As earthquakes rattle Italy, lessons in how — and how not — to rebuild cities and towns

An August earthquake destroyed the historic city of Amatrice, Italy. Earthquakes in Italy so frequently turn towns to ruins that the country has become an accidental laboratory for different approaches to rebuilding after a disaster. (Antonio Nardelli / Shutterstock.com)

ROME, Italy — When damaging earthquakes strike Italy’s historic cities and towns, as has happened multiple times just since August, the emergency response is typically swift and effective. Rescue systems quickly spring into action to pull survivors from ruins and set up emergency shelters and services for victims.

The rebuilding, however, is less systematic. Over the years, reconstruction of quake-ravaged urban areas has taken many forms. Sometimes, ruined cities and towns are built back pretty much as they were; other times the clean slate is an excuse to build new elsewhere. Some efforts are centralized operations managed by Rome, while others are more locally driven and rich in citizen participation.

On one hand, Italy’s lack of a consistent rebuilding framework is a symptom of negligent planning. Three-quarters of the country’s surface area — home to half the Italian population — lies in a seismically active zone. Quakes strong enough to turn fragile old buildings into piles of stone occur so frequently that the country arguably should have an ongoing strategy for how to recover from such disasters.

On the other hand, Italy’s diverse experiences with rebuilding have made it an accidental laboratory for different approaches that disaster-prone regions in any country can learn from. Here are four examples from the past 50 years that offer both cautionary tales and models to emulate.

Friuli (1976): Public participation, local accountability

Gemona del Friuli was rebuilt quickly in part because of extensive public participation in the process. (Alexandra Lande/Shutterstock.com)

The rebuilding model deployed in the Friuli region, where dozens of small towns were destroyed, may be the most successful one Italy has to offer.

Friuli is located northeast of Venice, on the borders with Austria and Slovenia. In less than ten years, almost all the homes and factories destroyed in the disaster were rebuilt.  

There were two keys to the success of the reconstruction.

The first is that, while the national government paid for the rebuilding effort, the local authorities managed most of the logistics and procurement on the ground. That was fundamental to ensuring that the real needs of the residents were being met, as opposed to needs defined by distant ministries. 

The second is that local officials went out of their way to make rebuilding a participatory process. At public assemblies in the neighborhoods, residents and public officials developed a shared vision for how to rebuild that in some cases residents literally signed off on.

As it turned out, the residents did not want to “re-imagine” what their villages could look like. In some cases, these villages dated back to the Middle Ages and the people living in them wanted everything rebuilt more or less as it was. They made some small adjustments to the urban fabric, such as introducing porticos to make streets a bit larger. But otherwise, on the outside, the architectural styles and skyline of the new construction reflected the old. Inside, of course, the new buildings were more modern and built to hold up better in another earthquake.

This approach came to be known by the Italian phrase “dov’era, com’era”, which means “where it was, how it was.” There was nothing particularly avant garde about it, but the results — and the residents’ buy-in — amounted to what one urban planner involved in the process called a form of “social therapy.” For communities that had lost hundreds of people, the approach made reconstruction faster, cheaper and more accountable.

Paolo Urbani, the mayor of Gemona del Friuli, says his town of 11,000 people is better off now than it was before the quake. “The period of the reconstruction was an incomparable economic opportunity for the city,” Urbani says. Twice as many people now live in the historic center as before, and the town rates well in quality-of-life rankings. The last urban symbol still be the restored, the medieval castle of Gemona, will be completed in 2017.

Belice (1968): Pitfalls of central planning

The ruins of Gibellina have been covered with a massive public art project. Residents were moved to a new town. (Gabriel Valentini/Wikimedia Commons)

The community-driven model used in Friuli could not be more different from the one applied in Belice, on the northern coast of Sicily. After a 1968 quake killed 390 people and left another 90,000 homeless, the central government completely drove the reconstruction effort — and produced a very different kind of result.

Rather than rebuild destroyed urban areas where they were, central planners decided to build brand new towns in new places. There was a logic to this: The new locations were considered to be less seismically active, and closer to transportation networks necessary to transform the local economy from agriculture to industry. Some of the country’s most noted architects and designers at the time were brought in to create the plans.

But the move also ripped up the urban and social fabric of these communities. The most famous of the new towns — Gibellina, rebuilt 14 kilometers (9 miles) from its original location — became a symbol of the problems.

The 4,000 residents who made the move never felt at ease in a town that looked nothing like their old village. There was no central square or main road to give the new city a center. Large roads built for cars rather than pedestrians left the new city with vast empty spaces. Across the region, centralized administration of the rebuilding produced long bureaucratic delays; almost 50 years later, some long-ago promised public works remain unfinished.

Trying to make the best of it, Gibellina is turning to art. Former Mayor Ludovico Corrao invited famous contemporary artists to fill the new town’s empty spaces with monumental public art projects. People reacted with incomprehension and skepticism to the conceptual pieces produced by artists such as Mario Schifano, Arnaldo Pomodoro and Pietro Consagra, but it has created one of the most impressive outdoor urban art spaces in Europe.

