Architects and planners didn’t miss the chance offered by the ongoing pandemic to rethink our living and built environment. An emerging stream of debate points at a territorial shift away from dense and allegedly infection-prone urban centres towards a hitherto neglected “countryside”. In Italy, one of the countries hardest-hit by Covid-19, architectural heavyweights rushed to outline their vision for a future in which new technology-enabled productivity patterns would “bring back to life” depopulated inner areas and run-down villages. This emerging narrative on a projected “return to the countryside” in the pandemic’s aftermath seems to be reproducing the same logic that led to the decay of Italy’s inner areas. The emergency should instead be an occasion to scale up existing locally-grounded practices of productivity and community lifestyles.
Stefano Boeri, the mind behind Milan’s “Vertical Forest”, kick-started the debate with a broadly mediatized call for “a campaign to facilitate dispersion and a retraction from the urban” managed by an ad-hoc “Ministry of Dispersion”, pointing out that “Italy is full of abandoned villages waiting to be saved” and suggesting that the country’s main metropolitan centres could “adopt” them. The parametric archistar Massimiliano Fuksas jumped right in, calling for a “New Humanism” from his Tuscan countryside retreat, where he spent the lockdown. While warning that the countryside “shouldn’t be a luxury”, he argued that this anticipated “escape from cities” could lend new lifeblood to those wonderful places where the country’s identity allegedly lies. This idealized view is echoed by Mario Cucinella, an architect known for his high-tech designs who curated the exhibition for the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, “Arcipelago Italia”, which focused on Italy’s inner territories. While emphasizing the potentialities of the country’s thick network of small-scale settlements, he illustrated how inhabitants of Sansepolcro, Piero della Francesca’s birthplace, refer to the Renaissance master simply as “Piero”.
In the context of a resurgent interest within the global architectural discipline towards a supposed non-urban realm (evidenced by Rem Koolhaas “Countryside: The Future” exhibition), this discourse plugs into the perpetual local level discussion on “inner areas” in Italy. Outside of the larger towns and cities, the Italian territory is composed of a dense polycentric network of small-size towns, rural areas, villages, and patches of wilderness. Part of this system gravitates around the main metropolitan areas, while the remaining territories, physically and vocationally marginalized, present various criticalities: scarce service access (health, education, transports, telecommunications), low income and productivity, an ageing population, environmental vulnerability, and progressive abandonment.
These territories are referred to as “inner areas” (aree interne) by the National Strategy for Inner Areas (SNAI), a policy framework aiming at revitalizing them. At first, the word “inner” referred to Italy’s inland mountainous areas, namely the Appennini mountain chain. They then became known as the country’s bare “backbone” in Manlio Rossi Doria’s writings on the environment. These areas were traditionally poorer, rural, and sparsely populated when compared to the expansive, more prosperous, and urbanized plains and coasts (the juicy “flesh”).
Nowadays, “inner areas” defines all those underserviced depopulating areas constituting about 60% of the national territory and hosting about 13,5 million people. This blanket term conceals a broad range of conditions: from mountainous regions to coastal territories, from rural villages and remote settlements with very limited income sources to specialized nodes within a production chain, and from historical centres dating back centuries to recent settlements entirely rebuilt after earthquakes. While these regions have shared vulnerabilities, they constitute a heterogeneous scenario beyond what merely “the countryside” captures.
The SNAI open dataset “Classification Tables of Italian Municipalities 2012”
SNAI, compiled by Francesco Pasta and Giulia De Cunto
Many of these inner areas entered a spiral of depopulation and underservicing in parallel with the evolution of capitalist production mechanisms. At the end of the 19th century, a considerable number of people had already migrated abroad in search of better employment conditions. Most of them became part of the urban proletariat in the growing metropolises of the Americas and Northern Europe. This outflow became systematic over the course of the 20th century, with the industrialization of the country and the mechanization of agriculture. People started to move to low-valley towns and factories, or to the rapidly expanding peripheries of big cities (particularly in the more industrialized North of the country). In addition to that, the affirmation of a modern urban consumerist life model brought about the perception of rural living, peasant cultures and traditional practices as backwardness, a deficiency to despise and overcome.
