Sustainable Cities™

Small Italian Municipality Sets An Example For the World’s Cities

The Italian municipality Varese Ligure may be small. But the lessons it can teach the world are very exciting. Transformed from a degrading municipality in the 1980s to a thriving location today, Varese Ligure is now powered by renewable energy and organic food.

Italian City Transformation 1
Varese Ligure. Photo:

Although only 2,400 residents populate this Italian municipality - located in the Liguria region of northwest Italy - it has some important lessons to teach the bigger cities.

As the 1980s drew to a close, the municipality's population had diminished from 6,000 to 2,250 citizens, due to a lack of jobs, no industry, decaying properties, and a lack of essential services.

The municipality was geographically isolated, it had a lack of modern industry, and the farming practices were antiquated. It was dying. But the mayor at the time, Maurizio Caranza, did not give up since he had a vision.

What future could this municipality have?

The vision focused on turning the municipality's weaknesses into strengths. The valley had clean air and unspoiled land which were seen as opportunities. The idea was to become a sustainable tourist destination by introducing renewable energy, and implementing organic farming.

What was the strategy?

Beginning in the early 1990s the municipality started its transformation.

Citizen Involvement. Since the municipality was falling apart, the citizens were given an offer - if the public authorities funded an upgrade of the roads, sewers, aqueducts, and street lighting, would the citizens be willing to repair and renovate their ancient stone houses?

This first step was successful, and although some of the funding for renovations came from the European Union, the majority of it came from the citizens themselves. Like most urban planning, the plan relied on citizen buy-in, which occurred once the citizens accepted the vision between themselves.

Italian City Transformation 2Varese Ligure piazza. Photo: Vittorio Emanuele Wikipedia.

The Environmental Education Center (CEA) was started in 1996, which educates the local young generation about organic agriculture, renewable energy, and sustainability.

Schoolchildren are taken on tours of organic farms, dairy cooperatives, and bee keeping operations. And courses are provided about small wind turbines, solar panels, and solar cookers. Plus they are educated about energy consumption and climate change.

Organic farming. Organic farming practices were taught to the local farmers. And this involved encouraging the farmers to stop using chemical fertilizers. Most farmers couldn't afford chemical fertilizers anyway and they were already organic, but they weren't officially certified.

This required buy-in from the conservative farmers. As the farmers learnt that organic products could be sold at a higher price, and they could get help with EU grants for organic farms, they became interested in certifying the farms as organic.

Renewable energy. To supply the municipality with renewable electricity, four wind turbines were installed on a ridge 1,100 meters above sea level; where the average annual wind speed is 7.2 metres per second. These turbines generate 8 million kWh of electricity per year (three times the amount needed by the municipality), which is fed into the local grid.

 Italian City Transformation 3Wind turbines in Varese Ligure. Photo: Comune Di Comano Impianto Eolico.

The municipality hall and the secondary school are covered by solar photovoltaic panels, which supply 98% (12,700 kWh a year) and 62% (4,600 kWh a year) of their electricity needs, respectively.  

The wastewater treatment plant has a 4 kW photovoltaic system and the municipality pool is heated by solar power as well. And there is 8 kW hydroelectricity. A program to promote the use of wood pellet stoves is also in the works.

What are the benefits from all this?

Tourism. Today the municipality is rated one of the best small municipalities in Italy by the Touring Club Italiano, and it received the organization's orange flag quality seal, awarded for excellency in tourism, hospitality, and the environment. Tourists have increased by 500% since the late 1990s, many coming just to see the renewable energy achievements.

Renewable energy. The municipality is paid around $30,000 USD each year from ACAM (the local electric utility company) for the excess electricity, and ACAM provides other services as part of its payment for the electricity, such as sorting waste and landfill site management.

The electricity produced from the wind turbines reduces carbon emissions by 8,000 tons per annum.

The shift to renewable energy has added 140 jobs, stabilised the population, and added an additional $514,000 USD in annual tax revenues for the municipality.

Organic farming. People returned to the municipality to be involved in organic farming, bee-keeping, and cheese-making. Today there are 108 organic farms that supply 98% of the municipality's produce, including organic porcini mushrooms, chestnuts, cheeses, honey, fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. Good restaurants opened. Artists and craftspeople arrived. The Vara valley, is now known as the "Organic Valley", and in 1999 it became Europe's first valley to be certified for environmental management under ISO 14001.

 Italian City Transformation 4Local specialty croxetti pasta stamps. Photo flickr: Rowena.

Although this municipality is small it provides an important lesson for other urban areas, in that it is possible to transform into a place that is sustainable and that thrives. With a mixture of vision, strategy, technology, capital investment and most importantly political and social will, these transformations are possible.

Friday, January 24, 2014 / By David Maya-Drysdale

Last updated Friday, January 24, 2014