CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1During the 1990s, the question of the conversion of military sites appeared on many Italian municipal government agendas. [1] Whereas the historical accumulation of installations intended for the defense of the territory had made the Defense Ministry an important landowner in Italian cities, the changes in military policy which followed the end of the cold war deprived a significant number of these installations of their original function. There are no cities in Italy without under-utilized or abandoned military sites. Starting from the second half of the 1990s, these official installations – which historically appeared as “blank spots” in cities’ urban plans, beyond the jurisdiction of municipal governments – became the subject of new conversion projects put forward by local political-administrative actors. In the three cities analyzed in this article – Rome, Taranto, and Udine – the emergence of these planning initiatives was accompanied by new relationships between the municipal governments and the Defense Ministry, with the aim of defining shared objectives for transforming the sites. However, divergent interests and conflicts quickly emerged between the military administration which controlled these properties and the municipal governments which were responsible for planning. Attempts to reach agreement stagnated then failed, and did not lead to the hoped-for results. In Rome and Taranto, the municipal governments then demanded additional resources from the central government which should have made it possible to complete the projects. In Udine, all dialogue between the local government and the Defense Ministry on the issue of military sites was suspended.

2Through a close analysis of public policies dealing with the conversion of military installations in these three cities, this article contributes to debates on the evolution of relations between cities and the central state in Italy since the 1990s. It shows the failure of the negotiations and the emergence of new conflicts between the municipal and the central governments. Whereas studies on Italian cities after decentralization have emphasized the construction of agreements as a fundamental part of the production of urban public policies, the case of the military sites leads me to argue that new conflicts and demands vis-à-vis the national center now characterize relations between the cities and the state. These relations are set against the background of a territorial system which is simultaneously structured by two decades of decentralization and by sectoral cutbacks and budgetary cuts.

3The centralized Italian territorial model is well known. Between the postwar period and the 1980s, the central state controlled most of the legal and financial resources. Since municipal governments held limited powers and degrees of decisional autonomy, [2] their possibilities and modes of action were closely tied to their access to the national center. Vertical political mediation, crucial within this system, was mainly assured by the political parties, which organized the exchange of local political support for national public resources. [3] Both this mode of policymaking by municipal governments and the partisan ties to the central state were transformed by the institutional reforms of the 1990s and 2000s. [4] Here, we should note three changes highlighted by existing research. First, the autonomy of municipal governments to produce local policies was reinforced, and the centralized system of control was reexamined. Following the principle of subsidiarity, municipalities acquired new responsibilities in a growing number of areas. Moreover, the introduction of direct mayoral elections in 1993 [5] reinforced the position of the mayor in local political action in relation to the city council and the parties, but also with respect to other local actors, both public and private. Second, because of the introduction of new administrative instruments, contractualization became one of the primary modes of coordination between municipal governments and those actors controlling important resources for local policymaking, including other governmental actors. [6] Contractualization also became one of the primary ways to access state resources, within a framework of the decline of national policies directly allocating resources to the territories (in particular, the end of the Intervento Straordinario for the Mezzogiorno). Third, in the areas of urban planning and strategic planning, the “project” emerged as the privileged mode of production for urban public policy. Projects were based on visions and objectives for local development which were defined through collective processes. They made it possible to bring together a variety of both public and private actors located at various levels of government. [7] On the whole, therefore, this research demonstrates, in connection with the transfer of responsibilities to the cities, an evolution towards relations between the cities and the state which from that point on were organized less by vertical political ties than by the capacity of municipal governments to establish agreements locally.

4However, the literature on Italian urban policies and the process of decentralization has ignored a second dynamic of change. This concerns the reorganization of the central state administrations, from the armed forces to the courts and prefectures. Central state reorganizations have been analyzed, particularly since the end of the 2000s, solely through the prism of national policies of budgetary austerity, which were interpreted as a form of de facto recentralization. [8] Thus, the significant reorganizations which have affected the armed forces for two decades have been largely ignored by political scientists working on territorial questions. With the end of the cold war, however, the missions, form, and territorial organization of the armed forces have undergone profound changes. [9] The resources allocated to defense declined from 2-2.5% of GDP in the 1970s and 1980s to approximately 1% in the 2000s, dropping below 1% at the beginning of the subsequent decade. [10] The number of soldiers fell from the 1980s, then dropped dramatically with the suspension of conscription in 2005. The objectives of the armed forces are now more oriented toward interventions outside the national territory than within it.

5The absence of these reforms of the central state from recent studies on territorial politics is all the more significant if one considers that these sectors – particularly that of the military – constitute one of the privileged loci for analysts of center/periphery relations during the period of state building and centralization in Italy. [11] It has effectively been demonstrated that military policies – namely the widespread establishment of the armed forces within the national borders – were one of the fundamental means by which the state penetrated and integrated subnational territories. The development of large naval ports (Taranto, La Spezia), border towns (Udine, Gorizia, Bolzano), and large garrison towns (Turin, Verona) is understood only in relation to the consolidation of an organizing national center and of a territorial whole into which these cities have been progressively integrated. [12] In the same way, urban spaces were structured by the construction of defensive installations and barracks for the soldiers. [13] Over time, military policies have constituted one of several means by which public resources were allocated within the territories, but they have also imposed constraints on civil planning. [14]

6This article thus focuses on the transformation of military infrastructure [15] in three Italian cities, in order to analyze the evolution of the relations between cities and the national center during a period simultaneously marked by decentralization and the organizational and budgetary restructuring of the defense sector. It uses a neo-Rokkanian analytical framework to give an account of this evolution of the Italian territorial political system. [16] The work of Stein Rokkan and neo-Rokkanian authors establishes a link between the activities and the initiatives of a political center, on the one hand, and the modes of representation of local interests vis-à-vis this center, on the other. This framework connects the structure of a given territorial polity with the possibilities and strategies of the actors in that polity (these possibilities and strategies being defined in terms of exit, voice, and loyalty, after Albert Hirschman). Through allocating resources and imposing rules via public policies, a political center delimits distinct territories and spaces of membership. This is a system of constraints that limits the possibility of exit from this territorial polity for individuals and organizations. But is also accompanied by a number of political arrangements allowing for the representation of peripheral interests, interaction, and the exchange of resources (voice), as well as the construction of membership and the legitimation of constraint (loyalty). According to these works, therefore, the evolution of the modes of intervention by a political center affects the modes of negotiation, resource exchange, and conflict resolution between central and peripheral interests.

