Slow Cities Taking Life Easy in Urban Italy

Supporters of Italy's "Slow City" movement are trying to develop liveable cities, banning cars from city centers and blocking McDonald's branches and supermarkets. The movement is spreading across Europe and is now taking off in Asia.

It's not easy to be punctual for a meeting with Stefano Cimicchi. Parking places are hard to come by in Orvieto, even if cars are still legal. Cars in the city center stick out like a sore thumb among strolling pedestrians, who move to the sides of the streets with studied slowness. After a couple of twisty laps though the narrow medieval alleyways of the old town center, you might find a parking place on the edge of the small Umbrian town -- and pay handsomely for the privilege of parking.

Cimicchi was mayor of Orvieto from 1991 to 2004, and for several years he was president of the "Slow City" movement, an outgrowth of the successful "Slow Food" concept. "Slow City" advocates argue that small cities should preserve their traditional structures by observing strict rules: cars should be banned from city centers; people should eat only local products and use sustainable energy. In these cities, there's not much point in looking for a supermarket chain or McDonald's.

From a Chianti Village to the Wider World

"Our goal is to create liveable cities," says Cimicchi, a cheerful 51-year-old with a white moustache and laugh lines around his eyes. "We are working, if you will, on the concept of the utopian city, in the same way as the writer Italo Calvino and the architect Renzo Piano have done."

The miniscule Tuscan Chianti town of Greve became the first "cittáslow" in 1999, followed by Bra, Positano and Orvieto. Over time, the slowness wave has spread. There are now 42 slow cities in Italy, and more and more cities -- in Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Poland and Norway -- conform to the movement's list of strict requirements. In Germany, a number of cities -- including Hersbruck, Lüdinghausen, Schwarzenbruck, Waldkirch and Überlingen -- have joined the select circle, which only admits cities with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.

Residents serve as quiet proof that concentrating on local products and industries can be a benefit, rather than a restriction. And lest they begin to seem like a bunch of ascetics, they make sure to hold wine festivals and riotous feasts on area farms.

To a certain extent, a "slow city" tries to preserve the civic structures from medieval or Renaissance times, while at the same time incorporating the most recent scientific findings of ecology and sustainability. Even modern technology is allowed if it helps to meet the city's goals. For example, Cimicchi is hoping to install electronically controlled access gates in Orvieto, which would grant entrance exclusively to city residents. Pisa already has a similar system: If the camera catches you letting the parking meter run out -- whether it’s for a single minute or an entire day -- you can expect to receive a parking ticket.

Upholding Slow Standards

Cimicchi is currently putting together a handbook for local politicians who embrace the "slow" philosophy. Available starting in October 2008, it is meant to be used as a field manual for the Italian delegations that will make inspections, both in Italy and abroad, to check and see if a city deserves the increasingly popular snail logo of a "cittáslow."

Precise controls are necessary in order to uphold standards. "In Japan, for example, many places would like to adopt our slogan, but they deviate from our ideas in practice," Cimicchi says. When it comes to Korea, Cimicchi says that he has to be a bit skeptical about the repeated inquiries he receives: "Nonetheless, we'll be sending a delegation there soon to see what they want to do."

By now, enthusiasm for the "Slow Food" movement's snail revolution has spawned a number of related movements. Catch phrases making the rounds include "slow travel," slow living," or "velo slow," which refers to an initiative aimed at getting people to make the switch from cars to bicycles.

Next on Cimicchi's list of projects is a program to educate children about good taste. "Some kids today no longer know where a chicken breast comes from, which animal it actually belongs to or that french fries don't grow on trees," Cimicchi says. He also wants to teach people about good production methods and that boiling is better than frying.

There's still work to be done in Orvieto. Even with its medieval charm, the hillside town still has a good way to go before reaching Cimicchi's ideal of a utopian city. Retailers' fears of decreased profits have led to continued opposition to a total ban on automobiles in the city center. And Coca-Cola is still served in street cafés, on request.

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