By Marco Tononi and Antonella Pietta, University of Brescia, and Sara Bonati, Universidade da Madeira
Brescia is a medium-sized city in northern Italy. It is located in the country’s densely-populated industrial area, the Po valley. In the past, the economy of Brescia was based on the metallurgic and chemical industries. However, in recent decades Brescia has experienced, as in many European cities, a process of industrial change. This is evidenced in the number of disused industrial sites and quarries in the urban area. Some of these sites have been regenerated, while others have become objects of contention between institutions, private industry and communities due to ecological conflicts or divergent economic interests.
A wide area of Brescia has been affected by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contamination, PCDD-PCDF, arsenic and mercury, arising mainly a chemical plant which has produced chlorine derivatives since 1900, including PCB production from 1930 to 1984. The city also faces other environmental problems due to its highly-industrialized economic base. These include groundwater contamination and exploitation by open-air quarries and landfill waste sites. As a result of such pollution, Brescia has been designated a contaminated Site of National Interest (Siti di interesse nazionale or SIN), indicating that contamination poses a risk to human health.
Monitoring activities have underlined the severity Brescia’s pollution. Every year EU Member States, the European Environment Agency (EEA) member countries, and some EEA collaborating countries, contribute to the European air quality measurement database, AirBase. According to AirBase, Brescia, like many cities of the Po Valley, is one of the most polluted cities in Europe. Likewise, all Italian municipalities report municipal solid waste data annually to the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), which develops the National Municipal Waste Report. Brescia has one of the highest per capita levels of municipal solid waste in Italy (ISPRA 2015).
Brescia is undergoing a transition towards becoming a post-industrial city. Accordingly, institutions and community are starting to reflect on possible directions for the city’s transformation. Environmental problems have prompted a response from civil society to promote a better urban environment and enhance the quality of life. Many associations and informal groups of citizens continue to struggle against the pollution that affects the city and its province. These struggles aim to influence the city administration and politics, and change how local human-nature interactions are conceived and lived.
The first step is recognising the need for a transition towards a new culture of sustainability based on environmental justice and the right to a green and sustainable city. Accordingly, in recent years, some parts of the city have experienced positive transformations thanks to integrative approaches between top-down and bottom-up actions. However, these encouraging signs should take shape through sustainable urban plans with a clear strategy; this means valorising the experiences and work of citizens, associations and researchers looking at the sustainability transition.
In our recent paper, entitled ‘Alternative spaces of urban sustainability: results of a first integrative approach in the Italian city of Brescia’, we present a participatory process, called the Altrevie project, which took place in the San Polo and Sanpolino neighbourhoods. San Polo became the site of conflict between the town administration and its citizens over existing and defunct or delocalised industrial sites. Over the last decade, this led to the creation of environmental committees that lobby against industrial pollution, the creation of new waste disposal areas and for the development of a shared natural park.
The paper examines processes of socio-ecological change that characterise the city (Heynen, Kaika and Swyngedouw 2006), with a focus on citizen involvement and power relations (Cook and Swyngedouw 2012). The research group worked with the local community to build a project based on the participation of civic associations and citizens, with a democratic approach to alternative practices and policies of urban sustainability. The project’s objective was to create awareness about the unsustainability of many individual choices, and to show members of the local community how they could achieve a higher degree of sustainability by altering their behaviours in daily life and taking part in collective action. In particular, the idea was to make the community aware of how to create alternative spaces of urban sustainability in their neighbourhoods and to show people how they could extricate themselves from the predominant energy-hungry and hyper-productive consumer model.
The paper analyses the potential of local spaces of alternative consumption to promote alternatives to the traditional market system. Moreover, the research reshapes a space of alternative participation that could promote an integrative approach between top-down and bottom-up processes. The project provided the participants with ways to improve the sustainability of their lifestyle choices through a number of participatory processes, including: interviews, focus groups, an ecological footprint analysis, and the activation of sustainability laboratories.
This approach helped us to clarify the sorts of motivations at play within power relations, enabling us to imagine where political points for intervention exist (Heynen 2014). It was the first study in Brescia to analyse both the dynamics of environmental policies and civic activism focusing on the socio-ecological relationships.
About the authors: Marco Tononi is Fellow Researcher in Geography at the University of Brescia (DEM). Marco has a Ph.D. in Human and Physical Geography and his works are focused on the topics of urban political ecology, urban sustainability, cultural sustainability and GIScience.
Antonella Pietta is an Assistant Professor in Geography at the University of Brescia (DEM). Antonella’s researches explore political ecology, participatory processes, alternative economic geographies, environmental accounting systems and climate change.
Sara Bonati is associate researcher at Universidade da Madeira. She collaborates with the University of Brescia (DEM) and University of Florence (LaGeS). Sara has a Ph.D. in Human and Physical Geography and her main research interests are disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, risk and disaster governance, political ecology, participation and knowledge sharing, alternative economic geographies.
Cook I R and Swyngedouw E 2012 Cities, social cohesion and the environment: towards a future research agenda Urban Studies 49 1959–79
European Environment Agency 2017 Validated monitoring data and air quality maps, http://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/air-quality/map/airbase
Heynen N, Kaika M and Swyngedouw E 2006 In the nature of cities. Urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism Routledge, London and New York
Heynen N 2014 Urban political ecology I: the urban century, Progress in Human Geography 598–604
ISPRA 2016 Rapporto Rifiuti Urbani 2016.
Tononi M, Pietta A, and Bonati S 2017 Alternative spaces of urban sustainability: results of a first integrative approach in the Italian city of Brescia. Geogr J. doi:10.1111/geoj.12207