The Urbanization of Italy and Its Descent into Distress

The Beginnings

The Italian peninsula has had a culturally exquisite but tumultuous history, from the bygone era of Ancient Civilizations to the modernized 21st Century. Since the beginning, the communities we now group together as “Italy” have been at the foreground of social, political, and urban development. Taking precedent from the Etruscans and other early settlers, Rome was built from the ground up as a technologically advanced, organized city.

It featured plumbing and sewage systems, running water sourced through aqueducts, civil life in the Forum and whichever system of ruling was in place at any given time, patronage for the arts and philosophies of life, military prowess, and a spirited community mindset. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire left an indelible mark on the development standards of the peninsula, and allowed for Italy to continue progressing into the Middle Ages. Numerous invasions took place in the centuries that followed, from the Arabs and Visigoths to the Franks, Ottomans, and Normans. While each new party left their own cultural flair in the fabric of what would become city and Italian identities, the Normans in particular set the course for Southern Italy by implementing a strict feudal state and developing a more prominent agricultural regime. In the North, the Papal State began acquiring more territory as well, claiming land and souls for the Catholic religion. And yet, amid the political fragmentation of the peninsula, several cities began to assert their autonomy, differentiated on the principles of identity, common interest, and political and economic goals. The North was able to break free from the grasps of both feudal lords and power struggles of the Church, and cities began shifting from communal regions to principalities and independent Italian states. As they developed their own economies and governments, it became clear that carefully throughout cities would need to be constructed for peak efficiency and community standards. 

City States and Urban Spaces

A large portion of Italian cities latched on to geometric and advantageous city designs that consisted of either grids, concentric circles, sectors, or a nucleus pattern. Each city’s organization reflected back on the culture that built it. It is important to note that development in the North and South splintered significantly in this period, primarily in the sense that Northern cities were built with the intention to capitalize on urban spaces for “city life,” while the South was still a highly agrarian space, and needed rural organization to maintain fields and processing structures. Still, most cities developed with similar core elements, particularly walls, piazzas, and essential businesses.


Walls offered cities protection and bolstered community identity, as there was a clear distinction between “citizen” and “outsider.” Walls had gates or doors at points of entry which controlled traffic flow, trade, and social patterns. Some cities had more open-structured walls, while others were very austere and threatening. Most walls were also highly decorated with carvings, protective imagery, and religious iconography, to again encapsulate the culture of the people and bring holy protection.


Piazzas led the charge in changing Italian city-states from cities of “God” to cities of “Man.” Civics rose within communities as a crucial aspect of daily life, and in some cases overpowered religious control of quotidian affairs. As such, there needed to be space for civic engagement that was open to the public and central to the city, and the piazza answered the call. Political squares in front of state houses and city halls were representative of the city, economic squares offered spaces for artisans and craftsmen to sell their wares and goods, and religious squares offered spaces for Mass to be heard or ceremonies to be witnessed. Piazzas aided the rise in Italian (and subsequently, international) mercantilism.

Mercantilism and the growth of commerce changed the seats of power in Italian states rather drastically, where anyone who had acquired wealth through their own merit was encouraged to participate in the upper echelons of public and political society, rather than the previous restrictions of inherited aristocracy. As cities were the epicenters of trade, urbanization continued to spread and specialization continued based on available resources and local cultures and identities. Urban sprawls also led to the refinement of education, the progression of art into real life subjects, and the creation of artisan guilds.

As concentrated populations grew and specialized trades flourished, Italian cities became important stopping points on international trade routes and examples for prosperous development. By 1560, no more than five European cities had reached a population of 100,000. Except for Paris, the others were Italian (Naples, Genoa, Venice and Milan). Other large cities were Bologna, Verona, Palermo, Rome and Messina. Italian cities had indeed been carefully planned, considering religious needs, political and social needs, the climate, the landscape, and the geography. Urban structures ultimately served as pathways to carry people and goods to anyone connected to the network of that city.


