The purpose of this paper is to critically examine the “knowledge city” spatial socio-economic imaginary used in the post-earthquake city of L’Aquila, Italy, to promote its socio-economic redevelopment.
The paper counters primary and secondary data with the expected qualities of a knowledge city. The analysis is supported by the literature review on knowledge-cities and post-disaster redevelopment, local and national documentation review, on-site observations and an inquiry of the case of the Gran Sasso Science Institute, the leading project towards the implementation of the knowledge-city agenda through interviews with key actors and a survey among its researchers.
Post-disaster realities and path-dependency leave little room for a positive path-shaping redevelopment trajectory related to a knowledge-city urban archetype. This vision promotes materialism and intellectualism from local, national and international stakeholders; however, the city lacks specific urban qualities to attract and maintain highly skilled labour and investments, while negative socio-economic trends still continue a decade after the earthquake.
The city’s post-disaster recovery and redevelopment contain certain degrees of inertia. The early stage of it, the lack of certain secondary data, and the focus of the paper on specific indicators limit the opportunity for stronger reasoning.
The analysis reveals that the redevelopment vision of the knowledge city was hastily adopted. The mismatch between reality and expectations highlights the need for post-disaster territories to avoid overestimation of their capabilities and adjusts their redevelopment strategies to local characteristics adopting modest future projections.
Koukoufikis, G. (2019), "Post-disaster redevelopment and the “knowledge city”: limitations of an urban imaginary in L’Aquila", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 28 No. 4, pp. 474-486. https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-12-2017-0320Download as .RIS
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Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited
The 2009 earthquake was a devastating event for L’Aquila leaving physiological and socio-economic marks on the city for decades. This paper, written during the 9th year of post-disaster recovery, provides a critical analysis on the city’s socio-economic redevelopment reflecting the limitations of the urban strategy of the “knowledge city” proposed for L’Aquila.
In a globally interconnected world where capital accumulation is driven by knowledge-intensive economic activities, the urban archetype of the knowledge city has emerged (Carrillo, 2006; Yigitcanlar et al., 2008). The concept refers to an advanced capitalistic city that generates and promotes knowledge production and diffusion throughout all its socio-economic and cultural properties (Ergazakis et al., 2004). The collective and individual knowledge is then valorised through exports of high value-added products and services, resulting in wealth production and accumulation for the city (Edvinsson, 2017). A normative approach to such a development archetype implies various qualities that a city should possess. “Hard” qualities refer to attractive urban morphology, spatial articulation and connectivity, dynamic demographics, and advanced infrastructure. “Soft” qualities refer to popular urban theories developed over the last decades (e.g. Landry, 2000; Florida, 2002) according to which cultural qualities and offering (vitality, ethnic diversity, social tolerance, etc.) is crucial for attracting highly skilled labour. And finally, in the presence of knowledge-intensive industries, higher education and research institutions, specialized business clusters and active networking schemes create dense knowledge-intensive labour markets (Martinez, 2006; OECD, 2007; Musterd and Gritsai, 2010). Thus, cities that wish to adjust their strategies to a knowledge-based economic development paradigm should invest on resources and implement policies trying to imitate the conditions that will allow them to attract and sustain investments and skilled labours.
In L’Aquila, in the aftermath of the disaster, the issue of the area’s socio-economic redevelopment shaped by the urban imaginary of the knowledge city was debated. High-profile institutions like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) along with national and local stakeholders promoted the latter. The city’s council in its post-disaster strategic plan adopted, as the leading vision, the “L’Aquila, City of Knowledge” rhetoric (Fontana, 2018). Congruently, public investments supported the creation of a new research centre and PhD school, the Gran Sasso Science Institute (GSSI), as a part of the emerging redevelopment strategy, visioning a city driven by knowledge and innovation. This strategy fuelled sizable concerns that the earthquake’s impact will negatively affect the city’s image as an educational hub, thus threatening the economic recovery process (OECD, 2009; Calafati, 2012). The years prior to the disaster, continuous deindustrialization processes and no-growth economic trends brought L’Aquila’s province to underperform economically in terms of the Italian average (Di Pietro and Mora, 2015). On the contrary, the local university experienced solid growth with a massive increase in enrolments (above 60 per cent for 2000–2008). Thus, the university became even more important factor of the local economy and various social/professional groups became worryingly reliant on income derived from the students’ housing needs and consumption patterns.
