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Territories at risk of abandonment in Italy and hypothesis of repopulation

Teresa Amodio


La recherche s’inscrit dans le cadre des études sur la marginalité qui, en général dans la littérature géographique, associent le modèle conceptuel à des dimensions territoriales précises (zones montagneuses, zones intérieures, zones rurales).
Les différentes approches, cependant, considèrent le dépeuplement comme une condition générale de fragilité, comme une cause et un effet des expressions de la marginalisation géographique. Dans cette perspective, la connotation démographique des petites municipalités en Italie est analysée afin de mettre en évidence l’existence d’un modèle spatial de dispersion qui, en réalité, sur le plan géographique, n’est pas dichotomique mais est répandu dans tout le pays.
Du point de vue de l’habitat, si la dépopulation a conduit à des formes extrêmes d’abandon, repérables à travers la présence de nombreuses « villes fantômes » et de territoires aujourd’hui complètement inhabités, elle a généré d’autre part une multitude d’anciens villages, en déclin et menacés d’abandon, pour lesquels, cependant, ont été avancées certaines hypothèses de repeuplement. Les actions qui visent à récupérer et à valoriser ces villages, en vue d’un nouvel aménagement, échappent à une évaluation exhaustive ainsi qu’à une planification centralisée, top down, au niveau national, car elles sont confiées à la compétence des opérateurs locaux et régionaux, même si, récemment, le thème du repeuplement des villages est au centre du Programme national italien de Récupération et de Résilience, ce qui témoigne de la pertinence de ce thème.
Par rapport à ce scénario, les hypothèses de revitalisation par les communautés locales semblent être plus efficaces, en favorisant la prise de conscience de leurs valeurs territoriales propres et non reproductibles, et en suivant une action en faveur d’une « conscience du lieu » par rapport à la contemporanéité.

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The reference framework

1The theoretical basis lies in the conceptual paradigms that the geographical literature, and not only, which has long been sensitive to the topic, proposes for the representation and reading of marginality.

2Marginality is considered a condition of exclusion with respect to a centre where accumulation mechanisms are triggered and expressed through (centripetal) flows of productive factors (Battisti, 2017). Such spatial marginality is a condition that favours the perpetuation of situations of underdevelopment. Far from the pulsating centres of the economy, it is more difficult to set in motion virtuous cycles of economic growth, which require the inflow of productive factors from outside.

3In this regard, it should be noted that this definition of marginality, precisely because it refers to the relationship with developed, often urban, areas, does not take into consideration the forms of marginality connected with poverty and social downgrading, which should be treated with specific reference to urban areas. The debate is, in this content, limited to marginality in non-urban areas.

4In Italy, the geographical reflection on marginality has been treated with reference to the objective of tracing conditions of difficulty to development. These difficulties were correlated to certain types of areas, namely in:

  • mountain areas (as opposed to lowland and hill areas)

  • rural areas (as opposed to urban areas)

  • inland areas (as opposed to coastal areas).

5It is evident that marginality, depending on the areas to which it refers, takes on different connotations.

6More precisely, mountainous areas, with a height above 600 m above sea level, are those referring to the Alpine arc and the Apennine ridge. The characteristics of these areas are connected to geomorphological fragility and poor accessibility, which have determined, in many areas, conditions of economic impoverishment with consequent significant depopulation.

7Depopulation is the most evident expression of the risk conditions present in mountain areas, due to several causes. The population has a greater political weight, and therefore a greater interest on the part of governance, where it is more numerous, and this lack of interest leads people to leave certain territories. Another underlying element is that the close connection between agriculture and mountains means that where the former declines, the latter is affected. The decline of agriculture has brought with it part of the decline of the mountains. Then there are other reasons more connected to the social environment, to the presence of cultural offerings, to the variety of commercial offerings, which in the mountains, also due to the scarcity of the population, is more restricted. The element that appears decisive in the destiny of mountain areas, however, is the number and quality of infrastructures. Think of transport, logistics, essential public works. Their wide availability in the lowlands makes everyday life much more comfortable and cancels out the characteristics of the territory. Reaching a location by high-speed rail makes the territories closer and increases the possibility and ease of exchanges between people and goods.

8In areas in which the demographic exodus has led, among other things, to an impoverishment of the intrinsic social and cultural identity of the places (Bertolino, Corrado, 2017), with impoverishment of resources and a more general disruption of ecosystems and settlement networks, these negative trends could be mitigated, however, through the recovery of territorial structures functional to development (Corrado, 2014; Dematteis, 2016; Covino, 2017).

