As the world’s population urbanises at a rapid clip, can villages attract new blood? Facing extinction, the left-behind rural hamlets have come up with creative initiatives to lure new denizens.
In Spain, where regions such as Galicia now have swathes of land with just two residents per square kilometre, entire villages have been auctioned off to foreigners looking to construct farming communities or yoga retreats. In Japan, where the population is among the world’s most aged, business corporations have opened offices in underpopulated villages, drawing in a young workforce. In Italy, where nearly 6,000 hamlets with dwindling populations cover half the country, the desperation of the situation has resulted in some headline-grabbing ideas, including idyllic (if run-down) houses being sold off for a euro.
Now Italy’s government has been spurred into action. A new law, sponsored by Ermete Realacci, the left-wing parliamentarian who presides over the board of territory and the environment, has been passed. It earmarks funds to keep schools and public services such as post offices running, install broadband internet and ease restrictions on refurbishing abandoned places in the hinterlands. “We can strengthen our economy if we look at these small towns from a different angle,” says Realacci. “We need to prioritise mobility and technology in villages that permit young people to live there and open businesses.”
Though the funds will only go so far – €100m over five years has been designated for the whole country – Realacci says what matters is that the government is finally recognising the importance of revitalising villages. As other countries take stock of their tottering hamlets, expect more to mimic these measures.
The canton of Zürich is expecting to have an additional 360,000 residents calling the region home by 2040. To provide the booming population and wildlife with enough green space to roam in, the planning and environmental bureau have looked to the lake where officials are considering building artificial islands with soil excavated from the country’s many tunnel projects.
There are still details to be worked out but an evaluation is in place to see if the idea could float. According to the canton, if everything goes well the islands could be in place in as little as 10 to 15 years.
Once the lifeline of cities, rivers polluted by the by-products of industry were routinely redirected to flow beneath pavements – but now they are being uncovered in a process called “daylighting”.The most famous project is Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream which, in 2005, saw the return of a river that was paved over in the late 1950s.
Former industrial cities in the UK, such as Sheffield and Rochdale, are also uncovering their rivers. And one of the latest projects has been the Saw Mill River in Yonkers, New York. The newly exposed waterway has new riverbanks and an attractive walkway, which has boosted activity in the area and led to a spike in property prices.
As Sweden has grappled to cope with an influx of immigrants and refugees, integration in certain areas has been a struggle. Reconciling cultural differences, including the treatment of women, has been a particular challenge. In the suburb of Husby, which police have described as “especially vulnerable” to crime and antisocial behaviour, city officials are experimenting with a new approach: using city-planning to make public spaces safer for women. Stockholm’s deputy mayor explains.
Why was this sort of approach needed?
We were getting lots of indications that women in Husby did not want to spend time in the central square because it’s dominated by [groups of migrant] men. Even in other parts of the city, women were saying that they’re afraid to go out in the evening. One of the city’s housing companies, Svenska Bostäder, wanted to change this so that women can feel safe and have access to our public spaces. Now even Familjebostäder and Stockholmshem [the city’s two other housing companies] have women-focused city-planning written in their directives.
What does it mean in practice?
In Husby we began by talking to women [both native Swedes and migrants] to find out what the problems were. Is it the street lighting? How the centre is planned? One example of something we heard is that women felt that a café next to the subway entrance was always full of men who were looking at their comings and goings. We consulted with the owner and moved the café to a location nearby but away from the subway entrance.
Can city-planning tackle such complex problems?
It’s not going to solve all of them. But it will affect the lives of many women who [feel they] can’t move freely in public areas. We can at least design an environment where any kind of harassment of women, for instance, is more difficult.