Public Spaces and Urban Cultures


Published at: 25 September 2017

Italian Research Network TU – TRACCE URBANE
AESOP TG PS-UC, Thematic Group “Public Space and Urban Cultures”
Sapienza University of Rome
Rome, 2017 December 11th-13th



In the contemporary city, we are witnessing different “practices of re-appropriation of space” and self-organization: regeneration of empty buildings, spaces of cultural production, urban gardens, renewed green areas given as well as public spaces re-shaped through practices of commoning; beside this, we could also mention experimentations that are activating new social services and welfare spaces, and squatting projects which are defining different modes of co-existence, housing and service provision.

This is a vast field of activity and experiences - both illegal and legal - with the widespread involvement and the leading role of the inhabitants, individually or in associations, and other local actors, challenging roles and meanings of the institutions.

We should consider in particular micro-practices that are able to broaden and transform the city and urban societies, alongside more stable forms of social production. A specific kind of “collaborative city making” built upon a mix of practices, social relations and modes of local activation.

As a consequence, the way we are looking at the city is radically changing: questioning the relationship between the State and the citizens, these processes of self-organization are re-configuring both the mechanism of place making as well as the organization of social relations and local services.

These practices of re-appropriation are representing different modes of city organization as well as different cultures of action/policy making in the contemporary city. They are also representing different modes of what ‘public’ means in the city: some practices of re-appropriation are acting as collective actions that take into consideration the mechanism of social inclusion, while others are acting in a way which could be described more as private, or specific only to some groups and thus quite often with exclusive impacts, rather than designing public/collective actions and open access.

Among these practices, many of them are re-opening spaces or re-activating some specific territories/neighbourhoods benefiting from very localized creativity and capitalizing on social relations that are fully embedded in local societies.

These experimentations are focused on action that is simultaneously redefining the modes of social conflict as well as the routines and spaces of citizenship. Sites where these practices may eventually unfold, that are produced by these practices can be considered as arenas where to experiment and shape political capacity, thus challenging the very functioning of local democracy.

Discussing the tension between the different models of local activation and cultural/political production and the problematic erosion of the capacity of institutions in answering local need, we consider whether practices of re-appropriation are de facto substituting the role of institutions as well as weakening the transformative impact of traditional social conflict; and so doing reinforcing neoliberalism, and, as a consequence, an unequal distribution of disadvantages and uneven geographies in unstable contexts.

The topic is fully in focus on the theme ‘Unstable Geographies - Dislocated Publics’ developed by the AESOP Thematic Group on Public Spaces and Urban Cultures. Urban life is characterized by diverse manifestations of instability which continuously stretch or redefine the processes of city making, the production of space and place, the sense of institutions and their relationship with the inhabitants (organized or not), the diverse “cultures of public”, the everyday struggles related to the capitalist system of production, the role of the politics.



The general theme will be articulated into three main focuses developed in different sessions, illustrated by the following call for papers:

1. Historical and cultural roots/rooting (as praxix) of self-organization in the city.

Planners have often confused reality with its representation, mistaking the city for the map that represents it. They have not sufficiently thought about the city as a dynamic set of people and of places produced by the visible and invisible relations that people establish with their living environments, but as a combination of forms and signs, situated in a space they imagined as continuous and homogeneous. By separating form from life, they conceived the city not as a process, not as the result of complex practices and social relationships, but as a drawing, as a mental product, designed in a laboratory or in a cabinet, and then projected, all at once and imperiously, on a territory they imagine empty, lacking life and history. On the contrary, the history of the city and urban life and of the territories themselves are crucial to understand how, if we focus on the moment when the city emerges as a coherent spatial agglomeration, we frequently underestimate what Soja calls «dynamic processes associated with the spatiality of social life and the social construction of human geographies».

Through the history, it is evident how processes of self-organization and self-management have a founding role in the shaping of different forms of territoriality. These processes cannot be reduced to classical dichotomies such as public/private; instead, they are connected with different forms of association, aimed at the production of common goods. They are specific forms of production of urban and territorial space, which have been produced by different historical processes, intimately linked with the cultural and environmental nature of the various geographic contexts. They have been called into question and marginalized by the establishment of modern nation states, or of colonial empires. It is crucial to investigate the rationality (the “collective intelligence”) that directs these experiences. It can be understood starting from the relation with the environment and with the territorial context, a founding element that constitutes specific cultures, abilities, competences, forms of relationship. By comparing different situations, we can reach a wider understanding of the complexity and richness of processes and cultures that took roots in them.

This panel investigates this huge set of problems, and aims to bring back the attention on the historic and cultural roots of self-organization, on its diversity, and on the organic and participative approaches to planning that try to highlight not only the dynamics of production of space, but also the different forms that the right to the city can take.

2. Searching for an "enabling" space. Dialogues and bridges between institutions and self-organization practices for a collaborative territorial planning and management.