9A wide debate is open around these issues aimed at re-inhabiting the mountain by giving this substantial part of the Italian territory a new opportunity for centrality (De Rossi, 2018). In particular, the fate of mountain areas is addressed from the perspective of countering isolation and abandonment through virtuous paths of enhancement of endogenous resources and through the construction of functional relations of exchange with urban areas. In this regard, the economist approach to the study of territorial capital that can be activated in mountain areas focuses attention on tangible, mixed or intangible assets that can be translated into assets that may affect the performance and development of the territories (Camagni, 2009).

10Other approaches address the issue of marginality by focusing on areas with an agricultural and, where present, agri-food vocation.

11These areas are characterised by high percentages of agricultural land and established productive vocations that characterise the local economy.

12For these territorial areas as well, the issue of depopulation is highlighted, linked to geographical conditions that can be traced, in the first place, to the lack of infrastructures and services to support the maintenance of agriculture (De Rubertis, 2019; Lella, Rota, 2021).

13In particular, the literature that refers to the concepts of smart rural development (Naldi et al., 2015) and smart villages (Visvizi, Lytras, 2018) identifies the lack of digital potential as one of the main weaknesses with respect to specialization perspectives from which, conversely, the innovative growth of rural areas could derive. This circumstance, which contributes to low levels of added value in the primary sector, is at the root of a progressive process of decrease in the generational turnover within farms, which consequently leads to the abandonment of activities and territories in favor of new forms of employment and settlement.

14Depopulation and abandonment, even in rural areas, are progressively increasing. The result is an overall depletion of the territorial capital considered as a set of common goods incorporated in the places, difficult to find elsewhere, attributable to the endowment of conditions and resources of the natural environment, to the historical-cultural heritage, both tangible (monuments, landscapes, etc.) and intangible (languages and dialects, traditional knowledge, etc.). The loss of value also concerns the fixed capital accumulated in infrastructures and facilities, considered as a whole for the externalities that derive from it, and the relational assets (Storper, 1997) entrusted to local human capital, of a social, cultural and institutional nature (Dematteis, Governa, 2005). The perspective offered for these areas, in this case, suggests strategic visions of revitalization based on the enhancement of local identities and the added value offered by landscapes and agricultural and agri-food productions, as well as the need to introduce innovative mechanisms of production management, entrusted to computerization and digitalization (Bacci et al., 2021). A large body of literature on the subject predicts the overcoming of marginality in rural areas mainly through multifunctional paths capable of guaranteeing the local entrepreneurial fabric to exit the core business (Nazzaro, 2008; Marotta, 2012).

15In this perspective, the adoption of innovative strategies is entrusted to diversification in the forms of broadening (expansion of activities such as agritourism or the management of nature and landscape), deepening (investments in the agri-food chain, in typical products, in organic farming or short chain) and regrounding (integration of rural income with non-farm activities).

16Another strand of studies deals with marginality by referring to inland (non-urban) areas, considered as such in comparison to coastal areas. In these areas, often characterised by low population density, there are also differentials in the levels of territorial endowment in terms of welfare. Such conditions underlie the processes of abandonment and depopulation (Iammarino et al., 2019; Carrosio, Osti, 2020).

17The issue of distance thresholds with respect to poles equipped with hospital, secondary school and railway mobility services is, together with that of depopulation, the paradigm used by the National Strategy for Inner Areas for the identification of marginal areas in a development and territorial cohesion perspective. In fact, the approach used, in this specific case, appears to be non-exhaustive to the extent that it focuses attention (only) on the internal areas (and not all) of our country, neglecting areas of demographic impoverishment widely present elsewhere. Among other things, the Strategy does not consider the effects of the most recent globalization processes which, in some way, condition spatial relations, altered by the spread of information and communication technologies (La Foresta, De Falco, 2019).

18At the European level, the focus on marginal areas is spread over two territorial areas, indicated by similar terminology, inner areas and internal areas, which are not synonymous.

19On the one hand, there is interest in internal areas, which are regions characterized by high levels of criticality, far from the centres of delivery of essential services. For both, numerous studies focused on Territorial Impact Assessment methodologies try to measure the territorial capital present at different scales, first the human one, with the aim of orienting cohesion policies and territorialising the use of structural funds in a more profitable way (Prezioso, 2018).

20The issue, from different angles, is always faced with a spatial approach, that is explored starting from specific and delineated territorial categories. The different theoretical approaches seem to propose visions of (partial) marginality relegated to specific geographical conditions and boundaries that tend to keep alive the conceptual paradigms of dualism between inland and coastal areas, between mountain and non-mountain areas or between rural and urban areas.

