The story of Volumes and Villae’s initiative to foster a new kind of local/global activism fueled on collaborative methods and circular economy.
In July 2021, the team of Volumes gathered in the city of Potenza Picena, on the Adriatic coast of Italy, two hours from Bologna, to support the NGO Villae on what they coined the “Villa Summer Camp”: a venture to transform the historic Villa Buonaccorsi into a potential hub for innovation.
From Spain, France, Greece and Italy, a mix of urban planners, architects, tech-savvy, geographers and creatives alike came to the city of Potenza Picena, in the Marches region of Italy, to discuss the future of the one-of-a-kind Villa Buonaccorsi. This gem, seated on the hills of this underrated rural side of the country since the 17th century, was set to be sold in an auction a few days later. For decades now, it has mainly been used for private events, mostly wedding ceremonies. That is why the local association Villae emerged: its founders, who grew up hiding in the gardens of the Villa thought it could offer so much more. Villae imagined a transition for the site and called on the expertise of Volumes to structure it. Together, filled with their everyday practices centred on a sustainable city, circular economy, new work methods and familiar with European scale partnerships, the team set their minds to reinventing this heritage site. In collaboration with the local authorities, the Villae and Volumes team raised awareness around the public cause that represented the Villa’s fate.
Villa Buonaccorsi from above
Volumes came to reinforce, support and collaborate with local actors. This way, the Villa Summer Camp came out to be a pilot project for a new kind of activism. One that mixes public interest, heritage, love of territory, European solidarity and a start-up spirit that makes things… happen!
The Villa as a common
The initiative made locals, citizens and professionals, and international experts come together around a common understanding of the value of this kind of property. Because its value was not only residing in real estate, although it meant a great deal, we’ll see how, but mostly in the collective imagination. Even to the unfamiliar eye, the beautiful Villa Buonaccorsi somehow holds the Italian fantasy: the baroque identity, the Roman-inspired decorum and the ruins even, containing in itself the universal vision of what the country has been prizing itself for centuries. But if it is that obviously grand, why then is this residence so neglected, left empty most of the time? We could say it stems from the paradox of our time: the slash of public funding for cultural purposes, the rapid decline of century-old domains, the rural exodus, the rising prices of real estate worldwide, reserving this precious right of ownership to only a privileged few, but also intensive agriculture, liberal economy, mass tourism, Instagram !… Leaving a historic Villa, to be used only for temporary purposes and only as a beautiful backdrop.
Global and local
The Volumes team masters the art of finding new applications to abandoned or neglected sites, be it industrial or cultural. And here, they found that for all the aforementioned reasons and as a historic residence, the Villa Buonaccorsi holds both economic and social symbolism. Such a stunning building left uncared for is an analogy for the region’s untapped potential and the anomalies of our global economy. This rare combination can offer a common ground for “crazy ideas”, the kind of innovation boosted by a sustainable approach, that brings economic opportunities in the long run and can transform an entire region.
View on the historical gardens of the Villa Buonaccorsi
The Volumes team was also attached to thinking of ways to keep this landscape universal in the best sense: both local and global. The idea was not to import a set of tools ex-nihilo, but thanks to the local Villae association, to take into account principles of horizontal governance, participation and inclusion. Far from a neo-colonialist approach that has so long governed initiatives in the philanthropic realm. With a (circular) economy-centric vision, the team was set on proposing projects that would make the Villa more renowned while keeping it accessible and useful to the nearby community. In doing so, its members showed a well thought out method they came to master.
How to reclaim a site thanks to the circular economy? A proven method all over Europe
With the network of Centrinno, a European project that holds nine pilot cities, Volumes and its partners are experimenting with the reappropriation of abandoned historic industrial and cultural sites. Paris with the 19th arrondissement, the industrial area of Charmille in Geneva, Poblenou in Barcelona, a former factory in Zagreb, but also sites in Copenhagen, Tallinn, Amsterdam, Milan, Blönduós in Iceland… And next Potenza Picena ? Succeeding to reclaim the Villa Buonaccorsi would complete a vision of the sustainable production of cities that cannot function without the production capacities of rural areas.
Francesco Cingolani, during a public presentation in front of local actors
With time, the Volumes team came up with a method of six principles to transform a heritage site into new possibilities. The team wanted to involve professionals and novices, local subjectivity but also the neutrality and experience of international experts.
This method to reclaim a neglected site relies on 6 key principles
- Connecting with regional authorities
- Introducing international experts
- Involving local and socially diverse actors
- Raising and maintaining awareness
- Attracting innovative and sustainable projects
- Fostering vocational training
At the Villa Buonaccorsi, the team applied these principles to the Villae association’s objectives. The latter connected with the city officials of Potenza Picena (principle 1), in order to interest them in the potentials the Villa had to offer. Once they were onboard with the idea of renewing the social and economic impact of the site, it was time for Volumes to finish convincing them of the reality of these potentialities, with the help of experienced professionals from all over (principle 2), that could also include local actors and interested parties (principle 3). That’s when the ‘Villa Summer Camp’ happened, uniting a diverse pool of people to “imagine the future of the Villa Buonaccorsi”. But once the gathering was over and it was time to come back home for some, and continue their activity locally for others, the task was long from over and the challenges raised as the chances for reappropriating grew at the same time. It was indeed time to maintain awareness (principle 4) of the project while the fate of the site was in the balance, using the influence of local leaders and denizens. And in the meanwhile, bringing new parties (principle 5) to the table to develop projects fit for this exceptional place, where so much innovation could be fostered (principle 6). In so many words, that’s how it happened.
