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La Periferi​a​, Changing Faces On The Forgotten Outskirts Of Italian Cities

Italian politicians often talk about the communities on the peripheries of cities as if they are filled with crime and decay, but the reality is changing before our eyes

La Periferi​a​, Changing Faces On The Forgotten Outskirts Of Italian Cities

Procession of San Pio at San Filippo Neri in Palermo.

Francesco Erbani

ROME — In Italy, the word “periferia" often pops up during election campaigns. It's a concept surrounded by ambiguity and misunderstanding — and the reality of these communities on the outskirts of Italian cities is much more complex than the rhetoric suggests.

Rome's historic center and the modern city surrounding it are home to about 350,000 people. Every year, this figure shrinks. Just over a million Romans live in what is called the historic outskirts. Here too, the population is in decline.

But in the "ring city" which encircles the capital, the population is growing rapidly. Now, 1.2 million people live there, up 40% since the year 2000.

Some of these peripheral neighborhoods were illegal when they were built. Though many are now legal, thanks to several construction amnesties, they often don't have infrastructure like sidewalks and streetlights, or services like kindergartens and health clinics.

There are a few single family homes and even some lavish villas. Then, there are huge public housing complexes, where most people earn far less than the city average. Unemployment and school dropout rates are high, and few people here are college graduates. Organized crime also has a strong presence.

But the up-and-coming Porta di Roma neighborhood is also considered part of the outskirts, with fancy apartments surrounding one of Europe’s largest shopping malls, which is visited by 16 million people every year. Nearby, complexes of scattered apartment buildings or single family homes attract young couples who commute by car. The low density in these neighborhoods encourages individualism.

Many urbanists point out that this is the kind of expansion that many cities have experienced over the past three decades, as scattered settlements expand in rural areas and city centers empty. Many analysts also argue that the phenomenon of suburbanization, not in a topographical but in a social sense, is also affecting other parts of the city.

The duality of downtown and suburbs, a fundamental part of so many cities, is quickly losing meaning.

Volatile politics

Working-class people have traditionally been the majority in the outskirts of Italian cities like Rome, and they have tended to support left-wing and progressive candidates. That's now changing.

Voting patterns are more volatile

As cities have continued to grow and sprawl, voting patterns have become much more volatile, and people have increasingly chosen not to vote. The latest Italian election confirms this pattern: the further from the city center, the more abstention grows — and those who do vote tend to choose the center-right coalition or the right-wing Brothers of Italy. This is true of both rich and poor neighborhoods on the outskirts.

This was not the case in 2018, when more or less in the same areas, most people abstained or voted for the populist Five Star Movement.

Still, there are some exceptions: the historic working-class and leftists areas of Genoa, for example, voted for the center-left Democratic Party in 2022. And on the contrary, in Scampia, a poor neighborhood in the north of Naples, the Five Star Movement still came out on top in 2022 with more than 60% of the vote.

Social housing in Scampia neighbourhood in Naples

Fabio Sasso/ZUMA

Places of revolt

Urban planners, sociologists and anthropologists emphasize that a neighborhood is not suburban forever: it can be overtaken by another neighborhood, or see an influx of wealthier residents.

Instead, in political circles — and especially on the right and in some of the news media — a static understanding of the word “outskirts” prevails. Even the word provokes a raised tone of voice. Insecurity and danger are often the first things people mention. Urban outskirts are described as a problem, in need of law and order, filled with abandoned buildings and Italians and immigrants vying for public housing. At the same time, we often think of them as the place where the revolt against the city center establishment can start. But the events of 2022 don't support this narrative.

There was no repetition of the riots that broke out in previous years in social housing neighborhoods. In recent riots in the suburbs of Rome, people have targeted young asylum-seekers (the Tor Sapienza neighborhood in 2014), an Eritrean man and the Red Cross center where he lived (Tiburtino III in 2017), Roma families in a reception center (Torre Maura, 2019) and a Roma family in social housing (Casal Bruciato, 2019).

All these episodes were encouraged by far-right groups such as Casa Pound or Forza Nuova, and amplified by TV talk shows. “Thanks to Raggi (the former Five Star Movement mayor of Rome) and the Democratic Party, today, Rome is officially a city racist against Romans," Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy and now Prime Minister of Italy, said about the 2019 Casal Bruciato incident.

Crime, and prejudice, still shape the image of the suburbs

The peripheries were a hot topic in 2022. They were the setting for young rappers from Milan, many of whom are second-generation immigrants born into families of North African descent. They sing about the discomfort of living in disheveled neighborhoods, and of being looked at with suspicion and sometimes entangled with the law.

The Milan rap scene has been mainly framed as a story of crime.

This complex artistic phenomenon which expresses radical dissent is often controversial, but is extraordinarily popular.

