Branding as a lever for resilient transformation

Branding as a lever for resilient transformation

The branding impulse can catalyse tourism and community’s resilience, promoting the reactivation of small towns through targeted transformations of built heritage and unused building stock, social innovation initiatives, and new forms of production. It can create a more adaptive process and opportunities for networks of small villages in inner areas where tourism can merge with different work/life models. The B4R work in the Sicani Mountains in Sicily offers a framework for the region’s development and manages to describe a path to activate “reserves of resilience” for new sustainable lifestyles. The settlement development options that the study discusses can be used as a model for similar considerations in comparable regions of Europe.


Towards a rural/urban co-opposition

An extensive and varied array of literature has dislodged the established idea of urbanised space (Dematteis 1988 and 2005; Lanzani 1991) and interpreted new post-metropolitan settlement forms (Balducci 2015; Soja 2011), arguing that urban/rural distinctions are no longer meaningful (Brenner 2016) and that the co-penetration of rural/urban-realms has grown from the traditional dichotomy of city/countryside, centers/peripheries.

Novel expressions of rural, mixed, and hybrid conditions demand new theoretical approaches and strategies that are able to overcome territorial imbalances and the traditional dual model (between metropolitan cities and inner areas) towards more balanced dynamics of development.

Although the dream of self-sufficiency that once nourished so many anti-urban utopias has often fuelled a radically opposing view between marginal areas and metropolitan areas, today we recognize the need for a more inclusive settlement model capable of rebalancing existing asymmetries by recharging peripheral areas with new centrality.

Finding perspectives for marginal areas is a highly relevant contemporary issue in Italy. After the process that, since the 1950s, has led to the gradual abandonment of inner areas and despite the constant presence of the metropolitan dimension in public policies, the territories on the margin have become visible through public and collective actions in the last few years (De Rossi 2018).

The National Strategy for Inner Areas(SNAI) (DPS 2013) and now the COVID 19 pandemic situation have reframed the debate on the paradigms of the past, going beyond the opposition between the city and the countryside. Metropolitan cities and countryside towns can be “opposite” in terms of living and working conditions but they can cooperate and become interdependent, preserving different identities: A “co-oppositional strategy” for understanding small towns not so much as just places of consumption for users from larger cities (of nature, traditions, etc.), but above all, as areas that cooperate with cities in innovative production (rural and cultural) and as a model of living that offers renewed ways of welfare and interaction with environment and heritage. The small towns in the inner areas can become an extensive cooperative system of centres connected to productive territories and metropolitan cities, new rur-urban archipelagos in which each town shares housing, public space and facilities, and contributes to a balance between rural, urban and land development (Carta, 2017- 2019).


Branding as strategy for co-creative communities in southern Sicily and the One Euro Houses project in Sambuca di Sicilia

From this background, a change of perspective is needed, addressing inner areas as motors of innovation and test-fields for new dynamics of development, looking at the potentials and resources specifically connected to space, settlements and landscapes (Schröder, Carta, Ferretti, Lino 2018).

Within the framework of the research project B4R Branding4Resilience, tourist infrastructure is used as a tool to enhance small towns by drawing resilient communities and new open habitats”, and the Università degli Studi di Palermo is focusing on the topic of “Co-creative communities”. The study explores the small towns and their communities in the Sicani area in southern Sicily. The project aims to develop explorative scenarios (Ferretti, Schröder 2018) and relational patterns that can open up design-driven knowledge production for larger spatial strategies supporting administrations in the formulation of development policies.

In the understanding of the research project, branding is a complex, socio-political construct composed of a multiple interdependency in spatial and temporal dimensions, among actors, different types of users and stakeholders. The branding differs with integrative and participative area plans: It is more concrete in actions as part of evolving strategies, more built on bottom-up strategies, and it uses more spatial and social capital and design. The branding impulse not only catalyses tourism but also the local identity of communities, and promotes the reactivation of small towns through targeted transformations of built heritage and unused building stock, social innovation initiatives, and new forms of production. This would strengthen community resilience, favouring re-settlement in small, depopulated towns and activating “reserves of resilience” and local economies for new sustainable lifestyles.


Fig. 1: Sicani Focus area maps. Graphic: Barbara Lino

The area in focus consists of 18 municipalities and is located in the territory of the Monti Sicani in Sicily, halfway between the cities of Palermo and Agrigento from north to south and between the cities of Trapani and Caltanissetta from west to east. Despite evidence of marginality, such as low density, an ageing population, increasing out-migration and socio-economic weaknesses, the area has several factors that are generating an innovative social dimension, i.e. new eco-creative communities and neo-rural practices are emerging (Carta, Lino, Orlando 2018).