7Second, following the neo-Rokkanian authors who use this analytical framework – originally conceived for the state – to analyze the European Union, [17] this article considers municipal governments as political centers alternative to the state. I thus explain the transformations of relations between municipal governments and the state on the basis of two processes of change, considered separately in analytical terms: the expansion of urban responsibilities, and the reorganization of state/military administrations (Table 1). First, according to existing research on center/periphery relations in Italy, the strengthening of municipal governments transforms their relations with the Defense Ministry by creating new types of internal political relationships. The latter deal with the implementation of local projects and are based on localized modes of coordination, such as contracts and agreements. Nevertheless, the transformation of the objectives, resources, and instruments of the Defense Ministry in the management of its urban infrastructures also modifies the allocation of resources and the imposition of norms by the national center. This constitutes the second transformation affecting the municipal governments’ possibilities for action and their relations to the national center. The expanded responsibilities of the cities, on the one hand, and the reorganization of the national military administration, on the other, create renewed center/periphery tensions, as we shall see.

Table 1

Transformation of city/state relations: the findings of existing research and the contributions of this article (in italics)

Table 1
Period Territorial organization City/State relations Central state Municipal governments Objectives of the relationship Primary mode of coordination 1945-1990 – Centralization– Distribution of resources Limited competences Managing national resource allocation (and negotiating constraints) Vertical political mediation Since 1990 – Decentralization Expanded autonomy and local responsibilities Implementation of local projects Local agreements – Sectoral reorganizations– Budgetary constraints Implementation of local projects or Conflicts and recourse to vertical political mediation (voice) or Abandonment of projects Abandonment of relations (exit)

Transformation of city/state relations: the findings of existing research and the contributions of this article (in italics)

8This article studies and compares three cases: Rome, Taranto, and Udine (detailed presentations of these cases and the methods of investigation used are provided in the Appendix). The three cities were selected according to two criteria. On the one hand, they are cities which in the past served an important military function, making the Defense Ministry a state actor that controlled considerable land resources locally: Rome is the national capital and thus the headquarters of all Ministry central administrations; Taranto is the site of the main Italian arsenal and a naval port on the Mediterranean; and Udine is historically one of the main garrison towns on the eastern border of the country. On the other hand, this article emphasizes the differences between these military cities based on the variations in the political and economic ties that they have historically maintained with the national center (Table 2). The influence of state activity on the development of these cities effectively varies: it is very strong in Taranto (because of state involvement in both military activities and the iron and steel industry) whereas other dynamics have characterized the development of Rome (construction, trade) and Udine (metallurgy and derivatives, industrial districts related to the furniture sector). These cities also exhibit a different political loyalty with respect to the national center: the center/periphery cleavage is expressed through political competition in Udine, first with the Friulian Autonomist Movement and then with the Northern League, whereas the political forces in power in Taranto and Rome are basically loyal to the national center.

Table 2

Differences between military cities

Table 2
Political loyalty + - Economic dependence + Taranto / - Rome Udine

Differences between military cities

9In this article, these variables linked to the structure of political competition and the extent of public activity in the local socio-economic context are used to compare policies concerning the conversion of military sites, and the relations between local governments and the Defense Ministry in all three cases. Moreover, in gesturing towards different relationships with the national center, these variables make it possible to observe the evolution of relations between urban and state actors since the 1990s when, according to the studies previously discussed, these modes of relations started to depend more on local coalitions and projects than on vertical political and economic ties.

10This article will first analyze the emergence of urban projects on the military sites, examining the new negotiations between local governments and the Defense Ministry which sought to reach agreement on the conversion of these sites. Next, it will reveal how the exhaustion of negotiations and conflicts over implementation led the cities to revise their strategies, choosing either to exit or to make new demands on the national government.

Urban projects and the territorialization of the armed forces

11The first part of the article studies the development phase of planning initiatives concerning military sites by the municipal governments of Rome, Taranto, and Udine, which began in the mid-1990s. In each city, projects and relations around these sites are analyzed via a consideration of, on the one hand, city planning policies and the political coalitions backing them and, on the other hand, the evolution of military activities and of public activities more generally within the local socio-economic context. It can be seen that the development of the conversion projects by these municipal governments was based on a strategy of territorialization by the Defense Ministry, consisting in creating localized policy arrangements (political structuring) to identify shared objectives for converting the sites and enable an exchange of resources on a local scale. Thus, military sites, historically beyond the reach of any intervention on the part of mayors, were reframed by municipal governments as being a resource for city planning and local development policies. Then local working groups were set up with the Defense Ministry. They aimed at concluding agreements (protocolli di intesa then accordi di programma) that would precisely define the military installations to be converted, the transfer procedures the armed forces would follow, and the redevelopment projects that would be included in the city plans. A comparison between the three cities shows that, in order to explain the emergence of these projects and local negotiations, the various ties which these cities maintained historically with the national center were secondary compared to the composition of local political coalitions (including governmental actors as well as various private actors).