This paper discusses the discursive and material investments towards L’Aquila’s post-disaster knowledge-city redevelopment, arguing that this vision will most likely remain symbolic. The analysis is grounded on L’Aquila’s socio-spatial properties and the features of the GSSI project, suggesting that the use of the knowledge-city archetype is conceptually and essentially inappropriate since local dynamics do not allow a relative trajectory to emerge. The first section introduces the literature on the models of territorial development that inspired the knowledge-city discourse. Thereafter, a methodological note describes the mode and tools of the analysis. The next section sets the scene and contextualises the knowledge-city debate in L’Aquila, describing the process of the promotion and adoption of this redevelopment imaginary and its flagship project, the GSSI. Subsequently, the normative properties of the knowledge city juxtapose with the aspirations communicated in redevelopment reports, L’Aquila’s and GSSI’s realities indicating various mismatches. Finally, a discussion summarises the main points of the argumentation.
Models of territorial development and the knowledge-city archetype
In the era of advanced capitalism and global-scale economic competition, the spatially bounded communities try to attract the borderless capital, while labour seizes mobility opportunities to avoid precarious working conditions. In this setting and given the importance of advanced service sectors and high-tech industrial applications on economic performance, attracting capital investments and highly skilled labour appears crucial for a city’s economic sustainability. Accordingly, scientific research in urban and regional development over the last decades has endeavoured to identify models of territorial development that can explain and predict the dynamics of innovation and economic growth. The ways spatial organisation promotes innovation are proposed and studied (industrial districts, innovative milieus, local production systems, learning regions, etc.) mobilising various concepts of socio-economic development (endogenous development, agglomeration economies, cluster formation, systems of innovation, etc.) (Moulaert and Sekia, 2003). These models underline the importance of location factors, spatial concentration and quality of innovative actors in economic growth (Romer, 1994; Michael, 2000). Hence, knowledge production units, such as Higher Education Institutions (HEI), universities and research centres, are recognised as crucial for attracting or producing highly skilled labours, which acts as the main input of economic development (Scott, 2004).
The social constructivist nature of this line of thought on territorial development tend to an “under- or over-emphasising of individual processes shaping local economies” (Taylor, 2012), and “a technocratic view of innovation” and development emerge (Moulaert and Sekia, 2003). Nevertheless, economic and political thinking based on these scientific narratives become mainstream, creating the illusion of one-recipe-fits-all policy for spatial development. Urban conversions of this normative understanding of development took place via the promotion of archetypes of urban economic organisation, treating cities as rational economic agents (Lambooy and Moulaert, 1996). Archetypes describe the leading production and consumption urban centres of global capitalism colonized city planning and become role models for smaller or economically weaker cities. The vision and strategies that they carry regarding spatial possibilities and impossibilities become political and cultural tools influencing planning, investments and urban transformation (Mazza, 2009; Albrechts, 2013). Their discourses and symbols construct urban imaginaries projecting socio-cultural messages that affect spatial, social and economic practices and have material consequences for the spatial organisation and economic trajectory of cities (Zukin et al., 1998; Johansson, 2012), which are usually crafted by elitist social groups that govern and define urban interventions and planning priorities driving public investments towards goals that often do not match the local needs and characteristics (Swyngedouw et al., 2002).