Thus Nuto Revelli describes the effects of modernization in his poignant recollection of peasants’ voices in Piedmont throughout Italy’s “economic miracle”, Il mondo dei vinti (The World of the Downtrodden):
As I look… for life across the ample basins I recognize more gray, dull, lifeless houses than freshly lime-washed, alive and young ones; I recognize the hazelnut groves that tell of weariness and abandonment, the tiny vineyard plots as faded, heroic flags, and the cliffs of Belbo claiming back the woods. I’m not fooled by residential buildings, those sugar-coated mansions, foreign and hostile just as the towers and castles dominating the ancient misery. I’m not fooled by the “second” or “third” house of “others”. The high Langa, as the entire poor countryside, is an immense hospice, a dormitory for “commuters”, a haven for the scraps, the unfit and the marginalized by the “society of wealth”
By severing the links between small-scale settlements and their surrounding territories, this process dissolved a relationship of environmental care and mutual nourishment that had developed over centuries. The crisis of such human-natural ecosystems – constituting the basis of the largely anthropomorphized Italian landscape – exacerbated economic vulnerability and environmental risk.
Without denying the urgent need for imagining possible futures for non-urban peripheral territories and moving away from the self-fulfilling “urbanization prophecy”, the emerging narrative on a possible return to the countryside needs to be problematized – both for its wobbly premises and for its rushed conclusions. To begin, the claim that dense urban environments are conducive to the spread of infections is already being questioned. Researchers are already pointing out that Italy’s main Covid-19 hotbed, the Seriana valley, is a sparsely populated, administratively fragmented area of small settlements. The countryside’s supposed advantages in facing the pandemic have been challenged too, reckoning that remote low-density territories, while possibly slowing down the virus’ spread, could be affected much more negatively given their inadequate services and logistical hindrances.
Using the pandemic-induced crisis as an opportunity to trigger a large-scale process of inner-areas revitalization is definitely a plausible response. However, hurried forecasts of an imminent demise of the city should be taken with a grain of salt, particularly if formulated by those who proclaimed, until very recently, the triumph of urban form and “bigness”. It is worth noting that some form of “dispersion” already occurred throughout the past decades, generating sprawling hinterlands, where priced-out city dwellers settled in search of a so-called “higher quality of life” – only to be found stuck in traffic jams on the country’s metropolitan bypass roads and jam-packed in commuter trains at peak hours. If this territorial repositioning does not become a rebalancing, that is, if it is not matched by a deeper rethinking of lifestyles and productive models, then it risks resulting in a short-sighted, emergency-based driver for further unsustainable suburbanization. These daily occurrences provide reasons to doubt that “futuristic” solutions, like smart-working and drone deliveries, are enough to guarantee such a fundamental cultural shift at this scale.
The Val Seriana, in Bergamo province, a sparsely populated area that emerged as Italy’s main Covid-19 hotbed during the first wave of the pandemic
An example of urban sprawl in Italy: Corcolle, about 20km from Rome towards the Appennine Mountains
Furthermore, looking at the projected postcard image of historic towns and the countryside, fluctuating between idealization and outright branding, it is hard not to notice its detachment from the nitty-gritty reality of these places. There’s nothing new, indeed, in the commodification of an idealized countryside cast in opposition to the “nightmarish” metropolises described by Cucinella. Many idyllic towns set in blissful landscapes have attracted real estate investments, from Italy and abroad. The Chianti region, in Tuscany, is known as “Chiantishire” for the sheer number of British home-buyers (while Costa Coffee covers its branches in wallpapers portraying timeless Italian towns). This concentrated influx of money and privileged, often temporary, inhabitants to a few renowned regions, has not done much to reverse the negative trends affecting Italy’s inner areas. It is worth asking if a technological revolution bringing broadband and phone repeaters to attract smart workers and creative nomads will do better.
Indeed, considering the widespread tendency within the architectural world to gloss over socioeconomic questions, we can’t help but wonder who is envisioned as the new inhabitant when talking about repopulation, and who and what is left out of the frame. Would the precarious laborers, racialized migrants, low-income service workers – a vast share of the vulnerable urban population – benefit from these revitalized country towns? This question of “who” carries significant implications not only for the towns and villages, but also for the cities that are left behind. If, as Fuksas’ “luxury” remark seems to suggest, the projected return to the countryside aims at tackling, rather than perpetuating growing inequities, it can’t afford to disregard the structural socioeconomic systems underpinning existing territorial imbalances.
The bond between rural Italian settlements and their territories broke up over time, as such spaces were incorporated into broadscale production and consumption lines, albeit with marginalized roles. In other words, they were affected by what Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid termed planetary urbanization: the global process of capitalist assimilation of territories lying outside the traditional urban realm (i.e. the city) into urban reproduction circuits. With mechanized intensive agriculture and new infrastructure, the maximized output of enhanced production was sold many kilometres away. At the same time, urban consumerist modes spread, with car-accessible supermarkets providing imported goods, local producers selling at doubled prices in cities, and small shops shutting down in towns. Pristine landscapes and quiet towns were turned into picturesque settings for weekend trips and vacation homes, mountain streams were channelled into concrete dams, hillside fields were covered with solar panels, windy hilltops were punctuated by wind turbines, and isolated corners hosted military bases of international logistical relevance.
