© Sandro Bozzolo

Mountains matter

Filippo Barbera*

Today the “mountain question” does not only concern the mountains as such. The mountains area are witnessing a “new centrality” In light of the crisis of the cities. The Italian case is a telling one.

To begin with, it is worth underscoring that the “metropolitan city” is not an urban phenomena. Let’s consider my city, Turin. The city that looks at the mountains that surround it only when the woods burn, or when the candidacy for the winter Olympics appears on the horizon. Turin has forgotten its vocation as an Alpine city. The mountain area of ​​the Metropolitan City of Turin is equal to 52% of the territory and prevails over both the hilly area (21%) and the plain (27%). Furthermore, 143 out of 315 municipalities are classified as “mountain” and 36% of these are very small municipalities under 1,000 inhabitants. The case of the metropolitan city of Turin is entirely in line with the national data: out of 12 metropolitan cities, only 2 (Milan and Venice) are, in fact, completely composed of non-mountain municipalities; 6 (Genoa, Rome, Reggio-Calabria, Messina, Palermo, Cagliari) have more than 50% of mountain or partially mountain municipalities, while 4 (Catania, Bari, Naples and Bologna) have less than 50% of mountain or partially mountain municipalities.

Nothing new, an obvious fact: the metropolitan cities were built on the ritual sacrifice of the provinces, which by administrative boundary extended far beyond the cities in the strict sense. After all, names, like masks, show and hide at the same time. The ability to “give names” is one of the dimensions of political power. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan possessed naming power, as well as sanctioning power. In saying “Province of Turin” or “Metropolitan City of Turin”, very different images and expectations are evoked. In the first case, the semantic container “province” requires and allows the inclusion of small villages, hills, rural areas, mountains and villages, in the second case it does not. The metropolitan city recalls the image of the great urban conurbation, of the city without borders, perhaps as sick of urban sprawl as Rome is, where blocks of flats, lawns, hypermarkets alternate seamlessly.

The Mayors govern as if the mountains could not generate wealth and well-being. The metropolitan city, however, does not correspond to this hyper-urban representation. From the city-center of Turin, for example, the metro-mountain valleys can be reached in 45 minutes by car, the same time it takes from the city-center to the first belt. And this is not just a characteristic of the large metropolitan agglomerations. In Italy, about 90 provincial capitals and municipalities with more than 50,000 inhabitants are less than 15 km away from a mountain area, effectively configuring a national metro-mountain system of different cities and mountains. This territorial dimension, however, is not an institutional and political fact. The programming of the connection infrastructures and, more simply, the timetables of trains and buses, do not look at the city-mountain region as a driver of local development. The Mayors govern the cities with the mountain behind them and a hopeful look at the plain, as if the mountains could not generate wealth and well-being for the city too. In this same perspective, in addition to the mountainous areas, the peri-urban contexts that extend around the cities and blend with the rural landscape must also be considered, sharing the characteristics of both.

It is right to speak also in this case of a metropolitan-rural system that sees peripheral sites become a sort of “extended city”, which once saw even competitive growth with the “concentrated city” but which now survives thanks to centers that supply services such as second level schools, hospitals and railways. This phenomenon is crystal-clear in Italy, where the polycentric nature is very marked and where there are urban and inter-municipal centers that offer key services to more peripheral areas.

The cooperative connection between cities and mountains requires an “inversion of the gaze. The mountain today does not constitute a “moral subject” worthy of equality and respect. These are themes usually reserved for the city. A new type of recognition and a new otherness are needed for this inversion of the gaze. The mountain must retain a specific difference from the city, but this difference cannot and must not be the projection of the frustrations, desires and needs of the urban bourgeoisie, which conceives the mountain as a green desert, as a commodity or as an amenity. The mountains first of all need public recognition which make them a subject with a “moral capacity”. This recognition implies on the part of “stronger” actors (eg cities) a step back that gives to”weaker” actors (eg mountains) the space to exercise their autonomy or their “free will”, giving up a purely self-referential or city-centric action. The recognition, in these terms, configures the attribution of a moral authority to the other, which obliges the assign or to self-limit his own field of action. From this point of view, the mountain does not constitute today a “moral subject”, worthy of equal respect. He is not an equal co-author of the norms and rules it is called to follow, and it is not the owner of their interpretation. It is not recognized, but misrecognized. Consequently, its capacity for innovation is mortified. The recognition enjoyed by the mountain is the asymmetrical one, at best, of “good behaviour” issued as a gift by the grateful. To build the city-mountain region we need to start from here.

Filippo Barbera* is Professor of economic sociology at the CPS Department of the University of Turin and fellow at the Collegio Carlo Alberto. His research interests are social innovation, foundational economy and development of marginal areas. His recent publications include Alternative Food Networks: An Interdisciplinary Assessment, 2018, Palgrave Macmillan (eds. with A. Corsi, E. Dansero, C. Peano), and The Foundational Economy and Citizenship, Bristol, Policy Press 2021 (eds. With I.R. Jones).

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