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.
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.
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.
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.