Urban Development and The Bolognese Way

The Pilastro Case and Its Community-Based-Development Approach — A Case-Study Analysis.

A satellite view of the Pilastro neighbourhood, in Bologna, Italy. | Credits: Bologna City Council, Urban Center website.

Nota bene

This case-study was written for the Urban Law and Policy course, taught by Prof. Christian Iaione at LUISS University in Rome, Italy.


This case-study relies on the community-based experience of the Pilastro North-East Agency, a territorial development agency which has the aim to create the conditions for more economic and social development in a suburban area of Bologna, the 3rd most important city in terms of economic wealth in Italy.

“Quartiere Pilastro” is a neighbourhood, part of the “San Donato–San Vitale” district, in Bologna, chief town of the Emilia-Romagna Region. The area is located in the NE part of the city, and the original local administrations’ plan was to use this space to build new houses and apartments for the many immigrants coming from the South of Italy in the 60s. Bologna, as a matter of fact, experienced large flows of immigrants coming from the South of Italy in the 1970s. Criminality and non-integrated immigrants are now the main problem for Public Administrations (PAs), as well as the need to give assistance to old people.

Applying the methodology proposed by Prof. Sheila Foster and Prof. Christian Iaione in the publication Ostrom in the City: Design Principles for the Urban Commons, conclusions suggest that the Pilastro area is now undergoing a change, both in terms of social interactions among its residents and the relationship between the City Council and its citizens. From what has been described sometimes as a total and complete disaster, referring to the fact that there was no relation between the City and the Pilastro Village, with consequent violent actions and uncontrolled organised crime, the Pilastro area seems to have discovered a new point of contact between its local community and Bologna. The path towards a more collaborative governance is set, but there are still many implementations, also in terms of cultural change, that need to be put in place.

Urban Development and Communities: Co-Cities

Redefining urban development is a new priority for our generations. Not just because of the growing number of people living in cities, but also because sustainable development has become a crucial aspect in defining our future and the future of the next generations. Keeping this in mind, many scientists, academics and professionals have tried to come up with some solutions, both theoretical and practical ones, studying how local communities and citizens living in urban environments think, act and what they really desire for the places where they live. In particular, this short paper takes into consideration as a premise the Co-Cities project, a research carried on by Prof. Sheila Foster, Prof. Christian Iaione, Ostrom in the City: Design Principles for the Urban Commons.

The Co-Cities project investigates those new forms of collaborative city-making that are leading urban areas towards new forms of participatory urban governance, inclusive economic growth and social innovation. It is rooted on the conceptual pillars of the urban commons, and it comprehends a protocol, a methodology and five design principles that are in the process of being tested in selected European and American cities

But what does it mean to be a Co-City? Looking at the definition that the Co-Cities website provides,

a Co-City is based on urban co-governance which implies shared, collaborative, polycentric governance of the urban commons and in which environmental, cultural, knowledge and digital urban resources are co-managed through contractual or institutionalized public-private-community partnerships. Collaborative, polycentric urban governance involves different forms of resource pooling and cooperation between five possible actors — social innovators (i.e. active citizens, city makers, digital collaboratives, urban regenerators, community gardeners, etc.), public authorities, businesses, civil society organizations, and knowledge institutions (i.e. schools, universities, cultural institutions, museums, academies, etc.). These partnerships give birth to local peer-to-peer experimental, physical, digital and institutional platforms with three main aims: fostering social innovation in urban welfare provision, spurring collaborative economies as a driver of local economic development, promoting inclusive urban regeneration of blighted areas. Public authorities play an important enabling role in creating and sustaining the Co-City. The ultimate goal is to create a more just and democratic city.

The Object of The Analysis

The analysis proposed here tries to evaluate the Pilastro neighbourhood of the city of Bologna in terms of urban commons, governance tools and techniques, actors involved and partnerships.

Pilastro: a Special Neighbourhood

Looking at the different areas of the city of Bologna, it is possible to say that Pilastro is a special neighbourhood. Not just because of its historical background, but also because of its composition.

