Growing up and going through my teenage years in a small village in Northern Italy, I often felt trapped, too distant
from the places where everything seemed to be happening. Life was going on in
the city, and I was always a too long commute away from it. Years later, as the
lockdown froze many of us in unexpected circumstances and living arrangements,
I found myself back in the same village I had been trying to escape for years.
But things felt a bit different this time. As the city turned into a silent
concrete body, devoid of all the social and cultural life that made it so
appealing, the ‘boring’ countryside began instead to feel like an idyllic
location, with its greenery and outdoor spaces that made isolation seem a bit
This change in perspective wasn’t peculiar to my own life, but came instead at the centre of public discourse through the words of well-known architects, politicians and journalists, who began to emphasise the potential that the remote and isolated areas of the country have to be at the forefront in shaping the post-pandemic future. In particular, the words of archistar Stefano Boeri were often invoked in the past few weeks. The architect, known for his projects focused on sustainability and urban reforestation, reflected on how the pandemic influenced our living choices and urged many of us to leave the city to find refuge in scarcely populated villages. According to Boeri, this trend should be seen as an important opportunity for the country to rethink its urban development patterns and to save those areas that are today nearly abandoned. Along the same lines, many observers saw this crisis as a much-needed occasion to rethink tourism, reducing the pressure of over-tourism on cities and promoting new out of the beaten path experiences that could be beneficial for more remote locations.
But aside from temporarily coming under the spotlight, in Italy the question of how to deal with marginal and
fragile areas, better known as aree interne (inner areas), is one that
for too long has been left out from public debate and political agendas. The
past decades were characterised by an urban-centred approach to development, which led to a concentration of wealth, resources
and services in few urban areas, resulting in deep territorial inequalities. As
public and private investments kept flowing towards cities, the aree interne
– corresponding to 60% of the national territory and inhabited by almost a
quarter of the country’s population – remained untended. Local development
mostly took the form of residual or compensative policies, always too unsystematic and fragmented to actually
revert the trends of impoverishment and depopulation that came to be associated
to the aree interne.
If we broaden our geographic focus, we discover that the issue of
territorial disparity is not peculiar to the Italian context. Indeed, in most
countries around the world it is possible to observe a similarly stark divide
between few attractive cities on one side and a multitude of small peripheral
towns and villages on the other side. Experts even coined the expressions ‘left-behind places’ and ‘places that don’t matter’to refer to those
areas that are excluded from an increasingly tight network of global cities. As
stressed by Filippo Tantillo, expert of territorial development, the European
inner areas have a lot in common and are characterised by the same dynamics, to
the point that ‘Blanca, in Spain, is more similar to Faeto, in Puglia
than it is to Madrid’. Indeed, in
spite of being diverse in terms of geographical conformation, history and local
culture, such areas share a common fragility, determined by the scarcity of
services and opportunities that is slowly causing their decay.
In an attempt to close this gap, the European Union has been addressing the issue of territorial disparity through its cohesion policy. While the focus on European regional development is not new, the past few years saw an important evolution in the way cohesion is conceived and implemented. Indeed, a debate arose regarding the need to develop a place-based and place-sensitive approach to tackle territorial inequalities, both among member countries and within each of them. This approach was introduced during the last budget period, and will be put to further test through the 2021-2027 cohesion policy, which states among its aims that of ‘supporting locally-led development strategies’.
Among the promotors of this paradigm shift was Fabrizio Barca, former Minister for Territorial Cohesion, who was also behind the development of the Italian National Strategy for Inner Areas (SNAI) launched in 2014. A joint effort bringing together the Agency for Territorial Cohesion, several Ministries and all levels of government from national to local, the strategy has an ambitious goal. It aims to revert the trends of depopulation, impoverishment and isolation that came to characterise the inner areas as a consequence of decades of neglect. It sets out to do so in two ways: on one side it focuses on improving the offer of essential public services that are often lacking in marginal areas, while on the other side it promotes place-based solutions to place-specific issues, involving in the process local stakeholders, communities and policymakers.
A few years after the launch of the Strategy, it is still too early to
fully assess the effects of the policy. However, it is possible to take stock
of the first achievements, as the SNAI experts Fabrizio Barca, Filippo Tantillo
and Giovanni Carrosio do in this conversation. In the first place, the Strategy has the merit of having brought inner
areas back into the political debate after years of neglect. Together with
this, it produced an important change in the way such areas are perceived, both
by their inhabitants and by policy makers. It reactivated the energies existing
on the territories by enabling local actors to actually have a space to present
and discuss their ideas and to access the resources needed to develop their
projects. Furthermore, the SNAI introduced a new way to look at the Italian
territory that goes beyond the classic North-South and city-countryside divides
and brings the focus on marginality, access to service and opportunities. In
spite of such important results, there are still some obstacles to the
implementation of the strategy, which often clashes with the too rigid
structures of local, regional and natural authorities, that are usually
reluctant to change.