The most sweeping of the art pieces is located back at the old ruins of Gibellina. After 30 years of work, artist Alberto Burri in 2015 unveiled Cretto, which means “a crack” in Italian. The work covers a vast hillside area where the old city stood with giant cement blocks which, seen from the air, look like the cracked surface of a dry lake. It’s conceived as both a memorial to the city that was and a tourist draw to help bring vitality to the new city.

“Only now are we realizing the importance of this huge cultural heritage,” says Giuseppe Zummo, Gibellina’s deputy mayor in charge of culture. Art “can be used to contrast the urban decline, and promote cultural and touristic growth in the city.”

Umbria and Marche (1997): Bringing back tourists quickly

The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi was rebuilt in just two years. (Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia Commons)

When an earthquake caused extensive damage in Assisi, the home of Saint Francis visited by 6 million tourists a year, city officials knew exactly where they wanted to start rebuilding: the churches.

Within two years, the main church dedicated to Saint Francis was reopened to the public, as well as many commercial and tourism activities in the historical center. That got visitors coming to Assisi again, jump starting the local economy.

Meanwhile, Assisi used the reconstruction as an opportunity to bolster its potential. New parking areas for tourists and residents were created, along with new museums, theaters and exhibition spaces to give visitors more to see beyond the churches.

“The reconstruction was a way to relaunch urban growth,” says Assisi’s former mayor, Claudio Ricci. “When there is an earthquake, cities should not only take care of the reconstruction of houses, churches and tourism places but also create what the city needs for the next 15 or 20 years.”

Throughout the regions of Umbria and Marche, towns benefited from good coordination among the national, regional, provincial and municipal levels of government. There also was a clear framework to define the scale of different rebuilding projects.

For example, buildings that did not suffer major damage were identified so that they could be fixed almost immediately. The more heavily damaged buildings, whether publicly or privately owned, moved on a longer-term track. And areas such as historical centers, where a lot of coordination was necessary among different parties doing work simultaneously, was handled separately.

In addition, old and new structures were reinforced to better withstand seismic activity. They got a test in October when the strongest tremor in years hit the region. In the town of Norcia, there was some damage, particularly to the main church, but no deaths due to building collapse.

Seismic retrofitting is crucial. Urban planner Giovanni Pietro Nimis would like to see Italy embark on a wave of public works projects, like the New Deal in 1930s America, to shore up the country’s most culturally significant buildings. “It may take 50 years,” Nimis says, “but you have to start somewhere.”

L’Aquila (2009): New towns bring new problems

L’Aquila is Italy’s largest city to be devastated by an earthquake in recent times. (Eric Vandeville/Sipa via AP Images)

While most of Italy’s recent earthquakes affected small- and medium-sized towns, the one that hit L’Aquila in 2009 affected a major regional capital with 70,000 people. Seven years later, rebuilding in the city’s historical center — the largest reconstruction site in Europe — is still a work in progress, to the dismay of residents.

After the quake, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wanted to show immediate results. He centralized the reconstruction process and immediately embarked on building 19 new towns to house the 65,000 people who had been evacuated from the city center. The fast construction of these towns on the urban periphery succeeded at providing residents shelter before the cold of winter set in. But as in Gibellina, it’s torn up the city’s social fabric.

The new towns don’t have much in the way of public spaces or basic amenities such as cafes, restaurants or shops. For people who used to walk in L’Aquila’s streets and sit in the squares of its center, the new hub of life is suburban shopping malls.

“The separation of the people from the social tissue of the historical center is the main problem in L’Aquila,” says Valter Fabietti, professor of urban planning at the University of Pescara. “People are trying to keep the sense of community alive but they feel disoriented and confused.”

The changes have been hardest on the area’s elderly, who mostly lived in the historical center and could easily gather without driving or getting on a bus. A large community of university students and youth are helping to keep the historical center alive — most of the 60 commercial activities that have opened up in the center are bars and restaurants owned by young entrepreneurs.

While reconstruction in the center drags on, there’s an attempt to build back better infrastructure. Underground tunnels have been built to host utilities such as water, electricity and fiber-optic cables. The latter is key to creating a community broadband network that will serve local authorities and the university. It is hoped this will be a draw for businesses as well.

Once reconstruction is complete — it’s still expected to take a few more years — a big question will be what to do with the new towns. Local officials are debating whether to tear them down or consider transforming them into housing for students or young couples.

As more towns not far from L’Aquila get to work rebuilding after this year’s earthquakes, Claudio Ricci of Assisi feels hopeful that they can incorporate lessons from the past. After all, many of the local leaders in charge have been through this before.

“Many of the civil officials who lived it almost 20 years ago,” he says, “are making clear that working together in the same direction can guarantee quick reconstruction.”

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Simone is a Rome-based journalist who covers innovation, sustainability and urban issues.   Full bio

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