Planning and development initiatives: military sites as a resource for local policies

12In the three cities, the projects for the conversion of the military sites were drawn up following the election of new political coalitions, which were faced with redefining the urban development model. These coalitions viewed the material transformation of disused military sites as both a matter of city planning, which modifies the uses of a space, and as a broader opportunity to elaborate local development policies. [18] At the beginning of the 1990s, issues related to economic regeneration and attractiveness were relatively new on the agendas of Italian cities. [19] In this context, the military sites became a resource for local politics in two ways: they were a land base for potential development projects for tertiary economic activities or public services, and they constituted an opportunity for local actors to set out a new political platform around the redirection of urban development.

13In Rome, city hall first turned its attention to the decline of the military infrastructure in the city in the late 1990s, when it was put on the agenda by the new center-left majority elected in 1993. This newly elected coalition, [20] led by a Green Party mayor, incarnated the revival of Roman politics at this time following the scandals of the early 1990s, and the coalition enjoyed strong public support. The transformation of both planning and public transportation policies was at the heart of the new agenda. Indeed, these sectors have been dividing issues in Roman politics since the postwar period, and the new municipal executive saw their revival as a driving force for a more general policy aimed at making the city more attractive and with improved living conditions for its inhabitants. The deputy-major in charge of drafting the new plan (which would replace the 1962 plan which was still in force) was a planner by profession, a veteran of ’68 and the movement for housing rights. He surrounded himself by city planners with similar political trajectories.

14This overhaul of the city plan provided the occasion for an equally in-depth debate over the areas owned by three major landowners in the city: the Defense Ministry, the universities, and the railways. The gradual reduction of the armed forces in Rome had meant that a significant number of properties were semi-abandoned. The question of what to do with these military sites was addressed by comparing Rome with other European cities. The former director of the Planning Unit explains:


“We were convinced that the city is made on itself… somewhat after the manner of the French urban project… except that in France or even in the North, in Milan, in Turin… the theme in those places was of the disused industrial site. But Rome is not an industrial city… so here, we were interested in other types of sites which had been subject to other uses and which had fallen into disuse… barracks, public warehouses…”

16Certain military properties were of particular interest to the municipality because of their location between the inner periphery and the city center, in districts dating from the 1950s and 1960s, densely urbanized and poorly served. Their redevelopment would make it possible to provide public services to these areas.

17Unlike in Rome, projects concerning military sites in Taranto only began to appear in the second half of the 2000s, tied to the consolidation of a coalition of actors around a project for shifting the urban economy from industry to tertiary activities. During the previous decade, this issue was kept off the local agenda by the political elites in power, in spite of significant changes in the city’s key economic sectors. Indeed, after 1993, when the city was governed by the founder of a local extreme-right party and owner of a local television station, municipal priorities were centered on security. Then, with the election of a Forza Italia mayor in 2000, they became focused on the renewal of the historic city center. As a consequence, the privatization of the state-run steel industry, the continuing decline of the military arsenal, [21] and the construction of the new naval base in Taranto – which came to occupy a wide swath of the urban seafront – were absent from municipal public policy during this decade.

18In Taranto, it was only from the middle of the 2000s that a coalition of local professionals and elected officials who “specialized” in Defense issues took up the question of how to redefine the urban development model. They began planning projects for the military sites. These projects were first placed on the regional agenda in connection with tourism, particularly thanks to a former secretary of state for Defense and member of parliament from Taranto who was then in charge of tourism in the Puglia regional government. The conversion projects then became a part of the municipal agenda in 2007, after the election of a center-left mayor and the appointment, as deputy mayor in charge of planning, of an official who had been a civilian manager and trade-unionist at the military arsenal. Because of their prior professional or political experience, these elected officials had acquired an expertise in military matters which became newly useful to them in developing the conversion projects. They were associated with a group of professionals – architects, engineers, and members of a scientific organization for maritime issues – who saw a possibility for drawing urban and professional benefit from these projects. [22] In these actors’ eyes, the development of Taranto ought to pursue a similar path to that taken by a certain number of port or industrial cities, such as “Bilbao, Barcelona, Gothenburg, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Cherbourg, Liverpool or the Ruhr”, [23] which experienced successful initiatives to revitalize old port and industrial spaces, converting them to tourist and consumer uses. Following these models, in Taranto, the redevelopment of military sites was intended to link the transformation of the economic structure of the city and the transformation of spaces via an ensemble of projects: the tourist conversion of the island of San Paolo facing the city center, the conversion of the cruiser Vittorio Veneto into a Museum of the Sea, the creation of a theater and community services out of a military administrative site, and the reuse of the historic part of the arsenal and the military port – certain parts of which were released by the reorganization of the armed forces – as exhibition spaces.

19Finally, in Udine, between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s the conversion of military sites was an issue of municipal planning policy since – in comparison with the two other cities – the military question remained separate from that of urban economic development. Indeed, in this case, the transition of the city’s economic base was promoted by actors from outside the municipality. The political balance of the city government had been unstable since the first mayoral elections by direct vote (1993). The first directly elected mayor was a socialist, but shortly afterward (1998), the city government was taken over by a new mayor who was supported by a heterogeneous coalition of members of the Friulian Separatist Movement, the Northern League (with which part of the Friulian Separatist Movement merged), and the Greens; in 2003, this same mayor was re-elected, supported this time by the center-left. At the beginning of the 2000s, city hall treated the issue of the military sites as an urban planning issue within the framework of the (failed) attempt to develop a new city plan and to convert industrial brownfields. [24] It was assessed at that time that the withdrawal of the armed forces would leave approximately 30 hectares of semi-abandoned buildings, including the large barracks surrounding the city center. In addition, the restructuring of other local industries left just as many sites to be repurposed. The redevelopment of these vacant plots was especially supported by the deputy mayor in charge of planning (a former member of the Friulian Separatist Movement who joined the Green Party). He proposed an anti-sprawl policy prioritizing the reuse of existing spaces over opening up new spaces to urbanization. In this context, certain projects involved the military sites, in particular the contiguous sites of the Piave barracks and the Safau steel plant south of the train station, as well as the military training area which cut across the main urban park in the northwest corner of the city center.

