PAP40 - The territory at the heart of thought and action: the Italian territorialist school

May 2020

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Anxious to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 40 planning professionals have come together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in land-use planning policies.

Xavier Guillot, architect, member of Pap, and Luna d’Emilio, coordinator of the « Rural space and spatial project » network, present the origins and fundamental principles of the territorialist school.

To download : article-40-collectif-pap-xg-lde.pdf (1.1 MiB)

If the recognition of the territorialist thought that developed around alberto Magnaghi dates back to the 2000s in France, its premises in Italy go back to the 1970s. Evolving over the years, this thought has proved its worth in the field through multiple action-research mechanisms, in parallel with a form of institutionalization in the framework of the lapei 1 laboratory of the University of Florence. It is therefore an approach that « comes from afar », to use Daniela Poli’s formula 2, and whose analysis cannot avoid a historical perspective in the Italian context.

Birth and development of a way of thinking: some key points of reference

The starting point of the territorialist school is the critique of the logics of metropolization linked to the neoliberal economic system. For the members of this school, the set of spatial effects - unsustainable in environmental terms - that metropolization contributes to produce mark its failure. Conversely, the thinking of territorialists is driven by the project of « self-sustainable » local development based on a balance between three objectives: the satisfaction of the basic needs of human life, which cannot be reduced to material needs; the political, economic and social autonomy of local communities; and lastly, the maintenance of the biodiversity of environments by improving the quality of the environment ».

« Reterritorializing the world »

Many concepts from different disciplines have nourished the thinking of territorialists over the years. First of all, in connection with the current of human geography, there is that of « deterritorialisation 3 " caused by metropolisation, a process faced with an opposite objective, that of « reterritorialisation ». The basic idea is to recognize the territory as a « living being " 4 with an identity resulting from its geo-physical configuration as well as from the many reciprocal adaptations that have taken place between humans and environments over time. The aim is to grasp the form that this relationship of reciprocal adaptation, known as co-evolution in a Geddesian filiation 5, could take again in the light of contemporary issues. In this respect, the action of reterritorialisation implies in particular going beyond the sectoral approaches of the different types of knowledge, in order to develop the knowledge necessary for co-evolutionary development. Magnaghi evokes on this subject the challenge of a unit of « territorial sciences " 6 that is appropriate for such an overcoming.

Another aspect of the territorialists’ thinking is the criticism of the hyper-technicalisation of our contemporary lifestyles and the individualisation of behaviour. Such changes in society have widened the gap between citizens and institutions, but also between citizens, the geographical reality of the territories they live in, and their vital resources. On the basis of this observation, territorialists set out two key notions. The first is that of territorial heritage, which aims to propose an approach that integrates all the social and cultural dimensions of territories, and in particular to take into account the relations between people and their environment, starting from its physical characteristics 7.

The second is that of community (comunità), a concept closely linked to that of citizenship in the process of reterritorialisation. Rather than designating a closed group of inhabitants defending a fixed identity, the aim here is to identify all the social and cultural formations whose emergence works towards the gradual construction of a synergistic relationship with their environment 8.

« Reterritorializing » political action and the economic fact

For Italian territorialists, contemporary economic logic has distanced the inhabitants from decisions concerning land use planning. More generally, they have contributed to dislocate the relationship between their environment, their work and their lives. The rebalancing of this relationship implies a reappropriation of economic processes by local populations, leading to profound changes of a political nature with the emergence of bottom-up modes of action. Such a position is out of step with the Marxist reading of modern society. The industrial period can be described as a recent chapter in the history of human settlement. It corresponds to a first crisis in the relationship between man and the environment, before the one induced by the recent globalisation and financialisation of the economy. But, as Alberto Magnaghi says, « place consciousness is much older than class consciousness! » 9. Thus the territorialist school situates its project in the fact of moving from a local struggle ("the" against ») to the emergence of a consciousness of place ("for" and « with »).

