Italian Students and the Suburbs: Tackling Urban Issues at School

Ci Resto (I'll stay) - photo by Gualtiero on Flickr

Simone D'Antonio

By Simone D'Antonio, on June 20th, 2014

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Urbanism is rarely at the core of the public opinion’s debate in Italy but the presence among the final high-school exam essays of an article written by the italian-born architect Renzo Piano on the “mending of suburbs” to be commented by the students, represents an important signal on how urban policies can be interesting if presented in the right way.

It’s not the first time that millions of Italian students face urban topics on the occasion of the most important exam of their life, described in the Italian popular culture by famous movies and songs : in 2001 the Italian equivalent of French baccalauréat included the topic of the role of the square as meeting place and physical space of the memory shared by the community, sketched by famous pages and songs such as Piazza Grande dedicated by Lucio Dalla to Piazza Maggiore in Bologna.

This year the Italian Ministry of Education has chosen the theme of the regeneration of suburbs, tackled by many URBACT projects involving Italian cities, such as the Pilot Projects TUTUR and Genius Open which involve Rome and Syracuse respectively. The commitment of the most famous Italian architect in the world, who decided to devolve its allowance as senator for life to projects implemented by young architects involved in the renovation of suburbs, became part of the national debate describing the suburbs as “the cities of the future, where the human energy is concentrated, which we’ll be inherited by our sons”.

The aim of Renzo Piano is promoting the recovery of those places “often desert, dormitories but rich of humanity” frequently perceived in opposition with the urban centers where only 10% of the Italians live, giving inspiration to young people in order to find better ideas and solutions to make these suburbs better places to live in.

Introducing the Issue at School Has Revolutionnary Potential

The involvement of thousands of students on this kind of topics, even though for a couple of hours, has a revolutionary force and it helps to translate in practice the will to involving citizens around significant urban changes. Those changes are more acceptable if their impact is known by the citizens, as Cittalia is doing about the introduction of Metropolitan cities with Diario Metropolitano (whose twitter account @diario_metro is already active).

As underlined by the architect and blogger Paolo Berdini on Il Fatto Quotidiano, the debate on suburbs in Italy (more than double than in the rest of Europe) is crucial but the best way to break the binomial definition suburb-degrade (generally made by the public opinion) is to describe the positive effects produced at local level by innovative experiences.

The URBACT Pilot Projects TUTUR in Rome and Genius Open in Syracuse represent effective examples of the vivacity of the urban laboratories. While in Rome the TUTUR Project is mapping empty properties to foster temporary use by the residents of III and V Municipio (namely the areas going from Montesacro to Torpignattara), in Syracuse the residents of the suburban neighborhood Mazzarona are testing new models of participative urban regeneration.

Wide, Unexpected Participation of Residents

The wide, and often unexpected, participation of residents in preparatory meetings and in the Local support groups is showing once more the decisive role of citizens in the work of “mending of suburbs”, as underlined by the article-manifesto written by Renzo Piano in which he mentions the example of the Neighborhood Laboratory started in Otranto in 1979 with the patronage of UNESCO to support the participatory regeneration of the town.

Last, but not less important, characteristic which links URBACT projects to Renzo Piano’s suggestions is the propelling role of young architects, urban planners and urban practitioners in testing actions and participatory process in suburbs. These young people, who often studied abroad, are making the URBACT model accepted by local communities and are fostering citizens’ participation around it, personifying those “architetti condotti” (architects serving local communities) able to mend entire parts of cities and towns. Looking towards Europe and, at the same time, at the streets of their suburb.

By Simone d’Antonio – Journalist, Cittalia-ANCI, Italian URBACT National Disssemination Point, on Twitter @Simonedantonio

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