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Rethinking Urban Renewal and Citizen Engagement: Insights from Turin

Volunteering and other forms of citizen engagement do not necessarily empower residents or give them the right to shape their own cities, Maria Vasile concludes after 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Turin. She analysed various urban gardens, open-air food markets and food aid initiatives. She calls for a broader perspective on urban peripheral areas and to move away from uncritical optimism about urban renewal and sustainability. Maria graduated from her PhD in September 2023.

Vasile's research started with a focus on food systems and then broadened to explore the intricate connections between urban revitalization, public service delivery, and the evolving functions of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These interactions are interesting not only because they transformed the physical and social aspects of Turin but also as they offer insights into more extensive examination of the changing models of governance and citizen participation in today's urban settings.

The Shifting Landscape of Turin

Maria Vasile, originally from Rome, began her investigation into urban gardens and food markets in Turin, particularly those situated in the city’s peripheral areas. It quickly became evident that the dominant conversation revolved around significant changes resulting from urban renewal. Turin, which was once a thriving industrial center, underwent a seismic economic shift in the 1990s, marked by the relocation of major car factories abroad. This shift forced the city to rethink both its economic and spatial landscapes and raised questions about what to do with abandoned spaces and how to enhance residents' quality of life.

The Role of Non-Profits

In Turin, non-profit organizations play a central role in urban renewal efforts and delivering services in marginalized urban areas. One illustrative case was a prominent urban garden project in the southern outskirts of Turin. This project aimed to reimagine a neglected park and involved residents collaborating with a non-governmental organization (NGO), volunteering their time and efforts to develop this space into something new and vibrant. Maria: “While I actively participated in this project during my fieldwork, I also critically examined its fundamental principles. Concerns emerged regarding the fairness of an NGO making decisions about a public area, especially when formal democratic processes were absent.”

Enhancing Social, Cultural, and Civic Dimensions

Another suggestion of Vasile is to further invest in the social, cultural and civic dimensions that contribute to consensus around these processes and the role of the non-profit sector. Maria: “NGOs step in to fill the gap left by welfare state withdrawal and increasingly serve as intermediaries between the public administration and citizens. However, it's important to critically examine their work, as it has the potential to perpetuate marginalization, create job insecurity (as we can look at volunteering also as a form of unremunerated labour), reinterpret people's rights as mere needs, normalize bottom-up neoliberal reforms, and contribute to gentrification.”

Paradoxes of Urban Renewal

The engagement of local volunteers raised further ethical dilemmas, particularly related to whether local volunteers should receive compensation for their contributions. Among other cases, disagreements between residents and the NGO about the vision for the gardens often led to conflicts, revealing the inherent challenges and contradictions within the realm of urban renewal. “These contradictions became the focal point of my research, encapsulated in the title of my thesis, "The Silent Paradoxes of Urban Renewal."”

Into the Mountains: Vasile's Journey with Turin's Shepherd Community

During her fieldwork, Maria also followed a family of shepherds who had worked in the area which was transformed into the above mentioned urban garden project. These shepherds represented a group excluded from the project, as the development of urban gardens would encroach upon their traditional grazing space. They became a compelling focus for her research, Maria became friends with them. This family was working itinerantly, traversing not only Turin but also the mountains. Maria joined them for a week in the remote mountains during the summer, partaking in their family tradition of shepherding. The journey to reach him was an adventure, involving a hike through rugged terrain. “On the first night, as darkness fell and we hadn't located him in the expected area, we decided to set up camp with our tent. In the dead of night, we heard voices and saw lights from the valley below. Concerned locals, mostly youngsters, came to our aid, urging us not to spend the night there due to the mountain's dangers. They guided us to safety and welcomed us into their community. The following day, we finally reached the shepherd and spent a full week with him and his family amidst the lofty clouds. This experience allowed me to step away from the city and gain insight into his perspective and fading traditions.”

From Political Sciences to Anthropology: A Transformative Perspective

Maria has a background in political sciences both her bachelor's and master's degree. “Anthropology has profoundly transformed my perspective on society and problem-solving. It's a discipline that encourages unconventional thinking and underscores the significance of delving deep into the lived experiences of individuals. Fieldwork has been a game-changer. It has not only impacted my methodologies but also the way I perceive complexity. In this regard, anthropology has had a lasting influence.”

Food Citizens?

Vasile's PhD research is part of the research project Food Citizens?. This research is centered on citizen-led groups within food organizations, serving as an entry point to comprehend broader societal dynamics. Through our exploration of these groups, we embarked on a broader examination of the motivations behind citizens coming together and striving to build alternative systems. Key inquiries included understanding the collaborative mechanisms at play within these groups and the comprehension of alternative food systems among their members.

Dissertation:  "The Silent Paradoxes of Urban Renewal."
Maria’s dissertation is based on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2019 and 2020. The research used a longitudinal, native language, and multimodal ethnographic approach, following the methodology of the "Food citizens? Collective Food Procurement in European Cities: Solidarity and Diversity, Skills and Scale" project. Maria Vasile engaged in participant observation, becoming involved in eleven collective food procurement networks as a participant, volunteer, or collaborator. The research included fieldwork notes, field reports, semi-structured interviews, and the production of audio-visual materials such as cultural maps, videos, and photos. Read the whole dissertation online. Read the full dissertation.

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