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Left-over spaces: recycling abandoned buildings to avoid wasting land

You write the word ‘sprawl’ and you see the edges of the city spreading ever outwards. Destroying the environment. Eating up the land. And while the city spreads like an oil slick, historic centres are losing their distinctiveness and emptying of residents, driven out by escalating prices.

In 1998, law no. 55/98 was passed in Lazio, formalising cooperation between squatters and municipal authorities working together on the rehabilitation of run-down areas. But Renato Rizzo, the president of the ‘Vivere 2000’ cooperative, had already come up with a solution to the problem of urban sprawl years earlier. ‘In Piazza Sonnino’, he tells us, ‘in the historic neighbourhood of Trastevere, we stormed our own “Bastille” on the 14 July, 1989. It was an empty building that had stood abandoned for ten years, a former convent. There was nothing: no roof, no entrance. We spent seven years restoring it at our own expense.’ After that came the need for compromise, struggle and agreement with the authorities. Finally, in 2005, a municipal decree transformed twelve abandoned buildings into as many self-help rehabilitation projects and twelve families of former squatters into legitimate tenants. Costs will be divided for twenty years between the municipality, which is responsible for the exterior and the structure, and the tenants, organised in cooperatives and responsible for the interiors. ‘We were smart enough to include people with the necessary skills in the self-help cooperatives: carpinters, electricians, building workers’. Technical skills are not all that is needed. You also need imagination, especially when you’re short of funds. ‘Our floors are made of recycled palletts – those wooden structures that are used to transports goods around by fork-lift truck in warehouses. We found the tiles, on the other hand, on a tip. They’d been thrown away, but now they’re our flooring.’ Recycling-within-recycling is what happens when, in addition to the question of emotional needs, the workers have a direct economic interest in what they are doing. ‘With self-help recycling’, explains Guido Lanciano of the Tenants’ Union, ‘the group, which has been defending the right to housing since 1968, has got back to its original spirit, bringing the desire for action and know-how together.’ And the strategy seems to be working, to the extent that there is now talk of a national law. Throughout Italy, local authorities could put out projects to tender for the rehabilitation of abandoned areas involving cooperation with people who have been evicted and are homeless. The phenomenon is attracting the interest of the European Union as well as its member states, because the loss of green-belt land, housing shortages and inner-city dereliction are problems that all are facing. ‘We’ve won a European tender for the improvement of historic city centres,’ Rizzo tells us proudly.’We’ve been invited to an event in Lyon on 30 May 2008, with a French government ministry and other self-help cooperatives.’ What’s more, 66 homeless families have now found a home in Piazza Sonnino, right in the heart of Rome. ‘In Trastevere, where rents starts at 1,200 euros a month’, Rizzo tells us, ‘virtually all you can find is restaurants, shops and pizzerias. If tenants from working-class areas manage to win a tender, they get relocated in housing that’s a long way from any amenities. What we want is to stay in the city centre and not get pushed out, which is what generally happens in any large city, where there are working-class districts in the historic centre.’