In territorial planning, agricultural areas are often seen as blank spaces, empty and free, susceptible to new construction projects and infrastructures. This trend is framed within a continuous, entropic growth process which has only accelerated exponentially since the end of the Second World War, with no end in sight. The urbanisation of rural areas has also been consolidated simultaneously with the migration of agricultural workers to industry; meanwhile, agriculture has increasingly been transformed along industrial paradigms, with agrarian landscapes surrendering to the demands for mechanisation and land increasingly contaminated by the abuse of plant protection products (PPPs) and desertified due to the excess of chemical fertilisers.
If Emilio Sereni's lesson is still valid, as he posits in Storia del paesaggio agrario italiano, agrarian landscapes' permanent nature favours that long-term references such as the land divisions defined during the Roman Empire, the establishment of villages and the water transport network, allow us to rebuild these historical references which, at the same time, offer useful indications - different in each territorial area - on how to recuperate the characteristics of those places which have lost their meaning. This permanent nature, in fact, was altered with the transformations occurring during the frenetic development of Western Europe as of the second half of the 20th century, jeopardising the landscape system's ability to adapt. This led to the loss of meaning for many places, the uprooting of its inhabitants (a more painful displacement due to not having migrated when the other place still existed), and the creation of neologisms which were not considered necessary before, such as Marc Augé's non-places. The process leading to this profound alteration of agricultural areas is due to the notably intense spread of urban growth, like an oil stain, in certain geographical areas - Veneto in Italy and Belgium, just to cite two examples -, with consequences which will make it impossible to return to prior states. However, the current economic crisis with the resulting loss of work in industry and the service sector and the environmental emergencies stemming from global climate change are leading to a revival of interest in the agricultural world, though with greater attention being paid to product quality, biodiversity and the rights of small farmers and their communities. The EU community's agricultural policy has also directed its gaze at the agricultural world and highlighted the important role it can have in sustainable development, well beyond the simple though fundamental production of food. The problem is that, at the same time, the number of farmers has dwindled considerably as has the analogous amount of land dedicated to agriculture: in EU-27, the agricultural industry includes 11 million workers, that is, 5.1% of Europe's active population (Eurostat, Agriculture in the EU Statistical and Economic Information Report 2010), maintaining significant numbers only in Eastern Europe. This figure reached over 50% before the Second World War. As such, we can affirm that the loss of biodiversity has also been accompanied by a social phenomenon: the drop in the number of farmers has implied a genetic drift of knowledge and traditional wisdom, replaced by the consolidation of standardised cultural models which are highly conditioned by the commercial policies of the multinationals providing goods and services for agriculture. The state of agrarian landscapes in Western Europe is further narrowed by those who want to cultivate photovoltaic panels instead of wheat and those who want to sell a certain image of an agricultural world which no longer exists and in which the obsessive search for identity reveals the agricultural world's inability to communicate. A critical re-reading of modernity and its developmental traits and an update of Emilio Sereni's analysis can provide indications on agrarian landscape references which have to be used to guide their future design and a possible paradigm for truly sustainable development, but only if these areas are inhabited by conscious rural communities.
Director, Fondazione Benetton Studi Ricerche