20Nevertheless, during this period, the military conversion issue was kept separate from the main initiatives dealing with local economic development. The latter were elaborated by the university, local economic actors, and private foundations. While the municipal government assisted them (by providing building permits, for example), it did not promote them. The most significant was the development of a new business zone, the Luigi Danieli Science and Technology Park, [25]that accommodated businesses, university research laboratories and, later, the industrial district for digital technologies. Moreover, there were major transformations of urban space due to the widening of the university’s influence. Using substantial state and regional financing, the university pursued a policy of buying up and repurposing private residences and religious structures fallen into disuse in the city center in order to accommodate the rapid increase in the number of students. [26]

Knowing the sites and enlisting the armed forces: the process of adjusting and defining the shape of the projects

21After framing the military sites as resources for urban policy, the second facet of the Defense Ministry’s territorialization strategy via municipal governments concerned negotiations about the transformation of the sites. During the 2000s, the relations between municipal governments and the Defense Ministry were part of the “contractual turn” that characterized urban planning at the time. [27] There were negotiations based on repeated interactions (conducted within working groups) that aimed to define shared understandings and shared goals, reconciling the expectations of the municipal governments in charge of city planning with those of the Defense Ministry which owned the land. In this mode of coordination, the focus is on local political actors organizing and maintaining stable negotiations locally. It thus differs from Italy’s centralized model, in which urban policy depends on vertical political resources. For municipal governments, it is a matter of enlisting a central-state department – engaged in its own reforms with a real estate surplus to manage – into local planning and development initiatives. This period clarified the content of the projects. Although these at first targeted an ensemble of military sites based on a rationale specific to the urban actors originally involved, exchanges with the armed forces made it possible to define more precisely which properties the Ministry was actually likely to yield.

Table 3

Military site redevelopment projects

Table 3
Projects for the conversion of military sites Military issue placed on the municipal agenda Actors involved in initial negotiations Rome Changing the city by planning: public services and attractiveness 1997 Elected officials and the municipal department in charge of city planning (creation of an ad hoc unit within the department) Taranto Waterfront and tourism 2004 Regional official for tourism/Deputy mayor for city planning/Professional associations Udine Part of the projects for the conversion of industrial brownfields 1995 Elected officials and departments in charge of city planning/Regional government

Military site redevelopment projects

22Negotiations with the armed forces began in Rome in 1998 with the creation of a unit in the city planning department called the “Comprehensive task force for disused university and military areas”. Initially, this unit dealt with all of these properties. Given the many abandoned or underutilized sites (especially old forts converted into barracks), this new organization was responsible for counting and studying the sites in order to “understand what may be discussed”, in the words of its former director. Between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, a series of meetings was held within the framework of a working group formed by the local government with the Defense Infrastructure department. This made it possible to exchange technical and legal information concerning the 108 military sites in the city (more or less used by the Defense Ministry), and then classify these same sites according to the objectives and rationale of the new regulatory plan which was worked out during the same period (accessibility via public transportation, situation in relation to neighborhood services, etc.) in order to evaluate the possibilities for transforming them. [28] These exchanges led to the joint identification of five sites for possible redevelopment and to the signing of a first preliminary agreement in 2001. This work gave rise to a second agreement, signed in 2010, aimed at redeveloping ten other sites.

23In Taranto, the years 2005-2011 were characterized by a proliferation of meetings concerning the reorganization of military sites and the possibilities created by opening the new naval base. This involved the navy alongside political and professional actors in reorienting urban development. At these meetings, elected officials specialized in defense acted as mediators between the two parties: not only did they understand how the navy worked, but the former managers of the arsenal had also known the Tarantian officers for a long time. The proliferation of meetings allowed for the exchange of information and mutual clarification of needs. This phase led to adjustments, since the sites targeted for conversion projects were partly reviewed in line with the navy’s local reorganization plans. An assistant to the mayor explains as follows:


“They started to hold meetings with me, the mayor, the chief of infrastructure [for the navy], and the commander. And what they said… it was to say, ‘The Navy tells the City what its program is, and the City tells the Navy what its needs are’. And we can work from that starting point.”

25In Udine, finally, from 1998 until the mid-2000s the municipal government sought to obtain the transfer of all the military sites located within the city. This was based on meetings with the Military Engineering Department headquartered in Udine. At the same time, these local meetings benefited from a parallel process taking place simultaneously at the regional government level. Given the extent of the military presence in the area, the regional departments of Public Patrimony and Planning centralized the information on abandoned or semi-abandoned military sites which the municipalities transmitted to them. This task of centralization and coordination became the basis for negotiations with the Defense Ministry to obtain the transfer of the sites. Here, the military question entered into the vast system of negotiations organized by the National-Regional Joint Committee, an institutional channel for dialogue between the state and the Autonomous Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. These negotiations led to two property transfer decrees: a first in 2001 and then a second in 2007 transferred three properties located in Udine; more generally, nearly half (250 properties) of all the defense infrastructure fallen into disuse was transferred to the municipalities concerned.

26This first part of this article has revealed a process whereby local government tried to redefine the urban development model and draft projects for the conversion of sites through localized negotiations with the Defense Ministry. A synchronic comparison shows that the differentiation between one city and the next is due to local conditions (electoral cycles and the way in which local coalitions made the transformation of the armed forces an object of intervention for urban public action), rather than vertical variables associated with the withdrawal of the armed forces or political loyalty towards the national center. Thus, the processes of constructing negotiated modes of relations with the state, emphasized in studies of Italian cities during the 1990s and 2000s, also affected the Defense Ministry with local attempts to territorialize the armed forces in urban projects.