The Pilastro area was originally designed by architects and engineers, starting from 1962, when the Independent Institute for Public Housing (Istituto autonomo case popolari) proposed the creation of a new housing complex. In that period, one of the main problems for the city of Bologna — and for many other cities in the North of Italy — was actually to offer new spaces and accommodation to immigrants coming from the South of Italy, who wanted to work for bolognese industries and companies. Bologna is, in fact, one of the most important productive centres of the country.

First buildings in the area. | Credits: Pilastro2016.

The Pilastro “Village” (Villaggio), as it was called at that time, was inaugurated in 1966. Together with the main buildings, new green areas, playing and sports fields were consequently opened to the public, as well as a shopping mall. The idea was to create a totally self-sufficient complex, applying new architectural techniques and design. Ultimately, this was an experiment, a new way to approach urban development and many were the opportunities for all the professionals involved. The aim of rethinking urban development and the concept of creating new areas for communities and not just inhabitants partly explains the interesting architecture of some buildings, in particular of the one called “il Virgolone” (in ENG, the big comma).

All these pictures are taken from the “Archivio del Circolo La Fattoria”. All rights reserved.

At that time, the Pilastro was composed of 411 apartments, one-fifth of the planned final amount, and basic services such as water, heating, parking, paved roads, public transportation facilities, public healthcare centres and public schools were still not in place, but more than 2500 people decided to move to the area.

Where a part of the bolognese countryside used to be, new, large buildings started to dominate the landscape. As a matter of fact, it is no coincidence that the neighbourhood’s name is Pilastro. Especially in the South of Italy, but in the North of the country too, there used to be and there are still some pilastrini, small structures built for religious devotion. It seems that Pilastro was chosen as a name exactly because at the end of the main road “Via del Pilastro” (in ENG, Pilastro street) of this area, there was one of these small structures. A reproduction of the original pilastrino was later built, as you can see in the picture. Other architectural elements are described in this video (ITA).

Coming back to the development dynamics of Pilastro, continuous migratory waves from the South of the country and from other nations — especially from Kosovo — have created a multicultural community and an unprecedented development of the area, which resulted also in rising issues of integration and ghettoisation. Pilastro has always had problems in terms of security. In 1991, a criminal gang known as “Uno Bianca” killed three Carabinieri soldiers in what has been called “the Pilastro massacre”. This is just an example of the evident social issues that governors and public authorities need to consider when designing policies or approving new projects for the area.

Currently, the 16% of the residents at Pilastro is foreign, with more than 14 ethnicities. Moreover, 3:10 is the old people/residents ratio in the area. More than 30% of the residents is >80 years old.

“The Pilastro massacre” memorial, dedicated to the three “Carabinieri” who were killed by the “Uno Bianca” criminal gang in 1991.

Urban Commons, Co-Bologna & Pilastro

In order to properly evaluate the outcomes of any policy, it is crucially important to understand, at first, its original objectives. How the Co-City approach and theory has been implemented in Bologna? What are the main public policy makers’ objectives for Pilastro? Ultimately, is there any strategy?

To begin this background analysis, we can say that there is a strategy that can be taken into consideration. For instance, at Pilastro, the Co-City approach and theory has been applied in drafting the strategic planning called “Pilastro 2016”. Pilastro 2016 was a public policy designed by the City of Bologna between 2014 and 2016, financed with contributions from the Emilia–Romagna Regional Government and the Monte di Bologna and Ravenna Foundation, with the collaboration of the Camelot Cooperative — Officine Cooperative.

The Pilastro2016 Strategy

The main goal of this public policy was to create an urban community cooperative, a special kind of cooperative where bottom-up and top-down initiatives and programmes coexist. It is also important to highlight how this has been implemented. The Pilastro2016 project, for instance, wanted to create at least three main entities: (1) a Local Development Agency, to guarantee the governance of the community through a partnership between the private and public sectors, as well as the local community; (2) a Community Cooperative, and finally (3) a Community Centre (Casa di Comunità), to give residents and active individuals a place where they could discuss new projects, express their needs and achieve solutions.

