A street-explorative and interactive-designing laboratory
– Elisa Privitera and Filippo Gravagno

Notes from an experience of creating a deutero-laboratory and applying deutero-learning in the Sicilian neighborhood of San Berillo (Catania, Italy)

This article intends to throw light on the limitations and criticalities of urban labs set-up from top-down, by discussing the cognitive phases, the reflections and the results of a bottom-up path aimed at co-constructing a community urban lab. The lab aimed to create a public arena for discussion, self-organization, and collective designing capabilities within the district of San Berillo – a historic neighborhood of Catania (Sicily, Italy) well known for being the “bane of the city” to be eradicated and avoided since it is (or better it is perceived as) a neglected and distressed place.


In July 2016 within the offices of the municipality of Catania (Sicily, Italy), the council member in charge of city planning issues was meeting a group of citizens, stakeholders, delegations of grassroots movements and associations, technical experts and politicians in order to discuss and officialize the creation of an urban center1, which would have dealt with the regeneration of S.Berillo. The LabPEAT – Laboratory for the Ecological and Environmental Design of the Territory2 of the University of Catania, was asked to give scientific support to the entire process. In fact, this type of initiative, focusing on a specific district, was also in line with a wider program, called Fabbrica del Decoro (The Factory of Decorum) that the local government started in 2014 with the purpose to “make participation”3. The idea of an urban center for S.Berillo was part of this general mosaic of political intentions. Nevertheless, the forthcoming elections, the inability of the public administration to conceive the experience of the Fabbrica del Decoro as something more than a mere propaganda moment and consensus-building opportunity, as well as the lack of interest and sensibility to really and deeply invest social and economic resources for facing the existing conflicts in a constructive manner, have brought to the end of this short participatory season. Likewise, the long hoped for urban center of S.Berillo languished until it disappeared. At least, at first glance. As a matter of fact, despite such controversies, the LabPEAT had implemented a path of fieldwork, exploration, and research anyway, which has dismantled the concept of the urban center as the fruit of top-down policies, by shedding light on the relational values and collective learning mechanisms underlying the urban center construction process itself4.
A general framework: democracy, deutero-learning, and urban labs

For more than a half-century, the biases and weaknesses of authoritarian and top-down planning approaches have become a consolidated subject matter of discussion. Instead of indicative, imperative and allocative planning (Friedmann, 1987)5 numerous scholars have re-elaborated in a more multi-nuanced and complex way the role of participation in planning6. For instance, John Friedman has theorized about the innovative (Friedmann, 1966)7 and transactive planning (Friedmann, 1973), which encourages the public to take on an active role in the policy-setting process, while the planner takes on the role of a distributor of information and a feedback source. By focusing on interpersonal dialogue that develops ideas, which will be turned into actions, one of the central goals of such planning is mutual learning between citizens and planners. The planning of the city as a way to educate entails that the planners are in charge of creating and guaranteeing learning occasions to share values collectively. The pedagogic function of urban planning means “to plan in order to learn”, i.e. trigger deep learning not only bounded to the individual rationality but also the cognitive structure and emotional dimension (Saija, 2012: 126). Already back in 1942, Gregory Bateson introduced the concept of deutero-learning, or second-level learning, which concerns the development of abilities and mental changes occurring while we are simply learning (proto-learning or first level learning) since we learn more than we should from the context we are in (Bateson, 1972). Such an ability to “learn to learn” takes place because we self-adapt by the interaction with the context. Then, individual-society-environment is a triad fed by the continuous interaction among its components. Scholars such as Giorgio Pizziolo and Rita Micarelli (2013a, 2013b) have embraced an evolutionary perspective to the triad “individual-society-environment” by also describing the urban landscape as a relational field that the planner is part of, and the project is the fruit of the art of relations. Forasmuch as the relations underlying the urban landscapes can’t be separated by local peculiarities, a relational approach to the planning will be rooted in the genius loci of places, i.e. “places are considered as highly diversified and continuously shifting space, with many layers and levels, and within which, beneath the surface, the thrust of invisible memories, forces and energies are constantly at work, inducing a never-ending change. And it is these forces which have to be taken into account when planning the future” (Decandia, 2010).

