Nidiaci Community Garden

Nidiaci behind Carmine church in Florence. source

It is called a "garden," but it is way more: a neighborhood gathering spot, playground, parents' support group, soccer camp, place for music lessons, and green oasis in the busy city center of Florence, Italy. Nidiaci Community Garden is not managed by city agencies, but is stewarded by the parents of the Oltrarno neighborhood, who manage this rare place for children. It is:

the only neighborhood of the [city] center not yet completely overwhelmed by pubcrawling and fashion shops.

This is quite an achievement for a part of Florence that attracts millions of tourists each year to restaurants and nightlife, and that is pressured by intense gentrification. The area is clogged with traffic-infested roads, students who live in nearby dormitories, and encircled by a wasteland of motorways, factories, the airport and an incinerator.

In a short history of The Nidiaci as a commons in an urban context, resident Miguel Martinez wrote in 2016:

"By keeping social ties and community solidarity alive in one of Europe's most symbolic historic districts, we are an element of resistance to this design of things."

# Legal Status and Location

In 1920, the American Red Cross gave funds "to an Entity" which "should deal with popular instruction and education, with special attention to children." The sum was invested in the purchase of this garden and buildings around it.

These origins were largely forgotten until the founding legal documents were rediscovered by neighborhood residents. That spurred a neighborhood campaign against developers and city officials to establish the legal basis for reviving the children's garden, and then to persuade city authorities to permit residents to manage the place themselves.


# How did it start?

Even though the urban plot that comprises the garden area was formally public property, it was neglected by city authorities for years. Part of land fell into the hands of real estate speculators, who tried to turn adjacent buildings into flats and the garden into a parking lot. This development led to many demonstrations and petitions by neighborhood residents.

In 2011, Matteo Renzi (wiki ), then Mayor of Florence, responded that saving the area was for him an "absolute and irrevocable priority." But one year later, the roofed area was closed down and the children were driven out. The families of San Frediano (the neighborhood's name) got together and finally obtained the keys to the part of the garden still in public hands.

# How is the garden managed?

Neighbourhood residents set up a properly registered association, to make a legal body entitled to sign a four year "convention" with the municipality in order to manage, for free, the area, a convention which has recently (in 2017) been renewed.

While much of the area is used as a playground, an important feature of the "garden" is that neighborhood residents themselves can decide how the space should be used. Some of those activities include: - Hosting the only self-managed football school in town, where children learn to enjoy playing and not just winning; - English lessons by a British writer; - Violin lessons by a Portuguese musician; - Open exchanges of children's clothes for free by parents, to avoid waste; - Managing a small community garden; - Work on monitoring pollution and traffic using equipment provided by the National Research Council; - singing lessons with an opera singer - the chance to organise birthday parties for children in a very cramped area, where parents have to pay considerable sums to rent space for parties - and much else.

A typical "garden" activity. source

One of the residents involved in stewarding the garden, describes how the Nidiaci Community Garden reflects the neighborhood itself, giving it a special character:

"[F]amilies taking their children to a garden are naturally a representative cross-section of the population: this means we provide a strong element of social integration in an area where 40% of the children come from families born abroad, while at the same time we keep strong ties with the 'traditional' community of craftspeople, small shopkeepers and the uniquely Florentine 'calcio storico'.”


The Nidiaci Community Garden is a strong and relatively rare european example of an inner-city park managed directly by commoners. In their joint management, residents show their desire to Cultivate Shared Purpose & Values. They recognize that this is a collective enterprise that requires an Ubuntu-Rationality (although they don't use that term).

There is no strict calculation of work performed with benefits received; the garden can only run if residents Contribute Freely, Pool & Share or Pool, Cap & Divide Up.There is a "cap", as there are sometimes competing claims on the space at specific times, which residents need to deal with.

In managing the garden, residents Practice Gentle Reciprocity. Activities are for free or, when costs must he paid, co-financed by voluntary contributions. By helping children spend time outdoors, one might say that the garden helps Deepen Interdependency on Nature in modest ways (which is certainly more necessary in a crowded city).