The collapse of urban projects and new conflicts between cities and the state

27The second part of this article highlights the exhaustion of this dynamic, the failure of negotiations, and the emergence of new conflicts between the cities and the state concerning urban projects. First, local negotiations in Rome, Udine, and Taranto stagnated and then failed because of the conflicting expectations and resources of the municipal governments and the Defense Ministry. The strategies of this ministry were effectively structured by a rationale that sought to reduce expenditures and extract resources, which the financial and political resources of the municipal governments were unable to combat. Second, within this context of the limited financial capacity of local governments to implement projects, relations between the cities and the state evolved. The comparison shows either an exit from these relations on the part of local governments, or a renewal of their demands and entreaties toward the national center (voice). The separate paths taken by the three cities can be explained by the articulation between, on the one hand, the different capacities and legitimacies of the municipal governments and their projects, and, on the other hand, the various bonds of loyalty and dependency between these cities and the state. The divided and conflictual character of local politics and the strong ties to the center [29] are two mechanisms which support speech (voice) rather than the abandonment of relations (exit).

The failure of urban projects under financial constraint

28In all three of these cities, the military site conversion projects followed similar trajectories. At the turn of the 2010s, these projects, which systematically tackled the military question and made it a component within broader city planning and local development strategies, did not get past the initial planning phase. Obstacles appeared when it was time to identify the content of the redevelopment project (necessarily leading to the modification of urban planning) and how it was to be financed. The municipal governments effectively lacked sufficient financial and political resources to carry out the projects and to achieve local goals in opposition to the Defense Ministry, whose real estate objectives were themselves hampered by budgetary restrictions. The divergence of the goals of the actors involved caused the local agreements to fail.

29For the whole period under consideration, Defense Ministry policy was guided by the need to adapt installations to organizational changes in the context of an ever-shrinking budget. The goals of reducing costs and extracting revenue via the sale of properties predominated, which left scant room for any concern with other local priorities. Reforms in the armed forces were accompanied by a real estate strategy based on concentrating forces and activities in the buildings which were best preserved and best met the needs of a professional army in terms of equipment and housing soldiers. Such a concentration was intended to reduce the costs associated with upkeep and security for these vast holdings, all the more so as the majority of sites were poorly maintained. In addition, the idea that the sale of military properties constituted a potential source of revenue was increasingly welcomed at Defense Ministry headquarters. This was due not only to the sector’s budgetary difficulties, but also to the intensifying pressure exerted by the Finance Ministry [30] and to the increased media visibility of the problem of disused public properties. [31] At the end of the 1990s, an increasing number of laws sought to frame policies for the efficient utilization of public properties, followed by the sale of those considered useless. Since 1999, defining policy on public property has been entrusted to an ad hoc agency created by reforms to the Finance Ministry, and objectives for the sale of public property have been included each year in the finance law as part of the public deficit reduction policy. [32]

30Consequently, when the armed forces engaged in negotiations over the content of the redevelopment plan, their expectations and strategies primarily concerned revenue acquisition, which, on the one hand, would finance the creation of new infrastructure to meet the changing needs of the organization (particularly housing for professional soldiers), and, on the other hand, would be transferred to the Finance Ministry within the framework of the deficit reduction policy. This pushed them toward strategies of maximizing urban rents, especially where the real estate markets were most dynamic. According to an official in the Ministry’s central administration, re-zoning had to allow for “the property to be put on the market with a zoning which will allow for maximum commercial reuse”. [33]

31Within the framework of the constraints posed by the Defense Ministry, municipal governments were unable to intervene directly to convert sites nor to regulate the market actors tasked with these transformations. First of all, the municipalities did not have sufficient financial resources to purchase the sites from the Defense Ministry and carry out their projects. The investment capacities of local governments were limited and becoming even more so, because of the reduction of funds transferred by the state and the increasingly narrow framing of their capacities for expenditure and investment established by the Internal Stability Pact. [34] Added to these ordinary budgetary constraints, which affected all municipalities, were the municipal debt crises of Taranto and Rome that erupted in the mid-2000s (particularly the bankruptcy of Taranto in 2005 and the Roman debt bailout in 2008).

32Second, expecting private actors to invest in site conversion sometimes led to failure, and other times to conflict. In Taranto and Udine, investors did not respond to calls for an official expression of interest or to more informal attempts to involve them. This was due to the stagnation of the real estate market in Italian cities following the economic crisis [35] but also to the more structural issue of higher costs entailed in the conversion of sites compared to construction on undeveloped land. [36] In the absence of political incentives, real estate actors preferred the second type of venture. In Rome, on the other hand, the difficulties encountered in approaching private investors arose from conflicts between the municipality and the Defense Ministry. Certain sites were located in districts with very high property values (particularly in the historical center and the Flaminio district), which attracted investors who contacted city hall as well as the Defense Ministry. Nevertheless, these two public actors did not manage to establish an agreement concerning rent control in the conversion projects, manifest in the failure to define a stable consensus on the quotas intended for public services (and thus weak property values), and those intended for private construction (which would allow the Defense Ministry to raise significant income). In response to the demands of the armed forces, the deputy mayor remarked: “Maximum economic value is incompatible with mixed use; maximum economic value will not pay for the necessities of city planning.” [37]

33In all three cases, ultimately the muncipal governments lacked the political resources that would allow them to force the Defense Ministry – within the framework of local negotiations – to reconsider its objectives and take account of the goals of local planning and development. An assistant to the mayor summed up the situation: “And the problem is that at this moment, there is no local public authority which is powerful enough to tell Defense, “Now get lost!” [38]

Crisis in local policies and new demands on the national center: Taranto and Rome

34The failures of negotiations led to a reshaping of relations between these three cities and the state. In Rome and Taranto, this took the form of a strategy of voice with respect to the national government. In both cities, the municipal governments faced significant local divisions with regard to the urban development model. Unable to manage these conflicts, political elites with a history of strong ties to the state turned them into demands made to the central state, from which they sought to obtain not only material resources (money and land), but also legitimation and support for their local policy agendas. The central state, therefore, was seen as the privileged site and authority from which to obtain financial resources by vertical political mediation. These new demands addressed to the state on the part of the cities do not indicate a simple return to the centralized Italian territorial model: their content and objectives are now only to be understood within the framework of urban projects developed over the previous decade by local governments with expanded responsibilities.