One of these archetypes, the knowledge city, was used for L’Aquila’s post-disaster redevelopment. Knowledge-based urban development popularised in the dawn of the twenty-first century, indicating that technological and economic advantages are fostered by knowledge-intensive activities (Yigitcanlar et al., 2008). A positive correlation between economic growth and the knowledge base of a city is identified in series of favourable case studies (Cooke and Schwartz, 2008; Glaeser and Saiz, 2003; Lever, 2002; Metaxiotis, 2010). It is thought that manufacturing a knowledge city requires a collective and consistent effort of various local public and private stakeholders (Ergazakis et al., 2004). Their primary scope is to generate and attract highly skilled labour and develop a sufficient number of knowledge-based industries that will provide employment opportunities and trigger positive agglomeration effects (Martinez, 2006; Van Winden et al., 2007). Hence, policies and investments in education, research, and culture to attract highly skilled labour have become for cities mesmerised by the knowledge-city imaginary. However, implications arise when small urban systems try to duplicate such strategies. Large cities that are front-runners of territorial competition are more capable to adjust to global changes, while small- and medium-size towns face more challenges (Demazière et al., 2013). They are located often in peripheral areas based on traditional production milieus and it is hard to diversify their economy to respond to the forces of globalisation. Usually, such areas either remain idle surrendering to their decay or try to replicate the conditions and strategies of successful cases with no guarantee of their success (Rodriguez-Pose and Fitjar, 2013; Pezzi and Urso, 2017).
Methods of inquiry
In order to support the analysis regarding the use of the knowledge-city urban development imaginary for the redevelopment of L’Aquila, two reflections come together utilising a variety of research methods and tools. A broader that casts a number of socio-economic territorial properties of the city against the elements of such an imaginary; and a specific focusing on the case of the GSSI as the most visible investment towards the implementation of this development agenda. The basis of these were continuous on-site observations allowing direct contact with the objects of study as the author was a part of the GSSI’s doctorate programme (period 2014–2018) residing in the city. Thus, taking advantage of a privileged point of view that provides insights and background information, the argument of the paper is supported by desk research (grey-literature review) and fieldwork (January–March 2015). Six in-depth semi-structured interviews with GSSI’s actors (founding members of the directors’ board and researchers with management and administrative roles) and a survey with the institute’s personnel took place. The interviews provided information on the narratives of the creation and goals of the institute related to L’Aquila’s and its own development. The survey was performed via anonymous questionnaires and the 85 respondents (out of 105 in total in 2015, 79 PhD candidates, 12 post-docs researchers and administrative employees) provided feedback answering close and open-answer questions capturing their thoughts and opinions regarding the city and the institute as living and working environments.
L’Aquila in context
L’Aquila located in the central part of the Italian peninsula is the capital city of the Abruzzo region. Hosting a population of 73,000, L’Aquila is the largest city in the namesake province that has a total population of 310,000. On April 6 of 2009, the city and its surrounding communities were hit by an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 MW with epicentre 3.4 km to the South-West of the city centre (Contreras et al., 2014). The earthquake’s impact resulted in 309 casualties and 67,000 homeless people, and a large part of the building stock was destroyed or highly damaged (Alexander, 2010). The affected population in the surrounding area reached 100,000 people. L’Aquila’s historic centre, with a former population of 23,000 inhabitants, was the main business, touristic and everyday-life hotspot and was almost totally destroyed (Contreras et al., 2013). For three years, the access there was restricted and even until today the major parts of the buildings remain under reconstruction or abandoned (Contreras et al., 2018). Tourism, commerce and industrial production were heavily influenced and adding to this, the earthquake coincided with the global economic crisis that affected the Italian economy. As a result of these in the period 2007–2013, L’Aquila’s province production base declined by 20 per cent, while more than 2,000 businesses ceased operations (CRESA, 2014a; Di Pietro and Mora, 2015).