As plagues, wars against foreign powers and neighbors, bad harvests and famines ravaged the peninsula and economics boomed in other European regions, there was a noticeable and marked decrease in the populations of main urban areas. Urban areas were often de-industrialized, or there simply weren’t enough people to keep the systems of production going at profitable or even sustainable rates; peripheral areas and rural spaces were industrialized for food and material production given that traditional city economics were failing. Although this shift was a bit more advantageous for the South, with its central capitals already working on a reduced-urban, high-rural structure, it was not enough to maintain Italy’s development as the frontrunner of Europe. Urbanization is generated by the attraction for the rural population of the growth of urban productivity, which in turn is supported by rising productivity in the countryside. The Unification of Italy did help create new economic and social movements, which then reignited the fires of urbanization. As populations grew once more, and people were forced to resettle after fleeing war or being relocated by unification demands, city and urban centers were once again necessary. The growth in the last decade of the nineteenth century launched Italy’s rate of urbanization back to Western standards.

The Continued North and South Divide

The development of both national identity and economics splintered early on, with the break from feudal powers in the North and the continuation of feudalism in the South. While the North developed into independent cities with varied interests and political ideology, the South remained rather stagnant in its agriculture. As Europe progressed, ideas of innovation, political theories, and international impact came to feature at the center of Western ideals, which left little room for agriculture and simple lifestyles. The Wars of the early twentieth century also impacted the two regions of Italy differently, with the South, who was more socialist/communist by design in their ideals of community and nationalized production, being ignored by fascists and demonized by capitalists from Allied countries. The North touted principles of freedom and economics that blended more smoothly with the ideals of the US and other Western powers, which prioritized intervention and meddling from foreign partners in Italian affairs.

With the obliteration of the Italian communist party, the South was tucked away as the embarrassing half of a country who had, in the end, chosen the “right” side of the ideological conflicts. Rather than investing in agricultural industrialization, the North-focused government continued to prioritize the booming economies of the Northern states and industries, which relied heavily on international buy-ins (fashion, politics, art, etc.). With little recourse for progress, the Italian South was left behind, while still relied on by the entire country for the production of agricultural goods and services. While they did experience urbanization, it was of a different nature and served vastly different purposes than the sprawls in the North. Hubs exist within regions of fields and farmers, but the lack of strong governments and municipalities has allowed for organized crime to take the reins of what few cities and networks do exist at the levels of their Northern counterparts. Given this, the Northern political leaders desperately wish for Italy to be split in half, and the South desperately wishes for a helping hand or to be able to keep the products of their labor for themselves.

The Descent: Detriments of Urbanization

Although urbanization did a great many things for the development of Italy, first as diverse city-states that created the baseline for modern Western Civilization, and then as a unified nation, it has had a few noticeable drawbacks. Other than the identity-based differences and issues identified in the section above between the North and South, urbanization has universally caused high levels of damage to the environment. According to ISPRA, the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, urbanization in Italy occurred at a rate of 8 square meters per second in 2010. This is substantial, as 2% of the Italian GDP comes from agriculture, compared with 1.2% for the United States. Urbanization continues to cut into the production capacity of Italy, and it leads to less renewable sources, plant life, and biosphere throughout the unique and diverse geographies of the peninsula. It is important to highlight that the damage caused on the landscape, environment and communities by urban sprawls and urban sprinkling is substantial and near irreparable. Furthermore, there has been a drastic change in numerous rural, mountain and coastal landscapes, which are profoundly different from those historically appreciated by culture and international tourism. Today, Italy has acknowledged the absolute need to re-organize urban areas to curb their expansion and make them more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. 


Italy has seen several distinct periods of urbanization which have shaped how the country developed and interacts with the world around it today. Moving forward, Italy should continue to carefully consider the impacts their urban development has on the environment, the economy, and the cultural norms and identities of the Italian people, so that they may continue to inspire nations around the world, now and for centuries to come. 


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Maiellaro, Gina. Introduction to Italian Culture, Class Notes. Northeastern University. 2021. Notes.

Malanima, Paolo. “Urbanisation and the Italian Economy during the Last Millennium.” European Review of Economic History 9.1 (2005): 97-122. Print.

Romano, Bernardino, Francesco Zullo, Lorena Fiorini, Alessandro Marucci, and Serena Ciabò. “Land Transformation of Italy Due to Half a Century of Urbanization.” Land Use Policy 67 (2017): 387-400. Print.

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