This is the context that accommodates the “Program of Schist Villages” in Central Portugal (which arose from the creation of the “Network of Schist Villages” – “Rede de Aldeias do Xisto”), under the “Operational Plan for the Central Region of Portugal” (an instrument for structuring development in the region for the period 2000-2006, backed by funding from the European Union – “Community Support Framework III”).
This initiative involves over twenty hill villages (peripheral micro-territories), distributed among thirteen municipalities in the sub-regions of “Pinhal Interior”, “Beira Interior Sul” and “Cova da Beira” (Figure 1).
It concerns the “rehabilitation of a group of hill villages (repairing roofs and façades, upgrading social areas, installing urban furniture, repairing road surfaces and footpaths, putting in basic infrastructure systems) to support a network of sites of tourist interest” (CCRC, 2001: 38).
These localities are now integrated into a system in accordance with a (tourist) development scheme, involving the region as a whole, which also embraces the scenic roads that link the villages, and envisages, further, panoramic routes, recreation parks and stopping places with charts describing the landscape, belvederes.
Based on the “Village Plans”, a feature of territorial administration that is concerned with micro-territories (peripheral, and exhibiting economic, social and demographic fragilities), the aim is to consolidate and motivate proposals for intervention (with financial support from the European Union and the Portuguese Government), which aim to requalify such regions, improve the life of the people, heighten their self-esteem and foster their potentialities (original and special).
The drafting of “Village Plans”, on the initiative of the municipalities involved, and following defined criteria, related to a clutch of concerns, which are also methodological steps that can be summarised as follows:
– Characterization of the intervention area, by constructing a narrative of the geo-historical evolution of the regions, including their demographic, social and economic components. The structure built up for each village according to its chief structuring components, from both the urbanistic viewpoint (such as the analysis of the urban morphology and structure), and the architectural viewpoint (for instance, the state of preservation of property, type of roofs and eaves, the outside of the building).
– Diagnosing needs, a stage of the plan depicted at various levels: private property, public facilities, public spaces, population, infrastructures, economic activities, are among the most important; interviews and socioeconomic surveys conducted on the local residents are essential here.
– Proposal for intervention, which defines the actions to be carried out and the spaces or components of the village that are to be the subject of intervention. As an example we might mention private buildings (façades and roofs, sheds and storehouses), public buildings (rehabilitation of squares and streets; improving/installing basic infrastructures; urban furniture).
– Finally, the Execution Plan, where the different intervention typologies are budgeted (according to defined parameters) and related to the time envisaged for the intervention (execution programme) and with the economic resources available (financing plan).
This paper will also give a systematized indication of the territorial asymmetries, the problems and the potentialities of the schist villages.
– Differentiating the administrative designations for the localities: small villages, small towns formerly municipal seats (extinguished in the 19th century), which are now parish seats, also correspond to distinct demographic, economic and social cadres. The demographic dimension of the localities in the network, for example, oscillates between two residents and more than one hundred residents. This means that local levels of abandonment are differentiated.
– The structure in terms of buildings is also highly variable: number of properties; state of preservation; typology and architectural characteristics; occupation typology (permanent home, seasonal home, and mixed situations).
– The basic infrastructure systems (water, electricity, drains, rubbish collection) also show territorial asymmetries; but one negative situation they have in common is the absence of public wastewater treatment plants.
– The total investment approved by the CCRC (Central Region Coordination Commission) is 10 million euros (53% of the total investment submitted by the municipalities), in accordance with the structural components (private property, public property, public spaces, infrastructures) also reflects the differences highlighted earlier.
But, the most interesting image of some of these Network villages arises from the enduring outlines of local architecture (with its traditional construction features and the materials used) and from the tightly packed houses with their rough, winding paths (worked from the bare rock), flanked by dry-stone walls, which lead to tiny plots of farmland (Figure 2). These too need the help of stone walls to prevent the land from collapsing and being carried away to the bottom of the valley; the scene is rounded off by what remains of the old deciduous woodland, consisting of sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), oak (Quercus pirenayca; Quercus roble; Quercus faginea) and some species on the water's edge.
In such cases, are we not looking at examples of cultural landscapes? It should be recalled that “Cultural landscapes are collective works, the fruit of specific social organizations. They occasionally represent an optimum state of utilization of endogenous resources. Offering important goods and services to a society as a consequence of their aesthetic quality, cultural richness, capacity to regulate the hydrological and nutrient cycles, their heterogeneity and biological diversity. The landscape is also a language, a perception and a common aspiration in society” (Conclusions and Resolutions of the “I Colóquio Ibérico de Ecologia da Paisagem”, 2001).
In addition, the above document also says that “The Iberian Peninsula is home to some of the finest functional cultural landscapes that remain in Europe. Abandonment and rural depopulation are the biggest threat. There is today a strong reason to worry about the loss of heritage resulting from the disappearance of these landscapes”.
– The protection status of these cultural landscapes is differentiated, too. At local level, the municipal land use management plans of the municipalities involved in the network reveal very distinct concerns: from defining more or less wider urban perimeters (which means the technical and political intention of allowing more building in the localities, as happens particularly in the older towns and in the larger and better characterized villages), to designing the urban area limited to the consolidated space of the village (in this case the goal is not to allow new building, but rather to rebuild properties that are in a poor state of repair or in ruins, and so provide properties with areas (sq. m.) more in keeping with the needs of the new, essentially neo-rural, users (of urban origin), in the context of second homes. At national and international level, the proposals and procedures for classification as cultural heritage submitted for consideration by the competent national authorities have to be borne in mind, and the results of the national Rede Natura 2000 sites.