While the theoretical debate was going on in such a way, in practice, in the current globalized context, turbo-finance often converts private interests into elements of social conflict and of power-abuse over collective rights (Harvey, 2012). The extreme concentration of power and capital in the hands of few people produces huge pockets of marginality, polarizing the cities deeply. Within territories, there is the “city of the rich” and the “city of the poor” (Secchi, 2013), there are gentrified areas and shantytowns, there are huge urban migrations. Nevertheless, there are often citizens who try to reinvent collective spaces and there are urban conflicts on how to do this. Quoting Henri Lefebvre (1968: 109) the city is “the place of confrontations and of (conflictual) relations between desire and need, between satisfactions and dissatisfactions”. Morevoer, besides being the ‘site of desire’, the city is ‘site of revolutions’. Thus, the current urban conflicting dynamics are the mirror of the huge disparities in access to physical spaces, democracy space, decision-making and power space. Ergo, talking about the current socio-economic issues related to the existing urban injustices and conflicts, it means to talk about the democracy crisis8.

In the light of the outlined economic-historical-social framework, what can be the role of planning in supporting the creation of a “just city” (Fainstein, 2010) based on diversity, democracy, and equity? How can the planning smooth over the injustice, simultaneously sparking off the learning process aspiring to affect democratic and decision-making dynamics? How can a “public space”—of meetings, debate, ideas—be created, wherein the struggle for the “right to the city” (Lefebvre, 1968) and for the “public-ness” of ongoing community practices can take place? What should the position of local government be, in the management of human and social resources connected with such public spaces?

As answer to these questions, some scholars have proposed planning as an institutional activity aimed at providing what can be called “the infrastructure for democracy” (Busacca and Gravagno, 2004), i.e. conceptual or physical places where the conflicts between value dimensions and meaning structures can generate social changes and make the contemporary democracies more “evolutive”. Conceptual and physical places are interdependent, but if the conceptual infrastructures of democracy are linked to the construction of common values, the physical ones have been investigated and defined “enabling spaces” (Cognetti, 2018) i.e. “context that allows to make and to participate, an enabling character for everyone, because it requires each one to get out of their own frames and routines, to find collective solutions to deal with common problems and satisfy their needs, interests, and expectations” (Mazzitelli, 2018: 16). Enabling spaces have become quite popular as spatially embedded sites for the co-creation of knowledge and solutions by conducting local experiments, they are supposed to offer an arena for reflexive, adaptive, and multi-actor learning environments, where new practices of self-organization and novel (infra-)structures can be tested within their real-world context (Puerari et al., 2018). They seek to bridge institutional participatory policies and different practices of self-organization and re-appropriation and they include urban centers and other almost equivalent places, like neighborhood think tanks (Laws and Forester, 2015), nonprofit headquarters (Brotsky et al., 2019), community hubs (Social Planning Toronto, 2019), urban living labs (Concilio, 2016).

The term urban centers specifically, was coined in the last century in the U.S. to define various types of organisms whose main goal was to develop a critical involvement of the communities in the transformation policies of their city and surrounding territory.

In Italy, experimentations with urban centers, often named “casa della città” or “laboratorio urbano” or “urban forum”, only started to spread later, first appearing in many towns at the end of the ’90s as part of a more general trend toward participatory and deliberative democracy process in contemporary urban policies9.

According to Bruno Monardo (2012: 85), there are two main types of urban centers:

    On one hand, “in civic law”, the urban centers are a “glass house for the urban policies” (Monardo, 2007), from which the local government can divulge news and consensus. They are usually set up by the city councils and financed by public funds or by Public-Private Partnership and they often hide a top-down and dirigiste style of government. They tend to be more a showcase for the public policies, instead of a deep learning cradle.