Manufacturing post-disaster redevelopment imaginaries, L’Aquila as a knowledge city
For a city, a disaster becomes a window of opportunity to shift the focus of strategies and policies related to funds towards neglected activities (Brundiers and Eakin, 2018). However, the lack of pre-disaster recovery plans can slow down the recovery process and weakens the position of the local community to influence decision making and planning (Berke and Campanella, 2006), which was evident in L’Aquila and in their way of setting the redevelopment and reconstruction agenda. In the aftermath of the disaster, the state intervened, acquired a dominant role and wanted to appear as “protector” of the local community providing impressive public funding to support the city (Forino, 2015; Bock, 2017). So far, €8.5bn have been allocated for the restoration and reconstruction of private and public properties and infrastructure, while the total public expenditure is expected to reach €14bn by the end of the reconstruction.
During the early relief stage, the debates on the socio-economic redevelopment started with local and national stakeholders engaging in drafting long-term plans that could help the city to overcome the economic challenges. In this direction, joint consultative meetings between an OECD advisory team, local, and national actors took place in the summer of 2009. During those meetings, various strategies to revitalise the city and its (re)development trajectory were discussed with the dominant concern regarding the vision of a knowledge city. In the aftermath of these consultations, a report was drafted by the OECD team titled “Spreading the Eagle’s Wings so it May Fly: Re-launching the Economy of L’Aquila Region after the Earthquake” became the blueprint of L’Aquila’s knowledge city imaginary (OECD, 2009). This predetermined vision nested in the local community’s collective consciousness, shaping thereafter the redevelopment debate. Thus, three years into the recovery in 2012, forums discussing the future of the city co-organised by the OECD indicated popular support for such a redevelopment imaginary. While the same year, the municipal council, as part of the city’s new strategic plan, adopted L’Aquila città della scienza (L’Aquila city of science) vision as the primary model of socio-economic redevelopment (Comune di L’Aquila, 2012; OECD, 2013).
Materializing a vision, the GSSI and its implications
The most visible step towards the implementation of the knowledge city was the investment in the creation of the GSSI. From the nine projects of the initial blueprint aiming to “relaunch the economy of the L’Aquila region after the earthquake”, only the GSSI materialised. GSSI was established in 2012 as an international doctoral school of four academic disciplines (astroparticle physics, mathematics, computer science and urban studies) hosting today approximately 140 PhD and post-doc researchers. The main argument for justifying such an investment was the need to ameliorate Italy’s (and in particular its southern regions) deficit in research institutions when compared to other European countries (GSSI, 2014). As the interviewees revealed, the establishment of the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in the northern Italian city of Trieste after the 1976 earthquake was portrayed as benchmark and was used to strengthen their argumentation. Contrary to the bold and paternalistic way of post-disaster recovery organised and implemented by the state, the new institution was a proposal of the local scientific community as the interviews revealed. The researchers of Gran Sasso National Laboratory located in the area, an underground laboratory and research centre for astroparticle physics, were debating, before the earthquake, on the need of establishing a PhD programme in physics to address understaffing problems of their institution. The earthquake created a window of opportunity for them and they teamed up with actors of the local university drafting a proposal for the GSSI’s creation that subsequently was adopted as a leading project by OECD and Italian officials.
The institute today needs to fulfil multiple socio-economic and academic goals in order to justify its existence and public investment. As the interviewees suggest, the most evident of immediate positive impacts regards mainly city branding and social re-activation. The GSSI’s facilities were located in the under reconstruction city centre so to revitalise the area strengthening the social revival of the neighbourhood. With this, the problem of spatial dispersion of the academic institutions in L’Aquila was tried to tackle, which gained visibility and became a new point of reference for the city (Di Giovanni and Raimondi, 2018). It frequently organises, or participates in collaboration with local stakeholders, various events open to the public, contributing to the restoration of social life, while improving the city’s communicative image. Furthermore, a large number of academic workshops, conferences and seminars organised by the GSSI bringing in L’Aquila world-known academics and researchers reinforcing the knowledge-city branding.
