Why would any mayor want to describe his community as a “slow city”?  Stefano Cimicchi is  the former Mayor of Orvieto, a medieval hill town with a population of 20,000 located in central Italy.  Cimicchi was one of the first city leaders to sign on to the “slow city movement” when it began in the late 1990s.

Starting in Chianti, the slow city or slow food movement spread across Italy as a way to encourage restaurant owners and wine producers to prepare and sell the highest quality food and drink.  The movement also led to the renewal of cultural attractions as a way to bolster local economies.

In these small cities, slow food offers a sharp contrast to fast food and a homogenous global culture.  The result of this movement is seen everywhere – in Umbria, Tuscany and beyond.  New organic and farm to table restaurants have opened, along with reinvestment in cultural attractions.  A byproduct of the movement is agritourism, where owners of rural farms and vineyards open their homes to visitors much like a bed and breakfast in other parts of the world.  All over the countryside, visitors stay in small farms and stone buildings adapted to tourism, wine tasting, cooking classes and cultural engagement.

Orvieto tapped into this movement when Cimicchi, then mayor, helped start the Orvieto Jazz Festival over 25 years ago.  The annual five-day festival now attracts musicians and visitors from all over the world for a wide variety of concerts scheduled between Christmas and New Year’s.  Parades wind through ancient streets, attracting kids and families who can’t help but follow along.  Concert venues, bars and restaurants in the city offer musical performances from early in the afternoon to late into the night.  All of this cultural activity helps attract business and visitors at a time of year when the Umbria region can be a bit sleepy.

Back in the 1990s, Cimicchi and other local leaders convinced the Italian parliament to invest the equivalent of $150 million in rebuilding Orvieto’s failing infrastructure, crumbling city walls, and in restoration of the city’s 800-year old cathedral, known as the Duomo.  They even installed digital cable beneath the city using ancient caves and tunnels.  The project signaled a rebirth of the city and was the first major investment since almost 5,000 troops left the city over 20 years ago.

“We managed this project to address different things – the water pipeline, the cable pipeline, the buildings, the cathedral, and the roads,” said Cimicchi.  As infrastructure was improved, Orvieto also pursued what he calls the “knowledge economy” using the digital infrastructure beneath Orvieto.  “Our idea was to improve the knowledge economy at the same time we improved the economy of taste, the gusto.”

Today, Orvieto has programs of study with eight American universities offering classes on art, architecture, anthropology and archaeology.  American students are attracted to the hills and valleys that surround Orvieto because the area acts like an open archaeological site.  The Italian government supports field study of these ancient sites which date back thousands of years to the Roman Empire and the Etruscan Era.

Today, military buildings that once housed soldiers are at the center of the new economy which includes slow food, university classes and the digital infrastructure that supports the knowledge economy.  Cimicchi thinks back to the creation of the jazz festival, agritourism, and slow food.  At that time, old infrastructure and failing restaurants closed up to make way for new restaurants, attractions, and bed and breakfasts in ancient farmsteads.  Standards for food and wine improved dramatically, and visitors started flocking to Orvieto in response.

Image of cathedral in Orvieto, Italy
Cathedral in Orvieto, Italy

Cimicchi is also proud of the renovation of the spectacular cathedral in the center of the old city of Orvieto.  It is clear that this medieval attraction is the starting point for this historic city, but not the end.  If people like Cimicchi continue to drive the discussion, Orvieto will look as much to its future as it does to its past.

Bill practices land use, real estate and municipal law at Larkin Hoffman.  He represents Mall of America and the City of Columbus, Minnesota, as well as other owners, managers and developers of real estate.  He has a special interest in sustainable solutions to land use and development challenges. His work has been recognized with the LexBlog Excellence Award for exemplary writing on legal blogs. He also creates the podcast series, Finding the Future: Innovations in Land Use and Sustainability.