    On the other hand, “in common law” countries, such as the U.S. and Anglo-Saxon countries, the urban centers are the fruit of a “happy collision” with universities, non-profit associations, groups of entrepreneurs, financial bodies, foundations, broad interest groups, trade associations and so on. They are bottom-up organizations which aspire to be a neutral link between the citizens and the organisms involved in urban transformation, tending to become a new agora -in the sense of the main square of the polis, where ideas are elaborated, proposals are made, the collaboration between subjects is facilitated and pilot projects are proposed- for the polis of the new millennium (Monardo, 2007: 25).

The current state of participatory planning in Italy tells us that, until now there are few aware and empowered experiences of urban transformative processes, led by a dialogue between the multitude of collective and individual actors. This is corroborated by the low numbers of “special” urban infrastructures, such as urban laboratories, that really work to co-create and to co-build a collective and sharing idea of the city. More often it happens that the urban laboratories have been converted into a “demagogic box” for convincing the citizens to make some choices -probably already decided by politicians or stockholders- and not like a crucial tool to really concentrate and empathize the local energies already existing in a territory for spawning generative policies (Minervini, 2016).

In short, in Italy, the current democratic infrastructures mainly belong to the first group of urban centers rather than the second one. In addition, there is a frequent unawareness in the communities10 of the transformative role that they can play in the conception and realization of improvement projects in their own living environment. For this reason, the cultural structures of participatory development should aim at reconstructing a knowledge enabling interaction between the various subjects, in order to create an awareness in the social organization of the potential they possess to induce urban transformations. To achieve this goal, it is often necessary to cultivate an area full of conflicts, mistrust, apathy, disappointment, and lack of trust in the institutions that require a deutero-laboratory, in which issues can be collected and dealt with creatively (Sclavi, 2003)11.

One of the not-numerous examples of urban centers that have intended sincerely to stimulate the debate, reflections and construction of collective capabilities (Ibrahim, 2013, 2006; Evans, 2002) in the Sicilian context was the Casa della Città founded by the LabPEAT in 2005, which ended about 5 years later due to lack of funds.

Given the aforesaid background, when the local government of Catania has asked LabPEAT to make an urban center in S.Berillo, we were animated by the desire to explore a path of knowledge designed to create spaces of “publicness”, contamination, and learning, even if, paradoxically the task was coming from a top-down request.
Contextualization: the neighborhood of S.Berillo

S.Berillo district encompasses a series of open-end urban issues: socio-economic injustice, spatialization of disparities, housing emergency and occupations, public policies incompetence, self-organization, informal re-appropriation12, gentrification. Set up close to the medieval walls following the earthquake of 169313 S.Berillo has been incorporated over the years by the historic city of Catania (Sicily, Italy) [Image 1], becoming one of its beating hearts. However, after the Second World War the renewal of S.Berillo entered the political agenda. In the ’60s an agreement between large private bodies with the tacit consent and support of the local municipality has led to the demolition of S.Berillo, which resulted in the dismemberment of its social, economic and productive fabric. The strip of S.Berillo not razed to the ground turned, in the collective imagination, into the “red-light district” of Catania, being gradually abandoned by the owners, practically ignored by the institutions and urban plans and becoming a sort of ghetto, concentrating all the subaltern<sup>14, and marginalized people. Nowadays S.Berillo is still perceived as “the shame of the city” impregnated with a sense of the forbidden that is almost legendary; what it is known is that it must be absolutely regenerated. The ideas on how to do it are many and often opposing: there are some who want to convert it in a cultural or museum center, some who want to homologate it to the rest of the city (with pubs, restaurants, etc.), and some others want to preserve it as it is now. While the various city councils have thus far been unable to carry out long-term strategic proposals, some businessmen would like to take advantage of the current situation, and projects of urban restoration persist only at a theoretical level, some residents, traders, artists, and non-profit associations have taken the initiative. But all these interwoven stories were not known to us, until we got into the district to explore it.

