Many of Europe’s oldest villages are fighting to have a future. Faced with declining birth rates and sluggish economies, thousands of centuries-old hamlets have been left behind by locals who simply can’t afford to keep up their quaint rural homes any longer. Officials from Spain to Italy are turning towards some unique measures to keep some of their their country’s most historic villages from falling to ruin.
A local ordinance passed in the medieval town of Sellia, Italy last month rendered it “forbidden to get ill within the municipality” and added that “dying is prohibited.”
While Davide Zicchinella, the mayor of Sellia and a pediatrician by profession, knows he can’t outlaw natural phenomena, but he hopes the spirit of the law will have an impact on the town’s residents.
“By law, I could not [ban dying] directly…but my intention is to fight death,” Zicchinella said. Most of the Sellia’s 500-some residents are over the age of 65. Those who don’t go to the doctor for regular health checks can be fined 10 euros a year.
“We’ve put this measure into effect not as a joke, but as something truly serious, because Sellia, like many other towns in southern Italy, is affected by depopulation,” he added. “Those who don’t take good care of themselves, or who take on habits that are against their health, will be punished with more taxes.”
Zichinella is is trying to save his town from going the way of 6,000 hamlets in Italy which are now totally uninhabited. Another 15,000 have lost 90 percent of their residents and are on the brink of being abandoned. Nearly 50 percent of Italian districts and municipalities are made up of ghost towns.
While many of the villages showcase sturdy medieval architecture and picturesque landscapes, they offer little to young people who have moved in droves to bigger cities in hopes of finding employment. The towns are also becoming increasingly uninhabitable by older residents, who are often the last to leave.
Maria Benedicta Fernandez held out in her small village in her village in Galicia, Spain but eventually left for an apartment in a town closer to a medical center.
“Everyone else left too, or they’ve died. And the local school closed,” she told NPR. “There aren’t enough children anymore.”
Villages like the one Fernandez left behind are being sold off — whole villages can sell for just tens of thousands of dollars. A single house in a northwestern Spanish village can cost less than $6,000. The mayor of an all but abandoned hamlet announced last year that he’d give it away for free. The only stipulation was that whoever took over the 12-house town agreed to revamp them.
With so many towns in need of residents — and so many migrants turning up on European soil in search of places to call home, some see resettling the ghost towns as a solution to both dilemmas.
“Migrants could help to recover fields for agricultural use, open new artisan shops and boutiques, or hotels and restaurants which could have a positive impact on tourism,” Silvia Marchetti, a Rome-based journalist wrote in a recent op-ed for CNN.
The impact could serve both the local communities and the migrants themselves, who she said could “be given a house, and a job, in exchange for their labor in bringing back these dead villages from the grave.”
Marchetti noted that migrants from the Middle East could revitalize Europe just as immigrants from Latin and Central America have revitalized small towns in the United States. The notion that new residents could breathe new economic life into depressed communities them is one that some cities have deliberately tried to capitalize on in recent years.
Last year, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced a plan to bring 50,000 immigrants to Detroit as a way to rehabilitate a city that just emerged from the brink of bankruptcy.