Moreover, the Pilastro2016 plan envisaged:

  1. urban regeneration measures, such as the implementation of a new LED street lighting, the regeneration of paved streets and platforms, the restoration of old buldings, the creation of new spaces for educational purposes;
  2. activities and services for the local community: long-life-learning projects, empowerment, support to new social startups, workshops and other services;
  3. the creation of 3 other programmes: (1) the Community Development Programme (Cantiere Sviluppo di Comunità), managed by the a local and already existing cooperative, Camelot; (2) the Territorial Narrative Programme (Cantiere Narrazione del Territorio), managed by other local NPOs, Laminarie/DOM, la cupola del Pilastro; (3) the Collaborative Communication and Documentation Programme (Cantiere Comunicazione e Documentazione partecipata), managed by another local NPO, Open Group.

This strategy was approved by the local authorities not only to provide a response to the growing concerns of the citizens about security issues and social exclusion in the area, but also because case-studies analyses and other publications were suggesting that community-based approaches led to better results and outcomes if properly applied. The original intentions of the main entities involved in this project are discussed in the Interviews section of this article.

In March 2016, the Pilastro North-East Agency was created as a Italian Nonprofit Organisation (NPO). Its founders were the Bologna City Council, the San Donato District Administration, ACER Bologna, Emil Banca, Centro Agroalimentare Bologna, Consorzio Centro Commerciale Meraville e Fondazione Unipolis. All these entities or companies that have special interests in the area for political, social responsibility or economic reasons.

A picture of the Mastro Pilastro people. | Credits: Pilastro2016.

As part of the Pilastro2016 project, the so-called “Mastro Pilastro” group was also created, an Association of Urban Community/Community Cooperative which offers neighborhood services to residents and is made up of a group of Pilastro residents aged between 18 and 30, selected among young people in the area looking for work. The aim of this community cooperative is to bring together social, cultural and entrepreneurial capitals.

The business canvas used by the local community to understand and highlight the needs, the competences and proposals for the creation of the new Community Cooperative and the new open-air theatre in the main green area of Pilastro. | Credits: Co-Bologna & Pilastro2016.

And it is no coincidence that Mastro Pilastro was created with these services in mind. As a matter of fact, the City of Bologna decided to apply, together with other stakeholders, a collaborative approach: the citizens had the opportunity to join the conversation and co-design this association. An example of this collaborative approach is shown in the picture above, a business model canvas (in ITA) that had been used by the local community to understand and highlight the needs, the competences and the proposals for the creation of the new community cooperative.

In addition to the creation of Mastro Pilastro in a collaborative way, other interventions were made with this approach. For example, the new open-air theatre now placed in the main green area of Pilastro was co-designed and realised by the local community. But also other measures were finally implemented by the City Council, as the interventions map below clearly shows.

The total investment for the Pilastro2016 project was around € 2.455.000.

A map of the interventions planned by the City Council in the area in terms of urban regeneration. | Credits: Bologna Urban Centre. Here you can find the original file, for higher quality picture.

The Actors Involved: a Broader Picture

But which are the actors involved? What are the interests and the economic resources? Apart from the people and the permanent residents living in the Pilastro area, the private and public actors which have their interests there should be taken into consideration. Not just because they have the power to invest economic resources— giving their contribute to the economic development — , but also because it is the enabling State that makes the difference. In other terms, it is clear that both the private and public sectors are important.

The Public Sector

As it has been said in other publications and research studies on this topic, it is the enabling State which makes the difference and

sustains collective action for the urban commons.

Therefore, we need to look at the public sector and at the institutions involved. In this case, it could be said that only 4 are the most important public actors playing a crucial role. Some of them have been already mentioned in previous paragraphs.

