In praise of slowness : Let’s slow down the city !

The « Cittaslow » movement

Charlotte Mathivet, 2009

Citta Lenta, Slow City - explaining an alternative city concept

In 1986 the «  Slow Food  » movement was founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini. It fights against the uniformity of tastes, the poor quality of food accelerated by globalization and the «  culture  » Ma Do. In Paris that same year, the international Slow Food movement was officially constituted with the drafting of a Manifesto signed by delegates from 15 countries.

The Slow movement then extended to the city and urban issues in 1999. The watchword is the praise of slowness, in times when it is not really in fashion, drowned out by the words efficiency, profitability and growth. This movement thus brings a new approach to the city, which instead of facilitating speed, purely functional and often mercantile exchanges, gives its inhabitants the possibility of taking time to enjoy their living space, to create new spaces conducive to human relations, to reflection, to all kinds of thinking and actions that are difficult to accomplish quickly, in a state of emergency and stress. Thus, the slow movement that began with an interest in food has spread to the city, but also to travel, education, culture and even sex !

The aim of this vast movement is thus to create a better quality of life for all, to (re)find the idea of living well.

What is a slow city?

The Cittaslow manifesto contains seventy recommendations and obligations, the main ones being the following :

The main aspects of this manifesto show us that this movement is certainly critical of the globalisation of exchanges which has contributed to an increasing standardisation of lifestyles and ways of thinking throughout the world, but also, based on this observation and this rejection of globalised, polluting cities which seek speed at all costs, proposes concrete solutions to establish a new type of city, a new type of life.

To achieve this, the Cittaslow movement is based on the local level. In the face of globalisation, slow city activists are betting on local development, be it at the political level through municipalities, and at the economic level with the preference given to local products.

This idea is based on the desire to create ways of living together, of sharing, of reviving the lost social fabric in cities where neighbours do not know each other and where social activities are reduced to an almost obligatory relationship with shopkeepers. This objective of the Cittaslow movement aims to regain a city’s own identity, which can be distinguished from the outside, and be recognised and appreciated from the inside by its own inhabitants.

Concretely, the cities that are part of the Cittaslow movement promote the use of technologies that improve the quality of the environment and the urban fabric and the safeguarding of local food and wine production to foster the local identity of the region. In addition, Cittaslow seeks to promote dialogue and communication between producers and consumers. Cittaslow encourages the production of natural foods and the use of environmentally friendly techniques. Membership of the Cittaslow network implies concrete improvements in the quality of life of the inhabitants, of which the following are a few examples :

1. Environment : introduction of air controls; noise reduction plans; application of new recycling technologies.

2. Infrastructure : development of green areas; guaranteed access for the disabled; open-access public toilets; consistent municipal timetables; development of cycle paths.

3. Town planning: rehabilitation plans for historic buildings; use of recycled products; development of historic town centres.

4. Enhancement of local products: creation of « markets for local products »; quality labels for organic farming; improvement of food quality in school restaurants; support for traditional cultural events.

5. Hospitality : installation of international signposts; guided tours for tourists; guarded car parks near city centres; price controls in hotels and restaurants.

6. Awareness : presence of the « Cittaslow » logo on all official documents; taste awareness courses in schools; promotion of programs such as leisure activities for families, or home visits for the elderly and the sick.

By way of summary, to understand the objectives of this movement, it is interesting to quote the Charter which states :

«  We are looking for cities run by people who take the time to enjoy a quality of life. Cities animated by the quality of public spaces, theatres, shops, cafes, inns, historic buildings, and unpolluted landscapes. Cities where craftsmanship is used on a daily basis, and where the slowness, the succession of the seasons is reflected in the availability of local products according to the season, cities where food is healthy, lifestyle is healthy, in short where it is good to enjoy life, themes that must be fundamental to the community ».

[Continues] How can it be a slow town?

Cittaslow is open to towns with less than 50,000 inhabitants. To be a member, a town must achieve a score of 50% in the Cittaslow goals self-assessment. If accepted, the city must pay its contribution each year and apply the principles of the Charter. It can then proudly display the Cittaslow logo : a snail with a colourful city on its back. The will to network the cities that adhere to the project corresponds to the will to verify that the commitments made are actually respected. To this end, the network has a body of inspectors who periodically monitor the obligations.

There are now Cittaslow networks in the following countries: Austria, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Norway, Spain, Poland, and of course Italy, with a total of seventy Italian cities and about twenty others around the world, as far as New Zealand.