Still, the Milan rap scene has been mainly framed as a story of crime: feuds between rival gangs, stabbings, punitive expeditions. In a neighborhood on the outskirts, plagued by marginality and a sense of exclusion, where inequality is overwhelming, even the artistic expression of discomfort is pre-judged.

“Chef in ward” a voluntary initiative in Milan by students from a Hospitality Institute in Quarto Oggiaro that prepares and delivers food to doctors and nurses in Milan's hospitals.

Valeria Ferraro/SOPA/Zuma

Concrete initiatives 

Still, 2022 made it even more visible that the outskirts are not just a place of hell. Or rather, it showed that if they are, there are also those who face up to it.

The inauguration in Scampia in Oct. 2022 of a university health faculty was an important moment. It was hailed as the beginning of the redemption of the neighborhood that many still identify with the feuds of Gomorrah — the TV series based on the best seller by Roberto Saviano on the Neapolitan mafia — even though these ended years ago.

It will bring young people from other neighborhoods, as well as professors and administrative staff. New outpatient services will open, and a commercial network will sprout or be rejuvenated. A space left empty after the fourth demolition of one of the seven Vele, the neighborhood’s iconic sail-shaped buildings, will be revived.

However, new arrivals to Scampia will see that this process has long since begun. Dozens of citizens’ associations are caring for green spaces; gyms, libraries, bookstores and publishing houses are opening, and work is being done to improve the school dropout rates. Innovative educational projects are launching, and people in the neighborhood are working on solutions to improve living conditions in Roma camps.

Innovative projects flourish in peripheral neighborhoods

Urban outskirts are also increasingly becoming the subject of university study — mostly in architecture and urban planning, but also for sociologists, anthropologists and economists. This study is often complemented by what many professors call “research-action" — that is, not just surveys, dissertations or doctoral theses, but also concrete initiatives.

In the Milanese neighborhood of San Siro, the Polytechnic University of Milan has opened a new branch, which also serves as a link between citizens’ associations offering projects including Italian courses for foreigners (who make up almost half of the neighborhood's residents) to the distribution of food parcels. It also keeps dialogue open between associations and the municipality and region.

The Polytechnic University of Turin in the Aurora neighborhood and the Architecture department of the Federico II University of Naples in Scampia are working on similar initiatives. The City Lab in the Corviale neighborhood, which is coordinated by the Roma Tre University, is heading into its fourth year. Similar initiatives have been organized by the Sapienza university in Tor Bella Monaca, another neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome.

Elsewhere, local associations are working on initiatives like these, even where universities and the state have not yet arrived. Projects include repurposing abandoned spaces, even occupying them if necessary, for cultural activities or to promote new jobs, as well as bringing farmland back into production and starting community cooperatives.

Tor Bella Monaca in Rome


Top-down to bottom-up 

Governments are still struggling to recognize that “this new method, made of co-programming, participation even of the most vulnerable, confrontation, even heated but reasonable, of local and global knowledge and ability to find compromises," Fabrizio Barca, co-coordinator of the Inequalities and Diversity Forum, said at an April 2022 conference.

So far, policies for deprived suburban communities mostly have had a top-down approach, drawn up in offices of ministries and local governments and driven mainly by the need to spend budget money when it becomes available. Not all have failed in the goal of restoring quality to unhealthy buildings, bringing services to areas in need or creating public spaces. But while changes to the physical structure of neighborhoods have worked, little has been done to enforce what scholars call the “right to the city,” to create livable and enjoyable communities and fight inequalities.

They end up becoming symbols of degradation.

Moreover, governments have worked on projects piecemeal, often paying no attention to the real needs of residents and aiming instead for immediately “buildable” works, which sometimes eventually add to the growing list of abandoned places.

“From the perspective of the people living in the outskirts, projects present themselves as concrete realities, but they soon transform into emblems of political slogans, and they end up becoming symbols of degradation," says Cristiana Rossignolo, an urban planner at the Turin Polytechnic and curator of initiatives in the Aurora neighborhood.

A new government plan may be a missed opportunity 

Of the more than €190 billion of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan allocated with the EU for the post-COVID recovery, €2.8 billion will be devoted to projects in the outskirts of major cities. At least 159 interventions are already planned.

This is an unmissable opportunity. But how much will it reduce gaps and inequalities? And why is a decisive role given to the Ministry of the Interior, as if this whole operation is only about law and order? This approach is not so different from what we have seen so far.

Municipalities have submitted a list of projects, many of which have been in the works for some time. But overall, there has been little dialogue with those who will see the projects implemented in front of their homes.

According to Filippo Celata, professor of economic geography at Sapienza University in Rome, even for the outskirts, the plan is a “plan without a plan.” That is, it does not start “from an overall strategic vision which allows acting in an organic and coordinated way. Rather, it relies on individual calls and sterile procedures.”

This is an opportunity that, although unmissable, is in unfortunate danger of being wasted.

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