WELCOMING SPACES presented at Congress of the German Association of Sociologists

In September 2020, the WELCOMING SPACES projected was presented in a panel at the 40th Congress of the German Association of Sociologists. This panel was moderated by Sabine Meier (University of Siegen), Heike Herrmann (University of Applied Sciences Fulda) and Nina Schuster (TU Dortmund).

In the name of our whole team, Maggi Leung and Alberto Alonso Fradejas presented the aims and the main research questions illustrated by several examples of welcoming initiatives in Poland, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. Next to our team, a number of other German scholars have presented ongoing research on migration and the (re)development of places. Johannes Becker (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen) examines the relation between characteristics of places and processes of emplacement of refugees in the Jordanian capital Amman. Mila Brill (Universität Bonn) explores to what extent the concept of emplacement offers a way of theoretically grasping everyday cultural practices of making local reference via gastronomy. Based on data from the ongoing research project ´Solidarity at the social level of locally organised actors´ in the SOLDISK research network Michael Corsten and Patrick Kahle presents first research results. In a last paper, Lutz Eichholz, Annette Spellerberg and Christoph Giehl from the TU Kaiserslautern Department of Spatial and Environmental Planning discussed which factors have an influence on the quality of life and satisfaction of refugees in Germany. In doing so, they focus in their research on the great importance of housing, social contacts and neighbourhood.

WS team at 17TH IMISCOE Annual conference

In July 2020, our team organised a panel at the international 17th IMISCOE Annual Conference.

The panel was moderated by Karin Geuijen, Maggi Leung and Annelies Zoomers, where first of all the research questions and objectives of the project were presented. Besides the participation of several members of our project, other social scholars took part. With the lecture on the topic ´New welcoming spaces? Concepts, plans, and conflicts in diversifying neighbourhoods´, Ms. Madlen Pilz from the Leibniz Institute for Spatial Social Research discussed the question of how the strategies for producing welcoming spaces of local governmental and non-governmental actors are received by the residents of these spaces. Moreover, Ester Driel and Tihomir Sabchev from the Utrecht University have presented their papers. Ester Driel examines to what extent Riace’s reception program (1) supports the successful settlement of refugees, and (2) affects the local community and the attitude of the local population towards newcomers. Tihomir Sabchev presented evidence from a qualitative comparative case study of two municipalities located on the opposite sides of the metropolitan area of Thessaloniki, which hosted a large number of forced migrants after the closure of the Balkan route to safety.

Syrian flag and Arabic food in shrinking regions of Rhineland-Palatine

2 October 2020

Sabine Meier and Laura Foelske

During the first explorations of the German research regions, we visited a number of small towns situated in the district Mayen-Koblenz. This area between the Rhine and Moselle is characterized by the different landscapes along and above the two rivers. The villages of the municipality of ´Maifelt´ are characterized by agricultural use and wideness, while the villages along the Moselle (´Rhine-Moselle´ municipality) are characterized by wine growing on rocky, steep locations. The latter has a long tradition in wine tourism. In both municipalities together ca. 51,600 people, thereof about 3,200 migrants, i.e. people without German citizenship.

Photograph of the map ‘Oberes Mittelrheintal’, Landesambt für Vermessung Rheinland Pfalz

From 2015 onwards, civil society actors together with the local and regional governments have supported migrants during the first phase of arrival in several villages. During our visit of Rhine-Moselle and Maifeld, we went in search of visible signs of migrant presence and activities and tried to get into conversation with people on the street and in pubs. In a small town called ´Lonning´ (see map above), we unexpectedly came across a Syrian flag that was attached to one of the houses.

Syrian Flag in Lonning
Picture: Sabine Meier

Photographing this flag attracted the attention of a man on the street. We asked him if this flag meant that people from Syria live in this house. The man laughed and denied. He told us that this flag was hoisted by a young athlete because of a certain sportive event. However, he said, in Lonning people from Syria and Afghanistan are living. In total, he guesses that about 30 asylum seekers have arrived since 2015 and some of them have remained until today. The local government of Maifeld has rented a small number of apartments in the village to accommodate them.

