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A park in the former bullet factory. Not a dream, but a project.

10 November 2016

Piacenza, 100.000 inhabitants and vast portions of territory in need of regeneration, has a story to tell about participation, built on an embrace and a referendum.

The active involvement of local communities is a key factor for the reappropriation of former military assets, giving new purposes to disused buildings and preventing large urban areas from abandonment and decay. Piacenza, 100.000 inhabitants and vast portions of territory in need of regeneration, following their dismissal by the Ministry of Defense, has a story to tell about participation, built on an embrace and a referendum…

The area once occupied by the former bullet factory named “Pertite”, belonging to the Ministry of Defense and currently in the process of being transferred to the Municipality of Piacenza, is one of the three wide portions of military ground which the URBACT MAPS project focuses on. Located in the heart of a residential district, not far from the historical town centre, it extends over 280.000 square metres of land, including a few houses and several disused sheds, some of which in ruins.

“Whilst the buildings arise on a surface no wider than 30.000 square metres – says architect Stefano Benedetti, engaged in the URBACT Local Group – the remaining part represents the largest urban natural area in Piacenza, covered by spontaneous vegetation, alternating fields and copses where wild animals live”. Stefano speaks on behalf of the pressure group named “Friends of the Pertite Park”, who have been pursuing, for almost ten years, the idea of giving the area a totally new, environmentally-friendly identity. Managing to bring one third of the local community – no less than 30.000 citizens – to vote in the same direction, through a proper referendum.

Mr Benedetti, let’s take a step backwards. How did it all start?

“The idea of transforming the Pertite military asset in a park comes from a research project dating back to 2007-2008, involving the students of the adjacent Calvino school. The children and their teachers elaborated a plan for what could have been Piacenza’s urban wood, restoring part of the existing buildings for public and cultural destination, historical heritage, didactic and recreational uses. The park should have been subsequently linked to a wider system of natural areas, named “Green Belt”. On April the 17th, 2009, the students presented their project in an exhibition, basing also a school play on it: that same night, a few citizens among the spectators of the show decided to give life to a pressure group. The aim was to promote the children’s idea against the guidelines that the Council was discussing for the new urban planning regulations that foresaw new residential blocks in the same district”.

In the following years, you organized many events to inform the public and support grew constantly. What was the turning point?

“Meeting a great number of citizens and keeping in touch, at the same time, with the representatives of the Municipality, we realized that there were two distinct levels: whilst the local community totally shared the design of a park, almost all the political parties aversed the project, although for different reasons. On April the 14th, 2010, we were able to put in the hands of the mayor (at the time, Mr Roberto Reggi), a petition signed by 7.000 people, asking to transform the Pertite area in a park and not in a residential complex. However, we didn’t stop there and ended up with 11.000 names in this special list”.

Summer 2010 was particularly hot, in Piacenza.

“On the 5th of June we gave life to a giant embrace: 2500 people gathered around the borders of the Pertite area holding each other’s hand, as if they were actually hugging the military grounds to express the city’s will of reappropriation of this enormous green lung. On July the 19th, the Municipality published a document – approved by the most important political parties and the local representatives of the trade unions – stating the Council’s intention to transform the largest urban military assets in residential blocks, whilst proposing a mixed destination for the Pertite area: the 60% of its surface should have hosted the new headquarters of the main productive military site in Piacenza (still located in the city centre), whereas the remaining 40% was to be preserved as a public park. No answer was ever sent by the Ministry of Defense”.

Then came the referendum, the mother of all milestones.

“On the 12th and 13th of June 2011, seizing the opportunity of a national referendum, we promoted a local referendum asking voters to express their opinion about the future of the Pertite area. More than 30.000 citizens participated and 97.76% of them agreed that the entire surface of the former bullet factory should be transformed in a public urban park, not just a portion of the grounds. Unfortunately, the referendum had no binding value, but in the following months the municipal governement approved and presented the preliminary document to the new urban planning regulations, formerly accepting the result of our referendum. However, the Masterplan for technical support stated that the largest military assets in town, including the Pertite area, would have been examined in order to assess their transformation in residential blocks, with specific characteristics for every single district. The crisis of the estate market and the fact that the Ministry of Defense preferred a more simple, effective and less costly option to dismiss its properties, were enough to discourage the premises of the Masterplan”.

The park has become a top issue in the political agenda.

“In 2012, during the campaign for the vote that would have determined the new mayor of  Piacenza, we invited the seven candidates to a debate on the future of the Pertite area. Paolo Dosi, who was to be elected a few weeks later, signed a commitment to transform the entire area in a public park. In January 2014, as required by our pressure group, the Municipality established a negotiating table chaired by Silvio Bisotti, councillor for urban planning and regeneration policies, in order to deal with the Ministry of Defense for the dismissal of its military areas. At long last, the opportunity to acquire the property of the whole Pertite area for free emerged, but only after the removal of all debris and the transfer of the racetrack still in use for armoured vehicles”.

What happens now?

“In June 2016 the Council approved the new urban planning document, classifying the Pertite grounds as public green area. However, the regulations group all the military areas together, not excluding the possibility of new building sites to enhance the value of the land. We intend to ask the Municipality to modify this chapter, treating the Pertite area exclusively as a surface destined to become an urban park, protecting it from any real estate investment. At the same time, we are all waiting for the removal of debris and disused materials, not to mention the new racetrack for armoured vehicles, so that the area can finally become property of the Council. At present, it can’t even be visited”.

Why has the group “Friends of the Pertite park” entered the URBACT MAPS Ulg?

“We have decided to work actively with the Municipality on this European project, because we strongly believe in participation and in the opportunities arising from the exchange of experiences and ideas with the other cities belonging to the network. The involvement of the local community, sharing the management of the future park, is essential for the Pertite area, just as economic resources and government of the area will be in the next few years”.

In the meantime, the Council of Piacenza has opened the procedure for the free acquisition of the Pertite Area from the Ministry of Defense, which should be completed by December 2016. 

During Summer, primary schools in Piacenza have been invited to design a logo for the future park, whilst students in the adjacent Calvino school continue to work on the future identity of the Pertite area. In the next few months, we will present their detailed project for the park, outlined with the aid of architects Matteo Cervini and Eleonora Loca, who both belong to our URBACT Local Group and focused their graduation thesis on the same subjet.

News has recently been published on the local newspaper, “Libertà”, concerning another graduation thesis centred on the idea of the Pertite area as the ideal site for the new hospital that the Municipality aims to build with Regional funds available.

The debate is open…