After thousands of young workers fled urban lockdowns to the countryside, village leaders are trying to make sure they stay. It’s easier said than done.
A Medieval hamlet perched in the Madonie mountains of Sicily, Castelbuono looks straight out of a fairy tale, with narrow, winding streets and a stone-walled castle from the 14th century.
Yet despite years of local efforts to turn it into a cultural hub through tourism and the establishment of an international music festival, Castelbuono has been shrinking for decades. Since the late 1960s, entire families across southern and central Italy have fled to the wealthier north in search of employment, as agriculture, textile mills and other industries declined. As a result, some 2,500 villages across the country are disappearing, with more than 2 million empty houses.
But Covid-19 brought an unlikely reversal in that trend. Even as the virus tore through Italy’s rural interior and south, it also drew a wave of young adults and expatriates into its declining towns. Once relegated to weekend escapes from urban fatigue, centuries-old villages like Castelbuono — called “borghi” in Italian, or “borgo” in the singular — became more attractive refuges from the claustrophobia of pandemic lockdowns, promising more space to inhabit and improved quality of life at cheaper prices.
Now, to translate this phenomenon into a lasting post-pandemic legacy, elected leaders and grassroots organizations are taking action to improve infrastructure, rebuild community ties and push these aging villages into the 21st century as remote work becomes the new normal.
“The pandemic created one of the biggest opportunities ever for small towns in Italy,” said Carla Cucco, a 30-year old lawyer who grew up in Castelbuono and moved back from Palermo amid the first lockdown in spring 2020. She is now living with her parents.
Exactly how many people returned to villages last year is hard to say, especially since many Italians who previously left never gave up nominal residency. But a report by SVIMEZ, an Italian think tank focused on the economic development in the south, estimates that between 80,000 to 100,000 people moved back to these long-fading regions since the start of Covid-19, based on employer surveys. Meanwhile, demand for properties in rural areas increased by 20% last spring, according to real estate agencies.
Some new arrivals are remaking villages so that they are more viable places to live long-term. Cucco is part of South Working, a loose network of young Italian professionals that started during the pandemic to stay connected while in isolation. Over the past six months, in cooperation with the local officials in Castelbuono, Cucco and a group of fellow returnees turned parts of historical buildings into coworking spaces. Now, when Cucco has to speak with a client in the city, she steps into what was once the cloister of an 18th-century Catholic church, now converted into an open-air conference room.
The baroque village of Palazzolo Acreide in southern Sicily, which has lost about 7% residents in the last decade, is similarly trying to capitalize on the pandemic’s positive population effect.
“We are not yet to the point of extinction, because despite the inevitable decrease in population, Palazzolo is still lively and can offer a lot,” said Mayor Salvatore Gallo. He estimates that hundreds of newcomers have arrived since last year to the town of 8,000, a UNESCO world heritage site rated the second most beautiful borgo in Italy in 2019.
Before Covid hit, Gallo looked into bringing in the popular 1-euro houses program — where owners sell uninhabited homes in need of renovation for a nominal fee — that has been tried in dozens of emptied villages. But when he found that such incentives mostly function as holiday house give-aways, he decided that a better strategy for Palazzolo would be supporting projects and businesses that newcomers initiated.
The first of those will be a FabLab, a workshop equipped with tools such as 3-D printers as well as soldering irons and textile looms. Directed by Marie-Marthe Joly, a Swiss entrepreneur, it will open this summer inside an old monastery, which Gallo made available for free.
Enticed by the slower pace of life, Joly decided to make her move permanent after getting stuck at her holiday home in Palazzolo during the first lockdown. Through academic partnerships with the University of Geneva and the University of Catania in Sicily, she plans to use the FabLab to bring in experts to teach business, crafts and digital skills to locals.
“Moving to a borgo shouldn’t just be a selfish decision to enjoy better food and cheaper rent, but a chance to enrich and give back to the host community,” she said.
Yet the ability to work remotely at her university is what made the move possible. And that’s what she and Gallo — who has signed a contract for high-speed internet coverage for the entire town — hope will enable more arrivals to stay.
As part of South Working, Carmelo Ignaccolo, a PhD student in urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been tracking coworking hubs and places with access to high-speed internet that can cater to the needs of remote-working professionals across rural Italy; so far, the group has counted 192 locations. To better understand the level of repopulation that has taken place in some of these towns during the pandemic, he hopes to analyze mobile phone and internet use data. That could also help indicate where governments should aim for future investments, he said.
In a kind of domino effect, several areas struggling with depopulation have already begun experimenting with ways to encourage newcomers to stay for the whole year rather than just during the holidays.
Last July, Sicily’s regional government launched a program offering a grant of as much as 50,000 euros ($61,000) for people under the age of 30 to build social enterprises in culture and tourism in one of 23 designated villages, including Palazzolo Acreide. In September, the southern region of Molise announced it would offer 700 euros a month to those taking residency in a borgo with fewer than 2,000 residents. Another program launched in February in the mountainous northern region of Emilia-Romagna gives applicants up to 30,000 euros for the purchase or restoration of a house.
“We are witnessing unparalleled times for the rebirth of these disappearing, yet invaluable, spaces of our national heritage. And that gives us hope for the future,” said Anna Laura Orrico, a member of Italy’s Parliament who has previously tried to make rural revitalization a national priority. For years, the government has tried to repopulate borghis through initiatives such as the 2014 “National Strategy for Inner Areas,” which aimed to develop rural areas through targeted investments in infrastructure and urban planning. But the plan’s impact has been difficult to assess, Orrico said, due to lack of monitoring.
Now the topic has momentum. Last year, during her mandate as undersecretary of cultural affairs, Orrico’s office selected 12 villages across the country to become experimental hubs for innovative technology in the fields of environment, sustainable transportation and culture, funded through a project called “Smarter Italy.” Beginning in summer, 90 euros million will be allocated across these towns to fund diverse projects, including virtual museums and seismic monitoring.
Some of the Recovery Plan funds that Italy is set to receive later this year from the European Union to counter the negative economic impact of coronavirus are also expected to be invested in borghi, although exact amounts are yet to be determined.
Such investments are badly needed, as rural areas lack critical services such as secondary education, high-speed transportation, and health care. In ultra-remote parts of southern Italy, it takes an average of nearly 45 minutes to reach a hospital.
Modernizing infrastructure and social services is key to keeping new residents for the long-term, said Fausto Carmelo Nigrelli, a professor of urban planning at the University of Catania, who has spent decades studying the economic challenges of Italy’s small villages. He believes that at least 1 billion euros is required to make rural areas more habitable. A historic lack of follow-through by the national government — as well as the pandemic’s devastating effect on the Italian economy — makes him skeptical that this time will be different.
“This return is very encouraging,” Nigrelli said. “But if it’s not supported by concrete, effective policy planning that focuses on improving the welfare system, the risk is that, in a few years time, the emigration trend might retake its course.”