The trade-offs of political support
The aforementioned academic activities may be deemed necessary to strengthen the networking capabilities of the institute in the academic research world since it is difficult for newly established institutions to gain academic recognition (Deem et al., 2008). GSSI invested heavily since its early days on its image promotion, establishing a communication office and funding various promotional campaigns. A part of this is the policy of inviting numerous high-profile academics (like Nobel Prise winners) to give lectures or simply attend social events, boosting GSSI’s recognisability. Only in 2015, 338 scholars from all over the world were invited with covered expenses and remuneration to make a research visit or deliver lectures. Relative to the size of the institute, this scale of operations was only possible because of the extraordinary funding received as this was a perceived part of the city’s redevelopment strategy and the strong political support the project obtained.
The general reconstruction and recovery debate took place in a multi-layer and multi-stakeholder environment heated due to conflicting interests and socio-political fragmentation (OECD-Groningen, 2012). In this context, investing in a new HEI seemed constructive and intense media coverage secured a wide acceptance among the local population. The “success story” of the institute as a post-disaster investment that can transform and revitalise the city sustained through media hype. Talk shows, news stories, documentaries and exclusive reports shared the GSSI’s achievements in regional, national and international media on a recurrent basis. Through the positive messages from these modes of communication, GSSI became a tool that provided justification for local and national political elites regarding the management of the reconstruction process and funds. L’Aquila’s recovery is full of corruption scandals regarding mid-level and high-rank local officials, rumours that organized crime accessed the reconstruction budget, a general dissatisfaction on the progress of recovery and concerns over the prioritization and allocation of public investments (Alexander, 2013; Bock, 2017). In this setting, the investment on GSSI seems beneficial for the community development and offers good news to the authorities seeking affirmative recovery narratives. It is not by chance that since the very beginning of its establishment, city, region and state high-ranked officials, including the prime minister himself, have been paying recurrent formal and informal visits to the GSSI for no apparent functional reasons.
Aspirations against path-dependence
L’Aquila’s main employment and income generation sources are state backed. Beside the secondary sector industries, the main components supporting the city’s economic structure are public sector employment in different administrative levels, the large pensioners’ population and activities related to the University of L’Aquila (Calafati, 2012). The latest is a common reality in the European context since the university is a factor around which many medium-size cities organise their economic base. Throughout history, academic institutions and the hosting city mutually benefit from their interactions. The city provides the necessary supplies (lodgement, social activities, etc.), while academic institutions create employment opportunities and positive multiplier effects on the local economy (Brockliss, 2000).
A rent-extraction logic from incoming student population was a modular factor when deciding upon L’Aquila’s redevelopment. The local planning agenda already before the earthquake was considered the prospects of a city attracting students and research (Comune di L’Aquila, 2009). However, the post-disaster unattractive reality (housing and infrastructure shortages, shattered social fabric, negative media attention, etc.) made this more difficult to achieve. The reduction in the number of students was recognised as a threat to the city’s economic recovery (OECD, 2009; GSSI, 2014). Tuition-free and other policies was adopted, which slowed the pace of reduction in the students’ enrolments for the first post-earthquake years, while since 2010–2011 and for three consequent academic years the students’ population increased. Optimism prevailed and the goal set by the Ministry for Territorial Cohesion is expected to increase, by 2020, the number of students-residents up to 20,000, in order to further enhance the city’s economy and realise the vision of a university and research-driven city (Calafati, 2012).