On another scale, the challenge of reterritorialization implies new local alliances between small and medium-sized enterprises, based on the network of housing forms inherited from the pre-industrial period: Magnaghi here speaks in particular of small towns with high heritage and cultural value. The starting point for this reflection is the observation of the negative effects of the transition to Fordism on local productive cultures, devaluing the work of the workers and making it interchangeable. Conversely, the idea would be to encourage the establishment of advanced tertiary sector companies in territories that have remained outside the scope of metropolitan growth. The added value of small heritage towns would also be considered in terms of tourism. This form of return to the territory, for which the territorialists are campaigning, can be broken down into several issues around a common imperative: that of bringing together places of production and places of life, and by giving a central place to agriculture and the nourishing landscapes that it produces. In the territorialist approach, the agricultural space is thought of as a true public space, in which a vision of society is expressed. From an urban planning point of view, this amounts to protecting agricultural land from land pressure, while contributing to a change in consumption patterns and a strengthening of local production chains, a true expression of the co-evolutionary history between people and environments.

Rethinking the city-countryside alliance

This return to the territory for which the Italian territorialists militate also concerns the urban fact, whose development and form this movement rethinks, suggesting also a kind of return to the city. It is a question of rediscovering the primordial role of public space in the spatial organisation of cities, as shaped by history, from the Etruscans through the Renaissance, to give birth to European urban culture. This return to the city also means rethinking the theme of a city-country pact capable of restoring its quality. In this context, the territorialists evoke the perspective of a rural repopulation, particularly in Italy, in mountain territories currently in decline.

Faced with the deterioration of the living environment in metropolitan areas, the territorialists believe that no city can find the solutions within itself: it is necessary to re-establish an urban-rural pact drawing up a new social contract. In this regard, the fresco called « Good Government », painted in the mid-14th century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti on the walls of the Public Palace in Siena, is often cited by territorialists as a moment of fulfilment of this city-country pact that needs to be re-established in a contemporary perspective. In this fresco, a true spatialized account of the good government of the territory, the enclosure that delimits the city is at the centre because the relationship between city and countryside must be balanced. This balance would make it possible, today too, to create qualities of life based on relations of solidarity rather than dependence. In the picture of good government, the city wall functions as a membrane for the exchange of culture, people and goods between the city and the countryside.

Thinking and acting: a brief chronology of the actions carried out by the territorialist school

Territorialists are at the origin of many university publications in Italy. Alberto Magnaghi’s Local Project dates back to 2000, its translation in France to 2003 10 Under the title Il progetto territorialista, issue 2 of the journal Contesti 11 presented a set of principles claimed by a collective of teacher-researchers, whose affirmation as a school of thought took place in 2011 with the foundation of the association « Società dei territorialisti » and the drafting of its manifesto.

Based mainly in Italy, the association is made up of teacher-researchers from different disciplines. Its aim is to « promote the confrontation between scientific disciplines that pose the essential value of local heritages to contribute to social welfare and public happiness as well as to the integrity of the systems that sustain life on our planet. It aims at the development of knowledge in the context of a social responsibility towards the territory as a common good 12 « . In 2013, the foundation of the journal Scienze del territorio marks a new stage in the academic life of the association 13.

In the field of research-action, the activity of the territorialists has taken two distinct forms according to the contexts and the subjects dealt with. Tools and methodologies adopting a project-based or contractual approach have led to bottom-up and participatory action-research activities, based on a principle of self-organisation and aimed at bringing a community together to nurture and sustain its relationship with its environment over the long term, within or outside the processes instituted 14.

The other approach is based on a reflection on regulatory urban planning, within the framework of professional missions. Territorialists have actively contributed to the debate on the application at regional level of the code of cultural and landscape goods (D.L. 22/01/2004, n. 42) by positioning themselves as a reference group in the field of regulatory town planning. In this line, the territorialist school has worked on the elaboration of two landscape plans: that of Tuscany and that of Puglia. The Apulia landscape plan is a particularly interesting example. It aims at defining and spatially translating the local energy mix.

