New Life for Vacant Buildings in Italy?

In a moment in which the economic and demographic growth of Italian cities are still weak, do we need new buildings or is worthwile exploring alternative ways to transform our cities? The re-use of vacant buildings was the topic of a session of the Urbanpromo conference in Milan.

Data from Scenari Immobiliari research shows that a large share of Italian private real estate stock is currently vacant.

Private RE
 Total  Total Avaliable Inadequate Avaliable Inadequate
Type € Billion Sqm Million Sqm Million Sqm Million % Area % Area
Residential 3450 2450 147 123 6% 5%
Offices 120 98 10 3 10% 4%
Retail 300 164 7 4 4,30% 2,40%
Industrial 250 458 82 46 17,90% 10%
Total 4120 3170 246 176 7,8% 5,5%

Approximately 13% of the total stock is currently vacant (either in good conditions or inadequate for immediate use), with peaks of 28% in industrial buildings. However, this calculation do not include publicy owned building, for which official data is not available (vacancy in public buildings is estimated around 20%). Being this a snapshot pictures, experts agreed that these figures are expected to rise in the coming years, if no actions are taken.

But how did we get here? Excluding incomplete buidlings (there is a long history of unfinished buildings in Italy, in many cases for reasons related to failure of construction companies/developers) and those just built for uses that no longer exist. Vacant buildings are either of poor quality, in the wrong locations, a resultof new societal trends or more often a combination of the three. In particular, the evolution of the work-life balance had and is having a enormus impact on our cities. Not only we have to consider the disappearance of large industrial estates, but also the transformation of office spaces, with a gread densification of workers. And that is just what has happened, the effects of digital manufacturing within cities and of e-commerce on retail are yet to come.


MACAO, TORRE GALFA IN VIA GALVANI, ASSEMBLEA GENERALE IN STRADA (NICOLA MARFISI, MILANO – 2012-05-17) p.s. la foto e’ utilizzabile nel rispetto del contesto in cui e’ stata scattata, e senza intento diffamatorio del decoro delle persone rappresentate

Moreover, Italian regulations and bureocracy is of no help. Even if policy agrees on 0-land consumption by 2050, in favour of re-use and regeneration, legislative instruments are incomplete or non functional. The change of use is a complicate process, still linked to the obsolete zoning instruments. Regulation do not stimulate owners to act on buildings, contractual forms for temporary lettings are lacking and laws to punish inert landowners are not implemented. With the result of buildings sitting empty for prolonged periods of time, loosing value and favouring social issues.

As vacant buildings carry a potential value both economic and in terms of activities they can bring to an area, but at the same time often need intervention to adapt them to current uses, potential investors and users sent a clear message: there is a need for stable, easy and implementable regulations. As investments in Real Estate are growing in Italy – particularly in Milan – new owners that can bring new life to buildings can be stimulated to improve their buildings and surrounding spaces if clear rules are applied. If landowners and the city, can sit around a table and coordinate interventions, it can be higlhly beneficial, if citizens are not left behind.

In conclusion in a moment where significant transformation are taking place in cities, often leading to polarization between evolving and abandoned areas, there is still need for a clear “idea of the city”: a strategy that can work as a frame for the various interventions. This vision still needs to be “Public”, in the sense of being the result of discussion between all city stakeholders and owned by all of them. This, coupled with the “courage” of landowners and investors in experimenting new uses, can help bringing new life to vacant buildings.