1. The district of San Berillo and the historic center of Catania. Source: Authors.

Methodology and empirical work

The immediate question to us was to understand how would we be able to have enough knowledge and expertise for planning an urban laboratory within S.Berillo. After many detailed studies of previous and current experiences of participatory planning and urban laboratories in Italy and in other countries, we soon understood that the real core of the issue was: “how to know S.Berillo?”. And, above all, which kind of information and data do we need to collect in order to launch a shared path towards the creation of a participatory urban laboratory?

Therefore, we started using a toolbox consisting of a group of fact-finding tools with the goal of deepening our knowledge of the local features of the spaces of Catania during a period of more or less one year.

Firstly, we made a comparison between the previous studies on S.Berillo (Busacca and Gravagno, 2004; Barbarossa and Costa, 2005; D’Urso et al., 2013). We soon realized that some pieces were missing in the heterogeneous mosaic of our knowledge: analyzing the historical, official, and physical aspects was a necessary condition, but not sufficient for a more complete view of real complexity. To understand the relationship between “the city made up of stone and the city made up of people” (Cellammare, 2008: 7) relational small data had to be captured through a closer encounter and by taking a positioning named context-based approach, situatedness or street science (Corburn, 2005), in line with Jane Jacobs’s suggestions (1965: 23) the best way “to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behaviour of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads of principle emerge among them”.

2. Example of mapping of urban stalking
. Source: Privitera (2017).

3. The functions attributed to the public spaces by the residents. Source: Privitera (2017).

Referring to this theoretical background, we decided to approach S.Berillo by walking through it, living and observing its human-environment interactions of daily life without filters, involving students (Privitera, 2017) to apply “urban planning done with feet!”15. From the “Urban Exploration 0.0.” based on “urban stalkings” and intense observations [Image 2]16, we have been able to map the daily users and the tangible “worlds of S.Berillo” regarding classical, technical and physical features, such as building typologies and uses, economic activities, mobility. From “Urban Exploration 1.0” we mapped the most intangible features, for instance, the functions attributed to the public spaces by the residents, non-residents, and tourists [Image 3], and “varying degrees of contact intensity” in the public space between buildings (Gehl, 2012: 15). From such fieldwork, we have confirmation on how “an invisible landscape conditions the visible one” (Calvino, 1993: 20). It also emerged that a strict division between private and public space is not exhaustive, indeed there is a third category, the social space17 that spans the dichotomy between “public” and “private” space (Smethurst, 2000: 44) and is fundamental for the birth of a sense of community identity18.

4. Map by one of the emotional strollers. Source: Privitera (2017).

5. General psycho-geography map of San Berillo based on the emotional strollers’ maps. Source: Privitera (2017).

Up to this point we mainly referred to our own perspectives; by means of “Urban Exploration 2.0” we feed and enrich our research with other points of view on S.Berillo landscapes, using some knowledge tools. The first, called “the emotional strollers”, has involved a dozen people – half foreigners and half locals, and no one familiar with the neighborhood – which have taken a walk inside S.Berillo. They were asked to associate perceptions, smell, and emotions to the various spaces they crossed [Image 4]. This allowed us to draw a general “psycho-geography map” [Image 5], to realize how much some prejudices unconsciously influence the image of the district and how women always feel less safe than men19. We have also scrutinized the relationship between real vs. narrated spaces through the analysis of the image of S.Berillo in a press review of the last 50 years and in social networks, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. The social and press perspective appears linked to the presence of street art and criminal activity, but also to the initiatives promoted by associations and groups. In this regard, the challenging phase was to dig into the social dynamics animated by diverse local actors. Always keeping in mind the active listening rules (Sclavi, 2003)20, we met and interviewed the members of non-profit associations, political and cultural groups, and neighborhood committees using qualitative tools such as the non-directive hermeneutic interviews (Montesperelli, 1997; Marradi, 2005; Walker, 2011), spontaneous conversations, and focus groups. From them we deduced a database, a timeline, and a map of associations’ stories [Image 6] (Privitera, 2017; Gravagno and Privitera, 2018), as well as a geography of the ongoing community experiences -inclusive or exclusionary or collaborative21 such as: self-recovery projects of abandoned historical buildings led by third sector actors22, greenification and hipster regeneration23 by private traders, re-conquering of public space as a playground by children, makeshift settlements by the homeless and immigrants, who arrived in Italy by boat 4-5 years ago, street art used not only as an aesthetic but also a denunciation act, and so on. Concurrently we did a survey of the general real estate market in Catania and in S.Berillo, where, surprisingly, on average the prices of the buildings are higher than in the rest of the city, despite their neglected structural conditions. Last but not least, a much softer approach has been adopted with the category residents: whoever spends part of their daily lives in S.Berillo, whether or not they reside or sleep there, was seen as a resident. Those meetings and conversations have let us a better comprehension of the current S.Berillo “human fabric” composition and needs, often made by dramatic and intense stories of life.

