Shrinking areas as dynamic spaces of care and resilience

25 January 2021

By Desirè Gaudioso – University of Bologna

Shrinking areas, “the lands of the margin”, are often depicted as places of disadvantage, depopulation, abandonment, marked by lack of opportunities and services (e.g., logistics, education, health, transports) that negatively affect the quality of life of their inhabitants. The fate of these areas oscillates between the transformation into “bonbonniere villages” and a resigned extinction.

In recent years, throughout Italy, we have been witnessing a constant effort to invert these trends and to recover these regions, starting from a change of perspective in the way we approach the Italian territory. The development of this different gaze shifts the focus from the centre to the margins, with the aim of making them liveable places again. A fundamental point towards the revitalisation of shrinking areas is the concept of “Restanza”, theorised by the Italian anthropologist Vito Teti.

The idea of “Restanza” implies both the verb to stay and the noun resilience. Restanza means choosing to stay in a place in a conscious, active and proactive way by actively guarding it, being aware of the past while enhancing what remains, with an impulse towards the future where a new community is possible. In this sense, staying is a dynamic concept, it is a form of journey, a manner to affirm a different existence: an existence made of presence, an action to hinder absence and abandonment. Presence brings life back, places become liveable and are perceived as sources of opportunities not only for the ones who stay, but also for those who arrive. Moreover, the meaning of staying is strictly linked with living, inhabiting, as an intense relationship that is characterised by enjoyment and realisation of resources and, at the same time, by care of collective assets. In describing the term “restanza”, the Italian anthropologist Vito Teti asserts that staying “is tied to the painful and authentic experience of always being out of place”, and of “feeling in exile and foreign in the place where one lives”. Exile, disorientation, uprooting, mark the life of people living in shrinking areas. Similarly, the emotional bond with space and the feeling of loss and distance characterise the migratory experience, often in addition to a journey without arrival, or an arrival in which it is not allowed to stay. A position of marginality is shared by who stays and who migrates as well.

Living on the fringes, however, should not just be seen as something entirely negative. In this regard, the contribution of the American writer Bell Hooks is extremely interesting. The author elaborates a vision of marginality as place of radical possibility and resistance able to provide a new perspective from which to look and reimagine alternatives and “new worlds”. In Welcoming Spaces, the creation of these “new worlds” takes place. Quoting Teti, it contributes to “little daily utopias of change” with others. In this process, relationships based on collaboration and solidarity that were previously destroyed, limited and devalued are mended. Moreover, they prove to be fundamental for sharing and taking care of places as communal assets. Care earns a central role in the relation with the territory and between the people who live in it and is based on the recognition that we are all dependent on each other. Interdependences, if enhanced can turn into additional sources through which communities can develop and prosper. Consequently, in this framework, “the other” ceases to be a threat and becomes a companion to cultivate a common future. Acting towards the others in a constructive manner, therefore avoiding oppositional behaviours, promotes a notion of care that goes beyond the meaning that diminishes it to concern and attention exclusively directed to who and what we recognise as similar and close. Furthermore, the dilatation of the traditional idea of care discourages the diffusion of cultures of identity based on exclusion. Breaking down walls, opening up to those previously identified as different, and embracing a broader concept of care favours the creation of inclusive communities and belongings, in which identities are contaminated and formed in relation to the others in a regenerative manner.

As emphasised in the “Care Manifesto”, published by The Care Collective in the most critical months of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking the idea of ​​care as an organisational principle seriously and make it a priority not only in the domestic sphere but in all areas of life, “is necessary for the cultivation of a caring politics, fulfilling lives, and a sustainable world”.  The authors realise the power of care as practice and core value on which a new society can be built. When a community turns into a caring community, the values ​​that guide care in intimate spheres orient the public realm towards actions aimed at creating spaces for a life “in common” that can bring to light the intrinsic political potential of the community itself. Eventually, this political element renews, fosters, and improves democratic processes and encourages a more participative citizenship.

In shrinking areas, communities based on care invest in their own resources and in strengthening the ties not only between those who live there, but also towards the outside world, transform marginality from a disadvantaged context into a virtuous space, or rather, citing Bell Hooks, “into a place to live in, to which remain attached and faithful, because it nourishes our ability of resistance”. In Welcoming Spaces, care and resilience are the engine for the conversion of strangers into familiar figures and of shrinking regions into welcoming, sustainable, and liveable spaces.