21However, all of them consider the issue of depopulation as a common denominator of deterritorialization processes in which human impoverishment, if in part it is itself an effect of territorial impoverishment, consequently, produces further evident and very serious repercussions (Table 1).

Table 1. Main approaches to the study of marginality.

Geographical area

Variables under investigation

Mitigation perspectives

Mountain areas

Geomorphological fragility

Poor accessibility

Economic impoverishment

Loss of territorial offices

Safety of the territories

Strengthening of accessibility and communication

Economic enhancement of forest resources

Recovery of agro-tourism resources

Strengthening of production chains destined for supra-local economic networks


Rural areas

Lack of infrastructure (including digital)

Poor profitability of the primary sector

Abandonment of primary activities

Loss of landscape and cultural values


Enhancement of the landscape and local culture

Economic development of a tourism type


Internal areas

Lack of services

Lack of transport and digital infrastructure


Enhancement of cultural and landscape capital (for tourism purposes)

Infrastructure, digitalization


Source: Author’s elaboration

22The demographic dimension assumes, in this sense, the character of geographical transversality and affects diversified territorial contexts in which wider forms of deterritorialization are recorded, connected to an impoverishment of the economic and social fabric and to a slowdown, or a real halt, of progress tout court (Mazza et al., 2018).

23Human dispersion appears to be homologating with respect to the geographical typologies considered in the discussion of marginality and, in fact, represents a common thematic basis through which to reconstruct the reading of one of the main territorial fragilities.

24In order to give evidence to what has been said, the Italian situation has been depicted from which the cross-sectional dimension of depopulation and the relevance of this aspect in the identification of marginality can be seen.

The territorial pattern of depopulation in Italy

25The aim of the research was to show the presence of a territorial pattern of ’spaces on the margin’ characterized by the consistent presence of small municipalities and spread throughout the country. A statistical and demographic analysis of the trends affecting Italy’s sparsely populated municipalities is proposed with the aim of showing a general pattern, which transgresses the various territorial categories or factors of marginality generally considered. The main interest lies in this overall synthetic vision.

26In this regard, it should be pointed out that the total extension of the national territory (i.e., the sum of the surfaces of the 7,904 Italian municipalities as of 9 October 2011) amounts to 302,068 square kilometers.

27In the administrative sphere, the definition of PC currently most widely used is the one given in the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies on 18 April 2007 (“Measures for the support and enhancement of small municipalities”), according to which: “Small municipalities are municipalities with a population of 5,000 inhabitants or less”.

28Most of the country’s population resides in medium-sized municipalities, which have between 5,000 and 250,000 inhabitants; only a limited number of municipalities (12) have more than 250,000 inhabitants. In 2020, the population is concentrated mainly in the lowland areas (49.1 per cent) and secondly, and secondarily in the hills (38.7 per cent); only 12.2 per cent of the population resides in the mountains. Littoral municipalities account for 8.1 per cent of the country’s municipalities, and more than half of Italy’s entire littoral population resides in the Mezzogiorno. When considering the Ecoregions, it emerges that a large part of the population is concentrated in the Po Valley Section (32.5 per cent) and in the Central-Northern Tyrrhenian (11.8) and Southern Tyrrhenian (11.3) Sections. Based on the degree of urbanisation, 63.8 per cent of Italian municipalities are classified as rural areas; small towns and suburbs account for 33.0 per cent of municipalities, and cities for 3.2 per cent. In the latter, 35.3 per cent of the total population lives. In functional urban areas (Fua) live 55.7 per cent of the Italian population. The largest Fua is Milan (with almost 5 million inhabitants), followed by Rome (4.3 million), Naples (3.3 million) and Turin (1.7 million).

29The methodology used for the research is based on the acquisition of data at the national level for Italy and at the municipal scale aimed at initially representing the presence and location of municipalities with a population size ≤10,000 inhabitants, in order to provide evidence of the existing demographic structure.

30Subsequently, attention was focused on municipalities with a population of less than 5,000 inhabitants, selected because they are the expression of a weak and fragmented demographic dimension that is widespread in the country. For these municipalities (≤ 5,000 inhabitants), a series of parameters were calculated, such as the demographic trend and altimetric distribution, density and its change for the period 2011-2021, as well as the old-age index.

31The statistical source used was the Istat datawarehouse, National Institute of Statistics in Italy. The data were treated and processed with respect to the needs of the research.

