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UIA Expert Alessandro Coppola chronicles the visit between UIA Cities

Mares de Madrid pursues the development of a new urban, social economy through a range of tools and interventions that are now in full deployment (See Journals 1 and 2). Among them the opening of four multi-functional spaces aimed at supporting new cooperatives in the areas of food, energy, mobility, recycling and care is absolutely central.

Accordingly, the interest in new policies and spaces that in cities are involved in the development of new urban economies has been central in the field visit that a delegation of Mares de Madrid has made in Milan and Bologna in the past month of June. The visit has comprised a wealth of meetings with institutions and organizations engaged in the making of strategies and practices in the fields of the social economy, social innovation, policies of citizens’ collaboration and participation as well as with new and established actors within the cooperative movement. 

Milan: building partnerships to innovate services and created a new generation of urban spaces

In Milan, past and new initiatives in the area of economic development aimed at creating a new public have been at the center of a meeting with the area of economic development of the City of Milan. Efforts to create a network of both public and private (but at times publicly regulated and supported) infrastructure for the development of knowledge-intensive economies – from co-working spaces to fab-labs and other multi-functional facilities – have been discussed (a good, very recent, example is the opening of the Fabriq initiative in the working class neighborhood of Quarto Oggiaro, see

After addressing the issue of the abandoned or under-used public assets, in Milan increasing attention has also been reserved to the future of the traditional, publicly owned covered markets of the city that as elsewhere in Europe are experiencing both decline and innovation as the response to it. A visit to the Mercato Lorenteggio, located in a working class neighbourhood in the city, ( that has been involved in recent years in an overarching project of re-activation though a more effective coordination of the shop-keepers, the regeneration of the space and a wider strategy of engagement with the socially diverse, working-class community that surrounds it (see : has been particularly relevant, also considering the urgency of the issue of communal markets in Madrid.

Always in the same area of the city, the west and south-west that are characterized by a high incidence of public housing dwellings, the visit of the Mare Culturale Urbano ( has represented an opportunity to go more in depth on complex funding and management issues related to the opening of new multifunctional spaces performing cultural, social and productive activities in peripheral areas. Focusing again on new kinds of urban spaces, the opening up of the WEMI spaces ( funded by philanthropic and social entrepreneurial actors has been aimed at innovating traditional ways to do public outreach about existing urban welfare services and to conceive their spatial insertion within the city while creating collaborative ways to produce, acquire and distribute new services. A meeting with the organizers and managers of one of these spaces, Spazio Hug (  and the COMIN cooperative,, has been valuable in unfolding both the role that philanthropic institutions and new social enterprises and established cooperatives play in these ventures.

One more visit to another working-class neighborhood has brought the group to meet with Olinda  (, an organization that has been the leading force in fairly unique case of a cooperative-driven, socially oriented case of bottom-up urban regeneration. Initiated in the 1990s in the framework of the closure of psychiatric hospitals decided in Italy in 1978, Olinda has evolved over time in a local cooperative system of production involving individuals enrolled in mental health programs focused on culture (a theater and an important festival), food (a restaurant, but also a community garden managed by another organization: and a hostel. All projects that have deeply changed, re-functionalized and give new meaning to the decommissioned “Paolo Pini” hospital.

Finally, a meeting regarding the food policy of the city ( has focused on innovation in the field of procurement procedures – the city and metropolitan authorities have supported the creation of locally-based consortiums of producers – and other initiatives focusing on waste and education. In this context, a meeting with the managing group of the UIA initiative OpenAgri ( that is currently engaged in the structuring of a hub for the innovation in production and distribution across the urban agricultural sector in Milan has been pivotal in discussing common themes and interest with the Food Mar (the one space that, among the four, focuses on food) in Madrid. Relying on the legacy of a highly developed local agriculture sector, OpenAgri is a relevant reference point for Mares on how to accelerate the development of projects that have been selected because they address emerging needs in the area of urban food production and distribution.

