Citizens caring for public spaces
We have lived in Italy for almost three years as legal residents. But until now I had not heard of a type of organization that exists in some Italian cities. Its goes by the name of “Angeli del Bello.” What a marvelous and uniquely Italian term! It means, literally, Angels of Beauty. These groups help take care of public spaces in their towns. Because almost no city has the financial resources to be constantly monitoring and cleaning its parks and piazzas, this group of citizen volunteers steps in.
In order to receive my residency permit, I had to attend a two day course in Italian civics. One surprising thing I learned was that the Italian Constitution includes a major “pillar” stating that people living here have an obligation to contribute to the community. It is a completely brilliant idea. Everyone shares in responsibilities to make good places to live.
In Italy this is manifested in a number of different ways. Some groups organize seasonal festivals. Some groups arrange free musical concerts in the summer. Displays of artists’ work can be found in community centers. In our village last year, a group of people cleaned out a small, unused triangle of land near one entrance to the town and planted it with trees, shrubs, and flowering bulbs. Our auto mechanic—a burly but affable gentleman – turns out to be the chief organizer of summertime community dinners in the piazza next to city hall.
Back to the Angeli dl Bello. In Florence, almost every week a group can be seen scurrying around parks and plazas sweeping, cleaning, picking up trash, and performing light maintenance and repair. They wear bright red traffic safety vests and red ball caps with the Angeli logo. The group includes dozens of people ranging from middle school kids to senior citizens. It looks like they have a great time being outside and working together. The city of Verona has a similar, well-established group of Angeli .
Angeli are recognized by their city councils as augmenting public works forces. The mayors make appearances and give them commendations. The city and private businesses both contribute materials, tools, and equipment for them to do the work. The result is public places that are clean, usable, and continue adding to the appeal of a place even though they might have been built hundreds of years ago.
This might be thought of as something typically found in larger cities. But apparently not. In the city of Ascoli Piceno, population 49,200, at the south end of the region of Marche, there is an active unit of Angeli. Ted Wobber, an American expat and his wife Linda DeMelis, are part of a group of almost 100 people, including Italians. Ted and Linda participate in the frequent efforts to keep the public spaces looking good. Some of the members with special training operate a machine that cleans stone surfaces. Others are responsible for painting over graffiti. Ted notes that it’s always a delicate matter to select the exact color match for the existing material.
When he was alive, Holly Whyte used to note the importance of public spaces having “mayors” to watch over them and keep them usable. The same idea can be carried out by groups as well as individuals. These “angels of beauty” in Italy speak highly to its long-standing commitment to nurturing shared public spaces.