contemplating ‘the genius of a place’

The genius of the old ways, near Cortona in the 1950's

If universal questions about the dynamics of place need a stage to be answered, there is no better theater than Cortona, Italy, home to Frances MayesUnder the Tuscan Sun, and a symbol of the romantic ambience of a simpler life.

There, American expatriate and film producer Sarah Marder left a long career in the banking industry to produce a pending documentary, The Genius of a Place, which tells both a personal and universal story based on 25 years of observing a commercial transformation from a tradition-based, agrarian economy to dependence on tourism and world renown.

The film’s title is no accident, echoing English poet Alexander Pope’s exhortation that we “consult the genius of the place in all”. The film crew followed suit, listening to evidence from the Etruscan past to today.

Despite the idyllic hill town setting (and interviews with well-known icons including Mayes herself, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons), Marder insisted to me from Milan this week that while the movie was filmed in Cortona, the focus is far broader. “We see Cortona as a symbol for places all around the world facing similar challenges, undergoing rapid change, growth and construction.”

The film crew is pursuing what Marder terms “a balanced approach”, examining the benefits and drawbacks of this transformation. For instance, interviews depict a more dynamic town economy of new jobs and businesses, but also convey how the town center population has dwindled from a post-War high of roughly 7000 to less than 1500 today.

Marder at work in Cortona's main square

Similarly, townspeople explain how, as real estate prices have climbed, locals have sold older dwellings in favor of larger homes in outlying areas. The clear message is one of a changed commercial fabric, with stores now catering almost exclusively to touristic whims, not residents’ needs.

Footage also shows familiar urban challenges, Cortona style. Like many tourist centers, parking availability is often limited. In peak seasons, trash piles grow next to dumpsters. A well-digger explains the need for increased well depths based on substantially increased water demand.

From my perspective, in bridging common urban growth experiences worldwide, Marder’s endeavor is both remarkable and sincere. What happens to an authentic place forever altered by unexpected notoriety, such as Mayes’ arrival, books and films? How is tradition changed and culture compromised? How should growth be managed and a sustainable local economy preserved?

These are not casual questions about the impacts of tourism, but rather about best practices going forward, based on legacies potentially lost. As Marder explained during our several recent discussions:

As I saw things begin to change starting around 2000, I wanted to find a way to document some aspects of Cortona before they changed beyond recognition or repair. I especially wanted to document the way of life of the elderly, which resemble life from centuries ago, because I could see that it would soon be extinct. Ironically, I seemed to be among the few noticing. From the perspective of many, it was a non-issue—most people embraced their day-to-day concerns and were not worried that the town might change in unsatisfactory ways. For them, the town’s well-being followed from a legacy of the past 3000 years.

In fact, places like Cortona, with special topography, viewpoints and strategic advantage, have long driven human settlement. I wrote last year how historic hill town settings are instructive for more than romantic vacation ambience—they contain important lessons about successful human settlement.

These settings blend with natural surroundings; keep up a pedestrian identity, with limited vehicular access; emphasize aesthetic principles (views to and from); communally group institutions around public open space; carefully merge public pathways and private dwellings; offer efficient living spaces and allowance for density; as well as display innovative bases for water collection and storage and management of sewage and stormwater discharge.

An ancient borgo, or tiny village, in Cortona's surrounding countryside

With similar factors in mind, Etruscan choice of city location was typically a matter of utmost importance, carried out by specialized elders who knew how to apply the right criteria for a suitable site. Marder confirmed that as late as the 1950s, town residents were still using 2000-year old Etruscan wells scattered throughout the town.

Considering all that Marder and her team have achieved to date, the film could offer an enviable case study. In Genius’ merger of celebrity together with dozens of interviews with ordinary, yet thoughtful people, insightful views about placemaking in a global economy emerge. In the specific case of Cortona, Marder implicitly wonders whether tell-tale, accidental notoriety should be envied or avoided, mitigated or embraced.

Although Cortona’s recent growth has come mainly from tourism, in conversation, Marder focused instead on new development that has accompanied the town’s fame. She considers tourism just one of the many types of development a place can pursue, usually in a relatively unenlightened way:

All places understandably seek economic development. These same places then find themselves at some point wrestling with the side-effects of development that they didn’t ponder or manage particularly well. They didn’t foresee the future repercussions of their actions and have compromised their place through myopic behavior. That’s something sad and yet we, the creative team, believe it’s a universal story, something that is happening to communities all around the globe.

Until the film’s completion, the best summary of Marder’s message is through the film’s trailer, embedded below, as well as a variety of clips on YouTube.

The team behind Genius has the ambitious goal of a 2013 Sundance Film Festival début, an honor granted to just 1 in 50 films. Plans for 2012 include distilling 4000 minutes of footage into an about 90 minute film by September.

Meanwhile, people often ask the production team if the film is going to propose solutions to the questions presented. While neither a lawyer nor an urban planner, Marder said she is routinely pressed to generate “some policy, law or methodology”, something she said that she “is in no place to do”.

However, she has bigger plans that mirror the best of neighborhood outreach, visioning, and charrette. She hopes that the film will become a tool for promoting “local stewardship on a global level”, perhaps as a catalyst for touring workshops for engaging viewers on the unintended consequences of development in their own town or city.

“Is it Utopian to believe that people in communities could band together to safeguard their respective special place’s long-term interests?” she asked.

My answer honors the efforts of Marder and her film crew. As an alternative to traditional growth management approaches, legislative hearings and city council deliberations, perhaps we all should keep an eye on The Genius of a Place.

For more details on the film and production schedule, visit the film team’s website, here. Historic photo of Cortona-area oxen by Prof. Duilio Peruzzi. Photo of “Genius” on-set by Antonio Carloni. Photo of Cortona-area countryside composed by the author.

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