The beautiful city of Florence, Italy, is nearly overwhelmed by throngs of tourists much of the year, which leads one to wonder:  How can residents live and enjoy the city for themselves?

One fascinating answer can be seen in the lovely Nidiaci garden and park. It is a commons dedicated to children that is managed by the residents of the diverse Oltrarno neighborhood and the San Frediano district. The City still legally owns the land, but it has more or less ceded management of the garden to residents who demanded the right to common.

The Nidiaci garden lies behind the apse of the Carmine church, an historic site of the Renaissance.  It is an area with lots of tourism, nightlife and gentrification. When I visited the garden recently, mothers were playing with their toddlers and six-year-olds were playing on swings and racing about: the usual playground stuff.

But what makes the Nidiaci garden special is the commoning that occurs there. The neighborhood decides how to use the space to suit its own interests and needs. “Use of the area depends on what people decide to put into it, for free,” as one amateur historian of the Nidiaci garden put it. In a neighborhood in which about 40% of the children come from families born abroad, this is no small blessing.

Not surprisingly, the park has real character. It hosts the only self-managed soccer school for children in the city, where the emphasis is not just on winning but on sportsmanship. There is a Portuguese musician who teaches violin to children and a British writer who teaches English in a studio space on the grounds. An American filmmaker teaches acting.

Families organize tables of children’s clothes to share for free, helping them to clear out outgrown clothing and avoid waste. There is a small community garden. Neighbors have even organized a project to monitor city pollution and traffic.

One might wonder how a few acres of prime urban space could possibly become a commons. The answer has a lot to do with the self-reliant, enterprising character of the neighborhood.

Dogged citizen-historians in the neighborhood pored through legal records and discovered a document showing that the land did not really belong to the city.  The American Red Cross had given funds in 1920, following WWI, to “an Entity” which “should deal with popular instruction and education, with special attention to children.”  But city authorities had allowed the land to fall into the hands of real estate speculators, who then tried to build luxury apartments and a parking lot on the site.  (A short history of the Nidiaci garden describes it as an urban commons and a site for commoning.)

It took many public protests, petitions and demonstrations by the families of the San Frediano district to finally persuade the mayor of Florence in 2011 to relent, and allow the site to be used as a children’s park. Even with that concession, it took further pressure from residents to obtain the keys to the part of the garden still in public hands.  Then the commoning began – and continues today.

There is no tragedy of a commons here; residents understand that they must take care of their garden. The site occupies a protected, walled nook of the bustling downtown area, and is conscientiously locked every evening at twilight. But the site is also a rare platform for an urban neighborhood to express itself and be itself.

The garden is no mere “resource.” It is a cherished place for connecting with neighbors and nourishing a sense of community amidst the grandeur and tumult of a downtown tourist district. What could be more enlivening than children making their own fun in the heart of a city, with amiable friends and families enjoying themselves?

Image by Roberto Andreotti

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