When we become familiar with the fragility and widespread decay that
still characterises the majority of inner areas, the return to the villages
imagined by many observers during the global pandemic appears in a new and less optimistic light. If we want to go beyond a fleeting interest in these
territories, if we want our inner areas to be more than a mere refuge, we need
to make them more attractive. This can be done only by ensuring access to basic
services and by creating new economic, social and cultural opportunities, so
that these territories can become places where people will want to remain. Now
that the virus brought our attention to the inner areas, we have to maintain
this attention and to work towards a more structural transformation. The SNAI represents a first fundamental step in this
direction, but it needs to be accompanied by a broader change in the way we look
at different areas and regions. We will have to overcome the dichotomy between
centre and marginal areas, to move away from a rhetoric of winner and losers
and to focus on how to develop a paradigm able to account for and build on the
diversity that characterizes our territories.
question of how we will inhabit cities after COVID-19 has popped amongst most
urban planners, as we all question urban dynamics and see the pandemic as an
opportunity to reshape not only the way we inhabit cities, but also how we move
the first images from an isolated Wuhan to the photos of empty streets in New
York, the media have shared powerful images that invite urban enthusiasts to
question the use of street space generally dominated by cars.
disruption of our everyday lives brought a perfect momentum for urbanists to
push forward a sustainable mobility agenda as many people worked from home, micro-mobility
became the only type of mobility for many, and even the World Health Organisation
encouraged people to consider riding bikes and walking whenever feasible.
public transportation and cab services are still considered risky spaces for
infection, local governments decided to pedestrianise streets and broaden bike
lanes in cities such as New York, Berlin, Milan, Bogota, Barcelona, Mexico
City, Paris, Vienna, Sydney and Brussels.
and local governments have described it as a moment for mobility to change, an
approach that is still to be tested once the social distancing restrictions are
lifted, and the use of walking and biking is tested versus motorised
transportation such as motorbikes and cars.
affluence dropped to almost 40% in most major cities; some cities adopted temporary
measures implementing pop-up bike lanes while others fast-tracked bike
paths scheduled in the pre-corona city planning.
mobility adapting to a health crisis
One of the most relevant
examples of city mobility adapted to the health crisis is Paris. The region plans to invest
300 million euros in building 650 kilometres of pop-up and pre-planned
cycleway infrastructure. In an overnight operation
street workers blocked traffic and painted bike icons
streets into safe streets for biking.
lockdown and the decrease in car traffic accelerated the implementation of the
which is part of major Anne Hidalgo’s promise
to turn every street in Paris cycle-friendly by 2024.
introduced 20 kilometres of pop-up bike lanes, as Berlin Roads and Parks
Department official Felix Weisbrich called this a “pandemic-resilient
infrastructure.” As the pandemic has
accelerated the discussions in districts and municipal parliaments, public
officials can push for urban infrastructure to be implemented
ata faster speed than what the bouroucratic procedure would usually take.
city of Milan implemented the “Strade
Aperte” plan which contemplated the
transformation of 35
kilometres of city streets into either pedestrian or cyclists roads. The
Italian government issued bike-friendly traffic rules and promised people in
bigger cities to provide a subsidy of up to 60 per cent of the price for the
purchase of bicycles and e-scooters, up to a maximum of 500 euros.
planned to build a total of 40 kilometers of new cycle lanes.
While the British government announced an
emergency plan of 250 million pounds
set up pop-up bike lanes, safer junctions and cycle-only corridors.
Bogotá is one of the cities with the largest pop-up cycling lanes expansion
during the pandemic crisis as the city implemented 80km of temporary in-street
bikeways to supplement 550 km existing bike paths.
pop-up infrastructure like removable tape and mobile signs not only makes it
easier for people riding bikes to keep self-distancing,
but it also encourages people who would not cycle regularly to explore new ways
of transportation in a more comfortable space.
What about cars?
adaptation to COVID-19 is not always sustainable and resilient. The sanitary
measures present a risk as cars represent a tool for isolated mobility.