1 — Connecting: The territory as a source of value
It is no coincidence that this Villa was owned by the nobility, the Buonaccorsi family, and it is only fair that the public somehow “takes it back”. Replace a society structured by class with a collaborative horizontal approach that asserts the obvious: today we cannot afford such a site as only a privately-owned property. They are plenty of villas just like this one throughout Italy, empty most of the year, apart from the occasional visit of a billionaire and their entourage and staff or a fabulously wealthy event reserved only for the few, or even a set for an out of this world sci-fi movie… So, no, no one can really afford it. Transforming this exceptional space into a collaborative hub would also mean it to be owned by more people: like all the future makers and innovators of the region and elsewhere in Europe.
2 — Introducing: A new kind of activism combined with “research-action”
The involvement of locals was key in transforming a “crazy idea” into a burgeoning urban policy, but the participation of experts made the initiative a neutral ground for discussion. The gathering was not about confrontation, nor pressure, it was all about collaboration. Because this activism is a soft one: without the battle but still soaked with a noble cause that allows all parties to take concern. Thanks to the citizen-led initiative, the team had a good understanding of the context: history, economy, innovations and possibilities. Privately-led: the initiative was not a utopia, nor philanthropy, but it was inspired by public interest AND community. The professionals who came to contribute to the subjects made sure of that.
3 — Involving: Local and international actors around a table
The gathering was organized around four workshops that also served as outlooks on possible futures for the Villa Buonaccorsi :
- The Villa as a citizen laboratory ;
- Regenerative Tourism ;
- Technology for sustainability ;
- Remote incubation for the world of tomorrow.
In addition, two online workshops were open to the public that could not be physically there:
- Reinhabitation for Regenerative Tourism ;
4 — Raising awareness: About burning social and environmental topics
Participants listening to the conclusions after the workshop sessions
In order to give rise to new ideas from all these participants, the Volumes team structured its action into four working groups. In each workshop, a “facilitator” presented his or her expertise. A way to give tools to the persons unfamiliar with the topics is to introduce the principles and opportunities of a circular economy project, so they could express themselves and contribute with their own point of view afterwards.
This way, abstract ideas emerged first, possibilities in the long-term realm, the essential “crazy ideas” that inspire all of us. Only this way, could they imagine then, concrete actions that could be achieved in a six-month period of time.
5 — Attracting: The relevance of sustainable projects
While enhancing the power of the global and (almost) borderless European Union, the four workshops allowed the team to ask concrete questions regarding the fate of the Villa. The team asked six questions that went into four topics relevant to the location and unique characteristics of the Villa Buonaccorsi :
1 — How can the Ville activate citizenship initiatives and foster civic engagement in topics such as education, kids, care, social inclusion?
2 — Can the Villa be a driving force for a new transformative strategy based on life and territory that improves the relationship of the population with their own place and can serve as a basis for regenerative tourism?
3 — Can the Villa become an international campus for innovation in technology for sustainable living?
4 — Can the Villa become a place where innovators, changemakers, artists, and entrepreneurs move to incubate radical solutions for positive impact? And become a site for experimental digital fabrication and social inclusion?
5 — Can the Villa be a driving force for a new transformative strategy based on life and territory that improves the relationship of the population with their own place and can serve as a basis for new regenerative developments?
6 — Can gamification offer new approaches to social cohesion and sustainable development?
6 — Fostering: a place where the future of production is made
A space. While the pandemic made more obvious how our world could function without a physical place to connect people, it mostly made obvious how they, the people, could not really function without one. How we are all obsessed with finding the best spot, community, group… with finding a home, is a clear proof. Social distancing made clear the need for a physical space to circle around, be it four walls or a garden… Two features the Villa Buonaccorsi holds! Because more than a space, it is an exceptional one, which beauty enhances even further the tragic neglect it has been the victim of. But mostly, it can bring great recognition and confidence to equally underrated activities, people and ideas.
After an anonymous buyer from Rome swooped in unexpectedly during the auction of the villa in late July, fear arose within all the people that were increasingly involved thanks to the work achieved during the Villa Summer Camp. It became clear to the city administration that leaving the villa to what seemed to appear as a speculative fund and seeing it shredded apart, was no longer an option, as the citizen already were claiming back their ownership of this historical landmark.
In a not so unexpected turn of events, the Italian Ministry of culture finally decided to buy the Villa, and on top of it, the region accepted to fund it. At the higher level, the ministry of culture of Italy officially confirmed it in early October: “the Villa will be public”.