Italy in Transition

New Approaches to Planning
Francesca Leder, Março 1, 2000

The urban landscape typical of many small and medium-sized Italian cities is filled with historical richness but also with more recent incoherent and contradictory development patterns. As a result, planners are actively adopting new ideas and theories about urban planning and are studying policies and practices about open space from colleagues in other countries.

The concept of quality of life is a common theme in European planning programs seeking to improve the image and functionality of neighborhoods. This idea normally represents a complex set of values to describe socio-economic conditions, but it can also be a useful instrument to set policies, implement strategies, improve landscapes and preserve open spaces. As the quality of life in many Italian cities has improved over the past ten years, attention to the needs of urban settlements has shifted from the central historical districts to the peripheries. Smaller suburban and rural communities now are demanding better living conditions and enhanced local identity through broad-based citizen participation in urban planning and design projects.

England, France and the United States, in particular, provide inspiration to Italian planners and public officials concerned about how to better integrate urban planning and the natural landscape. The loss of what had been an important cultural tradition in Italy has resulted in a more simplified and standardized urban architectural language and a lack of consideration for open space as either a valuable natural resource or an opportunity for economic and cultural growth.

The European Union (EU) is also influencing important reforms in many aspects of governance and public administration. For example, Italy’s regions, which have long been the dominant level of local government, are managing their territories with more sophisticated planning techniques based on the principles of sustainable development. At the same time, recently passed national fiscal and land taxation reforms are helping the municipalities create new resources and policies for housing rehabilitation and for public services and infrastructure, such as schools, parks and sports facilities. For example, the Regional Government of Tuscany, through its 1995 Urban Planning and Development Act, has begun a number of institutional and administrative changes, including new planning tools and public grants that have encouraged urban regeneration projects and private-public partnerships to support their costs.

The Center for Urban Research (CRU) of the Department of Architecture at the University of Ferrara has been involved in many projects promoted by both the regional and the national governments. Most address both training programs for public officials and private professionals and initiatives to disseminate “best practices” in urban planning and land use. In the last few years, the Center has consulted with many municipalities, including Ferrara in the Emilia-Romagna region and Massa Marittima in Tuscany. While recognizing the different histories and needs of these two cities, the Center is helping their municipal authorities find new opportunities for economic and social development and for enhancing their quality of life.


Located between Venice and Bologna in the Po Valley close to the river delta, Ferrara currently has about 120,000 inhabitants. The city’s main development can be dated to the medieval period, but important transformations were introduced during the Renaissance by the Duke d’Este. Ferrara’s distinctive network of streets, squares, gardens and buildings owe their design to the Duke, who in 1492 implemented the so-called “Addizione Erculea,” which can be considered the first modern urban plan in Europe.

The basic traits of the urban fabric have not changed much since then. The historical center, enclosed inside a system of walls, is still well preserved, and bicycles and pedestrians still outnumber cars. During the winter the fog often softens the buildings, giving the city a magical appearance, and the pace of life slows down as in ancient times. Ferrara also has strong traditions with agriculture and water, including the Po River, the delta and lagoons along the coast, and the extensive network of drainage and irrigation canals.

The city’s beauty and sense of magic have influenced artists since the Renaissance, and Ferrara is home to one of the oldest and finest Italian universities, which is small but exerts an influential role in city life. At present, most jobs in the district are connected with government functions, education, research and design, medical services, agriculture-related industries and tourism. Ferrara’s relative isolation with respect to the Italian “grand tour” has enabled the city to develop balanced cultural tourism policies over the years.

The Barco, a public park designed for the Duke d’Este as a private hunting area, offers the city an interesting opportunity to link urban planning and open space development. This semi-rural landscape is enclosed by the town walls, the Po River and a large industrial petrol-chemical factory. Supported by a special regional grant for urban rehabilitation, CRU is beginning research and planning for this project, which will also involve private sector contributions to help realize this recreational and open space resource for the city.

