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.