Thanks to its university and its appeal to tourists, Urbino remains resilient to the economic crisis that is crushing the rest of the country.
An upbeat pop song blasts from the speakers, echoing through the empty space. At Consorzio Centro Commerciale, the new mall located directly beneath the walls of Urbino, it is 11:15 a.m. on a Saturday—prime time for shopping. Yet the mall, despite its offerings of contemporary, affordable shops such as Bata and United Colors of Benetton, is nearly empty.
Open since 2012, the mall is still only half-occupied. On Via Mazzini, shops are plastered with neon-colored signs reading “LIQUIDAZIONE!” Idle café owners sit in front of their bars, smoking and watching students and tourists pass by.
In a country that has been rattled particularly hard by the European economic crisis, it comes as no surprise that business in Urbino is a little slower than usual. But compared to the rest of Italy, Urbino is in good shape.
“Basically, Italy is becoming the second tier of Europe, the periphery,” says Mario Pianta, professor of economics at the University of Urbino and author of the 2012 book Nove su Dieci (nine out of ten). Pianta, who has taught at the university for 15 years and lives in Rome, argues in his book that nine out of ten Italians are worse off today than they were ten years ago. He isn’t very optimistic that the situation will get better, either.
In Italy, the third largest economy in the European Union, unemployment among young adults stands at 37 percent; overall, 16 percent of the population is unemployed. Since 2008, investment has dropped by 25 percent.
“The disaster is a result of the excessive power of finance and the excessive austerity imposed by debt-obsessed policy makers in Brussels, Berlin, and Rome,” says Pianta. “Until you change policies, there will not be an end to the crisis.”
The economic crisis in Italy is not cyclical, like it is in the United States, but structural, a result of myriad unsuccessful policies implemented since the end of World War II. After the war, Italy created specialized industries in each of its different regions. These industries, which once made Italy prosperous, are now the reason why the country finds itself in a chokehold: As investment plummets, the industries fail, and so do local economies.
“It is not a crisis of the moment,” says Frederico Scaramucci, the president for culture, tourism, and product activities of the Marche region. “it arises from the behavior from the last 50 years.”
But as industries across Italy slow production and foreign companies acquire niche firms, Urbino remains relatively stable. As Pianta explains, this is because the Urbino area was one of the last regions to develop industrially, forming small producers of items like electrical appliances 20 years after the rest of the country. This delay made Urbino less dependent on these now-failing industries and allowed it to focus instead on culture and tourism.
Tourism has helped Urbino, a city rich in history and culture, weather the early years of the crisis. Now, that part of the economy is starting to fray too. “Clearly, the number of tourists who come to Urbino has been declining a lot, and the fall of tourism is a major indicator of the crisis this year. Urbino will be affected mainly on this element,” says Pianta.
But Urbino also keeps its head above the rising waters of the economic crisis because it is, ultimately, a college town. With 15,000 students, the flow of business in Urbino has remained almost constant. Students are the driving force of the local economy. The university itself also employs many of the people who call Urbino home.
“A city like Urbino, which is heavily dependent on the university as the largest employer in town, of course is much less exposed to the effects of the crisis,” says Pianta.
While the future of Urbino isn’t in much jeopardy, the futures of its students are. Like many American students, they are worried about getting jobs. Pianta’s students used to find good jobs with secure income waiting for them after graduation. Now, even his best students remain unemployed.
“Students are now accepting unpaid internships at firms that just laid off many of their workers,” says Pianta.
What’s more, Italy is now experiencing the “brain drain” phenomenon. In 2012, for the first time in recent years, Italy had more citizens leave than immigrants enter the country. Most of those leaving are university-educated young people.
“I recommend to all of my students with a good degree to go abroad. Going abroad is an urgent need, but it’s bad news,” says Pianta. “It’s a disaster.”
Scaramucci offers one solution to the crisis: Capitalize on culture. “We have to sell tourism, environment, culture, and history,” he says.
His idea has already been implemented. Urbino is competing to be recognized as the 2019 EU “capital of culture,” the European equivalent of hosting the Superbowl. This distinction would promote Urbino to every city in Europe, create jobs, and ultimately push the economy. Posters for “Urbino 2019” are visible everywhere in town.
But a structural disaster cannot be solved by a few simple actions, and Pianta offers a different outlook on Italy’s economic future. “I do not see a change happening in the next five or even ten years,” he says.
Still, the future is unpredictable, and despite the grim situation, there is a tinge of optimism in Pianta’s voice. “When you come back here in three years’ time, we will see what happens.”