This goal highlights the unsound basis on which the knowledge-city vision was adopted given today’s reality. The reports that favoured the knowledge-based development visions downsized L’Aquila’s new post-earthquake spatial, social and economic realities and its limitations. When projecting to the future, conclusions drawn upon different sources and estimations performed without any clear methodology and justification. Those documents, express rather aspirations of the institutions that authored them setting optimistic development goals, while creating false positive and appealing impressions for their audience. In an effort to justify the knowledge-city development approach, an OECD report emphasises “the presence of the University and significant public and private research centres” and “the abundance of local, cultural and environmental resources”. However, the reality on the ground leaves little room for such an optimism since the presence of academic and research institutions and the existence of cultural amenities does not certify their suitability. With a look at the relative competitiveness of the University of L’Aquila, as projected on mainstream indexes measuring scientific productivity (given their limitations and biases), one observes that it ranks lower in positions among Italian institution. Moreover, the high number of historical churches, palaces and castles mentioned when listing the cultural amenities in the region by the aforementioned OECD report is probably not the kind of cultural demand the knowledge economy labour is looking for. Besides the efforts by local and national actors to enhance the cultural offering of the city by promoting the production of a large number of cultural events, in the city’s centre, the everyday street-life remains insufficient (Koukoufikis et al., 2018).
When discussing with the GSSI’s actors, a similar optimism emerges on what L’Aquila could become if it invests in HEI using examples of other cities as benchmark: “Cambridge is just a small town in England and still has one of the world’s best university, why not us?” (Interview, 12 February 2015). These ambitions expressed through false analogies ignore the historical, scalar and spatial articulation of the exemplary cases. When compared to small university-towns like Cambridge, Oxford or Leuven, we observe that these are cases housing centuries-old world-class academic institutions, while they are spatial located in a regional setting where advance and dense knowledge-intensive economic activities operate. The performance and volume of L’Aquila’s HEIs and the socio-economic conditions of Central-South Italy do not allow plausible comparisons. The initial conditions shaped by the institutions, markets and the spatial structure of an urban system create a path-dependency that should not be ignored when planning for a knowledge-city paradigm (Lambooy, 2002). The normative approach to knowledge city suggests certain socio-spatial qualities like the city’s size, connectivity, the plurality of economic activities and cultural offering, the presence of populous and well-connected education and research institutions along with knowledge-intensive industries, etc. (Ergazakis et al., 2005). Thus, knowledge-city development visions can be materialized easily in metropolises and medium-size hubs where large-scale public and private investments towards knowledge-intensive activities and pre-existing socio-spatial qualities co-exist (Musterd et al., 2010).
Population dynamics and students’ mobility
For a knowledge city, demographics play a key role. Creating opportunities to maintain and attract young and well-educated citizens is crucial. The internationalisation of higher education accelerated competition between cities since students and skilled labour mobility increased rapidly after the mid-1990s (Altbach and Knight, 2007). Their decision-making processes when choosing their relocation is based on a wide spectrum of criteria: reputation of the country, the city and the academic institution, location and accessibility, offered facilities, as well as fashion trends, family and friends’ opinions and networks (Maria Cubillo et al., 2006; Altbach and Knight, 2007). Almost a decade after, the earthquake L’Aquila’s demographics and the data from university enrolment tell a pessimistic story. Since the earthquake, L’Aquila has been facing a slow but steady decline and ageing population. The population in the whole province reduced by 8,000 people since 2009, of which 3,000 account for the city of L’Aquila. During the same period, the median age in L’Aquila rose by 2.1 per cent and in combination with low natural increase rates the province hosts a significantly higher aged population than the Italian average and the other Abruzzo provinces (USRA, 2016).
A dynamic increase in student population, the years prior to the earthquake, increased the income generated by student-related activities. Some estimates suggest that before 2009 the total economic output related to the presence of the educational institutions in the city reached 16 per cent of the city’s GDP (Cerqua and Di Pietro, 2017), which made the city to overestimate the potential socio-economic impact of students. The real impact remains ambiguous since there are no clear data indicating how many students actually resided in the city. Many students are local residents (approximately 1/3) belonging to L’Aquila province itself, while the municipality estimated that around 8,000 students opt to commute when necessary and do not reside in the city, reducing the economic and cultural impact significantly (Comune di L’Aquila, 2012). The non-local student population that actually lived in L’Aquila estimated by the Ministry of Territorial Cohesion was only around 2,000 in 2012 or roughly double according to OECD projections.