Since 2015, he himself has been accompanying a number of asylum seekers together with other volunteers. “Last year we drove about 7000 km more than usual. This is due to the extra trips we made for our refugees to the hospital, school, authorities, etc.”, he laughed. “Especially the families have stayed. In addition, most of the men have succeeded in finding a job, for example at a logistics company in the village Polch or at the post office in Koblenz”. He also said that in his opinion it was necessary that refugees, regardless of their residence status, should be allowed to work. “Only then, they are able to permanently participate in social life and could give their lives a new meaning, after they had often experienced terrible things. A young man, I accompanied for a long time, started drinking. Furthermore, it is a fact that especially the women are poorly educated, have difficulties to learn the German language and with it, had difficulties to find a job – especially when they have got young children”. 

© Sabine Meier: Syrian restaurant which advertises with “Arabic Food” in Winningen, district Rhine-Moselle

Further signs of the presence of migrants were found in the villages along the river Moselle. These places have a long tourist tradition. Today, the region advertises itself with its terraced and rocky vineyards, young and innovative winegrowing families, numerous wine taverns and newly established bicycle networks with good connections to train lines. Thus, the region more and more profiled itself as an ´ecotouristic´ region. Besides the traditional taverns with German cuisine, there are migrants who take over old-established restaurants, for example in the village Hatzenport. In the idyllic village Winningen a Syrian family opened the Syriena restaurant, at the beginning of 2020. Further internet research shows that they are not the only ones in this region. Syrian immigrants have also opened restaurants in Koblenz and in the small town of Andernach.[2]

Based on these initial observations, our research project ‘welcoming spaces’ is e.g. concerned with questions like: which resources migrants draw on to emplace and establish themselves as neighbours, entrepreneurs, employees, political actors, home owners or volunteers. Which actors support them in this process? How do they generate financial resources? What role do local government actors, regional integration programs or economic development programs play? In this way, we want to underline and discuss their role as ´city makers´ in European shrinking regions.


Covid-19 and welcoming spaces: a synthesis

1 September 2020

By Rianne Hadders

In the previous months, we provided snapshots of the Covid-19 situation and its impacts on migrants and shrinking areas in the countries participating in the WELCOMING SPACES project. Not all the places were affected equally, and the lockdown measures varied widely. However, with regard to migrants and shrinking areas some stark similarities arose from the blogs of our colleagues.

The first thing that came to the fore in all blogs was the strong dependency of our economies on labour migrants, as well as the connections between the welcoming spaces partner countries. In Poland, the Ukranian labourers provide a vital part of the workforce, while the Netherlands heavily relies on Polish workers in the agricultural sector and the industry. Also in Italy, Germany and Spain the governments realised the crucial role migrants play in their food provision and installed various measures to enable workers to continue their work. In Italy and Spain, measures were taken to regularize certain groups of irregular migrants. The Netherlands spoke out the intention to make it easier for migrants with a medical background to exercise their profession to help in the crisis. Various blogs observed a renewed appreciation of groups of migrants that seemed unthinkable in times before the Covid-19 crisis. However, this recognition of migrants is highly selective. Migrant workers that are ‘useful’ could count on renewed appreciation, but other migrants such as asylum seekers faced obstructions and delays in their asylum procedures.

Also, despite appreciation, health  risks during the covid-19 crisis have been found to be higher for migrants in all countries. Migrants are overrepresented in sectors that cannot shift their work to the home. The Spanish team strikingly quotes Antonio Iziguero who stated: ‘there is a clear difference between those who can be confined, and those who are exposed out of necessity’. Of course, this is not only true for migrants, however the immigrant population is overrepresented in the battalion of “exposed” who, from the agricultural fields, the supermarkets, transport, care, have to take more health risks, they write.

This dichotomy exposed/confined work is also visible in the urban/rural sphere. City dwellers experienced stricter confinement than rural residents during the last months. Suddenly, the perspective of a shrinking region with a low population became a safe and positive vision. Numerous articles appeared predicting the shift to the rural areas, now that urban dwellers experienced the disadvantages of living in the city. For example in the Netherlands, various news items already mentioned a rise in interest in rural houses as observed by real estate agents. To what extent that really will happen is to be seen. However, as the Italian team points out: there are still great inequalities between rural and urban areas that need to be overcome, particularly in infrastructure and services.   What effects the crisis will have on welcoming initiatives will be integrated in our project as COVID-19 will remain part of our current reality.

Migrants and shrinking regions in times of the COVID-19 pandemic: blog series

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on our daily lives. Suddenly, the world changed from a mobile world into an immobile one. In these blog posts, the WELCOMING SPACES team gives an insight into how the pandemic has affected the lives of migrants in shrinking regions across Europe, in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain.

