Nidiaci Community Garden

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by Silke Helfrich and David Bollier:

"This neighborhood, the San Frediano parish, is only a few steps away from the world-famous Ponte Vecchio. Even though it is within an area of gentrification, a startled visitor who stumbles across the Nidiaci Community Garden will encounter, especially in the afternoons, a leafy oasis filled with energetic, noisy children and their parents. Rambunctious six-year-olds race around the grounds and play on swings while their older brothers take lessons with the city’s only self-managed soccer school, “The Lebowskis.” On certain days, a Portuguese musician who lives nearby teaches violin to children. On other days, a British writer teaches English in a studio space on the grounds. Families organize free swaps of outgrown children’s clothes. Some residents tend to a small vegetable garden. Others have organized a project to monitor city pollution and traffic.

This space of togetherness, tucked away in a corner of the central city, is stewarded as a commons. Its use “depends on what people decide to put into it,” as Miguel Martinez, an amateur historian of the Nidiaci garden put it. “It’s hard to say what we are doing there, because everything depends on what new arrivals want to create.” But in a neighborhood in which about forty percent of the children come from families born abroad, simply having a space to common is no small blessing.

How is it possible, you might ask, that this beautiful spot in the center of Florence — easily worth more than several million dollars on the real estate market — has not yet been sold to the highest bidder and turned into condos? How is it that a group of neighbors actually stewards this space? When we went looking for answers to these questions, we learned a great deal about how property law can be used for more than the buying and selling of real estate; it can be used to help people lead a more satisfying community life.

The land now occupied by the Nidiaci Community Garden has a long and complicated history of ownership. It was originally donated to the Carmelite church by a widow in 1273, nationalized by the Napoleonic mayor of Florence in the nineteenth century, and later sold to a private owner. What started out as a private donation to the church became public property before becoming private property again. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the land was again sold to two individuals, one of whom rented it to the municipality of Florence for use as an elementary school.

Then, something critical happened. Although the details are murky, the owner of the land in 1920, the head of the American Red Cross mission in Italy, Edward Otis Bartlett, donated it to a trust charged with using the land “for popular education, with special attention to children.” Ownership of the property was now tied to a social mission, providing a play space for children. In 1954, after trusteeship of the land had passed to another generation, most of the land was donated to the municipality of Florence, becoming public property once again. But because legal documents declaring the intended social uses for the land were lost or never kept in the first place — and perhaps because the later generations of trustees had commercial intentions for the land — city authorities had allowed a building and part of the garden to fall into the hands of real estate investors, who then tried to build luxury apartments and a parking lot on the site.

Thanks to some dogged legal sleuthing by neighborhood residents in the 1990s, a document from the 1920s was found showing that the land was supposed to be managed for the benefit of children. Families of the San Frediano district mounted public protests in 2011 to try to restore the trust but failed. However, the city — eager to save money and stung by neighborhood protests — agreed to let residents manage the garden themselves, at their own risk, expense, and responsibility. A neighborhood association was formed to sign a legal convention with the city to keep the space available to people, without cost to the city administration. It resembles similar agreements for other neighborhood gardens in Florence in which residents were authorized to act as custodians of the gardens. But the city government retained the right to revoke access at any moment through an unappealable decision. Commoning at Nidiaci Gardens can continue, but it remains legally vulnerable — the fate of countless commons around the world." (