32The first scenario outlines the Italian demographic situation in 2021 and shows how the mesh of small and very small municipalities has a significant consistency, widely spread throughout the country.

33Municipalities with up to 10,000 inhabitants (Fig. 1) are 6,699 (84.8% out of a total of 7,903); of these, the municipalities that do not exceed 1,000 inhabitants are 1,993 (25.2% of the national total) and, with an area of 44,072 sq km, occupy 14.6% of the Italian territory; 3,528 municipalities fall within the class between 1,001 and 5,000 inhabitants (44.6% of Italian municipalities) and another 1,178 are between 5,001 and 10,000 inhabitants.

Figure 1. Municipalities with population size ≤ 10,000 inhabitants.

Figure 1. Municipalities with population size ≤ 10,000 inhabitants.

Source: Processing of Istat data, 2021

34With respect to this framework, for the purposes of the research it was considered appropriate to focus on municipalities with a population of ≤ 5,000 inhabitants, considered representative for the understanding of depopulation since, in addition to constituting the numerically largest class (5,521, equal to 69,9% of the Italian municipalities), cover 54.6% (equal to 164,800 sq km) of the national surface area. Their presence determines a territorial pattern characterized by rather widespread and significant demographic poverty.

35Regional cases indicate that in the Aosta Valley the presence of municipalities with a population of less than or equal to 5,000 inhabitants coincides with the entire territorial extension. A significant reality can be seen in Molise, where the small municipalities, which are 127, occupy an area of 3,801 sq km, equal to 85.2% of the regional territory; a similar scenario can be found in Piedmont, a region occupied for 79.2% of the surface by small municipalities, which are equal to 1.047 for an area of 20.108 sq km. An opposite situation, from this point of view, can be seen in Apulia, where the municipalities with a size of less than or equal to 5,000 inhabitants are only 85, for an area of 2,772 sq km, or 14.2% of the total regional extension (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Regional distribution of municipalities with population size ≤ 5,000 inhabitants and relative surfaces.

Figure 2. Regional distribution of municipalities with population size ≤ 5,000 inhabitants and relative surfaces.

Source: Processing of Istat data, 2021

36For the municipalities considered in the research, the demographic trend, calculated with respect to the 2011-2021 census interval, shows a rather significant trend towards depopulation if we consider that 4,308, i.e., 78% of small municipalities, lose population and of these 1,901 have demographic variations indicated by the <-8% class (Fig.3a).

Figure 3. Demographic trend and altimetric distribution of municipalities ≤ 5,000 inhabitants.

Figure 3. Demographic trend and altimetric distribution of municipalities ≤ 5,000 inhabitants.

Source: Processing of Istat data, 2011, 2021

37From a territorial point of view, 83.1% of the surface area of small municipalities (136,896 sq km) records a consistent population loss, tracing a significant depopulation pattern in terms of territorial diffusion as well as the number of municipalities affected by the problem.

38Molise is the region in which the population loss is particularly high to the extent that it concerns 78.5% of the surface of small municipalities. But the alarming fact concerns the situation in half of the Italian regions (Friuli V.G., Basilicata, Liguria, Sardinia, Abruzzo, Piedmont, Calabria, Campania, and Aosta Valley) in which small municipalities are losing prominence in percentages of territory exceeding 50% (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Territory, in municipalities with a population ≤ 5,000 inhabitants, affected by negative population variation (% of regional surface).

Figure 4. Territory, in municipalities with a population ≤ 5,000 inhabitants, affected by negative population variation (% of regional surface).

Source: Processing of Istat data, 2011, 2021

39The territorial distribution of the demographic dispersion, if considered also in the light of the classification by altimetric bands (Fig.3b), shows how small municipalities, even though they are mainly located in mountainous areas (39.9% of the surface and 26.3% of the municipalities), in fact also occupy a significant part of hilly areas (33.7% of the surface and 33.8% of the municipalities) and sometimes flat areas (27.3% of the surface 39.9% of the municipalities). It follows that the marginality, expressed by depopulation, is only partly attributable to the physical and morphological features of the territory, although they are relevant in determining possible repopulation strategies (Table 2). The large number of municipalities considered to be present in coastal areas, whether close to urban centers or not, as well as their altimetric classification, testifies to the geographic relevance of the theme.

Table 2. Distribution of municipalities with a population of ≤ 5,000 inhabitants by altitude.

Altimetric bands

n. communes


% n. communes

% surface

< 300 m s.l.m.





300-600 s.l.m.





> 600 m s.l.m.