Dutch Welcoming Spaces in Covid-19 times

3 June 2020

By Rianne Hadders, Jana Finke and Marlies Meier

The Covid-19 crisis highlights inequalities and the position of lower-skilled migrants in the Dutch society. For example, due to the crisis, the harsh living and working circumstances of many seasonal workers in the agricultural sector was highlighted in mainstream media. The workers union FNV called for attention as workers often are placed by their employment agency in holiday parks where they have to share rooms with multiple people. Keeping the 1.5 metres distance is impossible there. Various agencies were also fined because they were transporting the people in full buses to their employment site.

The effects of such circumstances are reflected in the findings by the Statistics Agency Netherlands (CBS). They found that migrant’s health is more at risk during the COVID-19 crisis. The death rate for people with migration background (second and first generation) within the first six weeks of the pandemic (until mid-April) was 50 percent higher than the expected death rate. For those without migrant background the rate was only 40 percent higher than expected. Possible explanations are the relatively high number of migrants working in professions that require contact or cannot be done from home, such as the aforementioned example. Other factors may be a lack of access to official information in a language they understand, and the wider spread of risk factors among migrant groups (e.g. diabetes).

The effects of covid-19 measures on asylum seekers and asylum processes

In the Netherlands, everyone is restricted in their mobility; people are asked to stay home as much as possible. However, it is allowed to go out for a walk and relax at the park. For people living in asylum seekers’ reception centres, the mobility is far more restricted and everyday more intensely affected by the restrictions. This is because asylum seeker accommodation (AZC) in the Netherlands mainly takes place on a large scale with many people living in one place. As contamination might happen easier due to the shared facilities and limited space per person, measures for them are even stricter than for the broader population.

For asylum seekers in particular, the impacts go beyond their living situation in the asylum centres. The Dutch immigration authorities halted all operations (the processing of asylum procedures) except for emergency ones. Those who intended to claim asylum during the Covid-19 crisis are provided with emergency accommodation, which is collective accommodation.

In the midst of halted and delayed admission processes two interesting exceptions can be observed, related to the interest of the Dutch society in the current crisis. Specifically, migrants working in the agricultural sector as well as migrants with a medical professional background receive special treatment. The Dutch farming sector depends to a large extend on the labour of seasonal workers from Eastern European countries. While at first the possibilities for workers to enter the Netherlands for the asparagus and strawberry harvest season seemed limited due to border closing and the cutting of transportation, access has in the end been allowed and suitable transport has been arranged widely so that hundreds of migrant workers could cross into the Netherlands’ fields. While the recognition procedure of diplomas for migrant medical professionals from countries like Syria and other non-EU countries is rather complicated and lengthy , it seems to become easier for doctors were not yet officially allowed to get to work, as the Covid-19 regulations that led to exemptions in the regulations. While there are still quite some requirements that have to be met, working under supervision of another registered doctor is possible for asylum seekers with a medical professional background who are still in the recognition procedure. Even some people who are still in their asylum request procedure were admitted to work in hospitals temporarily (COA).

Thus, in addition to the acute negative health impacts for migrants, some have speculated that this crisis underlines their importance to keep the economy afloat, which can lead to better treatment for those who are seen to be of immediate use for the economy. 

Responses in shrinking regions

At the moment it is difficult to identify how depopulating regions will be affected by the Corona virus. Projects that stimulate interactions between migrants and other inhabitants of these regions have been put on hold, and also meeting places (community centres) have been closed. However, some activities have successfully shifted to online support. Our students working on welcoming spaces in shrinking areas have also observed a shift in the functions of the welcoming initiatives. For example, an initiative in the Limburg region signaled that the migrants they were supporting did not understood the messages from the government and took up the task to translate all statements to Arabic and opened a helpline. Currently, they are hosting online language-cafes, but volunteers identified they mainly use these interactions to check on the wellbeing of the refugees in the current crisis.

Nevertheless, for many initiatives the Covid-19 crisis causes immediate financial problems, and their future is unsure. This implies that possibilities for interactions, casual encounters and meeting each other more in structured ways have become very limited. Migrants can be affected in negative ways, as their ties within the local community are often less strong; or they may be advantaged, as their online ties are stronger. Both hypotheses have been raised.