  1. Of course, the first is the Bologna City Council Comune di Bologna. The City Council is one of the most prominent actors, as it has many interests in seeing the Pilastro area to be developed. Not just for economic reasons — Bologna is already the 3rd city in Italy in terms of economic wealth — , but also in terms of security. As it has been shown, Pilastro has always been a difficult one. Attracting more businesses and companies in the area, generating more wealth and, ultimately, economic growth, might mitigate and possibly solve this aspect (even if, it must be underlined, social exclusion is a critical issue that requires more than just investments).
  2. Second, the University of Bologna (UniBo), globally renown as the oldest university in world. UniBo has some interests in the area because of its buildings dedicated to Agrarian studies, a centre which hosts not just researchers and professors, but also students and their classes. Therefore, it could be said that security, more public transportation connections and more investments in the area would be seen as interesting.
  3. Third, the San Donato–San Vitale District Administration, whose competence comprehends also the administration of Pilastro, because of a very recent reorganisation of administrative boundaries within the city of Bologna. The District Administration President, Simone Borsari, also interviewed for this research project, has always clarified in various occasions that the ultimate strategy of the District Administration for Pilastro is to create a completely new reality, centred on citizens and on the local community.
  4. Fourth, we have the higher levels of government: the Emilia–Romagna Regional Government and the National (Italian) Government. We need to consider these institutions — even if it seems to be difficult to imagine the Prime Minister as interested in how Pilastro will develop in the future — because it is important to remember that also these public actors define where potential regional and national resources can be invested, and which projects deserve the attention not just of their administrations, but also of politics. Especially if we consider the last 4 years, all the 3 governments–Bologna City Council, Regional and National Governments–were over the control of the same political party: the Democratic Party (PD). Consequently, politics plays a crucially important role in how public investments have been managed and approved.

Other public actors which should be highlighted:

  • ACER Bologna, which is a regional agency devoted to managing public houses and providing services related to urban policies.
  • CAAB, the Agri-Food Centre of Bologna, a publicly owned agency which logistically controls the food market in the region.
FICO’s HQ. | Source: FICO Eataly World website.

The Private/Social Sector

Among the many businesses and companies involved in the strategic economic plan, there are some main entities that can be highlighted. More specifically, 5 specific actors:

  1. First, the Del Monte Foundation, which economically sustained the investments made for the Pilastro2016 strategic plan. The foundation is a NPO, devoted to support any project that might create more social solidarity among the bolognese citizens and community.
  2. Second, we have the Meraville Shopping Centre, which is situated in the Norther part of the Pilastro area, and it has been defined also by the press as the public place of Pilastro.
  3. Third, Emil Banca, a credit union based on social responsibility. It operates in Bologna and other areas in the Emilia–Romagna Region.
  4. Fourth, FICO, a newborn entity owned by Eataly, a renown Italian company. FICO has its HQ situated in the NE part of the Pilastro area, and it could potentially attract thousands of visitors and tourists, which explains why FICO is interested in investings in the area to make sure that there are proper transportation connections to the town centre and other public services (as well as, of course, security).
  5. Fifth, Unipolis Foundation, part of the Unipol Bank Group.

The Methology: Designing Principles

Prof. Sheila Foster and Prof. Christian Iaione, with the above-mentioned paper, Ostrom in the City: Design Principles for the Urban Commons, identified 5 key design principles for the urban commons:

Principle 1: Collective governance refers to the presence of a multi-stakeholder governance scheme whereby the community emerges as an actor and partners up with at least three different urban actors
Principle 2: Enabling State expresses the role of the State in facilitating the creation of urban commons and supporting collective action arrangements for the management and sustainability of the urban commons.
Principle 3: Social and Economic Pooling refers to the presence of different forms of resource pooling and cooperation between five possible actors in the urban environment
Principle 4: Experimentalism is the presence of an adaptive and iterative approach to designing the legal processes and institutions that govern urban commons.
Principle 5: Tech Justice highlights access to technology, the presence of digital infrastructure, and open data protocols as an enabling driver of collaboration and the creation of urban commons

In this section, we will analyse the Pilastro projet using these principles. Other case-studies have been analysed using these variables for the Co-Cities report, which will soon be published on the platform commoning.city.

However, with the aim of better understanding the complexity of the relations, of the different interests and of the historical background, 2 interviews were carried out to support the analysis.

  1. The first person interviewed is Prof. Duccio Caccioni, CAAB’s Quality Director and currently also President of the Pilastro NE Agency and Professor at the University of Bologna, School of Business;
  2. The second interview is with Simone Borsari, President of the San Donato–San Vitale District, where the Pilastro area belongs to in terms of administration boundaries.

A third interview is quoted in this paper, but it had been carried out by Prof. De Nictolis — teaching assistant at LUISS University — with Ilaria Daolio, Pilastro2016 project manager, for the Co-Cities report.

