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Slow Cities movement offers
alternative to global mediocrity
By Nick Swift
11 October 2004: The century that saw the acceleration of the pace of human life beyond anything people of previous centuries could have imagined did not end without also seeing, just before its close, the creation of a movement in which some people choose to deliberately preserve and cultivate the values they consider threatened by the insistence on doing everything ever more quickly: the Slow Cities movement.
Called Cittaslow in Italy, the country of its birth, it is the offspring of another movement, Slow Food.
The Italian Slow Food association was started in 1986 in Barolo, in the Cuneo province, by Carlo Petrini, a writer provoked by the incursion of American-style fast food chains into Rome. His manifesto, which along with his more recent writings continues to be a source of inspiration to the worldwide movement, bewailed the fact that we “are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which... forces us to eat Fast Foods, which diminish opportunities for conversation, communion, quiet reflection, and sensuous pleasure, thus shortchanging the hungers of the soul. In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. Our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavours and savours of regional cooking.”
“Our praise of rest,” moreover, reads the movement’s philosophical declaration, “is not intended for the lazy or for sleepyheads, for the weary or neurotic. They simply would not appreciate it. Instead we are aiming at those who wish to listen to the rhythm of their own lives, and possibly adjust it.”
The international Slow Food movement began in Paris in 1989, and the 20 countries represented at its inception have since grown to more than 100, with 80,000 members organized in local chapters called convivia (or, in Italy, condotte), of which there are more than 90 in North America. The head office is still in Cuneo, Italy, in the small town of Bra, and the convivia promote the organization’s main aim of “protecting the right to taste” through a variety of initiatives. There is a publishing company, Slow Food Editore, and a Master of Food degree programme, and a University of Gastronomic Sciences is in the making. Le Tavola Fraterne, or Friendship Tables, involve charitable undertakings in places notable for the number of people without the healthy pleasures the pursuit of which is the movement’s raison d’etre, including parts of central and eastern Europe and South America.
The thoughtful ramifications inevitably lead to the concept of biodiversity, and the Ark of Taste, a huge project aspiring to identify and catalogue products, dishes and creatures in danger of disappearing. An operational offshoot of the Ark of Taste is the Slow Food Presidia, providing economic and media support to groups and individuals committed to saving an Ark product. The annual Slow Food Award was instituted to encourage recognition for such work. Taste Education workshops, courses, books and magazines express the movement’s members’ definition of themselves as ‘eco-gastronomes’, and explore the meaning of the concept of pleasure as it relates to natural equilibrium, both in terms of the natural environment and one’s own human community and its well being.
In Orvieto, Italy in 1999, the Slow Cities movement held its first meeting, with Paolo Saturnini, the Mayor of Greve in Chianti, elected coordinator and some 30 Italian Slow Food cities represented. Their Charter of Association identifies globalization as a phenomenon that, while it offers “a great opportunity for exchange and diffusion,... does tend to level out differences and conceal the peculiar characteristics of single realities. In short, it proposes median models which belong to no one and inevitably generate mediocrity.
“Nonetheless, a burgeoning new demand exists for alternative solutions which tend to pursue and disseminate excellence, seen not necessarily as an elite phenomenon, but rather as a cultural, hence universal fact of life.”
Cities within the Slow Cities network “will conduct common experiences based on a shared code of tangible, verifiable conduct, embracing everything from good eating to the quality of hospitality, services and the urban fabric itself. In the field of food and wine in particular, they will make use of the specific competences of Slow Food.”
The seven stated particular aims of cities in the Slow Cities movement include emphasizing recovery and reuse methods to “maintain and develop the characteristics of their surrounding area and urban fabric”, safeguarding “autochthonous production, rooted in culture and tradition, which contributes to the typification of an area, maintaining its modes and mores and promoting preferential occasions and spaces for direct contacts between consumers and quality producers and purveyors”, and promotion of “the quality of hospitality”.
Slow Cities members must have a population of less than 50,000, and in return for meeting requirements in furthering the association’s aims are entitled to use the name ‘Slow City’ and the logo, and to allow the logo to be used by “all initiatives, public and private, which contribute to the attainment of the movement’s goals”. They are also entitled “to participate in the initiatives undertaken inside the movement, using its models and structures according to procedures to be agreed upon”.
Meetings are held, annually and in different cities, at which yearly objectives, “initiatives of general interest”, and the budget are determined. A Coordinating Committee comprises Slow Food representatives and representatives of promoter and other Cities, “assuring the representation of every country”.
An example of a strategy employed by some Slow Cities in Italy is to disallow the use of cars for much of the time. Since the movement encourages tourism, such measures must be presented in a way that will emphasize their advantages to the visitor as well. Other techniques relate to noise curtailment and ecologically advanced sewage systems.
Slow Cities are regularly checked by inspectors who make sure they are achieving the standards to which they have committed themselves.
The market town of Aylsham in Norfolk this year became the second in England to join Slow Cities because “Cittaslow celebrates the town that is as well as providing a framework for future improvement... Aylsham is a living town not just a showcase for historic buildings or a dormitory serving the city. It has held on to its traditional role as a working market town, serving the area round it.
“Aylsham people show very strong support for their town. The award of Cittaslow status rightly celebrates their commitment to this distinctive, living and thriving place”.
It is evident, in other words, that if there is a crisis of haste and of a lack of hospitality in the world and its cities, as Slow Food’s articulation of its philosophy puts it, “antidotes to this crisis do exist”, and that towns like Aylsham and others in the Slow Cities movement have the antidote in them.