Faced with the pressure from private actors who were deciding on the location of wind power plants with, in the end, a surplus of energy supply and a heavy landscape impact, the regional landscape plan developed a strategy to reduce the landscape impact of existing wind turbines and to define a location and spatial layout principles for future plants. The plan provides for the production of renewable energy from biomass and the enhancement of existing buildings through the installation of photovoltaic panels. The objective is to place the energy issue within the project territory at its local level, respecting the principle of energy sovereignty and self-sufficiency, and consistent with the protection and active maintenance of heritage and landscape values.

Relevance, relays and influences of the thinking of territorialists in the French context

The thinking of the territorialist school has given rise to important debates in France in the field of urban planning and development following the publication in French of the book Il Progetto locale. In particular, a debate has taken place with the proponents of local development. As Frédéric Santa-maria writes, on the economic and political level, this movement aims to « extract itself from macro-economic laws and à direct action according to decisions taken locally with the aim of mobilizing the potential and resources of social groups and local communities " 15. The territorialists’ approach differs from that of local development in its radical stance: the relationship with the political sphere is rethought on the basis of the issues specific to the territory as a common good, rather than remaining within the framework of institutions at the cost of often weakening the initial militant intensity. More fundamentally, the distinction between the two movements comes from the extent of the historical and anthropological inspiration that animates the territorialist school.

The evolution to be carried out imposes the necessary renewal of the forms of human settlement by re-founding them on the relationship between man and the Earth as « the mode of his existence and his destiny », in the sense in which Eric Dardel understood it 16.

Moreover, the territorialist vision can be compared to that of certain historical figures of the culturalist urban planning movement, such as Patrick Geddes, to whom Alberto Magnaghi does not fail to refer. Faced with the ecological crisis of our time, the territorialist current of thought is fuelled by the desire to break with the cycle of hyper-technicalization of our societies and the energy substrate that feeds it: « the choice of fire » as Alain Gras has shown 17. In this respect, the territorialist approach is in line with many of the approaches being developed in France, including that of the Paysages de l’aprèspétrole (Post-Oil Landscapes) collective.

In the field of education, the territorialist approach was notably relayed by the partnership established in early 2010, at the initiative of Agnès Berland-Berthon, between the architecture department of the University of Florence and Iatu (Institute of Tourism and Urban Planning of the University of Bordeaux Montaigne), in which researchers from the School of Architecture and Landscape (Ensap) and the Bordeaux Institute of Political Science were associated. This partnership has notably led to the recruitment in 2014 of Daniela Poli as a guest professor at Iatu. Following this commitment, the author has published the book Formes et figures du projet local (Forms and figures of the local project). La patrimonialisation contemporaine du territoire (2018) 18, an essential reference point for understanding the genesis and applications of the thinking of the Italian territorialist school.

The territorialist approach is today present in many higher education institutions in connection with the disciplines of space and project, and particularly in the « city and territories » field of schools of architecture. The network « Rural space and spatial project » has published several texts of the territorialist school 19. The relay has taken place in landscape schools, in particular through the intermediary of Pierre Donadieu whose work has contributed to the elaboration of the territorialist corpus.

Françoise Choay and Jean-Marie Billa were among those who passed on this current of thought in France from the outset, each of whom, at their own level, worked to disseminate it. As with many foreign authors, Françoise Choay was able to identify the importance of the work Il Progetto locale and contributed to its recognition. At another level, the architect Jean-Marie Billa was a militant intermediary within the municipality of Saint-Macaire, of which he was mayor, by organizing the visit of Alberto Magnaghi on several occasions and by working for the recognition of his thought among the actors of planning and higher education.

1 Laboratorio di progettazione ecologica degli insediamenti. Further down in the text, we will also mention the Society of Territorialists, which publishes a scientific journal and is one of the main means of dissemination.

2 Poli D., 2010. « Un approccio che viene da lontano: teorie e azioni della scuola territorialista italiana tra il XX e il XXI secolo ». Contesti, 2/2010, pp. 15-30. Translated into French by Christian Tamisier. Source:

3 Raffestin C., 1981. For a geography of power. Milan: Unicopli.

4 Magnaghi A., 2000. Le Projet local (pr. ed. fr.: Liège, Mardaga, 2003).

5 Geddes P., 1915. Cities in evolution: an introduction to the town planning movement and to the study of civics. London: Williams & Norgate.