Car-centric cities may continue to be so as car use increases.
there is a higher demand for activities to restart under social distancing
conditions, many cities in Europe started embracing drive-in culture not only
for food but also for churches, cinemas and even concerts.
of drive-in entertainment alternatives take place in the outskirts of cities as
it is the case in Lithuania and Denmark. German car cinemas became
popular near Cologne, and the city of Schüttorf close to the border of Germany
and the Netherlands hosted a party in a drive-in club where the performer
invited people to “honk if they were having a good
the United States, famous for its drive-in culture, a strip club continued operation under this new modality that would allow people to
keep distance as the attendees stayed inside their cars.
drive-ins help entertainment industries to cope with the closures imposed by
the sanitary restrictions, there is a risk, especially in the suburbs, to
develop an even more motorised culture and a lifestyle that is more dependable
What can urban planning learn from past epidemics?
of the first examples of a city adapting to an epidemic is the cholera outbreak
mapped by John Snow which encouraged cities to
establish higher hygiene standards and prompted the relevance of statistical
data in city planning.
more recent outbreaks like the case of SARS epidemic that affected cities in
China, South East Asia and Canada highlighted the vulnerability of dense cities
to become arenas for a fast spread of the virus. Although
the use of public transportation was reduced in cities like Taipei, -the daily
ridership of public transportation decreased to 50% during
the peak of the 2003 SARS period– there is no significant evidence of a shift
toward sustainable transportation. The SARS epidemic provided
more examples of social control and exceptionalism than examples of sustainable
the case of Covid-19, even if urbanists hope for the outbreak to be a
significant opportunity to design more sustainable cities in the “new
normality”, and car sales have drastically dropped, there is hope in the car
industry for sales to rise once the distance regulations
are eased since people will opt for a car to comply with social distancing
Korea and China the fears of contracting the Coronavirus have already shown an
increase in the sales of cars and in the United States, according to the IBM study on Consumer Behavior Alterations, “More
than 20 percent
of respondents who regularly used buses, subways or
trains now said they no longer would, and
another 28 percent said they will likely use public transportation less often.”.
addition, they claim that “more
than 17 percent of people surveyed said that they intend to use their personal
vehicle more as a result of COVID-19, with approximately 1 in 4
saying they will use it as their exclusive mode of transportation
going forward.” .
this matter, public transportation might be the most affected in terms of
revenue, New York City metro system reported its worst
financial crisis as their ridership decreased by 90%, while London Underground
put one quarter of its staff in furlough as it has only been used at a 5% of
its capacity for the past months. Even
after the social distancing measures are eased, public transport might be
considered more hazardous than other means of transportation
and be the most affected financially.
Can city mobility restart in a resilient way?
the biggest part of the crisis has passed and we
will inhabit cities with eased
sanitary restrictions is still uncertain whether
mobility patterns will be affected in a permanent way. Further data will show
the coronavirus pandemic did encourage the creation of instruments for the
implementations of sustainable mobility or it perpetuated a car centered approach.
far, at a medium-term, the relevance of longer-trips has
been questioned, and work from home acquired
significance as an alternative to commutes. Trips are expected to be carried
out mostly by walking, cycling and driving a personal car
and the investment in cycling infrastructure will remain as a long-term outcome
of this pandemic.
outcomes of this experience can also have a long-term impact
as they will be documented
in guidelines and the experience will set a precedent for critical and
resilient responses for local governments.
For instance, the guide for temporary bike lanes
titled “Making a safe space for cycling in 10 days”, developed by the consultancy
Mobicon, delineates what should the first relevant action should
to keep safe distance while boosting more sustainable commutes.
restoration of activities in dense cities might not bring an
automatic radical change in mobility behaviour and policy but,
despite the circumstances, life under social distancing became an
actual experimental period that many urbanists have dreamed
of and many citizens had not experimented before.
relevant question now is whether we will be able to maintain partially closed
streets and broader bike lanes after lockdown restrictions are lifted once
cities get through this moment, hoping for planners, public officials and
citizens to recognise the perks of having more room and infrastructure for
“Verso Savio 2030” (Towards Savio 2030) is a project launched by “Unione dei Comuni della Valle del Savio” (union of six municipalities: Bagno di Romagna, Cesena, Mercato Saraceno, Montiano, Sarsina, Verghereto) in Emilia-Romagna in 2019 and supported by LabGov.City. The project aims at building a strategic path to encourage collaboration and community synergies between institutions, academics, companies, social and civic actors, through the development of a kit of policies and legal instruments.