Today those estimates seem irrelevant since there is a high volatility in L’Aquila’s university enrolments. In the aftermath of the earthquake, different measures including tuition-free studies for five years, public transport pass, various discounts on educational materials and increased amount of scholarships have been adopted. In the academic year prior to the earthquake (2008–2009), 22,412 students registered at the university. During 2012–2013, the last year of the post-disaster-fund-assisted studies, the number of students increased to 24,204. During 2016–2017, a sharp decline in the number of students was noticed, with the number reaching to 16,919 students. A more concerning statistic reports that the first year enrolments almost halved, reaching levels way below 2,000 new students for the first time since 2000. A reduction of this magnitude is inconsistent with national or regional trends signalling the inability of L’Aquila’s main knowledge hub, to attract new students and researchers now that the post-disaster funds reduced. Thus, the highly ambitious goal of 20,000 students residing in L’Aquila by 2020 will not be met, and if this trend continues, even having this amount of enrolments in the local HEI seems impossible.
Push and pull factors of highly skilled labour – the case of the GSSI’s researchers
A challenge faced mainly by small cities is the out-migration of young university graduates moving towards large urban centres to find employment (Brockliss, 2000). This reduces the impact of educational units because these individuals emigrate by the time they become productive, which results in the loss of part of the taxation and social security mechanisms and their acquired skills which could contribute more to the local economic system (Brown and Heaney, 1997). Thus, the absence of innovative culture at the local level, venture capital and high technology enterprises can limit the returns of investment in academic and research activities (Varga, 2000). L’Aquila’s economic system does not generate incentives for knowledge workers and young graduates to stay. In an era where across the European Union (EU) increases in the budget devoted to research has been observed, L’Aquila’s region, Abruzzo, stands far below the EU and Italian average in budget spending and research personnel while a reduction in the total number of researchers’ employment took place. Business demographics follow a similar trajectory, since 2012 in the province of L’Aquila the yearly birth-to-death ratio remains negative (CRESA, 2014b). Even in the construction sector due to the boom in reconstruction experienced between 2010 and 2012, a significant decrease in productivity was observed. Consequently, a noticeable rise in the unemployment levels has been observed which remain constantly above the country’s average (USRA, 2016).
The GSSI succeeded in attracting researchers from around the world for its research positions (GSSI, 2014). It offered a competitive package of salary and benefits, providing high-quality working conditions in an effort to counteract the city’s post-disaster state. In our survey of first and second generations of GSSI’s doctoral and post-doctoral researchers, above 90 per cent stated that financial benefits were by far the most important reason that attracted them to a post-disaster city and a newly established institution. GSSI took the advantage of extraordinary public financial support for its initial phase as a disaster-relief project. The research grants and benefits (a monthly salary along with free housing, lunch vouchers and high travel budget for research activities) were way above the Italian custom remuneration. However, this period of post-disaster extraordinary funding ended. After the three-years of experimental phase, GSSI after being recognised officially as a public university had to adapt to ordinary budget restrictions.
When replying to our questionnaire, the vast majority of the GSSI’s researchers described the city as small and poor connected with limited recreational opportunities. Concerning the interaction with the city and the everyday life, the responders suggested that they had limited relations with the local society and the satisfaction rate regarding the city’s condition and the social experiences was low. The responders working on the social sciences described the city as a challenge, a “social lab” and “interesting case study” that more motivates than repulse them. However, the lack of social life and adequate infrastructures de-motivated many researchers, creating socio-psychological and technical obstacles (e.g. insufficient public transport and problematic internet connection) that negatively influenced their concentration and working motivation.
The way the institute’s labourers experience the city affects their decision for the future choice of working place after the end of their contracts. There were mixed responses, but with a clear negative response concerning L’Aquila as a choice for future employment. Most of the researchers were eager to relocate in L’Aquila knowing that this will be a temporary well-paid employment opportunity and not a permanent step in their life and career. Their preferences matched the attitudes of the highly skilled labour, who were attracted by more dynamic urban environments that offered a greater quality of life and work opportunities. In fact, in 2016, when their first contracts started to expire almost everyone of them pursued careers in other cities of Italy or abroad.
