Exploring the creative tension between co-optation and resistance in Urban Gardening

On the 9th of June I am presenting a research (with Paolo Giaccaria) during the Enlightening Talks section of the H2020 RECOMS project, Spaces of Possibility: communities and places in times of social and environmental uncertainty (taking place virtually in Bruxelles).
The conference booklet is downloadable here, while the programma is available here.

Our contribute titled “The creative tension between co-optation and resistance: myth or reality? Insights from urban gardeners’ experience in Rome” explores the polarised debate between the entrepreneurial and activist-oriented reading of Social Innovation. It starts from the evidence that recent research in critical geography and urban studies confirms a renewed interest in how political agency is exerted in SI practices, with fierce discussions on whether these are functional to the reproduction of “capitalocentric” rationality (embedded within the neoliberal urban agenda), or they are instead manifestations of critical,  transformative and emancipatory social activism. Although this tension is acknowledged in critical research, a limited number of analyses attempted at overcoming the dichotomic reading of SI between co-optation and resistance forces.

Thus, we wonder whether the tentative of defining, purifying, and categorising SI initiatives (based on their political inspirations or aims) and ascribing them to one of the poles is appropriate and productive. Or whether we should recognise the intrinsic ambiguity and boundary-transgressing nature of the socio-political aspirations of SI. 

We suggest that to answer our question on the political nature of SI experiences, we have to escape the co-optation versus resistance polarisation of discourse at the forefront of neoliberal urbanism. The “co-optation versus resistance” dichotomy is necessarily unsatisfactory in dealing with social innovation. With a more than sixty years old intellectual history, social innovation is a proteiform concept, evolving, keeping together several meanings, nuances and understandings.

Following a consolidate tradition that defines urban gardening as a form of SI, we analyse the urban gardeners’ network Zappata Romana in Rome to explore the grey zone where SI emerges and bring along all of its contradictions. We adopted a deconstructive approach to analyse in what circumstances the two dimensions of SI coexist and are alternatively mobilised in the agency of urban gardeners’ network; and how these experiences shed new lights on the making of a dialogic urban politics, which re-signifies both neoliberal co-optation and resistance practices.

Photos by Zappata Romana

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