Cities and culture: lessons from Italian cities

Simone D'Antonio

By Simone D'Antonio, on July 24th, 2017

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As the EU gears up for its 2018 Year of Cultural Heritage, Simone D’Antonio takes us to three Italian towns to explore some of the diverse roles that culture can play in sustainable urban development. Walking through the streets of Mantova’s city centre or using the public library San Giorgio in Pistoia, it is easy to perceive all the different dimensions of the impact of culture in Italian cities. From groups of tourists visiting monuments in Mantova, to students and elderly residents meeting through cultural events at an innovative public space being developed in Pistoia, there are many concrete examples of how access to culture can be diversified and why it needs to be fostered through integrated and collaborative strategies.

In a country where the annual turnover of the cultural sector (including arts, museums and historical areas) is around 100 billion euros, overcoming the classical approach of conservation of cultural and architecture heritage is the main challenge for medium-sized cities in Italy, which are the most vibrant and innovative grounds for testing new policies and actions. Some of them are comparing their strategies with other European cities in the framework of EU co-funded networks and initiatives.

How Mantova is connecting culture and urban regeneration

MantovaOne of these examples is Mantova, partner of the INT-HERIT URBACT Implementation Network focusing on the revitalisation of local cultural heritage. The connection between culture and urban development is the key element of the local strategy developed throughout Mantova’s year as Italian Capital of Culture, in 2016.  The active involvement of residents and stakeholders in the implementation of a plan including activities of urban branding and community building is decisive in Mantova, in order to promote culture as a positive and inclusive driver of development with direct impact on the creation of better local services and infrastructures.

While the city is identifying new indicators to evaluate the impact of tourism in the local context, figures related to 2016 show not only a 20% increase in touristic flows, but also an increase in the number of residents involved as participants or volunteers in cultural events hosted in Mantova (Literature Festival Festivaletteratura and Chamber Music Festival are some of the important events of this kind).

Pistoia: from capital of culture to cultural capital for city change

Culture is a relevant source of new and better employment. A good governance can attract investors in cities but all the different stakeholders of the sector need to be involved in order to define innovative policies of local development” said Claudio Bocci, director of Federculture, at Italy’s national conference on heritage and tourism in L’Aquila on 5 July 2017. The collaboration with a wide range of actors is at the core of the strategy of Pistoia, Italian Capital of Culture 2017, which is one of the Italian cities investing more on culture, around 5% of the total municipal budget.

PistoiaThe city decided not to have a cultural policy just for culture but to make culture the load-bearing axis of current and future strategies of urban development” says Giuseppe Gherpelli, project manager of Pistoia 2017. One example of this approach is the massive regeneration plan of a former hospital called “Il Ceppo”, founded in the city centre in the XIII century and abandoned in 2013. The structure will gradually be transformed into an innovative community centre hosting cultural activities and institutions, a public Urban Centre for discussions on urban regeneration, as well as training and co-working activities.

Culture will be the fil rouge of this action of regeneration, to be conceived as one of the main legacies of the debate fostered by the Capital of Culture title. Since the first phase of candidature, different local institutions (such as the City, the Province and the Region, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, the local bank and the local Catholic diocese) have decided to establish a common development strategy having at its core cultural heritage and structures to be regenerated in the medium to long term.

A temporary cultural citizenship for tourists for the collaborative development of Matera

In the cities holding titles of European or national capital of culture, big events and exhibitions were only the most visible part of a programme often more focused on rethinking the city of the future from new basis and experiences. It is exactly what the southern Italian city of Matera, European Capital of Culture 2019, is doing by creating a network of contacts with former European capitals of culture, in order to build on the added value of their past experiences, and start planning future urban strategies.

The true challenge for us is not what is going to happen in 2019 but what will happen in 2020” says Emmanuele Curti, archaeologist and consultant at Matera 2019 Organizing Committee. “The objective is to create solid basis to make our commitment for cultural and tourism growth sustainable for a city where culture did not have historically a central role in the local debate”.

Sassi_MateraMaking the city of Sassi and the Ruprestian Churches (registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1993) a living laboratory of solutions to be developed in collaboration with residents and tourists, to be considered as “temporary citizens”, is the objective of the organising committee of Matera 2019, with the aim of promoting responsible tourism based on cultural activities open to residents and visitors.

The creation of a new sense of community may help make residents part of cultural strategies, especially in medium-sized cities which are proving in Italy to be as vibrant as big cities. Ideas and practices of cultural innovation may “create echo in smaller communities more easily than in big cities” says Curti.

More information on the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 just here.

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