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.


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 face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”