Source: Processing of Istat data, 2021

40Moreover, small population sizes are accompanied by equally low-density values. Of the 5,521 municipalities considered, 1,133 have a density of <25 inhab./sq. km and, with a coverage of 64,711 sq km, occupy 39.3% of the surface area of the small municipalities (Fig. 5a).

41The analysis on a regional scale shows that Valle d’Aosta is the region in which 68.8% of the surface area of small municipalities falls in the lowest size class (i.e. with a density of less than 25 inhabitants/km²).

Figure 5. Density and relative variation in municipalities with population ≤5,000 inhabitants.

Figure 5. Density and relative variation in municipalities with population ≤5,000 inhabitants.

Source: Processing of Istat data, 2021

42The most worrying phenomenon concerns the density variation in the 2011-2021 intercensal interval (Fig. 5b), which is negative in 79.2% of the municipalities analyzed (4,374) and affected an area of 140,033 sq km, equal to 85% of the total area of small municipalities. In the other regions (Umbria, Basilicata, Sicily, Marche, Friuli V.G., Lazio, Campania, Emilia-Romagna) the change is negative for more than 90% of the municipal areas. The relatively smallest reduction is recorded in Aosta Valley where, however, the percentage of the surface area of the small municipalities in which the density has fallen has affected 52.8% of the municipal territories.

43The same municipalities (those with ≤ 5,000 inhabitants) suffer from a demographic structure whose composition is compromised by the high levels of the ageing index, expressing the percentage rate on the total population of those aged ≥65 years and that between 0 and 14 years (Fig. 6a). The territory of the small municipalities is affected for 52.1% (85,854 sq km) of high ageing indices, with values included in the classes 251-400 and> 400. The regional case study, if we observe only the diffusion of the highest amplitude class (> 400) of the ageing index, indicates that Liguria is the region in which 37.7% of the territory of the municipalities considered is affected by the size class considered, since the 50 municipalities affected by a high ageing index cover a total of 1,483 sq km. On the other hand, there are the small municipalities of Veneto and Trentino-A. A, affected by high ageing levels only for portions that do not reach 2% of their total surface area. In these two regions, in fact, the municipalities affected by high levels of ageing are, respectively, 6 for a total of 141 sq km and 14 with an area of 130 sq km. This dichotomous scenario is confirmed if we consider at the same time the two most relevant size classes of the index (from 211 to 400 and that> 400) to the extent that Liguria is always the region with the highest ageing index, in this case spread over 78.6% of the territory of small municipalities, while Trentino-A.A. only for 6.8% of the territory considered. A possible explanation for the ageing trend, which characterizes Liguria in particular, lies in the substantial loss of population, which has not compensated for the deep-rooted senile presence, jointly with the lower attractiveness of the migratory group and, therefore, a negative migratory balance, as well as the presence of high living standards that allow greater longevity to residents (Golini, Lo Prete, 2019; Livi Bacci, 2018).

44The worrying data, however, concerns the change in the ageing index recorded in the period considered, to the extent that all regions were affected by an increase of more than 10% for almost all the territories of small municipalities. The most serious situation is found in Sardinia, where many small municipalities (the sum of which reaches 90 per cent of the total area of small municipalities) are in the highest variation size class (Fig. 6b).

45Only on 17,168 square kilometres, or 10% of the total area of small municipalities, the ageing index has had an overall positive trend, with relatively encouraging percentages of municipal areas in which it has decreased. This situation was recorded in Emilia-Romagna (1,970 sq km equal to 25.4% of the surface of the small municipalities), in Piedmont (3,608 sq km, equal to 17.9 of the area of the small municipalities) and in Trentino-A.A. (1,613, equal to 15.5% of the territory of the small municipalities).

Figure 6. Ageing index and its 2011-2021 variation in municipalities with a population of ≤ 5,000 inhabitants.

Figure 6. Ageing index and its 2011-2021 variation in municipalities with a population of ≤ 5,000 inhabitants.

Source: Processing of Istat data, 2011 and 2021

46The various maps show, therefore, the presence of a territorial pattern in which the phenomenon of depopulation, widespread and consistent, lends itself to a spatial reading in which the dichotomous visions that relate the demographic dispersion to mountain, internal or rural areas, in fact they seem to lose consistency.

Territorial forms of abandonment and resettlement attempts

47In this part of the research, we intend to show, in a more descriptive way, some measures taken in response to the depopulation of certain areas.