35Let us first consider the case of Rome. The city government found it increasingly difficult to avoid the proliferation of conflicts around planning projects. During the 2000s, the redevelopment projects carried out by the city related to the revitalization of certain districts, often in connection with the realization of flagship projects (from Renzo Piano’s Auditorium to Richard Meier’s Ara Pacis Museum) and in preparation for big events (the Jubilee year of 2000, candidacy for the Olympic Games, the 2009 World Aquatics Championships). [39] Beyond these interventions, however, certain structural problems within the capital city were left unresolved. Demands for basic public goods and services such as parks or public transportation remained unaddressed. The second half of the 2000s, and especially the years following the election of a center-right mayor in 2008, were then marked by widespread conflict concerning the transformation of Roman space. [40] The military sites became the subject of a significant political battle waged by a composite movement in the form of a network of associations called the Comitato per l’uso pubblico delle caserme, which addressed the issue of the military sites within the framework of an overall critique of the choices made by municipal planning policies. With its call to maintain the military sites for public use, this network rallied an ensemble of groups which, since the beginning of the 2000s, had focused on the issue of abandoned military spaces, either in terms of the right to housing, or on the basis of more localized demands aimed at improving public services in certain districts. Because of its roots in a variety of pre-existing groups, this network possessed relational resources and expertise, as well as a significant capacity for mobilization which was demonstrated in a series of public events and assemblies organized during 2011-2012.

36The emergence of local mobilizations opposed to the privatization of the military sites reduced the municipal government’s room for maneuver with respect to the zoning and content of the site conversion projects – and, therefore, in its negotiations with the Defense Ministry. Recourse to the national government then became a means for city hall to deal with these local obstacles. Local officials requested both financial resources and the free transfer of military assets as resources needed for the capital city. Indeed, what a former deputy mayor called the “hub of the capital city” refers to the determination of the financial resources needed to enable Rome to sustain its role of national capital, carry out locally defined urban policies, and tackle the persistent problem of municipal debt. Due to the national government’s intervention, a restricted number of military sites were ceded by the Defense Ministry via the Agenzia del Demanio. In particular, this concerned one of the forts (the Forte Trionfale – Caserma Ulivelli), which was earmarked as a district (municipio) headquarters, and a barracks located in the district of the new Museum of Contemporary Art and the Auditorium, which was destined to become a City of Science, thus bolstering the cultural functions of the Flaminio district.

37For its part, the government of the city of Taranto did not manage to resolve the conflicts over the city’s future which erupted at the turn of the 2010s, pitting groups with opposed views against one another. An opposition emerged centered on the activities of the iron and steel industry, which led to a legal conflict, polarizing the Tarantian debate around support for or rejection of the development of large-scale industrial plants. [41] A 2008 regional law introduced new limits on dioxin emissions to which the iron and steel company had to adapt. In 2012, a court order required the iron and steel plant to shut down for violation of regional environmental standards, and sentenced part of the company’s management. In the wake of this legal crisis, any scenario for urban development was tied to a position concerning the future of the iron and steel plant, with opposing views ranging from closing the site to preserving it in its entirety. [42] This conflict destabilized the well-trodden path of development based on the military and the steel industry, but its strongly divided character also exacerbated the difficulty of arriving at any shared representation of a future for Taranto. In this context, from the beginning of the 2000s officials in the Tarantian municipal and provincial governments took the matter up with the national government, first by making visits to Rome and then by taking highly publicized stands on the issue during the iron and steel plant crisis, which obtained nationwide visibility. Their demands combined a register that emphasized the ties between the city and the state with a register focused on local projects. The program documents outlining the demands addressed to the government underscored the state’s responsibilities: national strategic activities which took place more than a century ago were presented as having foreclosed an alternative urban development, and subsequent restructuring and external factors were blamed for the economic and environmental crisis. [43] At the same time, a good number of the projects’ elements that had been worked out over the preceding years were taken up once again, including those concerning the redevelopment of military sites. These mobilizations in the center by local actors, within the context of the iron and steel industry crisis, prompted the state to make an ad hoc intervention with financing intended for the decontamination of sea beds and land, along with measures related to urban projects, including handing over three military sites to meet immediate needs for housing and parking lots.

Local politics without the center: Udine

38In Udine, by contrast, consensus developed around the urban development model – sealed by the local election of those who had initially constructed it as outsiders – and led local actors who had been historically distant from the national center to marginalize the military issue and suspend relationships with the Defense Ministry. As emphasized above, the transformation of the city that began at the end of the 1990s was firmly anchored in the rise of the university and the ties between it and local industrial and financial actors, whose initiatives proceeded separately from municipal action. In 2008, the dean of the university during the 2000s was elected mayor. This confirmed the position achieved by higher education in the city and consolidated a relatively consensual local development project from which the local government drew resources and legitimacy to act. This project was articulated and consolidated during the development of the strategic plan for the metropolitan area, involving both public and private actors. The timeline attached to the final document provided an interpretation of the past, summed up in the phrase, “Udine, military and commercial city”, [44] and an interpretation of the city’s future, founded on its new function as a bridge between Western and Eastern Europe: “Udine, European city.” [45]

39Within this framework, the military issue was marginalized and a local intervention was presented as unnecessary and excessively costly in terms of political and financial resources. In the eyes of the political actors in place at the beginning of the 2010s, the withdrawal of the armed forces was solved in a “natural” way – once again, in the words of a local official – by the expansion of the university. In this view, the urban military population, which had been a driver of commerce, was replaced by students, whose consumer activity was not essentially different.

