Even as city living booms around the world, the Slow City movement directed by an intrepid Italian is gaining a global following with a back to basics campaign to make small towns the new place to be.
From his hometown of Orvieto — a hilltop medieval gem surrounded by castles and vineyards in central Umbria — Pier Giorgio Oliveti has helped expand Cittaslow to 28 countries, including South Korea, Turkey and the US.
“Cittaslow is about appreciating what we are and what we have, without being self-destructive and depleting values, money and resources,” Oliveti said.
“It is an antidote against negative globalization,” the bushy-bearded former journalist said.
Founded in 1999 by a Tuscan mayor eager to extend the healthy living philosophy of Italy’s Slow Food movement to urban life, Cittaslow boasts 183 members, with another dozen applications for membership pending.
The movement’s symbol — derived from that of the Slow Food movement — embodies their philosophy: a snail carrying a town built on its shell.
Would-be candidates must have fewer than 50,000 inhabitants and city halls have to respect strict criteria like promoting organic and urban farming and introducing food appreciation classes in schools.
Orvieto, one of the first towns to sign up 15 years ago, has become the movement’s international headquarters and its showcase town.
Small family-run trattorias dish out locally sourced wine and delicacies — another requirement for Cittaslow towns — and farmers hawk their wares at the market, which also serves as the community’s lively social hub.
The town hosts a family-friendly jazz festival and locals such as firefighter Luciano Sabottini pride themselves on offering such a relaxing atmosphere to tourists that “those who come from Rome or Milan leave again mellowed out.”
Pollution levels are low: Visitors park in large underground carparks, masked from sight behind earthy walls that blend into the rockface, and take escalators installed in old aqueduct tunnels up to the pedestrianized center.
Schoolchildren are walked to school every day in groups by parent volunteers in an initiative dubbed “PiediBus” (FootBus) in a procession through town streets.
Orvieto Mayor Antonio Concina says running a Slow City is “neither difficult nor odd.”
“It’s not a matter of stopping progress to allow a town to respect the slow rules. They can go hand in hand,” he said.
However, Cittaslow’s message of environmentally friendly, human-sized policies to improve urban life is being challenged by an economic crisis in Italy that has pushed unemployment to record-high levels.
Orvieto has not been spared: According to a report by town assembly members, “entire sectors have closed,” with 153 businesses shutting shop in the past four years and unemployment at 35.4 percent — far higher than the national average.
“We’re are fighting to keep our heads above water. Orvieto was once full of carpenter workshops, there was one on every street. I think we’re the only ones left,” said Gaia Ricetti, whose family has worked wood for seven generations.
The large, 18th-century Michelangeli workshop hidden down a cobbled street in the center of Orvieto is abuzz with electronic saws — the sound of industry Concina says he would be keen to hear more of, slow city or not.
“Not having large-scale industries does hamper economic development,” and multinationals like coffee chain Starbucks “would mean work, a living economy,” although Concina said he would definitely prefer not to have any Starbucks around.
Oliveti believes the Cittaslow philosophy can be used to the same end, by “privileging a community’s qualities, such as craftmanship, technology or tourism, and using them as a key to overcome the economic crisis.”
Orvieto prides itself on its remaining traditional artisans, printers and potters, working in old laboratories dotted around the town center.
“We have clients from Italy and abroad, but no plans to move away to expand the business. It’s not about money, it’s about living a tranquil life,” ceramics maker Walter Ambrosini said, as he put freshly crafted cups into a kiln.
Despite the crisis, Ricetti agrees: “We would not be able to produce the same quality of product without the slow component. We weather our wood for five years before working it and Orvieto gives us the time and space to do so.”
While the movement is currently limited to small towns, Oliveti said he hopes to persuade larger cities from Barcelona to Seoul to adopt some of the movement’s ideas and generate “islands of Cittaslow culture” in the bustle.