Has the pandemic presented a solution to small town decline and urban over-crowding? Marina Engel reports on an Italian scheme to revive its rural borghi, which has lessons for planners everywhere
One of the most compelling ideas among endless proposals for post-pandemic lifestyle changes is the return of city dwellers to small towns. An Italian project to revive declining rural settlements, or borghi, also aims to make them ‘15-minute municipalities’ – where residents can meet most of their needs within a short walk or cycle ride of their home. Usually defined as nuclei of populations of under 5000, Italy’s 5,800 borghi are some of its most enchanting historic centres. But nearly half are all but abandoned, their populations lost to cities. The architect Stefano Boeri recently asserted that such towns will save the pandemic-stricken cities, and judging from the property market, voracious big city residents agree.
Boeri proposes not relocation to the dormitory suburb, but connecting the borghi to the nearest cities through digital infrastructure and efficient public transport – developing smart working, restoring decaying buildings to suit modern lifestyles, investing in services and providing stimuli to boost circular economies alongside tax incentives to encourage people to move. Renovated at human scale as dynamic urban centres benefiting from natural surroundings, these small towns would ease the pressure on cities which, in turn, would metamorphose into archipelagos of borghi. Italian prime minister Mario Draghi is allocating funds to regenerate the borghi. Hopefully, other governments, including ours, will follow suit.
Well before the pandemic however, an experiment in urban renovation had begun in the handsome borgo of Belmonte Calabro in Calabria, southern Italy. Two young architecture collectives, Le Seppie (The Squids) and Orizzontale, joined together as the Rivoluzione delle Seppie (Squid Revolution). Their mission is to advance a new form of teaching, ‘Learning by Doing’ while regenerating some abandoned Calabrian towns. Le Seppie is the invention of Rita Elvira Adamo, their Calabrian co-founder and a student (now a PhD candidate) at London Metropolitan University.
By 2016, just 200 older inhabitants remained in the hill town’s historic hamlet and the rest – nearly 2000 – had moved seaward. Its youth had gone to the cities. Meanwhile, a few semi-deserted Calabrian borghi such as Riace had been revitalised by the integration of desperate young African and Asian migrants arriving in Italy from across the Mediterranean. Inspired, Adamo investigated an interaction between British architecture students, residents and African migrants from the refugee centre nearby. She selected a location for a summer residency at one of the town’s former convents and – with fellow students from Le Seppie – convinced her London Met tutors to launch a ‘South Learning’ summer school to focus on Belmonte as a case study of a small European town struggling against depopulation and urban degeneration.
In these unusual times, the idea of transporting young students in London to cohabit with elderly residents in a remote village in southern Italy is certainly revolutionary. The collective’s name alludes to blind vampire squid, which can only learn by feeling or ‘doing,’ emblematic of the collective’s method in both teaching and practice. In ‘Learning by Doing’ London Met students immerse themselves in a hands-on urban renovation site, proposing ideas to reanimate disused buildings and reactivate streets and piazzas as they meet local artisans to master craftsmanship skills. Students, inhabitants and immigrants share know-how through talks, installations, street parades and concerts. Even language lessons and cooking recipes are exchanged over card games at the bar and at long convivial dinners. Belmonte’s town council and London Met signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on the borgo’s renovation and the summer residency has become a tri-annual event.
Learning by Doing is ingrained in La Rivoluzione delle Seppie’s practice, most noticably in Orizzontale’s do-it yourself construction laboratory. In a single design and build process that relies on incremental changes and participatory decision making, local artisans, students, immigrants and volunteers from a plethora of disciplines join together to make elegant wooden furniture – sometimes mobile – and help restore disused houses. Blending the idealism of the sixties with the pragmatism of a generation facing darker times, the Rivoluzione delle Seppie is now converting the municipality’s Ex-Casa delle Monache (Former Domicile for Nuns) into a permanent centre, a ‘factory of ideas, research and experimentation’ called the Casa di Belmondo (House of the Beautiful World). Thanks to a crowd funding campaign and funding from Calabria’s regional government, the laboratory has been able to requalify nine rooms on the first floor of the Casa. Minimal architectural intervention enables each person to modify the spaces according to their requirements. Mondrianesque coloured floor paving, seemingly woven into wooden panelling with left overs of local travertine, merge with finely crafted wooden doorways, as pastel green walls – the original hue – blend into exposed concrete and brick ceilings. Doors have been removed to shape a 300m2 communal space with spectacular views on all sides of the sea and surrounding hills. A travertine floor bathroom and a kitchen have also been completed and running water, electricity and wifi has been installed.
The beginnings of a home have been devised for a temporary community that can integrate at regular intervals with the permanent one. Or, as a London Met student Joe Douglas explained: ‘Somewhere that is both temporary and permanent and doesn’t define too much the difference between the two.’ He now heads the construction site. Nigerians Harry Igbineweka, a tailor, and Precious Ehigie, an electrician, have settled ‘at home’ favouring Belmonte over Germany; others return regularly ‘so people will not feel they’ve been left alone.’ What was a group of 15 visitors in 2016 can today multiply to over 100, an inter-disciplinary mix of students, volunteers, professionals and academics from all over Italy and beyond. Local infrastructure is developing, the long-awaited cash dispenser has been inaugurated and there are plans for public transport to connect the hamlet to the coast. A former habitat for 100 aging residents is now home to a multi-cultural, trans-generational community in constant flux.
Ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated progress. Faced with online teaching and social isolation, students were only too happy to swap the grey skies of London for Belmonte’s hills and seaside. Adamo and some Seppie relocated with them to set up a campus and co-working centre at the Casa di Belmondo, while students continued to follow lessons in London remotely. Currently, arrangements are being made to continue three-month residencies.
The Rivoluzione delle Seppie intends ‘to search for more abandoned shells to occupy’ in Belmonte and nearby. Along with a local centre for immigrants, it is regenerating the historical centre of Mendicino. Hopefully, locals there will agree with Gerardo, a janitor at Belmonte’s tiny primary school: ‘an original and exciting reality is born, a new identity linked to history, culture, tradition, and the environment.’
Marina Engel is a writer and curator based in Rome