Social Innovation and Civilian Resilience: Naples and the case of ‘Beni Comuni’


Emilio Caja

Berlin, 24 May 2019


To what extent does the legalization of previously informally utilized public spaces provide an alternative model of development with respect to the neoliberal one?


  • The contradictions of Naples in Walter Benjamin's words
  • From "occupato" to "liberato: squatting in Naples in the 2010s
  • Innovations and challenges: the Scugnizzo Liberato
  • Risks of co-optation and the role of institutions



A sketch of theory

Three actors, three outcomes:


Non-state civic actors, public actors, private-commercial actors


 (H1) Building democratic practices of appropriation and management of common goods, distancing them from the capitalist use and open to the use of the multitude

 (H2) The creation of democratic and participative institution of the public capacity of appropriation

 (H3) The private and commercial appropriation of collective spaces and of the commons on the basis of private property rights


Images of Naples

“The architecture is as porous as the [Neapolitan] stone. Construction and action permeate each other in courtyards, arches and stairs. Everywhere is preserved some space suitable for becoming a theatre of new, unexpected circumstances. What is done and permanent is avoided. No situation appears as it is, thought to be everlasting, and no form declares its «so and not otherwise». It is in this way that the architecture develops as the synthesis of the communitarian rhythmics: anarchic and intertwined” (Benjamin, 1955)

“Only the Church, and not the police, can face the organism of self-government of the organized crime, Camorra. Here then, a person who suffered an injustice, if she wants to have back what was stolen, does not call the police. Through civic or ecclesiastic mediators, if not personally, she speaks to a camorrista. And through this, she negotiate a ransom.”

(Benjamin, 1955)

Images of Naples

            “The private life of a Neapolitan is the bizarre end up of public life pushed to the excess. Indeed, it is not within the domestic walls, among wives and children, that private life develops, but it is in the devotion or in desperation. In the lateral alleys, going down filthy stairs, the gaze strays to dives, where two or three men sit close to each other and drink, hidden behind bins that resemble columns of a church. In these corner it is hard to distinguish the parts where buildings evolve and that where they are already in ruin. Indeed, nothing is completed and concluded. The porosity is not only in the idleness of the southerner artisan, but especially in the passion for improvisation. In any case, space and occasions shall be left to the latter. Construction sites are used as popular theatre.” (Benjamin, 1955)

The space is "liberato"

The approach to occupation moved from considering the space as "occupato" (occupied) to "liberato" (freed)


"occupato": antagonist approach towards institutions

"liberato": socially active approach towards people in the neighbourhood and their problems


"activists believed that the practice of activism based on the concept of occupation was not appropriate anymore [...] the process towards the new approach comes from a collective reflection on how to be more efficient on the territory."

Common Goods

When in 2012, a group of cultural activists occupied the Ex Asilo Filangieri, collectives, grouped in the Massa Critica network, and the city council of mayor De Magistris started an ambitious plan to identify a new judicial category: the common good


Methodology of assignment: under the principle of urban civic use, a place is considered to be legally occupied not in the presence of a recipient legal entity but on the basis of its cultural function which depends upon an open assembly promoted by a committee of guarantors

Common Goods

Common Goods

The recognized common goods are 8 public buildings:


  • ​In 2015, Ex Asilo Filangieri
  • In 2016, Ex Lido Pola, Villa Medusa, Ex OPG, Scugnizzo Liberato, Ex Schipa, Giardino Liberato, Santa Fede Liberata


An englighted city council: ​"every citizen has to be given the possibilities to participate al the spiritual and natural progress of the city for the collective well being" (Deliberation n.17/2013)

Common Goods




Ex OPG - Je So' Pazz


            Giardino Liberato

Common Goods




Scugnizzo Liberato

S            Santa Fede Liberata

Common Goods




Villa Medusa Occupata

          Ex Lido Pola

Common Goods




 Ex Asilo Filangieri


    Ex Scuola Schipa Occupata

Scugnizzo Liberato


  • Reformatory until mid-1990s, then abandoned. Occupied in 2015
  • Situated in Avvocata, a very poor and socially heterogenous area, with no places for aggregation but a history of political activity
  • Aim of the activists is to act in continuity with the history of the area and involve young citizens
  • Democratic mechanism: working tables and a general assembly of community mgmt
  • Activities: schools for migrants, laboratories for artisans, libraries, gyms, a concert hall (the biggest of the city centre) and a theatre + a football team


“it is a traversable space, where many people can interact and dialogue, which is something that outside this place does not happen"


Scugnizzo Liberato


Weekly Calendar of Activities

Events in the courtyard

Scugnizzo Liberato



  • Internal: activists have to build intelligent and horizontal structures that connect the space with the marginalized people in the area and in the Neapolitan society; overcome the risk of making choices in the relationship with the external that may compromise the productive heterogeneity of the place
  • External: shall we look at European calls for funding? Given the difficulties that arise in the management of the space, the aim is to try to become indipendent units of economic production. A call might be added on top




The role of institutions

In Naples, the city council has proved receptive towards movements' creativity and together they have developed a civic-public model of governance for the city. However, what are the other programmes in which institutions are involved?


URBACT (II and III), European programme for territorial cooperation. In URBACT II (2007-2013) the local government has promoted the regeneration of popular neighbourhood in a way that may lead to processes of gentrification; in URBACT III (2014-2020), the government is relying on the URBACT local group and it has involved many stakeholders in the regeneration process + it has exported the experience of "common goods" to the trans-national working table


Final Remarks

Naples, resiliency or convergence?


  • The importance of the shift in movements' paradigm: legal and cultural innovation; social activation in a poor territory; reappropriation of public space


  • Civic-public interaction: public recognition of collective forms of production and reproduction; spaces as unalienable; development of local forms of production


  • Institutional challenges: protection of local identity and (financial and administrative) support to local forms of development; risks of market colonisation and gentrification


  • Movements' challenges: build strong mechanisms for democratic participation; being socially active means to fight in the whole urban territory