Small Forgotten Places in the Hearth of Cities
From Firenze University Press Book
Antonio Laurìa, University of Florence
Luigi Vessella, University of Florence
The city is the womb of our history and our civilisation. It is the largest work of art ever created by humanity. The city is «the supremely human achievement» (Lévi-Strauss, 1973: 124) and the driving force of the development of thought, progress and social accomplishments. Over time it has become the main place of production, exchange and the consumption of goods; not only tangible goods, but also intangible ones, such as culture, beauty and social capital. Each city appears to us as «an immense repository of human labour» (Cattaneo, 1858: 52–54). At the same time, cities «also testify to values; they constitute memory and permanence.» (Rossi, 1982: 34). From Etymologiae (624–636 d.C.) by Isidoro di Siviglia,2 the city is the synthesis of two concepts.
The first — the city as urbs — sees the city as a physical entity, the construction of structures and infrastructures, the concrete result of human, individual and group action on the environment (first natural; then anthropic). The second — the city as civitas — sees the city as a symbolic, intangible entity, a network of functions and intense social, cultural and information exchanges (Fustel de Coulanges,  1978; Mumford, 1961; Deevey, 1963; Castells, 1989; 1996; Romano, 2008; Castells & Himanen, 2014), «exchanges of words, of desires, of memories» (Calvino, 1983: 42) as well as the centre of the choices and activities that govern aspects of the inhabitants’ lives.
A city «is not, in other words, merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction. It is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it; it is a product of nature, and particularly of human nature.» It is — as Robert Park continued — «a state of mind, a body of customs and traditions, and of the organized attitudes and sentiments that inhere in these customs and are transmitted with this tradition.» (Park, 1925: 1). The city is a context in continuous evolution, a place where the creative processing of new ideas and concepts occurs and new opportunities arise. It is the precarious synthesis of all changes that have taken and take place there. These changes, when they cannot be understood or tackled, are referred to as “momentous.”
Today, much more so than in the recent past, the changes that concern city life come in rapid succession, are interconnected and increasingly seem to raise questions more than provide answers: the profound changes to the demographic and social structure, urban drift and multiculturalism, new lifestyles and the emergence of new requirements, the environmental question, the relationship between humans and nature, health, the digital challenge, etc. (see Laurìa et al., 2020a ). Moreover, the effects brought about by such changes are not always immediately clear or decipherable. Often, they emerge gradually until they become stable and long-lasting. Chasing problems each time they emerge on the basis of the available data cannot be the solution. Processes closed in on themselves, however rigorously conducted, do not seem suitable to address a situation undergoing such rapid evolution.3 Nowadays, managing change in city life seems to be a challenge greater than us. First and foremost, due to the impossibility of providing effective local responses in a world structured by increasingly global processes (Castells, 1996; Bauman, 2005); then, due to our limits in anticipating how the city of the future will be (see Gregotti, 2000), as the recent pandemic crisis has dramatically confirmed. Many urban changes come crashing down, often ruinously, onto the open air public space: the main catalyst of collective activities, the place where social life takes place and the incubator of community, ethical and human values (Fusco Girard, 2006); the basic communication device of our society (Castells, 2004) and the place through which a community is represented and expresses itself culturally (Costa, 2003).
A public space is first and foremost a social construction. It is characterised by gratuitousness, de-institutionalized and creative action, activities that are not always foreseeable in terms of type and duration. Its vitality depends on the use that can be made of it and on the people that can be encountered there and it is fuelled by the sharing of transitory and random words and actions. This is why the same public space can be a meeting place and a place of conflict; a vital place and an inanimate place (see Crosta, 2010). The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us of this: the dramatic, ghostly and alienating beauty of deserted places, the prevalence of emptiness and silence where there was once life and people. In public space, changes lead to new challenges and new conflicts, new methods of interaction between the inhabitants4 and among them and the urban scenarios, requiring the definition of new cultural and social paradigms to be discussed and tested.