Another important local government goal is to use the urban environment and surrounding landscape as elements to improve economic growth. The project involves extending the traditional idea of cultural tourism beyond the historic city to include a network of small rural communities. Visitors to Ferrara and the Po River Delta Park will thus have the opportunity to discover ancient villas, marvelous natural landscapes and archeological settlements, as well as inns, restaurants and other amenities throughout the region. At the same time, young people who do not want traditional jobs in farming and fishing will be able to find different employment opportunities and more reasons to stay in their towns. To accomplish this goal, the project is using a variety of planning strategies, including some EU measures that support economic regeneration through training courses and start-up enterprises.

Foreseeable constraints on the success of this project may come from some local residents who consider agriculture their only possible economic resource, a mentality strongly rooted in history. From the Renaissance until World War Two, people from other, poorer regions of Italy were brought to the Po valley to transform the wetlands into agricultural fields. Many of the original workers have become owners of small and mid-sized farms, and they fear the loss of their rights and traditions, even though the farm produce is of poor quality and it is very expensive to maintain flood controls over the fields. Winning the trust of both urban and rural residents is a challenge that will require collaboration to increase the quality of life of residents throughout the region.

Massa Marittima

Massa Marittima is a small city in Tuscany with a population of about 10,000, sixty percent of whom live in small outlying towns. It also is the capital of the Colline Metallifere (Metal Hills) district, where for almost four thousand years silver, copper, and iron mines have operated continuously. Mining started in the Bronze Age and continued throughout the Etruscan, Roman, and medieval eras, through the Siena domination and the Medici and Lorraine eras, until the present generation of large industrial corporations. Populonia, one of the most important Etruscan industrial centers, is twenty miles from Massa Marittima, and archeological remains are found near the steel center of Piombino.

The free commune of Massa Marittima passed the oldest known mining laws in the Western world at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The natural environment surrounding the city still bears the signs of this economic history. There are large forests, which once produced timber for the mines and fuel for the furnaces, and the countryside is only partially cultivated. A less attractive sign of this heritage are the highly polluting mine waste sites.

Massa Marittima experienced a severe economic and identity crisis when the last operating mine closed ten years ago. The local community was forced to make two major decisions. First, it had to change from being a specialized economy based on difficult but secure jobs and dependence on the mining company, along with a very protective welfare system, to becoming a diversified, dynamic and flexible economy where individual enterprise is central. Second, the residents had to accept tourism as the new main source of employment to take advantage of the most important local resources: the region’s cultural heritage and its natural environment.

As in the case of Ferrara, the relative isolation and the late emergence of a tourism-based economy helped Massa Marittima work out more balanced strategies and policies for its future. In this case the opportunity was offered by the national ministries of Heritage and Environmental Policies to develop a national park for the Colline Metallifere district. The Massa Marittima city government asked the CRU to research this program using national and EU plans and grants. The core concept is an open-air museum of local history, which could help preserve the natural environment and also create new jobs for the young people, who have few employment alternatives.

One of the most important tasks in managing the new national park is to create a regional network of economic activities, facilities and public services related to both cultural tourism and the concept of environmentally sustainable development, based on EU economic measures. By sharing these resources, the towns can reduce local competition and maximize the benefits to all residents. The core of the CRU’s proposal is to create new opportunities for cooperation among different levels of public administration and public-private partnerships to promote and finance projects of public interest, such as infrastructure, sports facilities, urban and rural parks, and other resources. A final decision on a national grant to fund the Massa Marittima project is expected in March from the Ministry of Public Works.

These two case studies represent the kinds of complex planning problems that are on the agendas of many local governments throughout Italy. Learning from the best practices and examples of other countries is one of the methods that Italian planners and researchers are using to implement innovative approaches to planning the future of Italy’s historic landscape.

____________ Francesca Leder is professor of urban theories in the Department of Architecture at the University of Ferrara. She was a visiting fellow of the Lincoln Institute during the fall of 1999 to study American planning practices regarding urban parks and open space.