Siena: civic engagement for a resilient city

Elisa Filippi

By Elisa Filippi, on August 14th, 2019

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In the face of adversity, Siena (IT) turned to new actors for its urban development. Elisa Filippi, National URBACT Point Italy says its citizens and the municipality stepped up, with projects including new community hub, regenerating the “Green Valleys” and turning Siena into one of the first carbon free provinces in Europe in 2013.

Between ancient traditions and world finance

Located on a hill, in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, Siena is one of the most famous medieval cities in the world. If you are there between July and August, you may hear the drums of the 17 “contrade”, residential neighbourhoods of the city, taking part in their daily training for the well-known Palio horse race. You might have the feeling that time has stopped in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The “contrada” are more than administrative divisions: their history date back to around the 12th century and each inhabitant feels strongly attached to his or her “contrada,” as an essential part of their identity.

In the city’s centre lies Campo’s Square, where two ancient buildings face each other: the “Palazzo Sansedoni”, headquarter of the oldest Bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), the oldest bank in the world, and the “Palazzo Pubblico” of the Municipality. The history of these two institutions is inextricably linked. The economy of Siena has always benefited from the presence of the bank and of its foundation (FMPS), developing over time a kind of negative financial dependency. To get an idea of ​the foundation’s impact on the city’s economy, keep in mind that in 2009 the FMPS funded projects and services on the local territory of around 240 million euros in just one year.

Siena and its most severe economic crisis

In 2010 the bank entered a profound crisis, so deep that MPS cut 10,000 jobs in seven years. The bank’s crisis had a strongly negative repercussion on Siena’s economy, which saw a drastic reduction in available funding. The blessing, that made Siena one of the most important centres of world finance, had vanished leaving the city to face a challenge: to reshape its own development’s model in order to continue to prosper and to be competitive.

The answer from the city has been mainly focused around two concepts: resilience and community.

The municipality and the province promoted the “Terre di Siena Green – Pact for Sustainability”, an integrated strategy of urban sustainable development that allowed Siena, in 2013, to become one of the first “carbon free” provinces in Europe, having achieved a balance of production of carbon dioxide resorption of 102%.

Civic engagement as engine of the City’s recovery

At the most difficult moment of the city’s life, the mobilisation of citizens provided a strong impetus for the city’s recovery.

At the end of 2014 a group of citizens came up with the idea of ​​recovering the “Green valleys”- a portion of urban “hybrid” territory. In fact, the “Valley” covers uncultivated green fields, difficult to access, representing 40% of the total green areas of the city. Upon a citizens’ initiative an association named “Le Mura Association” was established, which launched a participatory process in cooperation with the municipality and the university. This resulted in the “Parco delle Mura” project aimed at enhancing the relationship between the historic centre, the first suburbs and the “Green Valleys” area. The project became part of the forecast urban planning tools. Following the success of this initiative, in 2015 the Common Goods Regulation has also been adopted by the municipality and the association association Legambiente Siena signed a first “Pact of collaboration” to develop the Rigenerar_SI project, focused on the multifunctional reactivation of the abandoned “Green Valley” of Siena.

City councillor, Francesco Michelotti, responsible for urban planning and European funds explains: “Urban greening is at the center of the new operational plan (which is the most important urban planning tool) and the Green Valley Project is a priority for the administration in order to recover inaccessible portions of the territory, for example with the realisation of the pedestrian walkway from Porta Giustizia to Piazza del Mercato. In addition, the plan promotes the creation of a systemic peculiar urban greening infrastructure in the entire city.”

Speaking about the vision of the Siena’s development, Francesco Michelotti says: “These projects describe the identity of Siena which combines tradition and innovation in order to give value to its historical heritage unique in the world.

Rigenerar_SI is an innovative project, since it foresees co-planning phases between the association and the municipality for the regeneration of the “Valleys” and cooperating with more than 10 associations. The project also evolved from a financial point of view: a part will be funded by the “Bando Periferie”, launched in 2016 by the national government and another part will benefit from the activities of the Urbinat project, a Horizon 2020 programme won by the city focussing on the regeneration and integration of deprived social housing. The main objective of these projects is to strengthen the resilience of the community by making accessible unused land and developing a local innovation ecosystem based on Nature Based Solutions. The vision underpinning this strategy seems very similar, for example, to the one developed by the city of Potenza (IT), in the URBACT Resilient Europe Network, from which Siena could draw some good inputs and useful lessons.

The Community Hub and the strengthening of social innovation

At the end of 2017 another project started, thanks to the initiative of FMPS, launching a listening campaign to understand how to regenerate one of its own prestigious building. As a result, in 2018, FMPS launched a call aimed at the creation of a Community Hub. This incubator of social innovation brings together the social and creative sectors to develop innovative projects, through a networking and learning process. To date, more than 30 entities, among which NGOs, Art Academies, Social Enterprise and University departments, have joined this initiative. The Community Hub project is entirely funded by the FMPS and the municipality is involved as a stakeholder.

Daniele Messina, Head of the Institutional Affairs for FMPS, explains: “We often wonder about the role of philanthropy. The foundations work in a complementary way with the public Institutions. What sets us apart from the public is the risk, our possibility and our duty to take the risk – or even to contemplate failure, as it is the case in this project.”

It is too early to assess whether these projects could become a “Good Practice”, since the implementation of the activities is still in progress. However, what seems interesting to note is the mobilisation of the territory’s resources, emerged spontaneously during a period of crisis, following a bottom-up process. This kind of process seems possible when provided with a good endowment of social capital and a high quality of relationships between public and private actors.

From this perspective, every URBACT project can be understood as a training ground: every actor in the city trains, not only to achieve the specific goal of the URBACT’s network, but also to build and to consolidate cooperative relationships that allow a city to grow during positive phases and to effectively react in times of crisis.

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