Between Nature and Culture. Notes on the Italian landscape of green grants and the art of grant seeking.

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Het Arbeidspotentieel & De Toekomst Van Werk

There is not such a thing as a natural landscape. Whether we look out of a window at a city park, contemplate the opposite side of a riverbank, or drive through rolling pastoral hills, the ‘natural’ bears the mark of human work.

The landscape of Italian grants is no exception. Past funding rounds and newly opened calls show how the political and financial agenda for a greener future is double-sided. Funding bodies at the local, national, and European level, whether public or private, focus on the human and natural at the same time and try to pursue social and environmental goals at once.

An example is Fondazione Cariplo, a private foundation in the Region of Lombardy, with a range of funding schemes that bridge the two. “La bellezza ritrovata,” [Beauty Rediscovered] to name one, funds initiatives of landscape restoration and art & culture with a civic engagement component. The aim is to mitigate environmental disruption caused by human misconduct and natural disasters, to restore the beauty of places while empowering citizens. In the declaration of its scope the call notes that landscape is always a product of nature and nurture. It references Article 1 of the European Landscape Convention of 2000, which states: “’Landscape’ means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.”

At the national level, the attempt to balance environmental goals and human interest is expressed in the National Recovery and Reslience Plan (Piano Nazionale di Ripresa e Resilienza or NRRP), a program for major investment in Italy today. The plan lists the pursuit of a “Green Country,” di un Paese Verde, as one of the three main objectives of reforms and expenditure. The goal is to make Italy greener; more modern and competitive; more attentive to its citizens’ wellbeing. The Plan describes a ‘green Country’ as one where systems of production and transportation of energy strive to reduce greenhouse effect and climate change, and that is “more resilient to extreme climate events.”

The past few weeks have been a dramatic reminder of how much energy security, climate change, and world security are connected. The effects of political and environmental neglect are now in the backyards of all Europeans and impending over the present and future of humanity. Politicians and citizens alike are facing how careless they have been towards both the shared house of international institutions, as the historian Yuval Harari calls it, and the environment. Short terms gains, everyday chores, not to mention ideological fantasies, have led us to downplay how dependence on traditional energy as fossil fuel can derail joint efforts for a peaceful and greener world. Now that the illusion has crumbled down, there is a chance for Green Deals and agendas for the environment to get momentum. In what follows I offer an overview of the ways the cultural side and the natural one are accounted for in the Italian context, focusing on the Recovery Plan.

The Green Country objective of the Italian Recovery Plan is informed by the European Green Deal and Agenda 30. It states the need to move towards the production of renewable energy, to reduce energy waste by making private and public buildings, urban mobility, or the production, moving, and storage of goods more energy efficient. The latter goal is pursued through granting financial support and access to advanced research and technology facilities, for example by means of dedicated start-ups incubators, or research centres, like in the case of the MISE, the Italian Ministry for Economic Development, calls.

The Recovery Plan provides funds to improve air quality in urban centers; repair hydrogeological damage, and clean lake, river and seawater. It explicitly refers to these interventions as investments in “the beauty of our country”, similarly to the Fondazione Cariplo grant in the opening. Through a mix of grants, tax credit and loans, PNRR supports private owners or owner associations that want to renew their homes, making them energy savvier. It helps big and small municipalities make their schools reach students, and students access educational resources when classes in person are out, like in the case of pandemic lockdowns. It also encourages completion and refinement of the digital transition of cultural heritage, for example supporting museums offering fruition from remote and yet hands-on. This is for example the case of the nationwide grant “Cultura Crea,” [Culture Makes].

Consistent with the Italian and European Green Deals, PNRR takes into account the impact ofindustry and agriculture on natural ecosystems; it makes cultural heritage preservation and natural site restauration go hand in hand with support to greener energy production, climate preparedness feature besides historical sites restoration. The longstanding cliché that sees the Italian landscape simply ‘beautiful as it is’ seems to be gone for good. It was about time. To think of a natural landscape as a given beauty that demands respect may be tempting, although inaccurate, but it risks foreclosing the chance of planning wisely, reclaiming, repurposing, improving. The intention of the policy makers is to put the dangerous temptation aside and clear the path for projects where cultural heritage preservation and natural site restauration go hand in hand. Projects, and grants to finance them, that in fact interpret the two as sides of one coin.

To call something ‘beautiful in itself’, is an invitation to leave things as they are, which may mean as they were once made to look like, whether exploited, contaminated, unwisely built, or blessed by beauty. Such a motive may become an excuse not to ask the difficult questions, that are often the ones worth asking. The right balance between interventionism and laissez-faire in environmental and green policies may be elusive, but still worth seeking. Does pouring concrete over archaeological paths to make them less treacherous qualify as preservation or as disruption?

Are the skeletons of never-started industrialization projects in the south of Italy monuments to corruption to tear down, or relics of history from which to learn? In front of a landscape of wind turbines or solar farms, how should one weigh the aesthetic and economic arguments either for or against?

A good thing about using grants to pursue change is that no answer is ever good once and for all. Applying for grants means finding solutions that serve the current needs of the applicants while also responding to the specific challenges the funder identifies. Each project must be planned and evaluated in its specificity and against a background of changing contexts and priorities. Grants require us to update our beliefs in the light of new information, and to take into consideration both big goals and the practical steps to achieve them. Grants need idealism and pragmatism at the same time, plus a mastery of storytelling. Writing a grant application can teach one how to tell a story so that it becomes meaningful for others—first and foremost the funders who would have to pay for the project.

Finally, grants enable people who live in and love a place to act based on their knowledge and attachments while being responsive to a larger community.

For other articles check out our FUNDED magazine.

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