency and a bottom-up transformative power.


The creation of the Observatory covers the timeframe of two mandates of the city Mayor Luigi De Magistris, from 2012 to 2021. The social movements’ claim for new institutional forms met an existing administrative trend: the city administration's  intention to involve the largest number of inhabitants and citizens in the collective management of public spaces. This convergence promoted a new form of public law, which protects and puts in value public assets belonging to the collectivity.

To reach this goal it was necessary to create an administrative alliance capable of harmonizing the most advanced proposals and solutions by the PA and those conceived by the citizens. 

Policies on participatory experiences often encounter a paradox: on the one hand we see  grassroots practices that are not acknowledged by public institutions because they are considered too conflicting, on the other hand we see willing administrations trying to implement participatory policies without a real and authentic response from bottom-up experiences who do not acknowledge them as such, thus resulting to be fake-bottom-up top-down initiatives.

Behind participatory policies there is often a deficit of democratic legitimacy attempted to be filled by building participatory enclosures that actually have few practical effects (Jessop, Moini).

For this reason even virtuous experiments, such as that of the participatory budget of Porto Alegre, have suffered from a participatory bureaucratization and participatory subdivision. (Allegretti). 

Aware of this risk, the creation of a Permanent City Observatory of the Commons had the objective of opening up to a form of control of the entire field of administrative acts that dealt not only with the topic of the common goods, but also of participatory democracy and the potentially even broader field of fundamental rights. 

In this way, the aim was to avoid the creation of an enclosure of small funds where citizens can participate, and to create an instrument that would carry out a democratic function of control of the acts of the Municipality in the direction of transparency, by aggravating the administrative process of implementing the resolutions.

At the end of its mandate, the Observatory is developing a report of over 100 pages on its activities and meetings.

The players in this process are 

  • Massa Critica Napoli, which under the slogan “A City Administration lasts five years, we are Neapolitans our whole lives!” is a new political project that aspires to build a large popular agora where to discuss and decide on the future of Naples in the idea of neo municipalism.
  • L’Asilo - Ex Asilo Filangieri
  • Giardino Liberato, 
  • Scugnizzo Liberato
  • Lido Pola
  • The Mayor of Napoli, the City Government, the City Council.

Context of origin

Visual representation








- L’Asilo, Napoli, Italy

- City of Naples, Department of right to the city, urban policies, landscape and common goods

- Massa Critica Napoli,

The seven “liberated spaces” recognised commons in Napoli, Italy

- Villa Medusa

- Lido Pola

- Ex Opg – Je so’ pazzo

- Giardino Liberato di Materdei

- Santa Fede Liberata

- Scugnizzo liberato

- ex Schipa