40The municipal government no longer sought to acquire control of military properties. While conversion was planned for the three sites ceded after the demands of the 2000s, the other sites were voluntarily left out of the planning process. Dialogue with the Defense Ministry on this subject was suspended. As an assistant to the mayor explained: “We’re not going to seek them out.” In the same way, one of the city’s leaders asserted: “We can’t make plans for these zones which are not under our control, so even if they are empty, we have quite simply treated them as military zones.” [46]

41The second part of this article has shown that negotiated, localized modes of relation failed and that the dynamics of the projects for redeveloping military sites led to an exit or a renewal of demands (voice) directed toward the national center. While the various relations of the three cities with the central state played a marginal role in explaining the development of planning initiatives, when these projects were blocked, those relations took on new importance for understanding how the cities revised their strategies. What takes place in these new conflicts between cities and the national center is not only – as in the case of the traditional center/periphery schema – the resistance of local actors to penetration by the state or the exchange of local loyalty for national resources. In a system that is simultaneously decentralized and characterized by shrinking public sectors, what is at stake in center-periphery conflicts is the completion of municipal governments’ projects and the vertical exchange of the material resources and legitimacy necessary to accomplish them.

42* * *

43This article has analyzed the relations between the cities and the state in Italy through the prism of one sector, the military, which, like other state sectors, has been overlooked by recent research on territorial politics. While studies on cities and decentralization have stressed the emergence of negotiated relations for the production of urban policy, this only accounts for what took place concerning the transformation of military sites up to a certain point. Indeed, the case of the armed forces sheds light on new conflicts between cities and the state. Attempts to construct new political arrangements with the Defense Ministry – aiming at the conversion of sites in connection with agendas for urban development – failed. Because of the nature of the reorganization of the armed forces (shaped by budgetary constraints) and the municipal governments’ lack of resources to challenge this, these negotiations stalled, and new urban strategies emerged involving recourse to the central government (voice), or to exit. The case of the conversion projects for military sites thus leads me to argue that the expanded scope of the city governments’ responsibilities, on the one hand, and the rationale behind the shrinking of the public sector and budgetary cuts, on the other hand, produce new conflicts and new demands by the cities toward the state.

44Through a close study of the projects and their implementation, this article shows how the modes of and capacities for action of both the cities and the state evolved. This makes it possible to reconsider the more general question of the interplay between the rescaling of political authority – namely, the redistribution of material and financial resources and of legitimacy between various levels of government – and policy change. [47] First of all, the cycle of projects involving military sites demonstrates that the central state maintains its place in this decentralized system, and has not been marginalized to the advantage of the subnational levels, as presented by the analytical models of territorial governance. Here, the state still fulfills the role of “major financial intermediary” [48] that it has played historically in Italy, but now it does so by maintaining financial constraints. In one respect, the rationale of reforms of national administrations is largely based on the reduction of expenditures. On the other hand, these budgetary priorities are accompanied by a type of “crisis” management which consists in allocating resources (here, in Taranto and Rome) in response to claims made by local governments. This one-off intervention does not inflect the overall process of sectoral and budgetary restructuring. On the contrary, it constitutes the other side of it and proves to be essential, because it makes it possible for the state to manage the crises of the peripheries and re-establish their political support. Through its rationale of financial control and the maintaining of political support, this form of intervention on the part of the national political center does not resemble the model (as described in the French case) of the competitive allocation of resources by the state, which makes it possible for the latter to retain control of urban agendas and policies within a decentralized territorial system. This guiding rationale for the action of municipal governments, characteristic of the French model of “government at a distance” by the state, is lacking here. [49]

45In addition, the municipal governments appear to have suffered a crisis both in terms of their capacity to act and their legitimacy. Projects involving military sites reveal the limited capacity of city governments to mobilize actors – including public actors such as the armed forces – for the development and implementation of public policies. The possibility for cities to control the transformation of spaces, economies, and urban societies seems reduced, in a context where the financial resources at their disposal are limited and where the rationales of their partners (in this case, the Defense Ministry) are also dictated by budgetary constraints. In comparison with the beginning of the cycle of urban politics and the institutional reforms of the 1990s, these difficulties in taking action contribute to a crisis both for the mayors’ legitimacy and the idea, associated with institutional reforms, that the local arena might be both the site for defining public problems and the starting point for solving them. The local conflicts which erupted in certain cities (e.g., Taranto and Rome) concerning the definition of the urban development model can also then be understood by considering the gap between, on the one hand, expectations formed regarding municipal governments because of their expanded authority and responsibilities and, on the other hand, the limits of their capacity to act effectively.

46Local public action is strewn with failures, and modes of policy production are reworked and vary greatly. First, in a territorial model which relies on the responsibility and initiative of local actors, the production of policies requires access to resources as well as the capacity of local actors to activate them. [50] Without this, as this article demonstrates, the capacity for vertical political mediation and “traditional” mobilizations in relation to the national center take on renewed importance. Indeed, they become necessary to obtain the resources needed to pursue new urban projects. Alternatively, the production of local public property is accomplished outside of government. In Udine, the city’s major projects and innovations were the initiatives of the municipal government, but were initially articulated within local coalitions outside it. This is not an isolated case; for example, it recalls what was observed in science and medicine policy in Milan at the beginning of the 2000s. [51] These various trajectories and relations between the actors associated with them thus illuminate the shift in the modes of policy elaboration in those political systems – and Italy is far from unique in this respect – that are characterized by decentralization, as well as by national administrative reforms and increasing financial constraints.