This process follows and applies the Co-City Protocol that will lead to experiment concrete projects to valorize the territory of the Valley, pushing for social, digital, technological innovation and empowerment.
“Verso Savio 2030” recognizes as representative of the context two key infrastructural and territorial values, one natural and one artificial: the Savio River and the E45 road. These linear elements connect people and opportunities. At the same time, they are crucial to provide answers and test solutions for the challenges posed by the current climate, environmental and sanitary emergencies (the spread of the Covid-19) and crisis.
For these reasons, LabGov.City is strengthening its multidisciplinary vision to animate a culture of change and cooperation in the area that can begin to show its effects by re-thinking mobility and tourism as strategic sectors to reach sustainability goals.
Save the Date! If you’re interested in finding out more about Tech in the City or on the potential contribution of science in cities in the post-COVID19 period, sign up to our June 22nd digital workshop! Share your experience with us on June 22nd from 2:30pm to 5:30pm by registering right here ! This event builds on the Tech and the city approach adopted and experimented by the city in Reggio Emilia (Emilia-Romagna, Italy) based on the theory of urban co-governance, the city as a commons or “co-cities” theory. Our goal is to bring together cities and key stakeholders working on tech justice at the urban level from the angle of European Institutions, networks of cities, international projects, national governments and regions – and provoke conversations that matter. We have arranged panels of connected participants to provide a forum for discussion. The first session will be devoted to cities sharing their experiences. The second session will focus on science-based evidence from cities and will be followed by presentations of relevant EU level urban initiatives. In the third session of the workshop, there is going to be a “digital roundtable” where EU level stakeholders will be invited to reflect on cities experiences and empirical evidence and discuss the possibilities for a policy uptake on EU citizens’ role in promoting science, research and innovation in cities.
The form accessible here can be filled out to register to the digital workshop, we are looking forward to hearing from you on June 22nd !
FAO reports that about 80% of
food produced globally is destined to feed urban areas (FAO 2020). During the last century,
the bond between food production and urban planning was devalued by the very
idea of urban life as antithetic to rural life. The food system seemed
condemned to industrial and mass production. More recently, agriculture has slowly
started to make its way back to the city.
Urban agriculture or urban
farming is the practice of cultivating and distributing food in or around urban
area. If urban agriculture, stricto sensu, refers to small areas inside
the city such as small farms or community gardens for growing crops or raising
small livestock for own consumption or sale in neighborhood markets. Peri-urban
agriculture refers to intensive or semi-intensive agriculture undertaken on the
fringes of urban areas (FAO 2015). Indeed, urban agriculture has been spreading
in cities across the world in the last years, with the aim to boost more
sustainable food systems and the hope to offer a better relationship between
natural systems and human communities (McDonough 2014). In New York City, for
example, growing food in the city has been booming in the last years and
agriculture networks strengthened (McDonough 2014). In London, the enterprise GrowUp Urban Farms, which
produces fish, salads and herbs in unused city spaces now sells wholesale (Lovett 2016).
The Covid-19 pandemic is not
only changing our daily lives but especially the way we live in cities. It also
affected the globalized and industrialized food system producing a variety of
responses, both in the short and in the long-term. FAO and RUAF provided a
framework to understand the vulnerabilities of urban food systems, to improve
communication and cooperation and provide new strategies to safeguard food security
and nutrition during this trying time (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). In particular,
they recognized how some cities are particularly exposed to food supply
problems, given their lack of diversification of food value and supply chains,
their dependency on imports and other economic and natural vulnerabilities (Blay-Palmer et Al. 2020). The less
cities rely on their rural hinterlands, the more they result unprotected to unpredictable
shocks of their food supply chain, as the pandemic showed.
Indeed Covid-19 health crisis
has quickly aggravated food security for most vulnerable urban populations.