Additionally, some argue that the countryside is the future: less crowded, more (socially) cohesive, and potentially thriving with a renewed interests in local food production. Also living in lower densities is advantageous: currently the (predominantly rural and sparsely populated) North of the Netherlands is hardly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Rural communities are believed to be more resilient in a lock down situation. Neighbors always have been more dependent on community care, as formal and commercial services are distanced or absent. Green space is nearby and accessible. Generally speaking, people living in rural (and shrinking) areas are less affected by a lockdown, than those living in urban areas.

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Living conditions of non-EU migrants residing in Germany during the Covid-19 pandemic

2 June 2020

Sabine Meier and Laura Foelske (University of Siegen)

In Germany, 19.3 million people (of the 83.1 million inhabitants in total) has a so-called ´migration background´ while 10.1 million people do not have German nationality. 57 percent of the population without German nationality are non-EU migrants. The measures taken against the spread of the Covid-19 virus highlight social inequality between a number of non-EU migrants and those who are established regarding their secure employment relationships, housing situation and social inclusion in local networks.

As regards the employment situation during the pandemic, according to the figures of the ´Immigration Monitor´, published in May 2020 by the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB), the number of unemployed among people with foreign passports rose four times as strongly in March and April 2020 as among those with a German nationality. A further analysis shows that people who flee from war and crisis countries are most affected by job losses during the pandemic. While unemployment among migrants with an EU passport increased by 0.9 percent, it rose by 5.1 percent among people from war and crisis countries. This is because the largest share of jobs of non-EU migrants is temporary work. If marginal employment is added, the main sectors in which they work is catering and restaurants, trade, maintenance, repair or cleaning sector, domestic work and seasonal harvest help.

With respect to the housing situation, many non-EU migrants have been able to move into independent apartments over the last years while some still rely on collective accommodations. These accommodations are often located in converted schools, hotels or military barracks, where approx. 50 to 400 people live in private rooms with shared kitchens and sanitary facilities. In particular in shrinking regions, collective accommodations are often located in some miles distance to city centers. Since a few weeks, the daily press regularly reports about collective accommodations in shrinking areas, where the migrants are not only are exposed to an increased health risk. In addition, bus lines to remote collective accommodation have been discontinued. As a result, they are unable to reach a supermarket or other services with public transport. Besides complaints and hunger strikes by the migrants themselves a number of German refugee councils and also students of the Fridays-for-Future movement have repeatedly drawn attention to the conditions through protest actions.

In relation to social inclusion in local networks and communities, especially in shrinking regions, non-EU migrants depend on voluntary help because of the absence of old established migrant organizations. By the ´volunteers-government-migrants´ co-production, for instance, housing maintenance and regular visits has been combined with mutual assistance of all kinds, translations during doctor’s visits and visits to authorities or finding solutions together to overcome administrative hurdles.

Photo of apartments of non-EU migrants in a rural area in Germany

Moreover, a number of migrants organize themselves in sport or other leisure clubs. Both, everyday social interactions between volunteers and migrants as well as the participation in clubs and associations, were restricted during the pandemic. In addition to this restriction, right-wing groups use the pandemic not only to defame the government as a scapegoat, but also the newcomers. They blame the newcomers either to be the “carrier” of the virus or being part of a militant group, that wants to take over – with the German government – the Germans. These groups use the current crisis to spread their conspiracy theories and to stir up hatred against newcomers. Therefore, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution considers a high risk of right-winged attacks on refugees and newcomers. They also consider radicalized loners as dangerous. Therefore, a number of migrants became not only isolated and lonely, but got mental problems in particular reinforced by the pandemic.

Besides these negative impacts, there are few initiatives developed to improve migrants´ living conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic. With respect to the employment situation, e.g. the federal state Schleswig-Holstein has simplified the rules in order to allow newcomers to take up jobs as harvest workers. The refugee council of Schleswig-Holstein endorses this development in the first instance but warned against suddenly discovering asylum seekers as cheap labor in the crisis: To grant them rights now, but which they would quickly lose again when the crisis ended. Addionally, the Federation of German Trade Unions demand for more offers for (further) qualification, training, recognition of qualifications acquired abroad, demand-oriented career guidance and labour market placement in general to improve the access to regular work for (non-EU) migrants.

