Working with the Land: New In US, Centuries-in-the-Making in Italy

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Photo by June Wong on Unsplash

Thirty five ago I worked for a city in the Seattle metro area that was in the process of creating a wholly new agency. This was long before terms such as global warming, climate change, and sustainability were common. Yet, even without employing that terminology, the new department’s mission was squarely in that arena. My job, within a department that was more established and well-staffed, rarely intersected with the new one. But I watched with awe as new plans, policies, regulations, and infrastructure were put in place.

I recall thinking what a boring job those people must have. All they did was worry about the flow of stormwater across the landscape. Since then, with so many disasters that have wreaked havoc from coast to coast, I have come to know how vital this seemingly mundane function is. The basic approach of the agency was to avoid the costly installation and maintenance of sewer pipes and instead rely upon natural systems to absorb and direct the flows of water from seasonal inundations of rain. This also meant telling people where they could and could not develop.

I had thought that zoning regulations were enough to enrage some property owners. This new agency simply said no to any development in some areas, igniting a constant series of fracases, appeals, lawsuits, and political fights, as well as actual physical threats against staffers. Some developers and landowners not only resisted but actively worked to defeat the agency’s standards. Most of the time, this was met with heavy court fines and orders to restore the land. The city almost always won in courts of law as land use regulations have been deemed constitutional for a century.

Now I more fully comprehend the wisdom and foresight of that agency. Furthermore, it was headed by a woman whose primary administrative skills could be compared to a pit bull with a mission.

To my knowledge, the programs and projects put in place during that formative era have placed the community in good stead in recent years. What had been annual incidents of flooding basements and overflowing pipes is now a situation of relative serenity. The community was physically reshaped over time to reflect the natural systems that had been there all along. 

I am reminded of the herculean effort I observed back then whenever I pass through the landscape here in east central Italy, where I now live. The practices that seemed dramatically innovative in the U.S. have been in use for centuries here. One simply does not build inside, or near, a floodplain. Most of the year, small streams meander through the shallow valley floors. On either side are broad swaths of trees and brush extending for many hundreds of feet. There might be farmlands or nurseries perhaps within those areas, but no houses, no schools, and no commercial development. And sure, enough, several times a year these floodways are filled to the edges with surging storm water.

The government has assumed a role of protecting natural systems that benefit the region and each community within it. That hasn’t stifled commerce nor development, both of which happen where they should – within towns and cities where urban infrastructure can accommodate it. This is the American principle known as Growth Management. In Italy, it is simply commonly accepted practice, deserving of no special title. In this regard, Italy is far ahead of most places in the U.S. that are now struggling with the effects of climate change. The philosophy is that prevention is far more effective than remediation.

In a similar vein – making development collectively responsible — the Italian federal government is issuing grants to homeowners to retro-fit houses to reflect 21st century energy systems. Coal and oil are long gone from the mix. Gas and other fossil fuels are on their way out. The grant program provides homeowners with 110 percent of the costs of replacing aged heating systems. 

Called the “Superbonus,” the extra 10 percent goes to banks as a fee for managing the array of trades involved in insulation, piping, power, and mechanical equipment. The homeowner never has to bother with writing a single check; the financial institution hires and pays the contractors. We are, in fact, taking advantage of this popular program for our own house during the coming summer. There is even a special consultant available to prepare all the required calculations and paperwork.

Despite the common perception that Italian bureaucracy is a nightmarish mess of Kafkaesque proportions, it seems pretty well organized and efficient after all. It displayed a similar acumen in managing the effects of the pandemic, with enforced mask-wearing and regulations forbidding gatherings. After a year of effort, some communities are at last returning to a sense of normalcy. Other than early closures of restaurants and bars, our village is pretty much as it was prior to covid. Stores were never short of stock and commerce functioned uninterrupted.  

This model is close to “small government” so revered by American conservatives. Most people relate to their town and their mayor and the local people working in city hall. The province (similar to American counties) is also a major player. We almost never feel the presence of the federal level. The machinations of national politics are more a subject of amusement than an insertion into daily life. It is there for oversight, consistent standards, and for providing funding for local public works. It is definitely not a heavy, “top-down” system of governance.

Our town, known as a “commune,” has a very efficient public works department of one hard-working guy who is a jack of all trades, a non-cost ambulance service available to all within minutes, an immaculate small library, and a free public clinic. In this regard, the city hall is as much a center of the community as it is the center of government.  

Moreover, if we have a complaint we can always have a serious chat with the mayor. You just walk over to the bar on the ground floor of city hall, where you will likely find him having coffee.

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Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

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