Work in Process: The “Gesso Stura” Riverside Park

Reasoning - and designing - in a relational way in very large-scale areas, where usually work is carried out by each disciplinary field separately, can involve considerable difficulties and must include an experimental phase.

In 2012, the Ente Parco Fluviale Gesso Stura (Gesso Stura Riverside Park Organization) commissioned a Progetto Strategico di Rete Ecologica (eco-network strategic project) from the Department of Architecture and Design (DAD) at the Polytechnic of Turin under the Alcotra 2007-2013-P.I.T. Programme “Cross-border Marittime Mercantour Region”.

The project is especially interesting due to the very nature of the Park and to the part that the ecological network can play within the park. The PFGS (Gesso Stura Riverside Park) is a “work-in-process” park, resulting from a bottom-up aggregation approach, currently ongoing. This is one of Italy’s few examples of a park created solely thanks to local administration (2006). It will only later be officially sanctioned by the regional body (2012) and is still open to new subscribers.

The management of the Park is also “atypical”: no specific new institutional body was created, and it is managed by the Cuneo City Council that was behind the creation of the project. This is a streamlined structure that, however, has a limited range of operation - officially it cannot operate independently in areas belonging to other municipalities - and has limited spending powers. This is just one of the city’s environmental department branches: few staff and little space. Therefore, since its creation, the PFGS has been forced to fund its activities through regional and European tenders, often in collaboration with the larger and “traditional”

Alpine parks: Maritime Alps, Marguareis and, in France, the Mercantour. This is the case with the Alcotra project and the “eco-network strategic project” funding. This collaboration immediately reveals the special nature of the PFGS area as compared to traditional parks: this is not a large range characterised by areas of environmental value with very little human presence but rather a linear area created by merging residual areas that are still undeveloped within a densely populated plain.

Evolving boundaries, limited operational potential and a densely populated area have pushed the Park to undertake a somewhat unorthodox path when putting into practice this ecological network: its design could be the first step towards defining an “appropriate” size for the Park and its potential range in the long run, going beyond the contingent conditions of the moment.

For this reason, among others, the Park Organization decided not to involve a team specifically focused on the environment but a pool of researchers within DAD focused on landscape design.

Over the years, DAD has studied transformations of settlements, infrastructure and environments in very large-scale areas (Secchi 2010; DIPRADI 2010a, b, 2011). Furthermore, DAD has taken part in a number of projects, which include the construction works for the Piedmont Region Landscape Plan (Regione Piemonte 2009).

In addition to that, DAD’s working group had gained in-depth knowledge and respect in Cuneo province - where PFGS is located - by creating, a few years before, a landscape vision known as (g)rand(a)stad (De Rossi 2009; Giusiano 2012). It is a physical image of the area that, for the first time, highlights and correlates potentially key topics of landscape transformation - the “large-scale architectures” - able to create awareness and give a unified identity to a historically fragmented and polycentric area.

Three projects that cover different aspects: a local rail mobility system that uses an old disused railway network, known as MetroGranda, a green ridge around the Stura river (the most important central river in the province of Cuneo), an agricultural heart where agro-technical production and slow tourism can connect.

The “Green Ridge”, the precursor of a possible expansion of the riverside park, up to then found only in the area of the city of Cuneo, became the point of contact between DAD and PFGS, providing a starting point for the expansion of the protected area to cover the entire fluvial channel. DAD and PFGS jointly decided to transform the ecological network project into a sort of Park Development Programme, going beyond field-specific issues and clarifying the main local issues.

The humanised environment, its linear shape, the fragmentation of environmental information and administration tools, indeed, led the research team to question the very nature of the ecological network concept in this situation. The most traditional reference paradigms for ecological networks seemed to involve a series of issues not always easy to resolve.

A species-specific network - aimed at specific target species according to their needs and functions, such as the interconnected system of habitats for biodiversity - was affected by the lack of uniform information available for the relevant area and by the difficulties encountered in integrating with the settlement and landscape transformation processes of the area.