In addition to these demands, volunteers and migrants themselves organize to support migrants by searching for new ideas and engagements by the blog “GoVoluneer”. With this blogs people were informed about living conditions of migrants and concrete advice is given how to support migrants and other social groups in weak social positions. This publicly available website shows some examples:

COVID-19 Crisis impact on migrants in Spain: New challenges and opportunities in the shrinking regions

2 June 2020

María García Tarancón, Adolfo Patón (Cepaim Foundation
Obdulia Taboadela, Laura Oso (ESOMI; Universidade da Coruña)

Impact on immigrant’s employment: some hit boats, another ones coming up

In Spain, COVID-19 is having devastating effects on the economy and the labour market. In just fifteen days in March, the GDP has fallen by more than 5 points, and it is expected that in the next quarter our economy will fall by a further 14%, according to data from the European Commission and the INE (Spanish Statistics Institute). Logically, this collapse has had its correlation in the labour market, with a spectacular fall in employment and the hiring process. Such loss of employment does not affect all groups equally; it is precisely the weakest and most unstable who suffer most from job loss: young people, women and immigrants.

The hotel, restaurants industry and commerce, where there is a very significant number of immigrants, are some of the sectors where employment has fallen the most, because of the paralysis of activity and the closure of establishments due to confinement. However, there are three other sectors of activity with a high concentration of foreign workers, and where their employment levels have not fallen so much, or even their demand has increased during the COVID-19 crisis. These are agriculture and livestock farming, domestic employment and residential assistance (Ministerio Seguridad Social; SEPE). In the case of agriculture, this is due to the greater domestic demand for food and to the fact that it coincides with the harvest season. Residential care has increased due to the very nature of the pandemic and the need for care for the elderly.

However, this pandemic has also brought to light the existence of two new social classes, in the words of Antonio Izquierdo: those who can be confined and those who are exposed out of necessity. The immigrant population is part of that battalion of “exposed” who, from the fields, the supermarkets, transport, care, have to take more health risk.

New opportunities in the rural areas

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to reformulate the current socio-assistance model has been more than confirmed, where an increase in the number of workers per resident or even the creation of new assistance figures such as “the personal caretaker”, can be an option and a source of employment that manages to attract a large number of migrant population to the shrinking regions. Many migrants are caregivers for older people living in our villages and thanks to them, they can continue to reside with care and attention in their homes. Without relatives and with the desire to take care of the health of our elderly, their needs for attention and care should be alleviated through people who want to work as caregivers or home assistants, being a great employment opportunity for migrants who want to live in rural areas.

This global health crisis has also brought to the table some important aspects, key to rural development. It has demonstrated that nowadays it is perfectly possible to telework, avoiding unnecessary polluting journeys, facilitating conciliation and allowing for decongestion in large cities. This leaves a new opportunity for the rural environment, as professional development can be carried out anywhere by means of new technologies. All these reasons make possible and offer a great opportunity as a means of living in the rural environment for immigrants who are in situations of special vulnerability in urban areas. On the other hand, the sale of products on the Internet has grown exponentially during the health crisis. There are many people who have bought for the first time through the Internet during this period, this upturn in commercial activity on the Internet is also a great opportunity for people who want to market their artisan products through the Internet, living and working in rural areas.

Some political responses

More institutional support and mechanisms that provide the labour market with greater flexibility would be advisable in order to be able to move some of the unemployed foreign labour to those sectors of higher demand, particularly agriculture. It is now harvest time, and in the situation of border closures, the option of hiring seasonal workers from outside is not available. At this time, the need for some 150,000 workers is estimated. Of the 300,000 seasonal workers in the field, about half are foreigners. That is where, with institutional help, there may be an opportunity for immigrants. The Government had relaxed requirements and extended work permits, but perhaps it could do more by granting work access to irregular immigrants or asylum-seekers.
On the other hand, in Spain the pandemic has accelerated the implementation of the minimum vital income for households in a situation of vulnerability and poverty. Nationality will not be an eligibility criterion, only one year’s residence in the country, so those immigrants who meet the requirements will be able to access this aid, which will undoubtedly alleviate the situation of the weakest and most vulnerable

Victims or resources? Migrants and shrinking areas in the post-Covid-19 society in Italy

31 May 2020

Irene Ponzo and Ferruccio Pastore (FIERI)

New obstacles (and some opportunities) for migrant integration. The pandemic generates both new risks and opportunities for migrant integration. Higher-than-natives propensity to mobility (both across and within national borders) is a key resource for many migrant workers.