According to FAO, “the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting urban food systems
worldwide, posing a number of challenges for cities and local governments that
are obliged to deal with rapid changes in food availability, accessibility and affordability”
(FAO 2020: 1). In London, for
example, foodbanks are struggling to provide food to city dwellers during the
lockdown, and this is affecting mostly low incomes, older people, those with
disabilities, rough sleepers and asylum seekers, given the fall of donations,
the insufficient supplies from supermarkets and lack of volunteers (London City
Hall 2020). RUAF also reported that in
Quito, Ecuador, public places being locked down meant that local markets, could
not remain open and provide food to low-income residents (RUAF 2020). Maximo
Torero, Food and Agriculture Organization chief economist, explained that the
challenges that the pandemic is posing to the food system do not affect the
supply of food in itself but the logistics of food distribution, given the high
dependency on food imports (Harvey 2020). Moreover, The Economist reported
how current food system bottlenecks have severe impacts on consumers, who are
facing reduced or lost incomes since the lockdown measures were implemented
globally (The Economist 2020). In fact, vulnerable urban residents can only
afford to buy food in small quantities and depend mostly on small shops and
open-air markets rather than supermarkets and other food delivery options. Therefore,
some national governments are trying to maintain outdoor food markets open to
support vulnerable groups’ access to food. For example, in France food markets
partially reopened at the end of March (The Connexion 2020) and UK is prepared
to reopen all outdoor markets from the 1st June (Sustain 2020).
Hence, it could be interesting
to investigate if among other long-term actions that cities and local
governments can implement to strengthen urban food systems’ resilience, growing
food in cities may be a viable option. FAO stated that promoting short supply
chains may adequately support the resilience of urban food systems in the
long-term. In particular, “the crisis provides an opportunity to underline
the multiple benefits of local food systems, enabling local actors to better
coordinate during the crisis to avoid main gaps distribution, and making cities
more food resilient” (FAO 2020: 6).
Therefore, cases of urban and
peri-urban agriculture and/or urban residents directly growing their food from
home are spreading. In particular, Kotchakorn Voraakhom, the designer of the
largest urban rooftop farm
in Bangkok stated that “more people are thinking about where their food comes
from, how easily it can be disrupted, and how to reduce disruptions” (Chandran 2020). She also
reported how urban planners and local governments tend now to be more concerned
with land-use in cities (Chandran
For instance, Singapore relies
on other nations for almost everything its residents eat. More recently, it has
been working on addressing land constraints to diversify food sources and
increase local production. According to William Chen Professor of Food Science
and Technology ant Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (Kwiatkowski
and Stringer 2020), Singapore is not only developing expertise in technologies
such as vertical farming, but it has also been working constantly to increase
free additional urban spaces for urban farming, such as rooftops on multi-storeys
car parks (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020). An example is a structure atop a car
park in the Ang Mo Kio district where “Citiponics Pte Ltd. grows about 4
tons of Georgina lettuces and other leafy greens a month, while part of a
former downtown high school site has also recently been re-purposed for urban
agriculture” (Kwiatkowski and Stringer 2020).
In the meanwhile in UK, the University of Sheffield’s
Institute for Sustainable Food is working on the launch of the Resilience
Food Project which will see the creation of “financially self-supporting
aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that
offer a localized high tech intensive food production method” (Nickles 2020). The project aims to assess
the financial viability and resource efficiency of urban agriculture, gather
evidence to stimulate investor confidence and explore ways to involve local
communities in the co-production of farms and food, particularly in more vulnerable
urban areas (Nickles 2020).
Also, in Bolivia, lockdown
measures highly affected the urban food system. However, families working in
urban and peri-urban agriculture resulted fundamental to guarantee the supply
of food into Bolivia’s cities. With local governments and FAO’s support to
urban and peri-urban food sector, farmers managed to shorten food value chains
and guarantee food access in Bolivian cities during quarantine (FAO 2020).
These examples showed how the
increased attention towards urban and peri-urban agriculture in the attempt to
shorten food supply chains has become even more urgent, since lockdown measures
have been implemented in cities all around the world. Even if urban farms can
only partially address food needs in cities, they seem able to promote more
sustainable communities and generative capacity of buildings and urban
Covid-19 is showing how urban and especially peri-urban agriculture will
certainly play a more relevant role in reducing food insecurity and food supply
chains vulnerabilities, if unpredictable shocks happen to compromise the food
system. Therefore, more attention from local authorities is needed to ensure the
safety of local food production by supporting policies aimed at shortening food
supply chains. As Jane Jacobs noted, perseverance of peri-urban agriculture embodies the symbiotic relationship that occurs
between cities and their hinterlands (Jacobs 1984) which can definitely be a shock
absorber during disruptions such as a global pandemic. Therefore, in a world
after coronavirus, as the European Agriculture Commissioner, Janusz
Wojciechowski, advocated “we need to have our own food, produced on our fields,
by our own farmers, and we have to take better care of local markets, shorten
those supply chains” (POLITICO 2020).
Agriculture Organization (2020). Urban food systems and COVID-19: The role
of cities and local governments in responding to
the emergency. [online] Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/ca8600en/CA8600EN.pdf