Large-scale infrastructural facilities, still serving an extractivist urban-centred logic, altered the ecological balance and character of entire territories. This process is still going on, as the highly contested TAV (Treno ad Alta Velocità, a high-speed train line) and TAP (Trans-Adriatic Pipeline) projects show. The image of a supposed non-urban, slow, and human-sized “countryside” propagandized by starchitects conceals this twofold condition of integration and marginalization of inner areas. Indeed, initiatives such as Boeri’s paternalistic “adoption” proposal actually contribute to furthering it.
The widespread reassessment of social, political, and economic systems brought about by the global pandemic should therefore be an occasion to devise and scale up alternative models, turning marginal territories of consumption into productive spaces of socialization. In this regard, instead of searching for futuristic visions, it is more fruitful to focus on already ongoing radical approaches to inner territories, which are capable of addressing issues of equity, rights, ecology, fair production, sustainability with existing practices of re-inhabitation and production in villages and rural areas across Italy. This is the case in a well-known experiment set up in Riace, a small town in the Southern Calabria region that, until two decades ago, represented a textbook example of a vulnerable inner area. Here, the integration of foreign asylum seekers (and related State funding) was employed to reverse the depopulation trend and trigger a sustainable revival of the local economy. By restructuring abandoned homes left by local emigrants, practically free accommodation for foreign migrants was provided. A traineeship program regarding traditional production was set up, involving both long-time residents and newcomers, aimed at increasing the number of stable artisanal activities. Providing housing and employment laid the groundwork for fruitful cooperation within the local community, which then continued through other initiatives: door-to-door garbage collection with donkeys (historically used in agriculture and transportation in the area), a community oil mill, an accommodation system for solidarity tourists, the recovery of the ancient ginestra flower textile processing, the development of an alternative local currency, and others. Riace managed to halt its population decline (from 1600 inhabitants in 2002 to 2300 in 2018) and became a model for both migrants’ integration and inner areas policies in Calabria, across Italy, and abroad.
A practice of a different nature is the Genuino Clandestino network for food self-determination. Born in 2010 as a campaign against Italian legislation which cut local small producers out of the market while favoring large conglomerates, it evolved into a self-styled “peasants’ resistance movement,” linking together territorial communities and small-scale farmers across the country. Their manifesto outlines the network as an alliance among urban movements, rural movements, and individual citizens united to reconnect city and countryside, and overcome the categories of producer and consumer. They aim at riconvertire (reconverting) the use of urban and rural spaces based on practices such as self-organization, solidarity, cooperation, and cura del territorio (care for the territory). The network is composed of different local groups and practices that share the vision of the land as commons and advocate for the right to genuine food, accessible to everyone from the surrounding territories. Their actions are oriented towards minimising land and labour exploitation, banning fertilizers and pesticides, and reducing waste. This allows people to build communities that have a deeper relationship with the environment, set as an essential feature for organizing human activities and lifestyle. Along with principles of participatory democracy and horizontality, these productive units work to preserve agrobiodiversity and local knowledge, while also establishing distribution networks, markets for direct sale, and “solidarity purchase groups” in cities. In this way, they provide an alternative to big agro-business, extensive monocultures, and bureaucratized quality certification mechanisms.
Beekeeping in Mondeggi, in the countryside near Florence, part of the Genuino Clandestino network.
Olive picking in Mondeggi, in the countryside near Florence, part of the Genuino Clandestino network.
What these alternative models share is that they both build upon the link between local communities and their territories. The “Riace Model” and the Genuino Clandestino network are grounded in localized practices and relations resulting from a deep knowledge of the peculiarities of their context. But they also relate to the city at broader scales, both in terms of size and purpose. They manage to trigger grounded economic and relational flows, enabling new practices of re-inhabitation and productive patterns. Significantly, both initiatives are based on inclusivity, and are explicitly political. When imagining a post-pandemic future for inner territories, we should set the debate on overcoming the logic that led to their abandonment and draw upon these existing movements. Otherwise, this so-called “revitalisation” will just be a superficial appropriation with elitist undertones, leaving the structural causes of Italy’s inner areas decay unresolved.