48The demographic contraction, in fact, entails territorial repercussions linked to settlements, evident in the presence, at different scales, of abandoned places (Berry, Glaeser, 2005; Boscacci et al., 2014; De Luca, 2012).

49The most extreme form of depopulation can be seen in the phenomenon of “ghost towns”, that is, completely abandoned, crystallized in time and for this reason also subject to the progressive deterioration of public and private buildings (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. “Ghost towns”.

Figure 7. “Ghost towns”.

Source: Processing of data from the “Ghost Towns” Association

50The regional case studies show a greater presence in Tuscany, where “ghost towns” are registered in 17 municipalities, four of which in the province of Massa Carrara (Carrara, Fivizzano, Massa, Zeri), four in the province of Lucca (Barga, Careggine, Lucca and Fabbriche di Vergemoli), three in the province of Siena (Murlo, Poggibonsi and Rapolano Terme), two in the province of Florence (Firenzuola and Bagno a Ripoli), two in the province of Pisa (Monteverdi Marittimo, Palaia), one in the province of Livorno (Campo nell’Elba) and one in Grosseto (Castiglione della Pescaia). A significant number of completely abandoned areas is also present in Campania, Calabria, and Sardinia.

51In all regions – in support of the thesis that the phenomenon of demographic impoverishment is a widespread condition – the “ghost towns” are located at various altitudes, distributed in the various provinces, both in inland and coastal areas.

52Faced with this scenario of total abandonment, there is an urban pattern in Italy, less dramatically depopulated, characterized by the presence of ancient villages, that is, original nuclei of settlements which have progressively expanded, sometimes leading to the abandonment of historic centers (Bertinotti, 2020).

53As it is known, villages have historically played the role of defensive garrisons, located for this reason in impervious and difficult to reach morphological situations, but they represented the backbone of the Italian demographic structure, at least until the Second World War.

54The depopulation that affected the country in the post-war years, due to the economic dynamics of attractiveness of the more structured centers, as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides, and floods, led to the first forms of exodus of residents. The resulting evolution, with the development of more modern areas and neighborhoods, has led in some cases to the progressive abandonment of historic centers and the loss of traces of the past, steeped in culture, history, and archeology, but in a state of disuse and decay.

55Some of these have been transformed into geographical contexts in which the minimum conditions for survival connected to the demographic, social, economic, and service categories have progressively been dispersed until the population is completely lost (Serico-Gruppo Cresme, 2008).

56In this regard, the metaphor of “territorial full and empty spaces” (Cersosimo et al., 2018, p. 28) can be used to summarize a situation in which the settlement dynamics in place since the twentieth century, capable of draining population from the countryside to the city, from the high lands to the lowlands or from the interior to the coast, show all their relevance (Gambi, 1975; Brenner, 2014; Riccardi, 2020).

57In this regard, the Network of the Most Beautiful Villages in Italy is proceeding with the progressive census of territorial realities endowed with suggestions connected to the architectural heritage and genius loci that is already the subject of experiences of (re)territorialisation attributable to some initiatives aimed at resettlement even before the development of tourism (Carrosio, 2019).

58The primary aim of the Association is to give visibility to the ancient villages and to provide a basic knowledge about their geographical location and the main territorial features.

59Currently, there are 415 villages surveyed, most of which are in the Marche, Umbria, and Tuscany (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. The pattern of the most beautiful villages in Italy.

Figure 8. The pattern of the most beautiful villages in Italy.

Source: Processing of data from the Most Beautiful Villages of Italy Association

60For many years, the more traditional heritage processes involving the ancient villages have favored the recognition, recovery, and enhancement of local resources, whether historical, cultural or agri-food, in a perspective of development for tourism purposes.

61The idea that is emerging is that in the “voids”, whether they are ghost villages or other contexts of abandonment, it is possible to recover territorial values capable of giving evidence of a non-negligible consistency for the purposes of repopulation based on the new residentiality (Martinelli, 2020; Onni, Pittaluga, 2021).

62On the other hand, a different perspective assumes, as a medium-long term objective, a vision of marginal areas oriented towards models able to favor resettlement and with this the introduction of a productivity based on existing resources, be they material, such as forestry, or immaterial, linked to the innovation of agricultural, rural, or tertiary production processes.

63This is the direction taken by several initiatives aimed at reusing the existing and disused building heritage as an opportunity to attract new residents. Many of them are of a municipal nature and take the form of selling houses at a token price, even as low as 1 euro; others, mainly supported by regional funding, aim at more general building redevelopment and the creation of conditions that can also favor the localization of small and medium-sized enterprises in the tertiary sector in support of liveability (Table 3; Table 4).