6. Time line and cartography of associations’ stories. Source: Authors.

The hermeneutic of conflicts and the desire of community

What we have named “Urban Exploration 0.0., 1.0., 2.0.,” in addition to corroborating how the active-urban-listening is a conditio sine qua non for investigating the urban landscapes – conceived as a place of life for people and their points of view (Micarelli & Pizziolo, 2003), were crucial cognitive steps in disentangling and defining clear physical and non-physical values, potentialities, and contradictions in S.Berillo. Two core nodes in particular call to be unraveled: the conflicts, and the desire for community.

For instance, all the space re-appropriation and self-organization practices have taken shape through conflicts, dialogues, and negotiation among private owners, public administration, residents, and traders. In order to facilitate the understanding and hermeneutic of the existing conflicts (Gravagno, 2004) -latent and patent, inner and external- a matrix of conflicts was realized [Image7] and organized in a taxonomic database including religious, ethnic, economic, ethical-cultural, political and leadership-management categories.

It is worth noting that such dialogical and conflictual dynamics always occur within a hybrid dimension in which the divides between informality, illegality, nomotropism24 are blurred, publicness and visibility are avoided, and a peripheral feeling of marginality and segregation is spread. As a matter of fact, the local community has re-earned the role of place-maker, but only to meet its basic needs and without being really conscious of its potentially transformative role. Despite the fact that such practices reveal the ability to be self-organized and an incipient desire for community (Bauman, 2001), they were never really supported by the city council, which, on the contrary, interferes in the district only by blitz, control interventions, and a few showcase appearances. Therefore, as long as such bottom-up practices remain almost invisible, the public narration and image of S.Berillo are still mainly entrapped into the stereotype of being “just a bad neighborhood”.

7. Matrix of conflicts. Source: Authors.


Steps toward deutero-lab and deutero-learning

Seeing as S.Berillo represents a melting pot of unheard voices, collusions, urban needs and desires, quests for justice, socio-economic distress and vulnerabilities, just imposing an urban center would not be an effective choice. Conversely, to sketch and carry out a preceding path—during which, to listen actively, to collect data, to start interactions, to identify conflicts, to outline the value cornerstones are essential steps—is a prerequisite for the co-construction of a community hub within the district. In other words, the deutero-lab, i.e. street-explorative and interactive-designing aimed at mutual and deutero-learning, is crucial before and during the set-up of whatever labs.

In addition, the lab can’t be just a given empty box to be filled “by doing participation”, rather it must be itself an experimental lab, i.e. a deuterolab or second level lab, during which learning and deutero-learning takes place.

