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Could Italy’s abandoned villages be revived after the coronavirus outbreak?

SPECIAL REPORT: The government is being urged to help repopulate thousands of "ghost towns" across Italy in order to reduce pressure on crowded cities and prevent future outbreaks of disease.

Could Italy's abandoned villages be revived after the coronavirus outbreak?
The rural village of Gangi, 120 kilometres from Palermo, Sicily, was among the first depopulated towns to sell off houses for one euro. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Architects and engineers in Italy have urged leaders to encourage moves from crowded cities to the thousands of small, underpopulated towns and villages in the countryside.

“Cities have proved fragile spaces in sanitary terms,” National Council of Engineers (CNI) head Armando Zambrano said.

CNI has submitted proposals to the government suggesting investment to encourage a return to the countryside, revitalising hundreds of abandoned towns across Italy, and improving internet connections to encourage working from home.

READ ALSO: Could rebuilding Italy's crumbling roads and bridges save the post-lockdown economy?

Simply returning to life as it was before the new coronavirus ravaged Italy and forced a nationwide lockdown would be foolish, said architect Stefano Boeri, known for his eco-friendly skyscrapers in Milan.

“Normality is one of the causes of this disaster,” said Boeri, whose tree-covered, high-rise apartment blocks dominate the skyline in the capital of the Lombardy region, the centre of an outbreak that has nw officially killed some 30,000 people in Italy.

“It's time to take courageous and pragmatic decisions,” he told reporters.

 


Boeri has joined up with other architects, sociologists, anthropologists and town planners to draw up suggestions for how the emergency can be used to change the way people live and prevent cities from becoming “contamination bombs”.

Massimiliano Fuksas, one of Europe's most renowned architects, said he predicted a sharp jump in people leaving the cities for the countryside as the lockdown gradually lifts, just as happened in Italy in the 1970s.

“Young people fled cities beset by terrorism, the economic crisis and drugs. It'll happen again,” he said in an interview with La Repubblica.

Milan and other Italian cities are well known for problems with smog and pollution. Photo: AFP

“Scientists say the virus is weaker in the countryside, not just because there are fewer social contacts but because the wind blows, there's less metal and plastic, and if you're close to the sea the air is full of iodine,” added Fuksas, who is behind the Zenith music hall in Strasbourg and Milan Exhibition Centre.

And these experts aren't the only ones now questioning city life. It seems Italians in general have a renewed interest in country living, as estate agencies around the country reported searches for properties outside of urban cenres had risen by 20 percent over the past two months.

READ ALSO:


Italy has 5,800 villages with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants each, all at risk of becoming ghost towns after younger residents left in search of work and a better life in the cities.

More than 2,300 of those villages are virtually abandoned, according to Boeri.

From the mountaintop hamlet of Ligosullo in northern Italy to the medieval village of Casalvecchio Siculo in the Sicilian south, numerous already-small territories have shrunk by over half in the last 50 years, official figures show.

Until now, local authorities in these areas have been trying to sell off abandoned, often crumbling homes for the symbolic price of one euro in the hope of attracting new residents. One town offered to help with new residents' rent or mortgage payments.

But infrastructure experts say the government should intervene to save these towns.

The government could “adopt” them and lure new residents there – relieving pressure on cities – by providing tax incentives as well as improving transport links and installing broadband to allow working from home, Boeri suggested.

As things stand, social distancing measures enforced in Italy and other countries across the world have dramatically cut the number of people who can use public transport systems in cities or work in office spaces.

Italy's culture ministry is mulling the idea of subsidising holidays to help the tourism industry recover once the lockdown ends, and hopes to prevent overcrowded beaches by persuading some Italians to visit historic villages instead.

READ ALSO: Sicily plans to subsidise holidays after lockdown

Marco Bussone, head of UNCEM, a national union of mountain towns and communities, said it would not be as easy as persuading Italians to holiday in hamlets in the hopes they might decide to stay.

Attracting people for the long term would require climate change risk prevention in mountainous or flood-risk areas, better education or childcare provisions, and installing the internet.

Some hamlets have no local shops or schools, and a lack of digital infrastructure means people in around 1,200 villages have difficulties making phone calls, sending messages or even watching television, he said.

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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