The Italian cooperative movement, which saw people grouping themselves together to have more say on economic and social matters, can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Bologna was home to many such cooperatives and in 1884, when workers from a tobacco company banded together, it gave birth to one of the first dedicated exclusively to housing.
Although this model of community organisation was halted during the fascist era, the post-war period has witnessed cooperatives blooming anew.
“With the cooperative model, we are still living this idea of Bologna,” says Silvia Calastri, who is employed in the public housing policy office for the city. “Now we would like this to be more spread, as it was before.”
A future that resembles the past
Bologna’s porches, or covered walkways, are a central feature of the city’s architecture and identity, and, in times gone by, provided common areas throughout the city for people to gather, talk and eat. This mindset of common living seeps into other aspects of the way the city is organised today.
For example, while Italians in general prefer to own their houses, in Bologna the stock of social housing is around 33%, which is far above the median in Italy.
And the municipality is very involved in managing this – half of these, for example, are offered by the city at reduced fees to help people keep a roof over their head.
With rental costs having spiked dramatically by almost ten percent in Bologna last year, housing is an issue more on the agenda than ever, and even the city’s mayor has recognised the urgency of the current housing crisis. In part, this is still due to the longer term effects of the economic crisis, in part this is to do with other influences such as Airbnb – which reduces the available stock of housing for long term rentals.
As Mayor Virginio Merola puts it, “Bologna considers the affordable housing issue a matter of citizenship and commits to diversify its planned actions to ensure access to adequate housing.”
Following the economic crisis, the city signed the Evictions Protocol, which recognises that the loss of a job as a result of the financial and economic crisis is a legitimate reason for not being able to make rent payments. Building on national level legislation, the city is now involved in supporting families who receive eviction notices.
According to Calastri, since this “started in 2017, it has been a very important help to families, reducing the number of recorded evictions to 365 last year, down from over 1,100 only four years ago.”
Another important aspect of the city’s housing policy is the goal to increase its public housing stock by 1,000 units by 2021. Even though social housing constitutes one of the principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights, no concrete actions or financial commitments have been made at European level to back this. Bologna is one of many cities that is highlighting this urgent need by committing itself to tangible actions, and pledging via EUROCITIES’ campaign ‘inclusive cities 4 all’.
It its 1,000 homes plan, the city foresees spending about €60 million to modernise 600 old public apartments and to build 400 new public housing units on brownfield sites, thus avoiding increasing its land consumption.
A further 3,000 housing units are dedicated exclusively to cooperatives – which aim to maintain below market levels of rent.
In 2017, the city commenced a new experiment for collaborative living: public co-housing.
‘Porto 15’ is the first public housing in Italy dedicated to people under 35 years old. Given that in Italy around 67% of this age group lives with their parents, this represents a real social innovation.
In total, 18 apartments (about 45 beds) were renovated in a building belonging to the city council and located in the historic city centre. Each floor of the modernised building now contains shared service and spaces, such as a communal living room/kitchen and laundry.
By working with the young people, who pay a lower than average rent, via the creation of a ‘charter of values’, which set out an agreement of what is to be expected, both the municipality and the local community benefit.
“Normally as a public administration we are directing the process,” says Calastri. “However, in this case the intention is made by the future residents to decide which kind of values to share, what activities to do, and how to create the relationship between them and the city.”
Giving residents a say is one of the big bonuses of this new model for collaborative living.
Massimo Gioacchino, one of the residents at Porto 15, says “we have given ourselves our duties. We try to meet once a week, to simply understand how to furnish the space, or what washing machine to buy together.”
“One of the first discussions between the families was babysitting,” says Federico Palmas, another resident, “meaning sharing the ‘family burden’. Because having children in the city right now, without a close support network, becomes a burden that we hope to alleviate with the cohabitation experience.”
“Some Sundays we organise dinners or lunches together,” says Rana Kazan, another resident. “Everyone cooks something and then we go downstairs and eat all together. It feels like one family.”
This sense of a community, harking back to ideas within the recent cultural history of the city, is something that has peaked the interest of other Bolognese. It marks a clear “turning point” in people’s perception of cooperative housing, according to Calastri, and has inspired the municipality to make a call for private or citizens’ initiatives to refit unused buildings owned by the city for exactly this purpose
However, another popular aspect of this collaborative model, that brings extra benefits to the surrounding community, is that the agreement made by Porto 15’s residents includes a commitment to give something back to the local community, by organising activities. For example, tenants might set up a homework club, or do something ecological such as caring for public gardens.
In fact, Bologna is now the first place in Italy to establish a definition on what cooperative housing actually means – and this includes an agreement by those receiving housing to organise activities that give back to the community.
In this way, the new cooperatives movement links into one of the broader, ongoing aims of the city – to requalify its public areas. By being citizen-led, with the residents from housing cooperatives choosing areas to work on, Calastri says “it’s interesting to see how people get involved in these projects led by cooperatives and to see how from nothing starts a community of residents.”
And the feeling is mutual, Gioacchino, one of the young residents, comments, “this space is not only ours, we think it could be made available to everyone.”
A model for cooperation
Bologna’s next round of public co-housing projects will not include specific age criteria, but will rather be open to all residents, in order to encourage greater social mix.
However, the city wants to share its ideas with other cities, and has already started a fruitful collaboration with Barcelona to develop a shared model on cooperative housing.
“To talk to different cities in Europe helped us realise we are not alone, but working in parallel,” says Calastri. “In the end we were working on the same model, but with a different focus. Now, we want to have a dialogue between different cities in Europe and learn from each other.”
And the two cities hope to finalise and share this new model in the coming months.
A future, based on the past, and built on collaboration and shared ownership, is gaining ground in Bologna. Who knows, the idea might soon be coming to a city near you too.