An eco-structural network - zoning according to existing and mappable natural areas, or related to vegetation categories, defined also on the basis of conditioning macro-factors (geological substrate, local climate) - or operationally, a network of protected areas, as a park and reserve system and more generally governed, within a coordinated system of infrastructure and services, clashed with the lack of a single stakeholder able to coordinate and manage the entire area in question.

The research team has, therefore, decided to give the ecological network a versatile meaning: a “medium term, multifunctional landscape ecosystem, defined on the basis of the previous functions and, more generally, in relation to human activities present in the areas in question” (Malcevschi 2010; Malcevschi and Lazzarini 2011) (Fig. 10.1).

It is a way of conceiving the network as the creation of a green infrastructure that acts, at the same time, as a support for the habitats of different species and for human activities linked to its use and appreciation, both in terms of leisure and for the local economy. With this in mind, the network project is an instrument for dialogue - and not conflict - with the other planning instruments that determine the physical construction of the landscape: the network project presents itself as a potential strategic project for the region (Indovina 2009).

Dialogue is communication, and for communication to be effective - even outside the typically strictly regulated environment of ecological networks - it must be intelligible for most people. In parallel with the development of the network itself, its reconceptualisation is implemented by defining concise concepts able to enhance both the landforms and the related underlying strategies.

If observed on the large scale, the riverside landscape appears to be made up of three different geographical areas. Upstream and downstream areas cover a large range, where, in addition to the major fluvial channels, are networks of confluent minor streams and canals. The intermediate area, on the other hand, has a linear axis that, partly because of the sunken riverbed, is less connected with the surrounding areas.

All of these areas together create a riverside tree-like landscape, where the upstream area of the Gesso-Stura confluence forms the roots, the linear stretch between Cuneo and Fossano the trunk and the area between Fossano and Cherasco

the foliage.

This image enables us not only to immediately understand the area’s shape but also to briefly define possible large-scale strategies, while in the two areas appearing as the roots and foliage, it is fundamental, first of all, to strengthen the crossconnections between the different fluvial channels, in the central stretch protection interventions will mainly focus on broadening the primary corridor along the Stura.

In addition to these “local strategies” (because they are based on the specific characteristics of the different situations) the plan pursues a set of cross-cutting “general” strategies organised around three axes: strengthening the green infrastructure, redeveloping and defragmenting the existing habitats and a sustainable use and

A new vision for the province of Cuneo

Fig. 10.1 A new vision for the province of Cuneo: (g)rand(a)stad (Source: Antonio De Rossi 2009)

enhancement of the natural and cultural heritage. These two groups of strategies together thus allow us to precisely define specific guidelines and actions.

An image of the landscape, three landscape contexts, three cross-cutting objectives: the strategic project for the ecological network seeks to create a common vision for a large-scale area able to identify - and adapt to its needs - a mosaic of specific requirements and conflicts, whether “locally specific” or “field specific”.

Interpreting the “landscape” as an outline and the “landscape project” as the creation of the stakeholders that transform the landscape, the ecological network project pushes its field-specific nature to focus on wider issues and needs.

It does so for two reasons. First of all, because the project (also) involves areas over which the Park does not (yet) have jurisdiction: it either manages to convince the stakeholders outside the park or it is simply ineffectual (Fig. 10.2).

Secondly, because it aims to immediately defuse any conflicts related to environmental protection in densely populated areas, highlighting the points of contact between the needs of the environment and those of the manufacturing sector.

However, this approach is not always understood. Many environmental technicians see dealing with local needs as bending to external interests, thus misinterpreting an instrument that in some ways has a strong European status. The clients themselves, after an initial fascination, have trouble pursuing such an approach because of its real-life application: who wants to carry out concrete actions when they are not restricted to one single disciplinary field (or budget)? Who makes the first move to pre-order subsequent steps, taking into account that the will of individual local stakeholders can change over time - even for internal reasons - thus impacting the project itself?

Again, it is clear what probably is, and has been, the main issue for very large- scale projects in Italy in the past few decades: despite a general improvement in local governance, these projects have suffered from a congenital lack of support for effectively implementing projects, that otherwise too often remain on paper.

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