Table 3. Initiatives aimed at new housing in small municipalities.



Territorial areas


Financial initiatives for the purchase of properties

Albugnano (AT), Borgomezzavalle (VB), Borgata Camoglieres (Macra, CN), Carrega Ligure (AL)

Incentives (contributions from 10,000 to 40,000 euros) for the transfer to one of the small mountain municipalities, for young people under 40 and oriented to relaunch small businesses

465 small mountain municipalities (48 in the province of Alessandria, 12 in the province of Asti, 48 in the province of Biella, 132 in the province of Cuneo, 3 in the province of Novara, 132 in the province of Turin, 66 in the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, 24 in the province of Vercelli)


Interventions aimed at the redevelopment and tourist-cultural enhancement of historic villages

Carona (BG), Castel Liteggio (Cologno al Serio, BG), Curiglia (VA), Monteviasco (VA), Savogno (Piuro, SO)

Trentino-A. A.

Coliving: collaborating, sharing, living together

Luserna (TN)


Urban regeneration projects for the recovery of villages

Municipalities with a historic village characterized by: advanced depopulation process, less than 300 housing units, recovery and regeneration project

Friuli V.G.

One-time capital contributions

Municipalities with a population of less than 5,000 inhabitants


Non-repayable loans to buy-renovate the house

Municipalities with a population of less than 5,000 inhabitants


Measures to support the payment of rents for new households that transfer their residence to the municipality

Piegaro (PG)


Free stays in the houses of the village

San Giovanni in Galdo (CB), Castropignano (CB)


“Active residency income” projec

Aieta (CS), Albidona (CS), Bova (RC), Caccuri (KR), Civita (CS), Samo (RC), San Donato di Ninea (CS), Sant’Agata del Bianco (RC), Santa Severina (KR)

Source: Author’s elaboration of regional data, network of real estate agencies data (​) and direct data provided by municipalities

Table 4. Initiatives for the sale of houses at 1 euro.


Territorial areas

Valle d’Aosta

Oyace (AO)


Pignone (SP), Triora (IM)


Montieri (GR), Vergemoli (LU)


Cantiano (PU)


Maenza (LT), Patrica (FR), Santi Cosma e Damiano (LT)


Lecce nei Marsi (AQ), Casoli (CH), Pratola Peligna (AQ), Santo Stefano di Sessanio (AQ)


Altavilla Silentina (SA), Bisaccia (AV), Pietramelara (CE), Teora (AV), Zungoli (AV)


Biccari (FG), Candela (FG), Caprarica di Lecce (LE)


Acerenza (PZ), Laurenzana (PZ)


Albidona (CS), Belcastro (CZ), Cinquefrondi (RC), Rose (CS)


Bivona (AG), Calatafimi Segesta (TP), Cammarata (AG), Canicattì (AG), Castel di Lucio (ME), Castiglione di Sicilia (CT), Gangi (PA), Grotte (AG), Itala (ME), Leonforte (EN), Mussomeli (CL), Pettineo (ME), Regalbuto (EN), Racalmuto (AG), San Piero Patti (ME), Salemi (TP), Saponara (ME), Troina (EN)


Nulvi (SS), Ollolai (NU), Osilo (SS), Montrestra (OR), Romana (SS)

Source: Author’s elaboration of regional data, Idealist

64The various initiatives envisage a trajectory that seems intent on assigning villages a proactive role in offering lifestyles that can offer virtuous aspects of contemporary settlement models but located in places characterized by tradition, historical and cultural heritage, and landscape. Geographical contexts emptied because of demographic dynamics, for a time considered irreversible, seek paths of rebirth aimed at repopulation (Berizzi, Rocchelli, 2019).

65In the face of municipal and regional initiatives, the relevance of the issue has become part of the national political agenda, which has placed actions in favor of the repopulation and attractiveness of Italian historic villages at the center of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.

66A first strand of actions aims to repopulate the villages, either completely abandoned or characterized or in an advanced state of decline, through preparatory actions of cultural, social, and economic regeneration that will be implemented as experimental models. These interventions contemplate the selection of a village for each Region, identified to start the experimentation of repopulation. The selected cases will be subject to social and economic re-functionalization through the establishment of services and infrastructures relating to the cultural, tourist but above all residential, social, and technological fields.

67A second type of intervention is based on the involvement of the national entrepreneurial network and envisages the repopulation of the villages through cultural regeneration by companies interested in locating in the areas selected by the municipal administrations.