Cittaslow: A concrete application of the right to the city

One of the main actions of a slow-moving city is the participation of its inhabitants. Everyone is called to be part of this project, in a spirit of openness and tolerance towards each other, obviously respecting the speed at which ideas are shared and the creation of new projects and proposals in groups, that is to say slowly. This is why the activists of this movement consider that democracy, like education, needs to be slow, just as collective decision-making needs to be slow. Moreover, ecology, respect for nature, the relationship between human beings and nature correspond to a different scale than that of human beings in their individual dimension. Thus, the praise of slowness is also the praise of time, which is indispensable for reflection and deliberation. The fact that participation is an indispensable aspect in the creation of slow cities is a very interesting point in linking the Cittaslow movement and the right to the city.

In my opinion, the Cittaslow movement can be seen as a successful experiment in the right to the city. Indeed, the theme of participation, present as we have seen in the Cittaslow Charter, is also a fundamental point of the World Charter on the Right to the City. The observation that city-dwellers must reclaim the city, reconquer it, no longer leave it in the sole hands of big companies, cars, polluting factories, big real estate companies, but on the contrary fight to impose another vision of the city, one that is shared, welcoming and full of public places where meetings are possible. The theme of participation is not the only aspect of the right to the city developed and implemented by the Cittaslow network: the desire to create an identity, to be happy and proud of the place where we live, this feeling of belonging to a place is also a strong point of the right to the city.

Decrease applied to the city

It seems important to me here to show the relationship between the Cittaslow movement, the right to the city and degrowth. Degrowth, if it is possible to define this paradigm-movement-art of living in a few words, calls for action without wasting time to fight against the multiple harmful effects generated by the capitalist system, neo-liberalism and growth. First of all, it is a question of challenging the dominant myth, the single-mindedness that aims to make growth, progress, development (and the concrete consequences related to them) inevitable concepts, without possible alternatives in our lives. There are alternatives, as the right to the city also shows: degrowth is also a banner of struggle to defend the possibility that other North-South relations, other economy, other social relations, other human-environment relations, other cities are possible! It is therefore interesting with these kinds of experiences already in place, to be able to deepen and spread them by amplifying the demands, by appropriating the concept, the motto of the right to the city, which would allow us to confront these experiences with others in different regions, such as Latin America for example.

If it is certain that this Cittaslow movement is above all the work of activists and certain politicians who are aware of ecological and social issues, it is interesting to note the apparent effort of the current President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, not to continue urban expansion. Indeed, the new administration has stated that urban growth is not the option to address the social and economic problems of cities immersed in a crisis context. Thus, a new method of urban planning is being put in place under the slogan «  Shrink to Survive ". (shrink to survive One of the people in charge of this mission is Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County in the city of Flint, one of the poorest cities in the country : he applied this system for this city and thus proceeded to the destruction of houses in residential areas as well as industrial sites abandoned because of the crisis. This new vision of urban planning aims to promote smaller cities so that more resources can be devoted to social development, for example, by saving the costs of the garbage system (employees often travelled many kilometres without finding a single garbage can). The Obama administration is currently planning to apply this system to fifty cities in the country in the region of the former industrial centres, which has been particularly affected by the various crises and where some neighbourhoods have been completely abandoned. It is thus planned to replace these neglected neighbourhoods with public parks and forests.

While these various experiments are very interesting and are a source of hope in the panorama of sprawling cities full of poverty and inequality, it is nevertheless essential to be careful not to create a museum city, which does not give everyone the opportunity to express themselves. In fact, the Cittaslow movement warns that a slow-moving city must not return to its shell but work towards the emergence of new solidarities between territories, between neighbourhoods, between cities and their suburbs, between cities and the countryside and of course between nations and continents. Moreover, as Paolo Saturnini, former mayor of Greve and member of Cittaslow International, states, a city must not be allowed to grow ad infinitum, and an urban planning policy must be implemented that is based on controlling the development of buildings and, above all, on reusing existing buildings for new functions.

This is indeed an aspect that could be criticized in the Obama administration’s «  shrink city  » projects. This perspective, and the actions that may result from it, such as the destruction of unoccupied housing, should not make us forget the tragic aspect of these abandoned neighbourhoods. Indeed, these are neighborhoods where families from the working class middle class bought houses on the outskirts of the city, going into debt for many years, and who, because of the crisis, were unable to continue paying their dividends and saw their houses sold, mortgaged to pay their debts. This is a real social tragedy created by the capitalist system that brought about this crisis, and this should not be forgotten when politicians present their plans to build green spaces in these same places. It seems then that more than demolishing houses, it is urgent to clearly rethink the way we think about the city and more generally the system that governs us, in order to finally build a fairer society.