What 'The Genius of a Place' Can Teach Us About Development

Sarah Marder's pending documentary observes the commercial transformation of Cortona, Italy's agrarian economy to one dependent on tourism

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If universal questions about the dynamics of place need a stage to be answered, there is no better theater than Cortona, Italy, home to Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun, and a symbol of the romantic ambience of a simpler life.

There, American expatriate and film producer Sarah Marder left a long career in the banking industry to produce a pending documentary, The Genius of a Place, which tells both a personal and universal story based on 25 years of observing a commercial transformation from a tradition-based, agrarian economy to dependence on tourism and world renown.

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The film's title is no accident, echoing English poet Alexander Pope's exhortation that we "consult the genius of the place in all." The film crew followed suit, listening to evidence from the Etruscan past to today.

Despite the idyllic hill town setting (and interviews with well-known icons including Mayes herself, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and Jeremy Irons), Marder insisted to me from Milan that while the movie was filmed in Cortona, the focus is far broader. "We see Cortona as a symbol for places all around the world facing similar challenges, undergoing rapid change, growth, and construction."

The film crew is pursuing what Marder calls "a balanced approach," examining the benefits and drawbacks of this transformation. For instance, interviews depict a more dynamic town economy of new jobs and businesses, but also convey how the town center population has dwindled from a post-War high of roughly 7,000 to less than 1,500 today.

Similarly, townspeople explain how, as real estate prices have climbed, locals have sold older dwellings in favor of larger homes in outlying areas. The clear message is one of a changed commercial fabric, with stores now catering almost exclusively to touristic whims, not residents' needs.

Footage also shows familiar urban challenges, Cortona style. Like many tourist centers, parking availability is often limited. In peak seasons, trash piles grow next to dumpsters. A well-digger explains the need for increased well depths based on substantially increased water demand.

From my perspective, in bridging common urban growth experiences worldwide, Marder's endeavor is both remarkable and sincere. What happens to an authentic place forever altered by unexpected notoriety, such as Mayes' arrival, books, and films? How is tradition changed and culture compromised? How should growth be managed and a sustainable local economy preserved?

These are not casual questions about the impacts of tourism, but rather about best practices going forward, based on legacies potentially lost. As Marder explained during our several recent discussions:

As I saw things begin to change starting around 2000, I wanted to find a way to document some aspects of Cortona before they changed beyond recognition or repair. I especially wanted to document the way of life of the elderly, which resemble life from centuries ago, because I could see that it would soon be extinct. Ironically, I seemed to be among the few noticing. From the perspective of many, it was a non-issue -- most people embraced their day-to-day concerns and were not worried that the town might change in unsatisfactory ways. For them, the town's well-being followed from a legacy of the past 3,000 years.

In fact, places like Cortona, with special topography, viewpoints, and strategic advantages, have long driven human settlement. I wrote last year how historic hill town settings are instructive for more than romantic vacation ambience -- they contain important lessons about successful human settlement.

Presented by

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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