Concluding discussion, knowledge or subsidised city?
This paper unfolds the story of L’Aquila’s post-earthquake redevelopment strategy that aligned to the knowledge-city urban archetype and critically reviews of its deficiencies. The investigation suggests that the knowledge-city conceptualization and planning even if enjoys relative legitimacy is not adequately justified. This vision is favoured by scenario-building exercises shaped by aspirations and interests of diverse stakeholders. Local scientific actors saw an opportunity to materialize their plans for further investments in education and research. The national and international advisor teams disengaged from the local community which provided prescriptions based on mainstream urban development literature, while political elites tried to redirect public attention from the controversial reconstruction and presented a solution to the city’s interest groups (mainly real estate and small business holders), concerned by the reduction in students’ population. National, international and local redevelopment plans acted as post-disaster “fantasy documents” in Clarke’s (1999) terms used to translate uncertainty for the future to optimism. Their hastily crafted projections were based on the overestimation of capabilities of the local innovation system (university-economy), ignoring path dependence and the unfavourable socio-spatial characteristics (economic stagnation and deindustrialization, negative demographic trends, lack of adequate connectivity and cultural offering, low competitiveness of the local university and economic actors, etc.); whereas the new post-earthquake reality with the deteriorated spatial and socio-economic properties were downsized.
The analysis suggested that besides advanced material and discursive political support, public investment and media promotion of the knowledge city, the strategy failed to tangibly reverse the negative socio-economic trends and it will probably continue to do so. The post-disaster demographic and socio-economic data of the city and the region, along with the opinions and attitudes of the highly skilled labour attracted in the city by the GSSI disrupted knowledge-city aspirations. L’Aquila’s urban offering remains unattractive and given the already visible reduction in recovery funds, the local institutions will face significant challenges to further attract and maintain the quantity and quality of students, labour and investments. As in the case of the L’Aquila’s cultural re-activation efforts, lowering post-disaster state support prior to concrete consolidation of a strategy threatens the fate of urban visions (Pasquinelli et al., 2018). It is becoming evident that behind the knowledge-city agenda stands the urge to sustain the university-based economy. Ad-hoc, heavily subsidised projects like the GSSI, and the infamous in the international setting local university can for the moment only support their activities due to state support. They are assets for the local economic system since they act as funds redirection mechanisms to the city from national and European resources but cannot tackle the wider socio-economic deficiencies of L’Aquila. Thus, the knowledge-city can be perceived only as a motto, part of an urban branding technique, not as an accurate archetype describing or projecting the city’s redevelopment path.
Data on recovery funds: http://opendataricostruzione.gssi.it
See for example: (1) https://ricerca.repubblica.it/repubblica/archivio/repubblica/2016/06/23/tutti-allaquila-per-studiare-meccanica-quantistica42.html?ref=search; (2) http://espresso.repubblica.it/attualita/2016/06/23/news/il-gssi-l-aquila-e-la-citta-dei-talenti-1.274432; (3) www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/world/europe/from-laquila-quakes-rubble-an-academic-birth.html; (4) www.rai.it/dl/portaleRadio/ContentItem-22b91dc3-13b1-47a1-8fd7-4efd915080ef.html
All data on student population: http://ustat.miur.it/dati/didattica/italia/atenei-statali/l-aquila
Between 36th to 41st among Italian institutions (see 2017 Centre for World University Rankings and Webometrics Ranking of World Universities)
Data on population dynamics: www.tuttitalia.it/abruzzo/98-l-aquila/statistiche/popolazione-andamento-demografico/
Total intramural R&D expenditure in all sectors of performance as a % of GDP for 2011: EU average 1.97 per cent, Italian average 1.21 per cent, Abruzzo region 0.86 per cent (Source: Eurostat).
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