In Cianciana (pop. 3,372 ), for instance, people from Northern Europe and the United Stated have settled in over the past few years, looking for new models of living and work. Close by, in Sant’Angelo Muxaro (pop. 1,291 ), the community is exploring forms of relational tourism thanks to a local cooperative that promotes the territory and interacts with the Local Action Group2 for the constitution of the Rete dei borghi Sicani. The local municipality is also promoting the Re_Generation Project, which involves artists and the local community regenerating neighbourhoods in the small town with street art interventions. In Santo Stefano Quisquina (pop. 4,441) a poet-shepherd has turned his farm into a place for events and an open-air gallery: the Andromeda theatre.

Fig. 2: Sicani focus area map. Graphics: Barbara Lino

In the Sicani area, the most interesting ongoing process can be found in the small town of Sambuca di Sicilia (pop. 5,770). Sambuca di Sicilia, as in the other centres of the area, has not escaped the recent trend of progressive depopulation and aging3, but here community resilience has been activated. Sambuca di Sicilia was awarded the title of Borgo dei borghi (town of towns) in 2016 in an annual competition organised by the national television station RAI. The award has already been won by several Sicilian towns in the past. A great boost for Sambuca has been the One Euro Houses initiative for the redevelopment of several buildings in the historic centre. Houses on municipal land have been sold at an auction price of one euro, a deposit of 5,000 euros to guarantee rebuilding, and a commitment to complete the work within three years. The objective has been to facilitate a process already under way in recent years during which as many as 20 families of different nationalities (Hungarians, Lithuanians, Swiss, Poles, French, Americans) have bought houses in Sambuca.

In the framework of the One Euro Houses initiative, 14 properties in the historic centre have been sold, with 13 of them going to foreigners. The initiative also stimulated the private housing market, causing other abandoned buildings in the historic centre to be renovated.

The American actress Lorraine Bracco is one of the new inhabitants, and she will describe the experience of renovating the property purchased with the television group USA Discovery Channel. Other new inhabitants are Meredith, a business woman of local origin who lives in Chicago, and Tamara and Gary from California, who were attracted by an image of a Sicily in which a certain quality of life is preserved, i.e. in a small town with an historic character, traditions, nature and quality local products.


Fig. 3: Sambuca di Sicilia. Photo: Barbara Lino

Towards visioning and scenarios

Based on an investigation of ongoing processes and on the evaluation of existing resources and governance models, the project aims to define a brand through focusing on multi-governance creative processes and social innovation practices as sharing values that can stimulate the active collaboration of the communities to attract and host new residents and build future visions for the small towns.

Fig. 4: Explorative scenario for the focus area-Sambuca di Sicilia. Realised by the Chair for Urban Planning, Unipa. Design class “Strategie e servizi per lo sviluppo territoiale” for master’s students of the course “Design e Cultura del Territorio”, 2019-2020. Graphic: Federica Barretta, Davide Rubino, Miriana Seminara, Sofia Tranchida, Carmen Trischitta. The project Futuro è/e memoria suggests that we work on the idea of connecting and branding by creativity, art and social innovation: A network of houses laboratory in the historic centre on the base of a new One Euro House initiative for artists, designers and social innovators. In order to transform houses into nodes of a network, the streets become a free space for artistic intervention, advancing network-systematics and processes.

The focus of the research project is on spatial transformation, with the reactivation of places through small design interventions in targeted areas that are able to accommodate social innovation initiatives (e.g. community hubs) and accelerate community resilience by addressing strategic scenarios. The project relies strongly on an interaction with communities and local stakeholders, who are asked to participate and contribute to the formulation of a shared strategy for resilience through co-design workshops, the collaborative and incremental collection of experiences, data, information and experts (the B4R Platform), as well as through the formulation of guidelines for policy-makers and communities in a co-design and co-visioning process.

One of the main objectives of the project is the formulation of a vision of a shared transformation within the focus area that is able to systematise the different territorial specificities in a cooperative and complementary way, and to build a dense network of nodes and lines that create complex and multiple relationships, i.e. strategies for improving and creating more resilient communities, modes,  settlement distribution patterns and living conditions. This also includes telework, healthy proximities, new models of transportation and limited tourism.

The project explores strategies for strengthening the alliance between social innovation and creativity for tourism and communities in order to drive new models of balanced living systems.

Fig. 5-6. Explorative scenario for the focus area Sambuca di Sicilia. Created by the Chair for Urban Planning, Unipa. Design class “Strategie e servizi per lo sviluppo territoiale” for master’s students of the course “Design e Cultura del Territorio”, 2019-2020. Graphics: Carolina Cortegiani, Ambra Di Bernardi, Luisa Di Martino, Susanna Lisma, Pietro Reginella. The project Rigèneràti not only addresses the reactivation of the Arancio Lake area itself, but also of the whole historic centre of Sambuca. On a larger scale, the urban life inside the city is intended to spread outside to the lake area. For this, the Arancio Lake has to be made an attractive, open escape from the density of the town. In linkages to larger networks along natural resources and wineries, as new routes across the territory and as new perceptions of ecological and cultural connections. A new hybrid device with a function for different users (both tourists and community) realized within an abandoned will act as a functional connector between city centre and the lake area.