1 – Research methods

47The data on which this article draws were collected as part of the empirical research I carried out for my doctoral dissertation in political science. [52] I visited each city and employed a combination of qualitative methods. I used semi-structured interviews as a tool to analyze public policies, [53] along with the collection of primary and secondary textual sources. As far as possible, I drew upon participant observation. I carried out between 27 and 33 interviews in each city. The set of people interviewed was composed of elected city officials (current and former), senior management in the fields of city planning and economic development, and military personnel (current and former) in charge of a geographical area or infrastructure. I also drew on written sources, especially the press review of the main local daily newspaper, official reports of city council debates, and archived administrative documents on projects and plans, and public communication concerning these same projects.

2 – Presentation of the case studies


48In 1882, Taranto was selected as a naval port and site for the arsenals of the new state of Italy. In 1961, it also became one of the primary centers for the state-run iron and steel industry and the site of one of the state-run Italsider company’s central plants. State military and industrial activities structured urban space via the naval base and the arsenal, which occupied a broad portion of the seafront in the east, and the iron and steel plant and industrial port in the west. Between the 1950s and 1970, the navy and public industry made Taranto the greatest industrial site in the Mezzogiorno, turning the city into an attractive center for the surrounding provinces. [54] Political careers were built in these state-run institutions, and obtaining resources from the national center to be redistributed locally was one of the bases for the construction of local political consensus, both during the long period in which the Christian Democrats were in power (1956-1976) and when the city was governed by the Italian Communist Party, the Tarantian section of which was closely tied to state-run industries. [55]


49In the construction of Rome as the capital after 1870, the defense of the city and the housing of soldiers were among the government’s principal concerns. At the time of the conquest, many religious buildings were requisitioned for military use which subsequently became permanent. Under the first years of the liberal monarchy, a defensive system of detached forts and the ministry’s central administrative headquarters were built. Under fascism, the military influence increased with the establishment of the military district of Cecchignola. [56] The two principal sectors driving urban development, in particular since the inter-war period, were the expansion of public administration and construction. [57] The municipal administration was consequently closely linked to the dynamics of the real estate market which accompanied rising urbanization. During the postwar decades, the city was controlled by a “growth coalition” [58] in which the local Christian Democrats (then in coalition with the Socialist Party) were supported by an economic bloc composed of big landowners and some construction companies.


50Udine’s military role took shape during the First World War and was reinforced during the cold war because of the city’s position at the eastern border. In 1960, two thirds of the army were concentrated in the northeastern military region, with approximately a quarter in Friuli (the province of Udine), and the city hosted the region’s largest garrison. At that time, the city of Udine was a military and administrative center in one of the poorest zones of the north, but the iron and steel industries developed during the postwar period and, beginning in the 1970s, considerable economic growth was linked to the development of some of these firms and to the emergence of a production system comprised of small and medium-sized companies. Udine and its surrounding region were dominated by the “white” political subculture in which the Christian Democrats were the dominant political force, ensuring mediation with the national center. [59] Nevertheless, during the 1960s and 1970s, the relation to the national center was a dividing issue in local political contests because of the rise of the Friulian Separatist Movement (in the regional elections of 1964, the movement obtained 12% of the seats in Friuli). Along with official recognition of the Friulian dialect and the creation of an autonomous university, one prong of the movement was the easing of the constraint which the army exercised over the development of urban and rural spaces (these three demands were met at the end of the 1970s). [60]


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    This term is used to designate the totality of the properties which were constructed, used, managed, and sold by the armed forces in their various configurations and in the exercise of their functions.
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    The development of projects in the Italian cities should be understood not only by taking into account the objectives of the municipal governments, but also from the starting-point that one segment of the liberal professions sought to bolster public expenditures for the development of projects that would remunerate them. Cf. Antonio Calafati, Economie in cerca di città: La questione urbana in Italia (Rome: Donzelli Editore, 2009).
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    The park was created by Friuli Innovazione, an association resulting from an initiative of the University of Udine, the Udine Industrial Association, the Fiat Research Center, Agemont, the Pordenone Industrial Association, and the CRUP Foundation.
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    The 2000s witnessed the rise of the Friulian University. The institution stabilized at its current level of approximately 16,000 registered students around the middle of the decade (having risen from 7,000 in 1990 and 11,000 in 1998 to 17,000 in 2003).
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    Pinson, Gouverner la ville; Bobbio, “Produzione di politiche.”
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Through an analysis of the projects for the reconversion of military sites in three Italian cities – Rome, Taranto and Udine – this article contributes to the debate around the evolving relations between cities and the state since the 1990s. It reveals the failure of negotiations and the emergence of new conflicts over urban projects. While research concerning urban policy has underlined the strengthening of localized negotiations and agreements in the production of local public policies, this article argues that new conflicts between cities and the state characterize Italy’s territorial system, structured by two decades of decentralization but also by state retrenchment and budget cuts.

Francesca Artioli
Francesca Artioli is assistant professor (maître de conférences) at the Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris (Université Paris Est-Créteil) and a member of the Lab’Urba. She holds a PhD in political science from Sciences Po Paris (December 2014) and has been visiting post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. Her research, situated within the field of comparative policy analysis, focuses on territorial politics and urban governance, specializing in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom (Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris, Bâtiment Bienvenüe Cité Descartes, 14-20 Boulevard Newton, F-77420 Champs-sur-Marne, France).
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