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.

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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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