The small towns in the Sicani area, even beyond a concept of natural and economic resources, can be understood as a premise for major cooperation between the coastal area near the cities of Agrigento (in the south) and Palermo (in the north), fostering relational tourism but also possibly turning this “peripheral” territory into an innovative living and working model.

In the first steps of the research the exploration of the local resources in Sambuca di Sicilia revealed some explorative ideas4: The opportunities linked to built, natural, and human capital may be more efficiently connected to forms of relational tourism through networking, implementation of minimal infrastructures, but also through agriculture and business innovation and creative districts, thanks to urban policies that encourage spill-overs and spin-offs.

The special constellation of people already in place – new settlers, temporary citizens and travellers – suggests that in the Sicani Mountains future tourism can merge with different work/life models based on multiplace living, new mobility and digitisation. Multiple roles and connectivity that will need a strong branding strategy in order to draw new lines of connection in space, projects, communities and collaboration.


Barbara Lino, University of Palermo

Barbara Lino is architect, PhD, urban planning researcher at the Department of Architecture at the University of Palermo. She writes about cities, the regeneration of peripheries and local development strategies, and is the author of national and international articles and books, amongst them: Periferie in trasformazione. Riflessioni dai margini delle città (Alinea, 2013), Territories (with J. Schröder, M. Carta, M. Ferretti, Jovis, 2016), Dynamics of Periphery (with J. Schröder, M. Carta, M. Ferretti, Jovis, 2018). She is a local coordinator of UNIPA RU for the international research project (PRIN 2017) B4R Branding 4 Resilience (National coordinator professor Maddalena Ferretti, UNIVPM).


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1 The Italian national strategy named Strategia Nazionale Aree Interne(SNAI) represents an existing and emerging governance approach looking at official authorities but also at informal governance groups to overcome the classic opposition between rural and urban areas. SNAI has guided the efforts of Italian policymakers towards the need for improving socio- economic conditions of people living in inland areas: Remote rural municipalities suffer from a lower availability of essential services (e.g. education, health, mobility, etc.), population shrinkage, reduction of economic activities, and disaggregation of the social fabric.

2 A selected group of towns in the Local Action Group will work to encourage the creation, start-up and development of extra-agricultural economic activities for the enhancement of the small towns.

3 Between 2011 and 2019 the process of population loss was at – 5.63 per cent, the value of the old age index (as of 2011), equal to 162, shows that the presence of younger people is weaker (the regional average is 141). This figure is reinforced by the average value of the structural index of the working population of 104.8, which indicates the ageing of the working age population (the regional average is 114). The effect of the process of depopulation has been a disposal and abandonment of the residential patrimony, which, according to the data relative to the “Index of underutilization of housing”, stands at 34.2 per cent.%, an “Incidence of residential buildings in a bad state of conservation” at 4.3 per cent and the “Rate of non-utilization of housing in urban centres” which stands at 24.9 per cent (ISTAT, 2011).

4 The explorative visions are the results of a didactic experience in the course Strategie e servizi per lo sviluppo territoialein the Masters course Design e Cultura del TerritorioThese projects were developed in the scales of connected urban design and architectural planning in order to grasp dynamics in spatial, cultural and social possibilities and to discover the possible dimensions of spatial futures, new networks and multi-layered connections to (reshaped) networks in space, functions and meanings, which are called upon to imply pro-active design and place-making.

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B4R Branding 4 Resilience. Tourist infrastructure as a tool for enhancing small villages by creating resilient communities and new open habitats.

Funded in the framework of:

PRIN: Research Projects of Relevant National Interest

Call 2017, funding line “Young Researchers”

Funding Institution: Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR)

Research Period: January 2020 – July 2023

Branding4Resilience is a research project of national interest (PRIN 2017 Young Line) coordinated by the Università Politecnica delle Marche with the Università degli Studi di Palermo, the Università degli Studi di Trento and the Politecnico di Torino. The project investigates the potential of territorial branding in drawing the resilient development of territories and communities in four Italian inner areas. It proposes minimal tourist infrastructures as an engine for the development of more structural and resilient territories and local communities. B4R has the double goal to contribute to the state of the art advancement and to propose operative branding actions and strategic visions on four focus areas. The four focus areas are located in the Italian regions of the four research units: Marche, Sicily, Trentino, Piedmont. In this process, design is a crucial element as a multi-disciplinary, trans-scalar and multi-level tool, capable of activating new economies and new life cycles, promoting a higher quality of space and life for the inhabitants. The Sicilian research unit will focus on “Co-creative communities” and processes of re-activation of territories through creativity and social innovation. The reseach unit will explore strategies to
strengthen the alliance between social innovation and creativity for more resilient communities in the focus area of Sicani in Sicily.