These interviews will be quoted in some paragraphs to support arguments and to better explain some specific aspects. Other interviews have been carried out, in particular to define and analyse the historical and social background of the Pilastro area, but the names of the people interviewed are not be quoted for reasons of confidentiality.

The Urban gardens area created by CAAB in the Pilastro neighbourhood. Left: Duccio Caccioni, CAAB’s Quality Director. Right: Launch press conference at the Bologna Urban Center. | Source: Bologna City Council and CAAB.

P1: Collective governance

It can be said that in terms of collective governance, the City Council has been able to perfectly integrate many different actors in the management of the entire process. Not only because both public and private actors economically invested in the project, but also because the governing body of the Pilastro NE Agency is composed of representatives from different entities. Therefore, it can be said that this principle has been respected and completely achived. On a scale from 1 to 5–1 being worst, 5 being best — , the Pilastro2016 project can successfully pass this test with a 5. Partnerships are strong, and together with its Urban Centre the City Council has been able to create the right dynamics to create a common interest towards the area. In his interview, Prof. Caccioni explained that

“the founders of this Agency are the main economic entities of the bolognese territory.”

While President Borsari stressed the fact that

“the Agency has no noble patrons, it survives only thanks to the contributions of its members.”


“In the case of international or European projects, we can rely on other international partners which do not belong to the territorial community, but they always have an interest in investing in this area or to create connections with some local entities.”

P2: Enabling State

This aspect has been analysed many times throughout this paper. It is clear that here the enabling state is particularly strong, because both the Regional Government and the City Council have actively promoted the project. Therefore, bureaucracy here did not create serious issues, on the contrary. In this sense it is interesting to highlight that the Pilastro2016 project manager was an officer of the City Council, Ilaria Daolio, who works in the Sector for Housing Services of Bologna. Ms. Daolio described the role of the City Administration as

“an enabler, and the main issue is that this project has very ambitious goals. For instance, only the creation of the Agency has been achieved as an objective, out of the 3 goals that had been set out.”

During our interview, Prof. Caccioni highlighted also the fact that

“the 50th foundation anniversary of the Pilastro village was the occasion for starting this project, which was fiercely advocated by the City Council. They really wanted to create a Territorial Development Agency.”

5 out of 5 is the score that has been assigned to this project in relation to this principle.

P3: Social and Economic Pooling

Again, because of P1 and P2, it must be said that it is quite easy to understand that the resources put in place were many and it is interesting to see how different the entities involved are. We have Nonprofits, Banks, Foundations, Cooperatives, Public authorities, many different actors involved in managing and providing resources for this community. Moreover, it is interesting to see that also the community is contributing to the project: Mastro Pilastro is providing for instance an incredible social capital that would have been difficult to organise otherwise. In relation to this principle, 4 out of 5 has been assigned as a score, because it is not clear how the relationship between the Agency and the Community Cooperative will be in the coming years. In theory, the cooperative should be the operative branch of the agency.

Prof. Caccioni said during the interview that, in the future,

“we would like to transform it (Mastro Pilastro) into an agricultural holding, but there are bureaucratic steps to be carried out, which require also time. The final objectives are to achieve economic and social development in the territory. Within this framework, we would like to achieve more occupation for the so-called “neet”, unemployed young people.”

While President Borsari underlined that

“there are always initiatives to engage with the citizens, such as the 108 urban gardens assigned to large families, unemployed people and people in difficulty”.

P4: Experimentalism

This is one of the most difficult aspects to analyse when referring to urban commons, because statutes and legal acts need to be taken into consideration. Fortunately, interviews have simplified the comprehension of different processes, and of the statute of the Agency.

While trying to explain the governance of this entity, Prof. Caccioni, during his interview, said that

“there are mainly 3 pillars for what concerns the activities of the Agency. First, economic development projects, in particular for what concerns agricultural projects in urban areas. Preserving the environment and the landscape of the countryside is an important aspect that we take into consideration. Second, sustainable energetic projects, which should ultimately create a community where energy is shared. We have also launched in this sense a tender with the European Programme “Climate KIC”, together with the city of Malmo, in Sweden. Third, we have social programmes.”

