Space and Heritage, to build Democracy.

By Ivan Tornesi

The conceptual meaning of the Greek words that compose Democracy are δῆμος and κράτος, people and power. They have come to mean that all citizens, no one excluded, have the right to exercise participation to influence, control, take part to decisions, elect and be elected, with the aim of obtaining the best form of government.

Yet is that the life we live today?
The current state of Italian and European democracy’s health is strongly affected by the crisis of large mass parties and in general intermediate bodies. Those channels, which once allowed the various social groups to express their interests and their discontent, are reduced. The parties no longer exercise a pedagogical function for the people, and the political system shows the malfunctions of their instruments of internal democracy. In many cases, non-profit associations have been left to create spaces for discussion and for the elaboration of proposals.

In our physical worlds, in the so-called ”non lieu” of modern cities, in shopping centres, fast food restaurants, hypermarkets, etc, people cross each other without knowing each other and entering into a relationship. It severely impacts as the knowledge of our environment, of the landscape, of the squares, of the historic buildings and of the monuments, and it influences our ability to participate and stay together.

There can be no active and democratic citizenship if a relationship with the public space is not recovered. Citizens must regain possession of these spaces, taking care of them and denouncing any degradation. In addition to the possibility of meeting and discussing politics, this fulfils the function of identifying oneself. A space understood as such, becomes everyone’s heritage, reactivates its civil function and makes us feel part of a community.

A small Italian town, Mottalciata, has chosen to redevelop the old town hall, through the creation of a library and a museum entitled ”The roots of democracy”. Their cultural commitment to democracy was made tangible. Other significant examples are those actions to claim public spaces, carried out by local associations that redevelop the forgotten places of the city. Or mobilised and involved communities that fight for their environment and cultural heritage.

Promoting the values of democracy and the involvement of citizens becomes a central issue for our democracies.
And it is needed now, because face three main challenges of change; the return of a climate of trust in national and European institutions, the fight for equality, peace and collaboration between peoples, the inclusion and integration of migrants.

These are cultural battles across the board, and they all start with small communities. Active citizenship, then, requires an education in beauty, in architecture, in the heritage of our cities, and an ingrained cultural commitment to our local, democratic institutions.

Ivan Tornesi is Demsoc’s Community and Engagement Officer in Messina, Italy.

The Agorà di Messina is a hyperlocal pilot project to develop public spaces and participation. At the heart of our proposal is the idea that participation is best designed with the people who are going to use it, and can advocate for participation in their communities.

The three main objectives are to support and enhance existing ground-up networks and actions in a systematic way; increase opportunities for citizens to be involved in dialogue, deliberation and decision making; create something that is long-term so that the networks and structures will be around for longer than the period of the project.