What can cities learn from rural regions?
In September, we took Actors of Urban Change to Lecce, in Southern Italy, for our latest network meeting — where participants got to exchange and learn more about the topic of advocacy while also working on their projects. It was also a chance to visit one of the current round’s projects and immerse ourselves into their context.
With Team Lecce as our hosts, we explored the connections in between this historically significant city and its countryside, in a region where the urban and the rural are closely intertwined.
Lecce: a city shaped by agriculture and tourism
Lecce itself is a mid-size city and the heart of the Salento region, with an economy dominated by agriculture — especially olive oil and wine production — and tourism: hundreds and thousands of tourists flock to the numerous beaches on both sides of the Apulian peninsula every summer.
As we go on a critical walking tour through the city center, Angelo Salento, Sociology Professor at Salento University, tells us that towns need to become more like the countryside and the countryside needs to become more like towns.
“Those combining urban and rural ways of living – the younger generations moving back into rural areas – are the most important actors to bring change to these regions,” Professor Salento said.
This is happening with Team Lecce’s BotaniCALL project. About 10 kilometers from the city center lies the Salento Botanical Garden, a 13-hectare area next to a highway which was previously used as a pasture for sheep. There, Giulia Toscani, Francesca Guarascio, Marco Carlino and Afro Carpentieri are creating a space that connects the urban and the rural, building community and activating citizens through their connection to nature.
Before diving into Team Lecce’s project, we first explored the urban-rural context by visiting one of the region’s many “agriturismo” locations, combining sustainable agriculture with services for tourists.
Supplying the city with healthy food: not as easy as it sounds
Agricola Piccapane is a large organic farm located in Cutrofiano, about 30 kilometers south of Lecce. In the farmhouse, a restaurant serves a vegan, seasonal menu using mostly local ingredients, and there are five rooms for guests. A small store offers some of the farm’s products: olive oil, traditional local baked goods and preserves: pickles, eggplants, hot pepper paste and jams.
As we tour the farm, our guide tells us the difficulties to implement community-based agriculture in the region.
Giuseppe, the farm’s owner, would like to sell his products only in the region. He wants to create an alternative market in Salento, one that caters to consumers that care about healthy, sustainable living, giving access to the local community to quality organic products. But not all farmers feel this way: some of the region’s organic farmers want to tap into larger markets to increase their profitability, creating tensions and divisions in the natural agriculture community.
Giuseppe criticizes farmers that don’t focus on local distribution, but he can’t exactly blame them.
“He thinks people here don’t get his messages,” Giulia Toscani, from Team Lecce, says. “They don’t question their diet. People eat a lot of meat, a lot of pesticides.”
For this concept to really work, the community’s awareness of the benefits of organic food has to increase. “Our hope is that change will come through children, and the new generation will implement these ideas,” Giulia added.
Circular economy: learning from natural systems
Both the Piccapane farm and Team Lecce’s BotaniCALL project use the synergistic agriculture method to grow food. This means letting nature do most of the work — no ploughing, no fertilizers, and no pesticides.
“Traditional agriculture leaves the soil impoverished – we let plants grow wildly,” Marco Carlino says. “The soil was very poor when started 2 years ago. When you increase soil fertility and biodiversity, the whole system becomes more resilient.”
The method is combined with the principles of circular economy, creating a complex, self-sustaining system. All greywater in the farm is used in the fields after passing a filter. Giant canes that grow wildly there work as an oxygen pump, capturing it from the atmosphere and pushing it into the soil; and they are also used to build multifunctional structures in the garden, acting as windbreakers and providing shadow and support for climbing plants.
“This system is useful for people and the environment,” Marco says. “It attracts wildlife, birds and butterflies.”
Community-building and sustainable cooperation models
Circular economy is an important topic at the botanical garden not only in terms of natural resources, but in terms of human resources as well. Afro and the Lecce team want to come up with a sustainable model for the people who work here. So far, they have all worked as volunteers, but as the workload increases, they must find a way to compensate people for their work.
“There was nothing here (at the botanical garden) when we started,” David Margiotta, one of the volunteers, told us. “It was nice to see the energy that people were putting into it. We created a big garden. But then we had to take care of it with just a few people, so it became too much work.”
In the beginning, the volunteers faced many challenges, not only in maintaining the garden, but also in connecting it to the city of Lecce and the community: the botanical garden is located far off from the city center, it can’t be reached by public transport, and the region still lacks a cycling culture — making the access to the location a real issue.
“What kept us motivated was garden itself,” David continued. “We wanted to see this garden grow. It’s an opportunity to meet other people about gardening and agriculture. People are coming from different places. After two years, we are now more productive, have more plants. We’ve started opening it to the public. We’re trying to find a way to make it more alive.”
The garden did come alive during the Actors’ Academy Meeting: a public event with food and a live audiovisual performance — using images and sounds captured at the garden — gathered many people from the community, and showed the potential of the project to bring people from the city to the countryside.
Now, the team is dreaming of ways to bring more people to the garden in the long run. They would like to build temporary shelters for residencies of volunteer farmers, architects and artists. They also want to become a space where regular cultural activities, workshops, and research projects take place.
For this dream to become a reality, the team hopes for more support from the Lecce Municipality, where they already have some fans of the project. Councilor Rita Miglietta, who’s responsible for urban development in the city, is one of them. “The objective is to promote new forms of cooperation between citizens, associations, schools, private bodies and institutions to collectively build a more sustainable landscape,” Rita said. “To define new patterns of ownership and care of common goods, to encourage the birth of circular economies and to spread more and more knowledge and use of the botanical garden.”