6 Magnaghi A., 2010. « Verso la società dei territorialisti e delle territorialiste. Contesti, 2/2010, pp. 125-128.

7 This notion links Alberto Magnaghi’s thinking to that of Françoise Choay.

See on this subject: Poli D., et al. 2015. « Crossing the views of agronomists and urban planners to think about peri-urban agriculture. Le cas des parcs agricoles de la plaine de Florence (Italie)", in: ERPS n°5, Exploring the territory through the project. Territorial engineering put to the test of design practices. St-Etienne: Publications de l’Université, p. 219-231; Poli D., 2018. Forms and figures of the local project. La patrimonialisation contemporaine du territoire. Paris: Eterotopia.

8 This process often arises in reaction to processes of hyper-technicalization such as the grandi opere, to use the Italian formula - overhanging mega-projects that, in the name of often national or supra-national objectives, end up accelerating deterritorialization. In this respect, the research work of sociologist Arnaldo Bagnasco has helped to conceptualize this articulation between local struggles and the process of reterritorialization.

9 Magnaghi A., 2012. « Il Manifesto dei territorialisti: che cos’è? « conference of 27 April 2012 in Brescia, at the invitation of the association Ripensare il mondo. Source:

10 Prefaced by Françoise Choay, to whose translation she contributed extensively.

11 Rivista del dipartimento di urbanistica e pianificazione del territorio of the University of Florence, n. 2/2010.

12 Extract from the statute of the association. Source: consulted on 29.11.2019, translation by the authors.

13 Journal classified A by the Italian Ministry of Higher Education (Anvur). Its objective is to « promote pioneering studies to enhance territorial heritage by integrating the multiplicity of places often sectorized by the institutional division of knowledge and practices, and by proposing approaches in terms of projects ». Source: consulted on 29.11.2019, authors’ translation. This journal is published once a year and is fed by thematic calls for papers. Published to date:

1 and 2 - Ritorno alla terra (Daniela Poli dir., 2013 and 2014);

3 - Ritorno alla città (Carlo Cellamare and Enzo Scandurra dir., 2015);

4 - Riabitare la montagna (Federica Corrado and Giuseppe Dematteis dir., 2016);

5 - Storia del territorio (Anna Maria Colavitti, Rossano Pazzagli and Giuliano Volpe dir., 2017);

6 - Le economie del territorio bene comune (Giuseppe Dematteis and Alberto Magnaghi dir., 2018).

14 Thus, for example, the accompaniment of local economic sectors aimed at short circuits (e.g. the bread sector in the plain between Prato and Florence), river contracts, the « Girls’ and Boys’ Plan » for the commune of Dicomano, the « community maps », documents of knowledge and self-representation of the commune of Montespertoli, and participation in the struggles for local self-government in the Piagge district in Florence. See on this subject: Pecoriello A., Rubino A., 2010. « Esperienze di partecipazione ». Contesti, op. cit. pp. 98-102.

15 Excerpt from the electronic encyclopedia, Hypergeo. Source:

16 Eric Dardel, 1952. Man and Earth. Paris: Colin, p. 2 (reprinted, Paris, CTHS, 1990, with a preface by Philippe Pinchemel and an afterword by Jean-Marc Besse, « Géographie et existence d’après l’oeuvre d’Eric Dardel »).

17 Alain Gras, 2007. Le Choix du feu. At the origins of the climate crisis. Paris: Fayard.

18 Editions Eterotopia France, collection Parcours.

19 Daniela Poli, 2012. « La dimension locale dans le projet du parc agricole de la Toscane centrale », in: Guillot X. (dir.), ERPS n°3, Du terrain à la recherche: objets et stratégies. St-Etienne: Publications de l’Université, p.42-60; Fanfani, D., 2017. « Le territoire ‘milieu’ d’énergie. Patrimoine énergétique et développement local pour la biorégion urbaine « , in: Coste A., d’Emilio L., Guillot X. (dir.), ERPS n°7, Ruralités post carbone. Environments, scales and actors of the energy transition. St-Etienne: Publications de l’Université, pp. 82-95.