“Sicilian villages are selling homes for €1 each”: How can we save Europe’s dying communities?

The northern Italian village of Sesto. Image: Getty.

Europe’s countryside is dotted with quaint, postcard-perfect small towns and villages. These are steeped in history: their strong stone buildings and breathtaking squares capture the essence and culture of the continent, and some of them have been inhabited for hundreds of years.

But today, the future for many of them is bleak. There has been a flight of populations from the countryside to urban centres during the past century. The twin attractions of big cities – mass industrialisation and easy access to jobs – have taken their toll on rural existence. Many architectural gems in these country towns and villages – and the lifestyles that they represnted – are being forgotten and cast aside, as time and technology speed past them toward a new, urban future.

Worse lies ahead: in coming decades, rural depopulation is set to accelerate. In 2014, the United Nations noted that 54 per cent of the world’s population was already residing in urban areas – up from 30 per cent in 1950. This proportion is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050.

What began as a post-war migration to richer urban areas – as well as international cities, which offered more attractive job prospects – has turned into a chronic problem which now appears impossible to stop. As younger generations continue to move toward urban centres, the remaining elderly populations of Europe’s semi-abandoned villages and hamlets will pass away, taking a large portion of the region’s history, tradition and lifestyle with them.

The more that village populations shrink, the more birthrates plummet and economies slow down; the more schools are closed down; the more doctors are centralised into larger towns – and the more post offices and public services are relocated to urban centres. Community or public transport is vital for commuting to work or accessing higher level services or education – but all too often, this final lifeline also succumbs.

The process creates a vicious downward spiral of further abandonment, which becomes increasingly difficult to combat. Areas characterised by spectacular medieval fortresses, beautiful abbeys and frescoed churches grow increasingly desolate, until eventually they are abandoned. As a result, the countrysides of Portugal, Spain and Italy are punctuated by the empty shells of once-thriving towns.

Untapped potential

In an interview, architect Isabelle Beaumont, the director and founder of Workplace Futures – an organisation that looks at the future of work and the built environment – highlighted the importance of these small villages:

Geographical differences have always brought irreplaceable creative variation to art and architecture; a source of inspiration for current and future generations. As cultures and society homogenise, retaining, and not just conserving, Europe’s diverse industrial and agricultural heritage becomes ever increasingly important.

A seven-year study carried out by the Italian Revenue Agency, estimated that Italy’s 1.3m unregistered, abandoned homes could generate €589m worth of tax revenue. But unless they appear on the land registry, they are not registered as real estate units – and as such they are not taxable.

The funds would come in handy for the Eurozone’s third-largest economy – Italy has undergone radical changes, after suffering its longest recession since World War II. Factories across the nation have closed at an unprecedented pace. Years of a strong euro have made Italian exports more expensive for other nations, which led to a decrease in demand and hurt the economy. And unemployment levels have reached record highs: youth unemployment rates hit 45.5 per cent in Spain and 36.7 per cent in Italy earlier this year.

This town, becoming like a ghost town

In Spain and in Italy, as in other European nations, recent drastic measures have attempted to combat this slow agony of rural abandonment. In Spain – where it is estimated that there are some 2,900 abandoned villages – entire hamlets are being sold for as little as €45,000.

Free, good home. Image: Rainshift/Flickr/creative commons.

In Italy, some calculate that there are 6,000 ghost towns nationwide, as well as 15,000 villages which are down to 10 per cent of their original population. There, residents and local authorities have resorted to some rather original plans of action.

In the southern Italian medieval village of Sellia, local mayor and paediatrician Davide Zicchinella published a decree forbidding locals from falling ill and dying. While Zicchinella has admitted that he cannot fight the laws of nature, he’s hoping that his action will prompt elderly residents to take up healthier lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the mayors of Sicilian towns Gangi and Salemi, together with Carreghi Ligure in northern Italy, have resorted to selling abandoned homes for €1 each, providing that buyers agree to rebuild them within a given period of time. Others, such as Civita Bagnoreggia, have started charging visitors tourist entrance fees. And the town of Fillettino even said it would seek to break free of the Italian federal tax system, in a bid to cut down costs.

The effects of these measures have so far been limited. But the originality and inventiveness of such leaders kindles some hope for the future of Europe’s rural towns.The Conversation

Alina Trabattoni is a researcher, Robert Willis a reader, and David Arkell the director of business development at Anglia Ruskin University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.



America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.