The secret of Italy’s best city: speaking German?

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Bolzano was given 10/10 for safety in a recent OECD report on well-being. Bolzano photo: Shutterstock
08:23 CET+01:00
Bolzano in the far north of Italy consistently earns top marks for quality of life, scoring well on everything from jobs to civic engagement. The Local finds out what makes the German-speaking city so special.

With its Germanic architecture and mountainous backdrop, Bolzano is picture-perfect and proud of it.

“If you look far east, you see the Dolomites turning red before the sun goes down. It’s very beautiful,” says Roberta Agosti, director of the local tourism board.

But while the landscape makes a welcome spot for mountaineering tourists, it is also said to be one of the key reasons Bolzano comes top for quality of life.

The province scored 9.9 points out of 10 for health in the OECD’s most recent regional well-being report, the second-highest in Italy behind nearby Trento.

As Mayor Luigi Spagnolli puts it, “the climate helps the population to be at its best”.

Scenery alone cannot, however, account for Bolzano’s success, which sees it repeatedly ranked in the top 10 of the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore's annual quality of life index of 107 provinces.

The OECD also gave it top marks for safety and an 8.8 score for jobs; certainly not bad in a country where unemployment stands at 12.9 percent.

Most notable is perhaps Bolzano’s 8.5 marking for civic engagement, the highest in Italy matched only in Emilia-Romagna. The score drops to as low as 4.5 in parts of southern Italy, where years of political corruption and mismanagement have prompted citizens to disengage. 

“I think that it’s because the population is more inclined to respect the rules, and because the municipal administrations in the past have had the courage to invest,” says Spagnolli, pointing to projects for pedestrians and cyclists.

Locals’ penchant for rule-abiding is evident for anyone who tries to cross the road in Bolzano: unlike in many parts of Italy, drivers slow down and stop for pedestrians.

Agosti believes the different approach in Bolzano is down to its linguistics, with residents speaking Italian, German and the minority Ladin language.

“I think that language is the main carrier of culture. I am sure that maintaining the German language helps us to be more organized,” she says. Agosti does not brush Italian aside, however, instead arguing that people in Bolzano “were able to put the good qualities of both languages together”.

While the linguistic influence on overall quality of life is debatable, the high level of organization in Bolzano is hard to deny.

Its Trentino-Alto Adige region is one of five to be awarded special status in Italy, granting local government a large amount of autonomy. While this has allowed the northern region to prosper, quality of life in Sicily is comparatively low despite the island having the same status.

Sicily ranks 0.5 for jobs, 2.6 for income and 4.8 for civic engagement on the OECD index. It does, however, do relatively well for safety, with 9.1, and scores 7.8 for health.

‘Bolzano is much better organized than in Rome’

Bolzano’s ability to keep its citizens happy has also made it an attractive destination for outsiders.

Franziska Eberz, from Germany, moved to the city last year as a masters student at the Free University of Bolzano, and has been impressed so far.

“The standard of living in Bolzano is very high,” she says. “Compared to other Italian cities you see far fewer homeless people and there are almost no poor areas in Bolzano.”

Investment in education is clearly evident, Eberz says, while the OECD’s top score for safety is spot-on: “When I walk home alone by night, I’m never scared or feel insecure.”

Compared to the cost of living in Passau, where she studied in Germany, Bolzano is more expensive, but student salaries are also higher.

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A more stark contrast can perhaps be had with the Italian capital, where Eberz worked in 2013.

“Daily life in Bolzano is much better organized than in Rome. Here things work. The public transport is on time, the administration works well, and there is less pollution in the city.

“Living here is more relaxed and less stressful than in Rome,” she says, while noting that it is hard to compare the small northern city to a capital of nearly three million people.

The pressures of the financial crisis have not gone unnoticed in Trentino-Alto Adige, with the debt-stricken central government in 2012 holding onto €105 million in tax proceeds and asking for more than twice as much more in revenue contributions. Bolzano has also not escaped political scandal, with a provincial councillor last year becoming embroiled in an expenses scandal.

Despite this, Agosti is convinced that the region will continue to “maintain high standards, because we are educated in doing so.”

Nor does Spagnolli seem worried, likening Bolzano to other high-ranking cities such as Trieste and Trento.

“But Bolzano certainly has a flair all of its own, Mediterranean and central European together,” the mayor says. 

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