Lessons From Italy's Matera, the Sustainable City of Stone

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UNESCO has repeatedly used Matera, designated a World Heritage Site in 1996, as an educational case study for sustainable living

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In the provinces of southeastern Italy, the landscape is changing, as a new world of alternative energy infrastructure blends insular hill towns, turbines, and solar panels across traditional farmland. Yet, on the same horizons other age-old reflections of local, sustainable practices echo time-honored human traditions, as lessons for urban reinvention in a networked world.

We need to discuss these lessons more often.

For two August weeks observing the cities, towns, and villages of Basilicata, Molise, and Puglia, I pondered how these reflections of people and place could inform American aspirations -- often rhetorical -- for compact urban centers which incubate ideas and offer solutions.

On the surface, daily urban life was readily presentable as resilient urban settings, often rendered among strolling, night crowds -- a public realm reflective of climate and tradition. Amid commerce and curiosity, along streets, beside buildings, and as a component of cross-town strolls, American urban density advocates can easily find justification in the residual Europe they want to see: venerable town centers, captivating facial expressions, the simplicity of child's play in streets and squares, complemented by nearby mealtime banter, often without pattern or prescription.

Yet, behind today's compelling imagery, there is the back story of history responsible for the present, including lessons from fantastical places ripe for ready reference by urbanists and futurists who drive today's smart cities conversation.

An example is Matera, in Basilicata, currently a city of 60,000, with a unique legacy that frames a remarkable setting of almost 10,000 years of continuous human occupation. There, the history of urban ecology, from sustainability to squalor, inspired UNESCO to designate a World Heritage Site, while its old Jerusalem-like aura captured several movie directors, including Mel Gibson, who used Matera to film The Passion of the Christ.

Matera's legacy is as a place of precedent for the sustainable city of the sort I wrote about last month in myurbanist, referencing the recent summary of sustainable city characteristics by Harvard Professor Joan Busquets. In Busquets' concise framework, the most sustainable cities integrate natural geography and systems (such as water) into the urban fabric, provide a comfortable city center, and have long-lasting, flexible designs.

According to Busquets, the sustainable city is also the historical city, and, in this context, Matera readily provides examples of sustainable urban practices reusable today as well as the consequences of failure of long-term, sustainable systems. One lesson in particular shines through: A sustainable model must be resilient in the face of population expansion, and new economies and politics in order to stand the test of time.

UNESCO has repeatedly used Matera as an educational case study. An associated Baltic Sea Project educational guide for "observing and innovating urban ecology" (portions of which are summarized here), laments how Matera's sustainability depended on its isolation, was undone by the trade and commerce of a capitalist world, and champions its local examples as inspiration.

Story continues after the gallery.

Ironically, Matera's focal point, the sassi (literally "stones") cliff dwellings, are not readily apparent upon entry to the town today. They are hidden, essentially as artifacts, in two urban valleys adjacent to an ancient, cave-hewn river bed below the modern city. Yet in their time, the sassi were an exemplar of sustainable practices and textbook marriage of habitation, infrastructure, and ecosystem.

The sassi of Matera included dwellings which successfully adapted to both a cool, moist winter climate and hot and dry summers. Their story is one of systems integration and efficient infrastructure -- the use of natural (later extended) cliff dwelling caves for food storage, housing, and urban social and commercial functions. Cisterns, built into the rock underneath such dwellings, collected channeled rainwater, and non-polluted, fresh water was successfully preserved in winter for year-round use.

As a largely self-sufficient settlement of 10,000-20,000 inhabitants into and beyond the Middle Ages, Matera grew its own food supply -- nearby gardens were provided by the roof of the next cliff dwelling below. Waste, wastewater, and manure were recycled. Building material was comprised of the local chalk-like sandstone (tuffa), and building stone was perpetually recreated from inner extension of the caves into the cliffs. In this sustainable world, there was little need for significant means of transportation other than to and from nearby agricultural lands, and the urban form remained largely unchanged until the eighteenth century.

Then, in a century of widespread trade revival, Matera became less isolated and the sustainable systems management of habitation, food, water, and waste broke down. New residents from elsewhere brought overpopulation of the sassi. The water collection system was broken and fouled by the use of cisterns as dwellings for less privileged inhabitants. As water use increased, the capacity to safely conserve it was lost. Ultimately, animals lived in close quarters with humans, and waste management systems lost integrity.

Ultimately, through the advocacy of Carlo Levi's writing in the 1950s, Matera's poor and crowded living conditions, low life expectancy, high infant mortality rates, and disease infestation became well known. Governmental intervention forced abandonment of the sassi until the 1990s, and the relocation of over 15,000 people. Architect Pietro Laureano -- known for expertise in the urban ecology of the sassi -- championed the sassi's legacy of sustainability and adaptation to the local environment, and, by 1996, Matera received its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

As the Baltic Sea Project study concludes, in championing the local sustainability solutions of Matera, even in today's more complex world:

The sustainable town of Matera from the past showed a balanced ecology based on low consumption of local resources and recycling. Almost no materials or food came from abroad, trade and transport was extremely limited to the surrounding agricultural land and based on land transport done by animals or people. This transport constituted at the same time the communication lines. Muscular power and wood for fire, oil for light were the scarce energy sources used. The town stayed literally unchanged and independent of external supply through hundreds of years, with very little growth in population.

Its decline as sustainable habitation came... because of rapid immigration in a period (18th Century) of growing World trade.

During the last two centuries, neither the basic population nor the political powerful landowners, traders or governors wanted the sustainability and independency continued. They wanted to profit from the market....

In many countries, planners and entrepreneurs have developed local urban technology, mostly green housing, zero energy buildings, electric transport systems, but also urban ecology projects for a full-scale towns or suburbs, though still local solutions....

Nevertheless local solutions have shown a variety of options, and the importance of using local ideas, resources and materials is inevitable. It is simply one of the fundamental components of urban ecology, as well as it is a strategy "to break through the barriers" for unsustainable urban development.

This post also appears on My Urbanist.

Can the principles of Matera be successfully reintegrated in a more complex world where regional, national, and world markets impact local autonomy like never before? We seem to talk like they can, with carbon-neutrality goals and tool-based approaches to transportation, water, waste, power, and communication systems, including energy districts, rainwater collection, urban agriculture, bioswales, innovative architectural approaches, to name but a few.

In my view, we are trying to recreate the golden age of Matera on a wide, sometimes indiscriminate scale, couched in language of inspiration, rather than precedent. Yet, the sustainable cities we seek should incorporate qualities we can learn from Matera and other documented human traditions.

Don't get me wrong: The city of the future should be dynamic and abound with the wonders of new ideas and technology aptly catalogued in this month's special issue of Scientific American. But I suspect that its success will also be readily ascertainable from sustainable examples of the past.

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Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.

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