In recent years, collaborative practices between different subjects in urban planning have changed following the transition from the rational paradigm to complexity.

The involvement of inhabitants, local communities and organized committees, as well as a wider network of public and private actors, in the government of the city (and the so called “participation”), seems to be a consolidated passage, at least in rhetoric, and it has also influenced in some cases norms and planning tools. This new collaborative perspective, which the seminar intends to underline and problematize, sees pressure for experimentation and consolidation by the institutions, but also by the inhabitants and other actors.

There is a wide interest not only in terms of policies, but also in terms of building co-research areas, where knowledge is the result of a multiplicity of shared practices and knowledge, within an emerging interdisciplinary approach including all the disciplines of the “urban”.

From this point of view, which opens to the search for a new model of representative democracy or deliberative democracy, it is to rethink both the role of the institutions as well as of the citizens, and the relationships between the different actors interacting with the construction of a territory. On the one hand, the public subject should wonder how to enhance the capabilities, the design, the skills and the social leading role, which territories express. On the other hand, local actors themselves should be able to pursue traditional conflictual but also subsidiary logic, learning to be the protagonists of a shared process of defining the public / collective interest. All actors, beyond the features and roles, have to start a path, specific to context and dynamics, which has a “enabling” character for everyone, because it requires each one to get out of the own frames and routines, to build new ones.

The session therefore focuses on this reflection, discussing the characteristics of processes, actions, collaborative interventions looking at what they have generated in terms of new skills, new organizational practices, new ways of interacting. So what is this "enabling" character? Is it necessary to develop an epistemological advance, and which one, that will overcome the state-private-community dichotomy? What achievements have reached the urban and territorial self-organizing movements in Italy and in the world? What practices has the public actor introduced, through which changes in the structure of public administration and management? Can we still talk about the right to participate and the utility of open forms of conflict?

3. Powers and terrains of ambiguity in the field of urban self-organization today.

Self-organization processes have always been part of the city's construction, of the ‘collaborative city making’ discussed above. They are by definition ambiguous situations where different subjects, with different intentions and interests, interact and can also conflict among them. This gets even more complicated in a condition where the role of institutions is changing (up to the modern state) and with socio-economic dynamics that are impacting on the welfare state. The radical change in the State organization and policy making involve a backwardness of the welfare state and an ambiguous support to neoliberal dynamics. In this process, the self-organization process is at risk to become a beneficial factor to such a retreat as it tends to control social conflict.

Agents involved in processes of self-organization can at the same time create important spaces of autonomy within these dynamics subordinating or expressing innovative pathways if they are structural and construct in this way a ‘city from below’. The question is how these processes can be used to substitute the welfare state provision or to profit for social resources de facto commodifying them. The interest is also to investigate whether these forms of autonomy are capable of creating ‘new spaces of freedom and action’ and/or ‘new institutions’ that might be able to change the way of making cities and to think and offer urban services. Finally, we want to investigate whether and how such processes are helping to create unprecedented forms of social inclusion, especially in increasingly diverse cities, or if they are creating benefits for closed communities in a general backwardness of public accountability.

To do this, it is probably also necessary to refine or redefine the interpretative tools and elaborate at the same time specific survey methodologies. What information, in terms of research methodologies, can offer ongoing studies and research?

Starting from the critical reading of the practices and processes in progress today, the session seeks to capture the problematic nodes and the ambiguities of practices and processes of self-organization in the city.



The conference will be held over three days, with three morning sessions (one for each day) on the following topics:

1) Historical and cultural roots of self-organization in the city;

2) Searching for an "enabling" space;

3) Powers and terrains of ambiguity in the field of urban self-organization today.

In the afternoon, fieldtrips and workshops will be managed by scholars, activists and local stakeholders. Video exhibitions and other non-academic events will be provided in the evening sessions.

The three thematic sessions will be introduced by keynote speakers and the other speakers will be selected through a call for paper.

A workshop organized by the AESOP Thematic Group Public Spaces and Urban Cultures will be specifically dedicated to the debate on the final frames on the theme "Unstable Geographies - Dislocated Publics" and to the discussion on the topics to be developed in the next cycle.


A selection of the best papers will be published in a scientific journal.



October 10th, 2017 - Deadline for the abstracts (max 4.000 characters)

October 25th, 2017- Conclusion of abstract selection and communication to selected authors

December 5th, 2017 – Deadline for final papers (max 30.000 characters)

Abstracts and papers will be in English.

Please, send the abstracts and the final papers to  



The conference is a joint event of the Italian research network “Tracce Urbane / Urban Traces” and Association of European School of Planning (AESOP) Thematic Group Public Spaces and Urban Cultures hosted by Sapienza University of Rome.

The conference will be held on December 11th-13th, 2017, at the Faculty of Engineering, Sapienza University of Rome, v. Eudossiana 18, Rome, in the centre of the city, near the Coliseum and the church of St. Peter in Vincula.

The conference will be free access.