While doing research on different experiences in permaculture across different countries in the world, I came across a project of urban permaculture in Cittiglio (located in the province of Varese, Italy). Urban agricultural practices are rapidly gaining popularity in Italy at the moment, spearheading a movement that holds a high potential to diversify relations with food, nature, and society in the peninsula.
Paolo Paliaga coordinates the project, with the support of the City of Cittiglio and the Italian Institute of Permaculture. He teaches Political Economy at the European University of Varese, with a focus on alternative models of development, and on how the financial machinery of capitalism is destroying communities and the concept of work itself. Recently, I had the chance to have a very engaging conversation with him, and I have reported a few notes from it here.
During his classes, his students have watched the French documentary “Tomorrow” by Cyril Dion and then visited different transition towns across Europe, particularly in the Netherlands and in Denmark. There are about 1500 transition towns across the globe, and in them, starting from the experience of Rob Hopkins, food, energy production, socialisation and transport have been reorganised in accord with “post-petroleum era” principles.
In transition towns, these different elements are fundamentally reconceived, beyond traditional developmental models. The interesting point is that these realities have been existing for years and are already extremely functional. The city of Nijmegen (NL) for example, has been elected “transition town capital city” of 2019, and it organises collective gardens, community-based social support for those in need, and integration within the local labour market. It also produces different types of bikes, used for door-to-door garbage collection and postal delivery within the city. Over there, apparently it is common to see shared food production for condominiums, as well as sustainable buildings and homes.
In Italy, there is only one transition town, which at the moment is rather struggling to keep up. This is the reason that pushed the group of students and citizens of Cittiglio to ask their municipality to set up a common area for a garden.
The area was divided into allotments and the local Environmental Group (presided by professor Paliaga) holds three of these sections. Their aim is to involve local people into taking part in the project, particularly those who lost their jobs. The Italian Institute of permaculture has supported the permaculture design process for the project, keeping in high regard the relevance of the local flora, fauna, as well as geographical configuration.
The realization of the three designs has been carried out exclusively through volunteer work.
The project was launched last September, in a public event that showcased pictures, videos and parts of the “Tomorrow” documentary, which touches on multiple permaculture experiences in France.
The community garden is located near a bicycle path and is clearly visible thanks to a large banner. On the site are also present maps, that explain the relations between flowers, plants, herbs, trees, legumes, vegetables etc. People are able to stop by and read the map, just as it is possible to do with informative maps on mountain paths. The beneficial relations between different plants, such basil and tomatoes, or the present of pest-repelling flowers, are all notions explained in these posters.
However, an important aspect of promotion of the garden is done by the volunteers who take part in the project, always open to have a conversation with the curious passerby. This spontaneous interest in knowing more, or even in participating is a fundamental in how the project works.
The produce grown in the garden is generally devolved to those in need, particularly people who have lost their occupation due to the Covid crisis.
The group takes decisions democratically, by majority. However, their action is per se an anti-capitalistic gesture: they do not work together in an egoistic fashion, in order to have some extra tomatoes for private consumption. They would rather want to show that in our times it is necessary to rethink food production and solidarity. Food production is only one aspect that can be used to show how it is possible to reinstate local community networks as the centre for every human relation and interaction, as it used to be the norm in the past, also an instrument for economic redistribution (those who had more food would gift some of it to those who had less). The introduction of practices of solidarity, aid and reciprocal involvement starts from simple but concrete gestures. In fact, the permaculture garden in Cittiglio works completely on gratuitous basis.
In Paliaga’s words: “We can launch a message that it is possible to rethink the local community life based on notions of reciprocal gratuitous gift. This concept for us represents a small island in a tumultuous sea. However, I believe that it is important for us to represent a positive example, that will maybe inspire other municipalities to follow suit in the future. I personally believe more in bottom-up models of change, and not so much in politics-driven top-down projects.”
As much as it may seem utopic, there seem to be strong hopes to show that the community garden can be the centre of a new model of socialisation, which, in addition, is also beneficial for the physical and psychological wellbeing of our community.
Urban agricultural areas are a step in the direction of rethinking urban spaces in a way that integrates food production. In this way, it is possible to achieve some level of autonomy from the industrial food system, which makes an unsustainable use of our planet. It would be interesting to witness a future where food production is commonly integrated within the urban environment. According to some research, this model (called micro-farms) would be able to provide food for 10 billion people. This goes against the structure that we have today, with a hyper-nourished population on one hand, and starving masses on the other.
There is also a change of mentality that is included in the urban garden concept: people who take care of the garden will become attached to the local environment and are going to remain invested in its positive future development.