An introduction to biourbanism
Marilyn and I met Sara and Stefano outside our Rome hotel in early May in what became one of the most interesting days my wife and I have ever spent. Pursuing shortcuts on Italy's busy roadways, we scooted in our hosts' automobile some 50 kilometers (28 miles) to the ancient country town of Artena, in the Apennine Mountains that stretch along most of the Italian peninsula.
Sara Bissen, the managing editor of the Journal of Biourbanism, and I had been working for several months on an article about how rural and agrarian experiences influence people who reside in urban environments. Dr. Stefano Serafini, her husband, is the general secretary and research director of the International Society of Biourbanism (www.biourbanism.org).
Two mules with burlap saddles and their handler, Emilio, were waiting for Marilyn and me when Stefano parked the car in a small asphalt lot a couple hundred feet above the base of the mountainside village where the road ended. The animals stepped cautiously as they carried us up steep cobblestone walkways, for there are no streets that cars and bikes can negotiate, only many steps and winding 5-foot wide paved paths in old Artena where Sara and Stefano live.
It's no wonder the residents here are in good shape and live long — they walk everywhere. In so doing, they develop close affiliations with everyone, animals included, and come to know their fellow 1,000 or so residents in ways few people in modern urban and suburban habitats experience.
Sara feeds the mules carrots whenever they thump the front door with their muzzles, whether they are accompanied by their owner or not. The mules probably don't consider Emilio as owning them, but as fellow neighborhood residents.
There is a newer Artena less than two centuries old with some 10,000 residents on the more level plain at the base of this volcanic mountain range (Mt. Vesuvius is 100 miles southeast). Our destination was old Artena, known as Montefortino before 1873, which traces to the 13th century, and a few even older farms on the 2,500 feet mountain slopes above the town anywhere the terrain isn't so steep that farm equipment would topple over.
The town was partially destroyed twice by Papal armies in the early 1500s and totally razed in 1557 by troops loyal to Pope Paul IV, mostly because of political rivalries. When political differences finally simmered down, the town was entirely rebuilt.
The fourth and most recent destruction occurred during World War II when Allied bombing missions obliterated old Artena's main church (one of four) where Nazi soldiers who controlled Italy after Mussolini resigned were thought to be hiding, along with several homes. Almost all of Artena's structures that were damaged have been reconstructed, including the church that was demolished.
Somehow, Artena has a capacity for survival. Maybe Artena's survival can mostly be attributed to strong feelings of community because everyone has to get to know and depend on one another in the village and surrounding countryside. A compelling urge infiltrates everyone to share in mutual survival functions such as production and preparation of food, fuel, crafts that yield clothing, structures, services such as education, medical care and financial management, to name but a few essential ingredients for a self-sufficient community.
Mostly everyone has ties to nearby farms, forests, and the Mediterranean Sea for food in local markets, wood for fuel, and foraging (mushrooms, wild boar, deer and fowl abound, along with fresh-and saltwater fish). There is no local police force. Everyone knows each other's business; a suspicious person or event wouldn't go unnoticed or not discussed. An amused town resident commented that the residents looking out their windows are the police.
Sara and Stefano showed Marilyn and me local gathering spots, like the revered Catholic church at the top of the mountain that was spared during WWII, a coffee shop where the locals gather to exchange news and views, and a diverse farm above Artena where the family farm operator showed us fine Simmental and Romagnola cattle, geese, chickens, vegetable gardens, olive groves, vineyards, dairy ewes that supply the milk to make fine Pecorino cheese and his prized Percheron stallion.
Sara and Stefano took us to the finest restaurant we visited in Italy; it's in old Artena. While we dined there for three hours midday on a dozen courses and sampled local wines, the four of us discussed biourbanism and the content for the JBU article to which I contributed.
Artena demonstrates biourbanism at its best. It retains its reliance on the surrounding agrarian community and centuries-old structures but has added electricity, water, sewage disposal and communication facilities (e.g., Wi-Fi). Artena integrates what I call the agrarian imperative into their biourban environment.
There is much more to explain about biourbanism that is important for future survival. By 2050, it's estimated that 70 percent of the world's 9.5 billion humans will live in cities. Look for next week's follow-up article.