Hence, mobility restrictions are likely to affect migrants more than the more sedentary strata of the population. Irregular status of a share of the migrant population may create further difficulties in moving across localities and in accessing health services and social benefits. Living in poor housing conditions, informal settlements, squatted buildings or collective accommodations is more frequent among migrants than among natives, thus exposing the first to comparatively higher risks of contagion.

On the other hand, new integration opportunities can open up, as it is here and there with more or less extensive regularisation procedures that were hardly imaginable until just a few months ago. This is the case of Italy where, to cope with labour shortages, an amnesty of irregular agricultural, domestic and care workers was adopted at mid-May . Regularisation applications can be submitted by employers or irregular foreigners. In the first case, the employer can regularise Italian and regular foreign persons employed on irregular basis or recruit irregular foreigners already present in Italy before March 8 2020 by paying 400 euro for the bureaucratic procedures and an additional amount to be defined as a compensation for evaded taxes. In the second case, foreigners whose residence permits expired before October 31 2019 and who, while still regular, had worked in one of the sectors targeted by the amnesty, can apply for a job seeking permit by paying 190 euros. This type of permit will last 6 months and will have to be converted into a work permit within this time span, otherwise the person will fall back into an irregular status. Around 200,000 migrants are expected to be regularised through one of these two channels, far less than the estimated 500-600,000 irregular migrants living in Italy. This is the result of the amnesty’s exclusive focus agriculture, breeding and fishery, domestic work and care work. Moreover, the amnesty could not offer a good value for money in agriculture where a large share of workers are hired for just a few weeks or months.

A further positive side-effect could be a mitigation in the level of exploitation of migrant (and native) workers due to the strengthen controls over working conditions to ensure the respect of safety rules could produce.

Finally,  if domiciliary care will become a key component of the public health systems to contrast the pandemic, care workers, a large share of which, especially in southern Europe, are immigrants, may gain recognition by assuming a pivotal role in connecting the health services with families. Such role might result even more crucial in peripheral non-urban areas more difficult to reach and monitor on regular basis for the public health services.

Migrants as pioneers of revitalisation of shrinking communities? Covid-19 has turned proximity into an economic and social asset, much more than it used to be. Creatively exploiting proximity (for instance to shorten food supply chains, and or touristic trajectories) is becoming a key condition for recovery, especially in countries, such as Italy, where agriculture and tourism are crucial sectors.

If rural shrinking areas have to become tourist destinations and large-scale production sites for zero-kilometer food (i.e. produced, sold and eaten locally), migrants may turn out to be a critical resource for them. In fact, if such a productive upgrade of inner, peripheral and shrinking areas is adopted as a strategic goal, we can hardly expect that the necessary workforce will come from young natives  flocking out of the cities . An example of this kind of development is Barikama, a cooperative of young African migrants in Campagnano di Roma, that is growing, packing, and delivering boxes of fresh food to the residents of Rome during the Covid-19 outbreak. This kind of initiatives are multiplying in Italy. The current pandemic could turn them from praised small avant-garde experiments into mainstream solutions for a post-Covid-19 proximity society.

Unfortunately, the outlook is still very bleak and no positive outcome is to be expected unless it is painstakingly and strategically pursued. Opposite scenarios are all too plausible: the massive asymmetrical crisis unleashed by Covid-19 could give a final blow to shrinking, economically and demographically fragile areas by further reinforcing urbanisation trends. In the meantime, there are clear symptoms that it could widen gaps and deepen inequalities between (less protected) migrants and (more sheltered) natives. Much will depend on politics and policies, on whether and how they will be able to steer a rethinking of our modes of production and our way of living together.

For the full version of the contribution click here.

Reflections on the consequences of Covid-19 pandemic on shrinking areas in Italy

31 May 2020

University of Bologna

The Covid-19 outbreak has brought new attention and new conceptual and practical challenges for Italian shrinking regions. The pandemic stages an imaginary polarisation between a city suddenly demonised as a place of settlement density and excessively compressed sociality and an idyllic vision of rural areas, suddenly relaunched as romantic, healthy, and safe places to live. However, as Chiodelli points out, it is necessary first to verify whether residential density is a problem. The data currently available do not clearly confirm this. In fact, also areas characterised by residential dispersion can be highly affected by Covid-19 emergency.