– The drafting (technical responsibility) of the plans is undertaken by various bodies: multidisciplinary teams established for the purpose (Local Technical Offices - GTL, created for a period of two years); outside firms hired by the municipalities, generally with experience in the area of land use planning and urbanism, and, in some cases, it has been the responsibility of the Technical Support Offices (cofunded by groups of municipalities).
– The application of the plans, once approved by the CCRC, is, in some cases, done by bodies that have had not hand at all in drafting them, as in the case of the Lousã GTL, responsible for executing the plans of the hill villages (seven) in the municipality of Lousã. Would it not be legitimate here to question the options in relation to suiting the actions planned (and the financial resources provided in the meantime) to the philosophy of the new team that is going to execute them on the ground? Pursuit of this goal includes the need to sound out the people, who are, after all, the main coactors in the construction of the hill regions. In other words, we are looking at a process that has to be flexible, and so it should be in a constant state of adjustment and assessment.
– However, these villages should not remain isolated from a network which is territorially very broad. Today it does not make sense, in terms of tourism, to invest according to isolationist principles! Within the framework of cultural tourism, but also within other spheres of tourism and cultural activities, there is a tendency to integrate places into networks/itineraries, in which the different territorial components act as a federation. This is the strategy defined by the CCRC for the” Pinhal Interior”, as well as its own work on the “Rede de Aldeias do Xisto”.
By thinking in terms of this type of integrated development, in which various features interconnect and complement each other, we are providing the interior with a powerful tourist attraction.
3. Final Remarks
The issue of territorial development and local populations has achieved considerable visibility in recent years, on several levels: conceptual plan; documents and texts with strategic guidelines, as a result of the attitude adopted by various national and international organizations; policies and actions on different scales; and the more or less ative and clear participation of the diverse actors.
We are interested in the process of territorial transformation and the “construction” of a society that is closer to ecodevelopment, in which the quality of people's life arises from harmony with nature, without significant economic, social, environmental and spatial imbalances, in other words, a society where development is more sustainable, in which there are fewer inequalities and more harmony with the space (RODRÍGUEZ, 2003). Because of this, and since today we are looking for “new territories for new societies”, the interpretative analysis of the countryside, with input from several scientific areas, should be useful when it comes to developing future policies that focus on the key points of the imbalances between regions and the possible ways of correcting development orientations and policies.
Just as regions vary geographically, their affirmation is also achieved by building up and disseminating an image of distinction and quality, centred on their identities (in a state of perpetual construction) and on their resources (material and immaterial); the knowledge (gained by reading and interpretation) of landscapes is inseparable from the perception of their “genetic code” as a matrix of potential geographical relevance.
The landscape as cultural construct, from the standpoint of understanding its structuring languages, is now also assuming aspects of a privileged framework for conceptual reflection, within the theme of development.
Similarly, it is once again being placed at the centre of the aesthetic and experiential concerns of post-modern populations, and is the kernel of a very significant series of recommendations, conventions, doctrines, instruments and strategic guidelines that span different spatial scales (from the global to the local), and touch on sundry levels of scientific knowledge (CARVALHO and FERNANDES, 2002).
European rural spaces, with their fragilities and respective diffuse characteristics, are no longer exclusively felt and viewed from the standpoint of their productive potentialities. Furthermore, in a different context, they may be gaining in complexity, functional diversity and sustainability.
Rural landscapes reflect the living evidence of their history and rural culture; they are repositories of heritage (both natural and cultural), indispensable for the new lifestyles in rural regions. Post-modern societies likewise see these values as a substantial part of their heritage (RIVA, 2002).
One of the biggest challenges currently facing us is how to maintain and cherish rural landscapes; this will require stimulation and support for the rediscovery and reinvention of the rural (and new ways of experiencing rurality), with dignity, and quality of life.
In this context of change, in which the (re)discovery of the countryside and of its heritage value are today fundamental conditions for constructing new identities, and for identifying development alternatives, it accommodates the “Program for Schist Villages” Based on the “Village Plans”, a feature of territorial administration that is concerned with micro-territories (peripheral, and exhibiting economic, social and demographic fragilities), the aim is to consolidate and motivate proposals for intervention (with financial support from the European Union and the Portuguese Government).
It is an integrating approach, sustained by a series of actions that have been designed to rehabilitate rural areas that are in decline, to improve the living conditions of the local residents, to raise their self-esteem and foster their original, exceptional, potentialities. It is also intended to stimulate their inclusion as authentic cultural tourism destinations.
The future Network, which covers over two dozen hill villages (Portuguese Central Mountain Range), shows the heterogeneity of its structural components and the different actors (hill, neo-rural, urban in relation to second home) which appropriate, invigorate and consume these territories, according to differentiated temporal, spatial and cultural conceptions.
The response (and involvement) of local people (in this heterogeneous spectrum), the invigoration and the visibility of the future Network are open pertinent issues at this first stage phase of the initiative.
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