The Ugly Duckling

2nd July 2024

The Balkans, the majority of Spain and Greece, almost two-thirds of Italy, halves of France and the UK, and vast parts of eastern Germany are abandoned lands lived by forgotten people. Suspended places where time flows differently, where one could bump into pre-industrial society traits but also experience post-climate apocalypse scenarios. These less favored, with specific handicaps, peripheral, marginal areas – just to name a few of the urban-centric labels they’ve been given – are those we should urgently start caring for.

It’s not rural egocentrism; it’s a matter of understanding how much humans rely on rural and mountain areas, how fiercely we neglect their importance, and how blindly we’re leaving them behind. They provide water and food to cities, they are a shelter for biodiversity, they influence climate; and, yes, they are setting our political agendas. In the last decade, the populist, ultra-conservative drift in Europe, the UK, and the USA is partially the result of how neglected communities in fragile areas have been desperately protesting against the progressive, pseudo-inclusive, smart, artificial world of cities. Try living where natural resources in your backyard are out of control, where one gets no access to essential services like a doctor, a school, a bus, or the internet. For 60 years, democratic powers have been encouraging the diaspora of rural communities in the name of progress, and now we’re shutting down what’s left of these territories as if they were a failed business.

We should take care of and voraciously learn from these ugly ducklings but we tend to mock their people or to see their places as new frontiers for the amusement of city dwellers. These territories, where involuntary pioneers are experiencing the effects of the deterioration of turbo-capitalism and technocracy, could be labs of “empowered democracy” to redesign models, policies, processes, products, and places with nature at the center. In the best interest of humanity.  

I had this in mind when I thought I should step up, professionally and politically – i.e. start building my own thing and stop minding my own business.

The first decision has been launching Prospettive Interne (Italian for “inside perspectives”), a response to the lack of design attention towards crucial but fragile areas of Italy. The idea is to help organizations and communities in rural and mountain areas by combining landscaping, architecture, and service design skills for land (re)use, real estate renovation, and social/cultural/entrepreneurial activities. Participatory design from the 1970s and tactical urbanism from the 2010s, not in saturated markets or cluttered urban environments but in those suspended places where time flows differently. A “light regeneration” that sparks from future-oriented workshops, is mediated by small-scale architecture and expresses itself through the temporary reuse of commons and public spaces. This allows communities and places to experience immediate change, to improve through iterative development, and to experiment with mid/long-term management scenarios while leading to possible, new, permanent capital. We’re still in setup mode, talking to many stakeholders and potential beneficiaries, but also running the first project and waiting to get a go for a couple more in the pipeline. As always, updates will follow.

The second decision was to run as a councillor in the local elections, what I felt would be a natural continuation of the bottom-up, ecologist work I started in 2020. It went unexpectedly well: I’ve been elected and nominated Councillor for Environment, Landscape, and Transition in my mountain county government; additionally, I will act as the appointed representative for the Silisia valley -the tiny, special place where I live and operate. It’s undoubtedly a great power and an overwhelming responsibility: I represent the views of people I know by name, I have to ensure they get the right, quick solutions to issues, and I also have to drive new ideas; in one of the largest counties of the region, in a protected area among the wildest in Europe, with an aging, shrinking and rather isolated community that can only hope for “alternative” sources of energy/income/population to survive the 2050s. 

Because, yes, a considerable number of rural and mountain communities will be wiped away in a couple of generations; and some landscapes will return to their Middle Ages look. Or maybe the dramatic runaway from collapsing, burning hot cities towards rich-in-resources, scarcely populated, and climatically mild highlands will reverse the trend. Who knows. There are different possible scenarios we can predict or imagine but work with as of today. I will try to explore them both as a designer for Prospettive Interne and a councilor for Tramonti di Sopra.

The consequence of not acting now to alleviate the hardship of these sentinel communities and lands will not lead to an unexpected, unpredictable event; it will just naturally happen, impacting ecosystems providing vital services to billions. After all, even kids know the ugly duckling eventually turns into a black swan.