Furthermore, even if we embrace the idea of a possible “urban shrinkage”, rural areas are still characterised by too many limits, from inaccessibility, to the lack of essential services and jobs, often combined with  poor infrastructures and limited technological connections. These points are even more important if we think that in Italy these rural territories represent a quantitatively non-marginal area. In these areas, 23% of the Italian population settle, covering a large area of the national territory, equal to 60% and about half of its almost 8,057 municipalities. In this context, the impending crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic reopens a debate already existing in Italy, offering new opportunities for revitalisation of “old” problems.

In particular, Covid-19 crisis has boosted the reflection on shrinking areas on a double level.

The first level refers to the narratives and the representation of internal areas, gaining a renovated place in mediatic and political discourses. In Italy, a turning point is represented by a newspaper article where the archistar Stefano Boeri, famous for the “Vertical Forest” project in Milan, suggested to consider small villages as central places for our future. This article led to further public discussions, such as the online event “Riabitare i Piccoli Borghi” (“Re-Inhabit Small Villages”), where academics, writers, civil society organizations, mayors and experts in local development, discussed together on the future of internal areas, while considering the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for shrinking regions. Similar debates are supported by the Association “Dislivelli”, which dedicated its last publication to the topic of Covid-19 pandemic and Italian mountain areas.

Moreover, public discourses are now re-framing certain characteristics of internal areas, transforming them from limits to opportunities. It is, for example, the case of the possibility to work in isolated contexts, such as in the agricultural and pastoral sector, among the few productive fields that did not stop due to the coronavirus outbreak. Or the case of the very interesting discussions about the reconfiguration of the public health system through what is called “a community-centered care” approach.

The second level refers to policies and concrete projects that have been supported since the pandemic scenario was wide-spreading. Through the development of bottom-up initiatives, for instance, rural areas are showing different signs of active resistance (and resilience). An example concerns the “cooperativa di comunità di Biccari” (Biccari community cooperative), that has activated a voluntary service of home delivery for the elderly and lonely people. An experience that shows the importance of social capital and solidarity in shrinking regions, also confirmed by the fact that this exchange is not based on money but on mutual trust. Similar initiatives are developing in different Italian villages, confirming that Covid-19 emergency is (also) a tool to activate solidarity and reflect on replicable models, even considering the differences related to specific local contexts.

Among some of the numerous initiatives promoted by public institutions, we report the recent call launched by the region Emilia-Romagna to sustain with 10 million euros a total of 119 municipalities, and in particular those individuals or families who intend to buy or renovate a real estate in the Apennines area. Another interesting initiative was promoted by the Ministry for Culture and Tourism, which is supporting non-repayable financing for the re-development and renovation of the historic centers of municipalities with less than 10.000 inhabitants in the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily.

Numerous initiatives aim to sustain forms of local and sustainable development through the support of slow and responsible tourism.

Indeed, as Covid-19 has highly impacted on the mobility of people, restraining international tourism flows – both in terms of incoming and outcoming –, tourism destinations within national borders are gaining a renovated political and entrepreneurial attention. In this scenario, tourism in internal areas is not only seen as a possibility for tourists to enjoy alternative leisure experiences far from the crowded – and, therefore, “dangerous” – urban centers, but also as a viable and sustainable strategy for endogenous development of shrinking regions. This idea is supported by initiatives such as the replacement of the “tourist tax” with the “tourist award”, a creative idea promoted by the mayor of Valle dell’Angelo, the smallest municipalities in Campania.

Supporting sustainable tourism and agriculture is, instead, the aim of the call launched by Regione Puglia to sustain start-ups that provide innovative services for the sustainable use of rural and coastal areas in the territory of Alto Salento. However, as many experts suggest, tourism cannot be considered the only strategy to boost local development of internal areas. First of all, because of the risk of a “tourism monoculture”, namely the risk that the development of these areas starts to depend on a highly unpredictable sector such is tourism. Secondly, because tourism, if not developed through a responsible approach, has often showed its “dark sides” (e.g., pollution, social/cultural conflicts, unequal access to resources, etc.). It is therefore necessary to consider as a priority the needs of local inhabitants, promoting their active participation in decision-making processes. Thirdly, shrinking areas urge systematic interventions to respond to a fragile situation in terms of lack of services, jobs and infrastructures.

To conclude, the COVID-19 outbreak is leading both to new challenges and opportunities for shrinking regions. Surely, it can represent a reflexive node to understand better the mechanisms at the basis of territorial inequalities and exclusion, but, at the same time, the processes of successful revitalisation through inclusive and sustainable development.