A project to explore how the commons transform public action in Europe
La Cascina Roccafranca, an atypical neighborhood house

On the occasion of our first mobility trip in northern Italy in February 2019, we visited the Cascina Roccafranca, one of the 18 neighborhood houses in the city of Turin, which has existed since 2007. There is a nursery, a children’s lounge female reading, English lessons for 2-3 year olds, cafeteria, assistance center… For the year 2019, the Cascina hosted 250 different activities, all carried out by local players (associations, informal groups, individuals), and just over 200 events (birthdays, retirement parties, children’s parties, etc.)

Cascina Roccafranca could be roughly defined as a neighborhood socio-cultural center, but it is distinguished by a number of characteristics – its history, its state of mind, its functions, its management model, its relationships with the neighborhood, etc.- which make it unique. Back on the distinctive elements of this device.

Neighborhood houses to stimulate active citizenship

La Cascina Roccafranca is part of the Neighborhood Houses, a Turinese device close to a socio-cultural center intended to host the most diverse educational, cultural and sporting activities, carried out by local players.

Set up at the end of the 2000s, these neighborhood houses are places thought of as “empty boxes”: their function is to bring together, create socializations, and allow people, ideas and projects to develop. Local associations, community groups, informal groups, families are invited to take advantage of the space to support their initiatives. The programming of the place is therefore very bottom-up, and comes only from the inhabitants, responsible in turn for the team to guarantee a good balance between the public. It is a concrete application of the principle of active citizenship to socio-cultural action and social cohesion: here the users of the places are not simply the beneficiaries of a service, but they are the main actors of what is going on in the neighborhood house.

The mechanism seems to appeal to residents, as evidenced by some 3,500 visits per week, the 80 associations and informal partner groups and the forty or so volunteers who work within the structure.

In a second step, once the appropriation of the inhabitants had been widely demonstrated, certain public services were also added to the site – social services, help desks. The community center has also played a structuring role in the establishment of collaboration pacts in Turin, playing the role of intermediary between citizens and city services.

A public-citizen co-porting registered in the DNA of the project

One of the challenges of neighborhood houses is therefore the involvement and appropriation of this tool by residents and local actors already active in the neighborhood. The mixed public-citizen dimension of the place is inscribed in the genesis, in the assembly and in the operating mode of the Cascina.

Born from a European project, La Cascina, aimed to regenerate a neighborhood by involving local stakeholders and residents. Local residents and stakeholders were involved from the outset of the project through a participatory design process.

This phase resulted in the creation of an atypical structure testifying to the ambition displayed by the parties in terms of co-sponsorship: an atypical foundation in participation. Unlike conventional foundations (a subject that carries goods), there are two types of members here. On the one hand, the founder – the municipality of Turin – who brings the building, the staff and some services to the foundation, is a valued contribution as material goods. On the other, the participating members – nearly 35 associations – who bring to the foundation ideas, projects, their availability, … and whose contribution is valued as intangible contributions. They are gathered in the “college of participants” and participate in the directive of the foundation. The board of directors consists of 5 people, including 3 nominated by the city of Turin and 2 from the college of participants.

This co-sponsorship is also found in the physiognomy of the management team of the neighborhood house, which is mixed between city officials seconded (for the pure management trades) and local players in the field (for animation) , and everyone has a voice on the strategic choices of the neighborhood house.

The operation in “small local businesses” includes a strong radical change of public officials, who manage to change posture through contact with other non-civil servant members of the team, and the deinstitutionalized environment of the place.


Sustain the model

However, the sustainability of this type of project raises questions. La Cascina is funded at 65% by subsidies and self-financing (lease to restaurants, rentals to associations that carry paid activities, rentals to private actors (birthdays …), donations) and 35% from a private foundation (San Paolo foundation). The latter funding is the result of an agreement between the city of Turin and the San Paolo foundation for all neighborhood houses, facilitated by the fact that the banks have a form of initiative sponsorship obligation at local level .

But the assembly testifies to a relative financial disengagement of the public actor: apart from the provision of half of the team, and the provision of the place, the city does not pay any direct money for the operation, and the trend is to encourage the construction of an autonomous economic model. The question arises of the maintenance of free education and access to activities in this context.

On the political level, this model also presents weaknesses: intrinsically dependent on the provision of the place by the City, there is a possibility that everything will stop in the event of a change of political edge. Even if today this risk is more theoretical than real: the Cascina Roccafranca is integrated into the local landscape and adopted by the community, and furthermore recognized as a local public facility such as a library, it is therefore unlikely that a municipal team will take the risk of closing it.

By Louise Guillot

Thanks to Renato Bergamin, director of Cacsina Roccafranca, for his testimony.

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