A score of 4 out of 5 has been assigned in this case, as it is true that we should consider this approach as completely new and out of the normal public policies theories, but at present there is no direct representation of the residents inside the governing body, the Agency. Citizens have no control over the Agency, apart from the fact that the City Council, represented within the Agency, is controlled by politicians elected in the municipal and district elections. It would be important to rethink this structure and maybe to plan the creation of formal and mandatory annual review processes, with direct meetings with the residents and tools for collecting feedbacks from the population.

P5: Tech Justice

For what concerns technology, at the moment we can consider only the Pilastro2016 website, where citizens can collect information and read news about Pilastro. However, no apps or other tech solutions have been implemented so far. Maybe, in the future, Mastro Pilastro will implement technological changes to give the possibility to residents to ask for their services using their smartphones and computers. A score of 0,5 out of 5 has been given in relation to this dimension.

A graphic representation of the scores given to the project using the methodology proposed by Foster S., Iaione C, De Nictolis E. (et al.) Co-Cities report on urban commons transitions (forthcoming 2018). | Credits: elaborated by the author


The Pilastro area is now undergoing a change, both in terms of social interactions among its residents and the relationship between the City Council and its citizens. From what has been described sometimes as a total and complete disaster, referring to the fact that there was no relation between the City and the Pilastro Village, with consequent violent actions and uncontrolled organised crime, the Pilastro area seems to have discovered a new point of contact between its local community and Bologna.

The path towards a more collaborative governance is set, but there are still many implementations, also in terms of cultural change, that need to be put in place. The Pilastro North-East Agency and its operative branches are an extremely interesting experiment of co-governance, but it is also important to see if this approach, decided at the institutional level, will be understood and accepted by the residents and the local community in its complexity. Moreover, the security issue must be solved and any criminal organisation eradicated. No projects will be able to create a strong connection between the entire local community and the Agency if other structures in power are present.

It will be interesting to see how the Agency will connect with its citizens, in particular if any actions will eventually be taken by the Agency to become more accountable in terms of democratic representation. However, some questions remain unsolved: why should residents pay local taxes if the public governing bodies are not able to completely govern the area? Why should any citizen actively participate in the governance of their territory, if representative democracy is the principle at the basis of our institutional system? We will see.

Bibliography and Notes

For more information, you can read the following publications, newspapers articles and documents. Please note that the majority of them are in Italian and not available in English translation.

Casali E. (2009), Al Pilastro, viaggio nel quartiere difficile. LucidaMente, (IV, 39), Bologna: LucidaMente. See: [http://www.lucidamente.com/1541-al-pilastro-viaggio-nel-quartiere-difficile/] (ITA).

All data are taken from the Bologna Urban Centre’s website, Quartiere San Donato (2014), Passaggio a Nord-Est (ITA).

Information on the collaborative approach used by the City of Bologna to design the Community Cooperative have been taken from the final report published by Co-Bologna in partnership with the City of Bologna and the Del Monte Foundation. See: [https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_ZlfXV0kfOjaURsMWhzWDZJZFU/view] (ITA).

Information on the Pilastro2016 project have been taken from the City of Bologna website. See: [http://www.urbancenterbologna.it/images/2014_PROGETTI_RIGENERAZIONE/2014_PILASTRO2016/presentazione_laboratorio_pilastro_2016_21-10-20142.pdf] and [http://www.urbancenterbologna.it/images/quaderni/pilastro_ESE_LR.pdf].

Information on the Mastro Pilastro Cooperative have been taken from the Bologna Urban Centre website. See: [http://www.urbancenterbologna.it/64-urbancenter/pilastro-2016/1422-mastro-pilastro].

S. Foster & C. Iaione, Ostrom in the City: Design Principles and Practices for the Urban Commons (forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of the Study of the Commons (Dan Cole, Blake Hudson, Jonathan Rosenbloom eds. 2018). See [https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2017/08/20/ostrom-city-design-principles-urban-commons/].

Source for the five design principles and the methodology for data collection and analysis: Foster S., Iaione C, De Nictolis E. (et al.) Co-Cities report on urban commons transitions (forthcoming 2018)

Other case-studies will soon be available on the Co-Cities platform. See [http://www.commoning.city].