In the way that a certain process of knowledge is required to design a house in a lot, in the same way it is necessary to follow a series of steps—making up the deuterolab—to create “the home of the city”:

    1. KNOW THE PLOT: observing, walking, mapping and conducting interviews to compose and have an overview of S.Berillo landscapes.
    2. TO PROBE THE GROUND: mapping and analyzing needs, desires, conflicts, and potentialities, energetically asking “what laboratory do you want?”.
    3. TO CO-BUILD THE FOUNDATIONS: to trigger a hermeneutic of conflicts (Gravagno, 2004) and creatively resolve them (Sclavi, 2003; Gravagno, 2004), to find shared values and possible joint actions to carry out together within the lab.
    4. SELF-CONSTRUCTION OF THE HOME: deciding how to organize the lab, what it should deal with, how to take advantage of it as a resource to implement the process of community-consciousness and empowerment.

In each phase, the main goals, the responsible people, the economic aspects, and the social and human network involved must be taken into account [Image 8]. The university and militant researchers25 can play a strategic function in supporting and facilitating such a path of deutero-laboratory and deutero-learning. A learning community26 becomes an effective actor in the democratic and decision-making dynamics entailing socio-economic and urban changes. After all, also the local government should not foster top-down design and policies because these do not help the shared construction of democracy spaces at all. If anything, the public administration should leave that margin of freedom within the bureaucratic procedures in which everyone is allowed to deploy own creative energies.

8. Enchiridion of the Urban Community Lab. Source: Privitera (2017).


This paper has intended to unveil the limitations and criticalities underlying the participatory rhetoric behind the spread of piloted community labs, by emphasizing the importance of an authentic path aimed to spawn a learning mechanism that can really affect the cognition of people and their role in the urban decision-making and, more in general, in the society. Although from a theoretical point of view the demagogic and paternalistic approach to citizen involvement is overcome, as many developments spanning between participatory planning, democracy infrastructure, and deep collective learning have arisen, the fact of the matter is that, especially in Italy and in its more deprived areas, the practice of citizen involvement is something totally different. The case of the urban center in San Berillo is emblematic. It was pushed by the local government as one of the participatory tools, enforced from top to down. However, the intense fieldwork carried out by LabPEAT, comprised of what we called “Urban Exploration 0.0., 1.0., 2.0.” has revealed to us that a preceding street-explorative and interactive-designing path -named “deutero-lab”- is essential for creating a public community urban lab. This aptitude of being a permanent lab must not only be present before but also during the lab itself. The co-construction of an urban laboratory can itself be a process of empowerment, of construction of shared values and identities. Since the city, and therefore its parts, like S.Berillo, is always changing, planners should embrace a fluid, flexible and participatory approach to the urban planning that takes into consideration the co-evolutionary triad humans – environment – society. After all, Giancarlo De Carlo affirmed that “there is no recipe for participation” (Sclavi, 2014: 245)

In short, the article seeks to show how the street science and the experimentation of a heterogeneous array of urban tools, such as maps, interviews, matrices of conflicts and so on, in addition to unsealing the several landscapes of S.Berillo, makes clear why the urban labs should not at all come from top-down urban politics, but rather, they should be the result of a shared and participatory bottom-up path of (self)awareness, experienced by not only citizens and space-users, but also by public administration, politicians and stakeholders. Such kinds of paths cannot be based on “general and international best practices”, but they are unavoidably connected with genius loci and local territorial resources.

Finally, this work launches a cry, almost for help, on the need to reflect, to research and to act more on building cultural structures of participatory development of places. These are community labs which are a public and publicness space of the already ongoing community experiences and in which to share, discuss, and co-construct policies regarding the city. The urban labs can represent a fundamental hub for the real re-appropriation of a collective space of discussion, democracy and deutero-learning that really can give more power and justice to the people.

