From 'territory' to 'city': the conceptualisation of space in Italy since 1950
The paper argues that the way in which social scientists and policy-makers have conceptualised the Italian territory has significantly changed since the 1950s as a consequence of methodological shifts and attempts to capture the changing territorial organisation of the economy brought about by the structural transformation of the production and consumption process. In retrospect, one can in fact discern a conceptual trajectory from the standard 'Northern Italy'/'Southern Italy' partition, which prevailed until the 1970s, to an interpretation of the Italian territory as a pattern of local systems which slowly emerged in the subsequent decades. The paper suggests that the concept of 'local system', if correctly interpreted, may finally lead to rediscover cities as the fundamental elements of the territorial organisation of the economic process in Italy. However difficult economists may find to insert 'the city' in the categorical and theoretical framework of economics, it seems necessary to assign to the features of urban organisation of the Italian society the economic importance they indeed have. By moving from a modern interpretation of the concept of city - for instance by giving adequate consideration to the fact that in Western economies practically all cities are 'dispersed cities' and functional rather than administrative borders are relevant - one can reach the conclusion that most local systems are in fact cities. This way of looking at the Italian territory has important consequences. For instance, it reinstates urban external economies and dis-economies in the position they deserve in determining the development trajectory of the Italian economy. This perspective, moreover, re-assigns to the main Italian urban systems the economic role that they have indeed played in recent decades with regard to the innovation and accumulation processes, and highlights the key position that large cities have in reacting to the external shocks that accompany the changing international division of labour. Moreover, if the economic importance of cities is not acknowledged, it is questionable whether effective regional and national development policies can be devised. The critical-historical analysis of the conceptualisation of the Italian territory since the 1950s conducted in this paper, highlighting the conceptual barriers which have impeded appreciation of the role of cities, may prove functional to a paradigmatic shift which puts cities at the centre of the stage - a shift which is also in line with the new orientation toward cities one finds in the EU territorial policies.
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