Naples (above) grows from 1 million residents to more than 3 million when its suburbs are included in the count. edella/Shutterstock.com

The country hopes the move will get people more involved in government—and save some money.

ROME, Italy — This country is so urbanized that many Italians call it paese dei mille campanile, land of a thousand bell towers. It's a metaphor for the more than 8,000 cities and towns that dot the Italian landscape, each its own center of civic, economic and political life.

Starting January 1, many of the towns surrounding those bell towers will be absorbed into much larger jurisdictions, known as "metropolitan cities." There will be 14 of them in all. The metropolitan cities will take in the suburbs surrounding large cities such as Rome and Milan but also smaller cities such as Cagliari and Reggio Calabria. About one in three Italians will live in one of these new entities.

Each metropolitan city will have a president, typically the same person who is mayor of the area’s primary city. Metropolitan cities will also have a governing council, chosen from among the area’s local elected officials. And they will have a significant amount of money from the national government, the European Union and local taxes to spend on regional priorities such as transportation, housing and energy efficiency.

It’s an historic change, one that aims to encourage better coordination on urban problems that don’t stop at city borders. It also elevates the authority of cities within the Italian political system, something mayors here have wanted for a long time.

They got their wish not long after Matteo Renzi became Italy’s prime minister in February. Renzi, who was previously mayor of Florence, made passing metropolitan legislation an early priority. He put his right-hand man, Graziano Delrio, on the task. Delrio is himself a former mayor and also the former president of the Italian association of cities, or ANCI. By the time Law 56 passed in April, everyone simply called it the “Delrio Reforms.”

“This is the first true institutional reform based on cities and municipalities,” Turin Mayor and current ANCI president Piero Fassino said as the Italian Parliament took its final vote. Cities “are the institutions closer to citizens and more appreciated by them.”

Changing roles

The Delrio Reforms represent a significant reshuffling of power in Italy. Traditionally, there have been four levels of government here: national, regional, provincial and city, leading to complaints of too much red tape. Under the new law, the provinces will essentially go away, at least in the 14 areas where the new metropolitan cities are being established. In other parts of the country, provinces will remain but in a diminished role.

The provinces have generally managed responsibilities such as roads, local transportation, school buildings, culture, and tourism. The cities usually take care of welfare, environment, housing, and urban planning. The new law does not say exactly how all these roles should be merged, leaving cities and their suburbs to work out the details on their own. These negotiations have been going on across the country for months.

The Delrio Reforms take their name after Graziano Delrio (above), a former mayor who is the right-hand man of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. (REMO CASILLI/Reuters /Landov)

One aim of the law is to save money on elections and elected officials. The political leaders of the metropolitan cities won’t take salaries beyond what they earn as a mayor or councillor from their home city. Cutting out a whole layer of elected government is estimated to save Italian taxpayers €100 million. Civil servants who previously worked for the provinces are likely to work for the new metropolitan cities, but most of the details are still to be worked out. No savings are expected on administrative costs.

The change also casts a new light on the traditional divide between Italy’s prosperous northern half and its poorer south. In the past, only two southern cities—Naples and Palermo—were among Italy’s eight largest cities. Incorporating the larger metropolitan populations adds the south’s Bari and Catania into that group (the northern cities of Bologna and Genoa bump off the list). The southern cities won’t necessarily receive more funding as a result of this but they will grow in terms of their political and strategic importance.

A significant amount of funding for the metropolitan cities will come from the European Union, via an organization called the National Operational Program, or PON Metro. This program is one of the tangible outcomes of increased European attention to cities and local authorities. The idea is for Brussels to begin funding local interventions directly, instead of scattering funds through regional authorities.

Almost €600 million (about $728 million U.S.) will finance a massive modernization of public infrastructure, particularly intermodal transit systems, energy efficiency in public buildings and e-government systems. PON Metro will also focus funding on reducing housing poverty; in Milan, for example, some 24,000 families are waiting for social housing while almost 10,000 empty apartments await renovations.

While mayors are generally positive about moving to a more metropolitan governance structure, some still doubt they will have enough funding to handle their most pressing challenges. “We the mayors don’t want to be left out in the cold,” Naples Mayor Luigi De Magistris, recently told the Italian news agency AdnKronos. “Metropolitan cities are entering into force without the resources to manage most of the essential services assigned by the law to this institution.”

Metropolitan citizenship

To the general public, the Delrio Reforms look like little more than bureaucrats shuffling responsibilities. Elections for the metropolitan councils, which took place in September and October, went almost completely unnoticed. Because there was no direct vote of the people—only mayors and local councilors could vote—an opportunity to engage the public about what a metropolitan future could mean was lost.

(Cittalia-Anci analysis of ISTAT data)

Some of the cities have tried other ways of fostering a sense of “metropolitan citizenship.”  In the Milan metro, an association of local governments launched the website Milano Città Metropolitana to educate citizens about the coming changes. Through social media, the site is reaching around 10,000 users and fostering a dialogue to create a metropolitan sense of belonging.

Another example is Bologna, which involved citizens in a metropolitan strategic planning process. More than 1,000 people attended forums dedicated to the topics of innovation, mobility, education, the environment and social cohesion. They produced more than 800 ideas, 67 of which made it into the final comprehensive plan.

Virginio Merola, the mayor of Bologna—and soon the president of the Metropolitan city of Bologna—says the exercise was important to get the public thinking about possible projects and forms of local cooperation rather than just the new jurisdictional lines.

“We do not need to perceive the geographical and administrative confines as limits, but as a challenge,” Merola said in July while presenting the plan. “We must win together, with the support of the surrounding municipalities, enterprises, citizens, universities, and all the other stakeholders who will contribute to the everyday life of the metropolitan cities.”

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