1. See: http://www.cataniatoday.it/cronaca/san-berillo-nasce-laboratorio-sociale-catania-14-luglio-2016.html
2. The LabPEAT – Laboratory for the Ecological and Environmental Design of Landscapes, Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture, University of Catania (Italy) is an action-research laboratory that is active since 1996. It also has coordinated an urban center “La casa della città” from 2005 to 2009. For more info about the experience of this urban center coordinated by an academic research laboratory see: Busacca P. (2008); Busacca P., Gravagno F. (2006).
3. “La Fabbrica del Decoro” (The factory of decorum) was one of the main results of a participatory spring. Its motto was “to make Catania more beautiful” by bridging civic society and public institutions through monthly dialogues and meetings.
4. About this process of knowledge and design of the community lab in San Berillo, see also: Gravagno G., Privitera E. (2018), text in Italian.
5. According to John Friedmann (1966), allocative planning means regulatory planning concerned with coordination and resolution of conflicts to ensure efficiency and functionalities of an existing system.
6. To mention just a few of the leading figures in the theory planning concerning the participation: Paul Davidoff’s Advocacy Planning theory (1965); John Forester on Communicative Planning (1988); Patsy Healey on Collaborative Planning (1997); Gregory Ashworth and Henry Voogd on Consensual Planning (1990).
7. According to John Friedmann (1966) the innovative planning is defined as (1) seeking to legitimize new social objectives or effect a major reordering in the priority of existing objectives, (2) concerned with translating general value propositions into new institutional arrangements and concrete action programs, (3) being more interested in the mobilization of resources than in their optimal use, and (4) proposing to guide innovation processes through information feedback of the actual consequences of action.
8. Many scholars identify the democracy crisis in the increasing populism movements, see: Fitzi, G., Mackert, J., Turner, B.S. (2018).
9. See: http://www.urban-center.org/en/dynamic-maps/urban-centers-in-italy/
10. When we refer to locals as “communities”, we don’t conceive them as having homogeneous interests, instead, as a heterogeneous group that share daily life, or struggle together in some cases.
11. According to Marianella Sclavi (2003: 291-333) the creative management of conflicts has some rules: to focus on the common interests, rather than on positions; to separate the people from the problems; to legitimize emotions; don’t decide ahead of time what is important and what is not; to underline the agreement points instead of the differences.
12. Re-appropriation of abandoned spaces, low-income unauthorised settlements and occupations can be all considered in the light of the nomotropism concept. According to Francesco Chiodelli and Stefano Moroni (2014) nomotropism means “acting in light of rules”, that does not necessarily entail acting “in conformity with rules”.
13. Between the 9th and 11th of January 1693 the earthquake of the Val di Noto took place: one of the largest catastrophic events that ever hit eastern Sicily and had more than 60,000 victims.
14. In this paper the concept of subalternity does not strictly refer to the original Gramscian meaning related to proletarian workers and peasants, rather to a general interpretation regarding “any ‘low rank’ person or group of people in a particular society suffering under hegemonic domination of a ruling elite class that denies them the basic rights of participation in the making of local history and culture as active individuals of the same nation” (Louai, 2011: 5).
15. This is a famous expression by the Italian urban planner Bernardo Secchi, coming from a series of conferences and open lectures (2012-2013).
16. What we have called urban stalking takes inspiration from the method of the participant observation introduced by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski.
17. According to Henri Lefebvre (2009: 186) “in human society all space is social”.
18. About the identity of places or genius loci there is a wide literature, the authors have referred to: Norberg-Schulz, C. (1979); Decandia, L. (2000).
19. There is quite a lively debate on the relation between women’s perception of safety and public space, for instance some are: Valentine, S. (1989, 1990, etc.); Hengehold,L. (2011, etc.).
20. 7 rules of active listening: 1) Never be in a hurry to reach conclusions. Conclusions are the most ephemeral part of your research. 2) What you are seeing depends on your point of view. In order to see what your point of view is, you have to change it. 3) In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that he/she is right and ask him/her to help you understand why it is so. 4) The emotions are basic tools of knowledge if you understand that they speak a language of analogies and relationships. They don’t tell you what you are looking at, but how you are looking at it. 5) A good listener is an explorer of possible worlds. The signals which he or she finds most important are the ones
that seem both negligible and annoying, both marginal and irritating, since they refuse to mesh with previous convictions and certainties. 6) A good listener is happy to accept the self-contradictions that come to the fore in personal thoughts and interpersonal communications. Misunderstandings are accepted as opportunities for entering the most exciting field of all: the creative management of conflict. 7) To become an expert in listening you must follow a humorous methodology. But when you have learned how to listen, it is humor that will follow you.
21. On the different self-recovery practices of San Berillo see: Gravagno, F., Privitera, P., Pappalardo, G. (2018). On the ongoing different practices -inclusive, exclusionary and collaborative- in the public and social space of San Berillo, a paper will be published in PlanNext (2020).
22. For information about the social housing project carried out by one of the associations, called Trame di Quartiere, see: http://www.conmagazine.it/2019/11/25/abitare-collaborativo-lhousing-sociale-nel-quartiere-san-berillo-a-catania/. Or see p.33: http://cityfutures2019.com/uploads/files/ExOrdo_CityFutures_AbstractBook_FINAL.pdf .
23. There is quite a wide literature about hipster regeneration, such as: Kern, L. (2015); Memela, W. (2015), Hubbard, P. (2016);; Pratt, A.C. (2018).
24. See footnote n°11.
25. On militant or engaged research: http://www.visualculturenow.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/MRH_Web.pdf. The institutional role of universities, called aslo third mission, seeks to integrate education, research and service through the practical development of interdisciplinary applied knowledge.
26. A learning community is a mixed group where “individuals could come to know and respect each other and could share their common interests and different perspectives about problems and topics. They could push one another to appreciate issues in ways that are richer and more penetrating than we understood before” (Swanson & Holton, 2005).