Bologna: the opportunities and challenges of citizens’ collaboration and participation

Ultimately in Bologna the focus has been on policies supporting residents’ participation to the design and implementation of local initiatives, the involvement of public assets in bottom-up reuse projects involving informal groups and more formalized organizations. A meeting with the staff of the newly founded Fondazione Innovazione Urbana (, the latest evolution of the longer-standing Urban Center, has been the occasion to discuss the evolving framework of citizens’ participation in the city. So-called “urban laboratories” that support residents in the design and articulation of proposals to be submitted to participative budget procedures and in their participation to a wider range of city plans and strategies and “collaborative pacts”, that allow formal and informal groups of residents to be assigned and manage a range of public assets, have been presented and discussed.

Earlier, a visit to Open Group ( has been an occasion to discuss recent trends in the long-standing cooperative movement in Italy coming to know the activities of a large cooperative combining activities in the fields of welfare, culture, services and media. Challenges as the slashing of public funds for welfare determined by the recession and austerity policies have been discussed in their impact on inherited patterns of cooperatives’ development. Cooperatives that are now diversifying their offer of services involving also locally based private companies. Finally, the group has visited the “Velostazione” (, a multi-functional space located that the city administration has assigned to a NGO – “Salvaciclisti” ( advocating for sustainable transportation and urban cycling. Salvaciclisti has been partnering with a newly founded cooperative that now runs a range of services - from a bike-rental for city users and tourists to bike repairing (there are both a space where people can do their own repairs for free) and parking – while at the same time hosting different social activities, events and a bar.  The partnership between Salvaciclisti and Dynamo represents a truly compelling case of convergence between a non-mainstream cooperative model of entrepreneurialism rooted in a social and advocacy purpose and the productive reuse of abandoned public assets by mixing a whole range of functions and hosting different activities promoted by different actors both formal and informal.

Learning from different places: four issues to take home and keep in mind

While both the Madrid’s governance and social environment and the rational and tools of Mares de Madrid present fairly distinctive characteristics as compared to what seen in Milano and Bologna, the field-visit has been an opportunity to reflect upon the wider policy frameworks within which today projects involving socially-driven and oriented economic innovation are promoted in European cities. Some key issues have emerged, issues that appear to be relevant in the deployment of the next steps of the Mares de Madrid initiative. And that have also been discussed in a lively meeting organized by Avanzi (, one of Milan’s leading actors in the field of social innovation, with the participation of activists, researchers and public officials. 

The first issue involves the role that the design of partnerships and of new organizations has played in both Milano and Bologna in making certain innovations in the areas of urban welfare, new work spaces and identities and economic development possible. Both city administrations have reached out to other actors to pursue certain objectives while at times supporting the creation of new ones through different tools such as calls for projects, participative processes, community organisations and development activities. To observe this process in the making has been relevant for a project as Mares de Madrid that is striving to create a new economic sector in the city moving from different entry points such as the support of the new cooperative projects, the involvement of existing neighborhood and urban actors and the outreach towards established social economy actors already operating outside of Madrid.  

The second issue involves the coordination between the choice to locate new high-quality production, service and consumption urban spaces in peripheral neighborhoods and the wider city strategies aiming at territorial equalization and cohesion. Although in different forms, both Milan and Madrid have such strategies that focus on redistribution of public resources to working-class and peripheral areas and both cities are locating new high-quality functions – the four Mar being a very good example of this – able to attract a city-wide if not highly specialized public in these areas. How to integrate these different publics and to articulate a metropolitan and neighborhood vocations is a relevant issue for Mares and for the city of Madrid. From the response to this question depends, in many European cities, the equitable character of urban regeneration and social innovation. 

The third issue, involves the ways in which cities can and do support the development of new cooperatives and other types of collective economic actors. In both cities procurement policies, engagement and mentoring activities, new strategies in the management of public assets, small grant-making initiatives support the sustainability of existing cooperatives and the creation of new-ones in contexts were the cooperative sector is however historically strong and rooted. How to mix different tools will be a key question in the further development of Mares de Madrid that has however already contributed to this conversation by designing and implementing innovative tools such as the self-learning communities (comunidades de aprendizaje) and the many mentoring and participative activities described in the journals.

Finally, the last issue involves the challenges related to the funding and management of complex urban spaces combining economic activities, support and mentoring, social welfare and community organizing. Experiences observed in both cities are valuable in this sense and the four Mar – the Mar focusing on energy is already open in its final form, while the other three are about too – will surely contribute to this wider conversation offering the specificity of spaces that will also host very material productive activities such as the ones associated to food and recycling while being completely under public ownership.

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