The ability of the neighborhood to manage their own space reflects a willingness to Trust Situated Knowing and to be creatively adaptive The garden itself provides a space for parents to engage more fully with their children and with other parents -- i.e., to Honor Care & Decommodified Work.

# Peer Governance in the Commons

In its peer governance of the garden, neighborhood residents clearly wish to Keep Commons & Commerce Distinct and Develop Shared Purpose & Values. However, they must respect the city government's ultimate authority over the land.

Set Semi-Permeable Boundaries: The Nidiaci Gardens have physical walls and a gate, and the legal right to turn out trouble makers, something not all gardens/parks have. As one resident put it:

It may sound "reactionary", but being open to the global world would wipe us out in a few minutes.

The basic distinction is: "people we know/have relationships with" vs. "unknown people". There is no problem whatsoever with the ethnic or religious background of people the neighbors we know and have a relationship with. And relationships can be built, this is what makes the boundary permeable.

Related to the former, the garden is meant to Rely on Discrimination Free Infrastructures in principle. The Convention signed with the City of Florence states, that the garden is open to ALL children and those accompanying them, and to those carrying out activities at the garden. This avoids any discrimination, while at the same time leaving the community the right to "tolerate decent people who don't fit into these categories, and expel troublemakers".

Most importantly, parents and residents Pool & Share: they bring their talents (teaching football, music, a foreign language, etc.) and share them with the children.

There is no "resource" to allocate in the Nidiaci Garden beyond access and use rights to a limited amount of space at specific times (after school and weekends especially). Most of these decisions are made consensually through a neighborhood committee, which in turn interacts with the city government as needed. Everyone can be part of the deliberations and decisionmaking, as a way to Assure Commoners' Consent in Decisionmaking.

However, because the neighborhood wants to retain its authority and entitlements over the Garden, residents are quite determined to Protect & Extend Value Sovereignty. They want to assure their long-term, quasi-independent authority over how the park shall be used. Legally "every Italian/European" has "the same rights everywhere". The problem therefore is:

... that any entrepreneur who wants a nice green space to hold fashion shows has the same right to "our" garden as we do. According to this doctrine, there is no reason why Amici del Nidiaci should manage the garden and not Gucci Moda.

In a city where every square meter is potentially valuable on the real estate market, the Nidiaci Garden is an impressive effort to Relationalize Property by showing that city spaces can be successfully be used and managed by the community.

To make this work, there are various events in the life of the garden -- the children's football games, the exchange of used children's clothing, etc. -- that attempt to Ritualize Togetherness.

As in most neighborhoods, information flows rather freely and there is a general openness about how responsibilities and entitlements are allocated. Share Knowledge Often & Widely.

# External Politics and Culture A resident says: "We have decided to do everything legally and generally avoid confrontation with the authorities, while occasionally showing we can mobilize and protest."

Peer-Governance in Nidiaci Community Garden implies total independence from both majority and opposition politicians, whom are treated in the same polite manner. They are being asked for help when necessary and giving nothing in return.

The authorities know they have nothing to fear from us, but at the same time everything to lose if they go against us, because of the very broad support we enjoy.

To be clear, the Comune who lets the neighborhood use government property has to show that they somehow gain an advantage by doing so (Gucci Moda can certainly give the Comune more money than the Amici del Nidiaci).

To contrast this, Amici del Nidiaci managed to introduce two concepts into the "patti per la gestione dei beni comuni" of the Comune di Firenze: territoriality and "gestione democratica".


# Realms of Commoning

# Sources

Amici del Nidiaci in Oltrarno, an English-language website, provides a listing of specific activities and practices at the Nidiaci Community Garden. html

Nidiaci Community Garden website, in Italian. html

David Bollier blog post, "Nidiaci, an Oasis of commoning in a busy city", March 2017. html

Miguel Martinez, Giardino Nidiaci Oltrarno Area. html