68However, these are patchy interventions, but, after decades of (almost exclusive) attention to cities and urban systems, for cultural and social as well as strategic and economic reasons, the renewed interest in this “rest” of the country, which has become a national issue, seems comforting,

69The idea that emerges is that the repopulation attempts described appear rather weak compared to the heavy depopulation trajectories. They are, in fact, localised experiences that have not produced significant effects on the development of the territories.

Demographic marginality and territorial categories

70From a similar perspective, the geographical gaze, aimed at recognizing marginality, can contribute, with a unitary vision, to the representation and understanding of a substantial part of the national territory.

71A critical perspective of overcoming the existing territorial categorisation, focused on revitalisation projects, probably makes it possible to observe that, at least for Italy, the areas subject to depopulation are simultaneously internal, mountainous and often characterised by agro-food vocations.

72This interpretative synthesis makes it possible to observe the trends that are affecting the possibility of new inhabitants of marginal areas (inland-mountainous and agro-food) repositioning repopulation in relation to transitional and environmental ideologies (Corrado, Dematteis, Di Gioia, 2014)

73Such areas are certainly an interesting laboratory for experimenting possible paths of local development, of other territorial visions that go beyond the mainstream of traditional development, of new modes of governance and policy construction. In this sense, the phenomenon of repopulation goes to the heart of the development of Alpine territories since it brings with it new economic paths linked to innovative economic activities, not only productive but also residential, and imposes a rethinking in terms of social, cultural and service policies on the part of local and national institutions (Perlik, 2011).

74The dynamics relating to settlement and development systems no longer allow for an exhaustive description of territorial transformation processes: processes of re-settlement in marginal (“internal” to say it à la Barca) areas and partly of re-stitching of territories frayed by an urbanisation that has followed “Fordist” matrices of development, and again, partly of re-functionalisation of both open spaces and elements of the historical and other building heritage. The ongoing processes aimed at repopulating mountain areas show a clear resilience on the part of the inhabitants. They, in the face of structural gaps in the territory and difficulties due to the environmental characteristics of the territories in which they live, express adaptive capacity and willingness to find innovative solutions to foster development. The mountains and their inhabitants thus become not an exception to be sustained as elements in difficulty, but rather an expression of specificities carrying unique values. If one agrees with this point of view the condition of “remoteness” (marginality) recognised by the FAO (2011), according to which mountain populations are the most disadvantaged in the world due to climatic and environmental conditions, difficulty of access to services, centres of commerce and power, and the amount of time and cost for transport, can become a potential if it enters into processes of “redemption of internal areas” (Perna), “resistance of local societies” (Quaini et al. ), “self-organisation from below” (Agostini, Colecchia), “reactivation of inland areas”.

75This entails acting in favour of a “consciousness of place” (Becattini, 2015) in relation to contemporaneity.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Municipalities with population size ≤ 10,000 inhabitants.
Crédits Source: Processing of Istat data, 2021
Fichier image/jpeg, 272k
Titre Figure 2. Regional distribution of municipalities with population size ≤ 5,000 inhabitants and relative surfaces.
Crédits Source: Processing of Istat data, 2021
Fichier image/png, 69k
Titre Figure 3. Demographic trend and altimetric distribution of municipalities ≤ 5,000 inhabitants.
Crédits Source: Processing of Istat data, 2011, 2021
Fichier image/png, 729k
Titre Figure 4. Territory, in municipalities with a population ≤ 5,000 inhabitants, affected by negative population variation (% of regional surface).
Crédits Source: Processing of Istat data, 2011, 2021
Fichier image/png, 44k
Titre Figure 5. Density and relative variation in municipalities with population ≤5,000 inhabitants.
Crédits Source: Processing of Istat data, 2021
Fichier image/png, 674k
Titre Figure 6. Ageing index and its 2011-2021 variation in municipalities with a population of ≤ 5,000 inhabitants.
Crédits Source: Processing of Istat data, 2011 and 2021
Fichier image/png, 740k
Titre Figure 7. “Ghost towns”.
Crédits Source: Processing of data from the “Ghost Towns” Association
Fichier image/png, 254k
Titre Figure 8. The pattern of the most beautiful villages in Italy.
Crédits Source: Processing of data from the Most Beautiful Villages of Italy Association
Fichier image/png, 952k
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Teresa Amodio, « Territories at risk of abandonment in Italy and hypothesis of repopulation »Belgeo [En ligne], 4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 06 février 2023, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Teresa Amodio

Department of Heritage Sciences cultural, University of Salerno,

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