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Work presented here is part of the Master’s Thesis in “Building Engineering and Architecture” discussed in May 2017 at the University of Catania by Elisa Privitera and supervised by Filippo Gravagno. We want to thanks to all the associations and residents who have allowed meetings, clarifications, and interviews during the research fieldwork.

Elisa Privitera (PhD Candidate) is an engineer and architect who is interested in the role of small data and community in the environmental planning of contaminated territories. After some periods of study abroad (Germany 2013, Spain 2014, Japan 2015), in 2017 she graduated in Building Engineering-Architecture at the University of Catania with highest honours (110/110 cum laude) and with a recommendation for publication of her final thesis concerning the construction of an urban community lab within the neglected historical district of San Berillo in Catania (Sicily).
She got a Post-Degree Specialization in Local Participatory Action and Public Debate at IUAV (Venice, 2018). She is attending the second year of PhD at the University of Catania (Italy) and she is member of LabPEAT—an Action-Research Laboratory on Ecological and Environmental Design of the Territory at the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture at the same university. She is active member of a number of grassroots associations dealing with urban issues, such as Trame di Quartiere.

Filippo Gravagno, PhD, is an Associate Professor in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Catania. He teaches Urban Planning Techniques in the Architectural Engineering (LM-4) five-year Master Degree. He has been part of the committee for the doctoral programs Urban, Environmental and Architectonical Design and Restoration, and Environmental Regional and Urban Planning and Design, at the University of Catania—being the advisor of 9 PhD researchers. He is the scientific coordinator of the LabPEAT (Ecological Planning and Design Lab) at the Civil Engineering and Architecture Department (DICAR), University of Catania.
He is amongst the founding members of “La Casa della Città” (The House of the City), the first urban center that has been managed by a university in Italy, which has produced several studies and programs for the regeneration of historical areas and other urban spaces in Sicily. He is also amongst the founding members of the association Orti di Pace di Sicilia (Sicilian Gardens of Peace) and G.R.A.S.P. (Group of Relational Action for Solidarity and Participation), and the Future Life Environment.
Gravagno is the author of eight books and more than 40 publications. His main research interests focus on environmental regeneration and practices of community-engagement in regional and urban planning decision-making processes.



Volume 3, No. 1 February 2020