Panoram Italia: What similarities have you noticed between Bologna and Montreal, and what possible synergies could exist between the two cities?
Virginio Merola: First of all, I have noticed that Montreal is a beautiful city with a high quality of urban life – lively and vibrant. Bologna also has a lot of students and is a very hospitable city. We have discovered that we are similar in the fields of culture, tourism and also within some sectors of the economy. With the help of Mayor Denis Coderre, our two cities have become a lot closer, and we both need to work in order for it to stay that way. Our city is also one that has discovered the need for good hospitality. We have predicted that between now and 2030, we will see a fall in birth rate, so we rely on the many young people who continue to come here, especially from the south of Italy – from Abruzzo, Puglia, Calabria, Molise, as well as those from abroad. Therefore, betting on diversity and difference can be advantageous.
PI: The main tourist destinations in Italy are Venice, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and so on, but not everyone knows that Bologna is a destination not to be missed. Can you briefly tell us the main reasons to visit your city?
VM: Tourism in the years of my leadership has increased considerably – by 7-10% per year – so Bologna is certainly discovering tourism. Tourists who come here will discover a city of art, and thanks to the new high-speed trains, we are only half an hour from Florence, two hours from Rome and an hour from Milan. But this isn’t just a place to pass through; it is a place you should stop to discover an excellent array of culture. Bologna is a UNESCO city of music; it contains many theatre and entertainment activities, and has a wonderful musical system. Furthermore, it’s the only city in the world to have 40km of porticos, so you can walk through the whole of the Medieval Old Town sheltered from the rain. It is a city that offers historical monuments but also many contemporary activities, as well as an excellent culinary tradition; we have a great reputation for food, which we are continuing to work on. Indeed, this autumn we will open Italy World, alongside Oscar Farinetti of Eataly, where you will be able to see how our food is harvested, how the animals are raised and transported to factories, and then taste our Made in Italy products – all within 100,000 square metres. It is a unique project in Europe that we are putting a lot of effort into – we want to make Italian cuisine known all around the world.
PI: Since 2014, the Saputo family has owned the Bologna football team. Has this change had an impact on the local economy and the morale of the fans so far?
VM: It has done a lot for the morale of the fans, because Bologna was coming out of a difficult situation, while now we are firmly in Series A. The Saputo family has restored hope for the success of the team. Now we are working together on a restructuring project for our stadium: the Renato Dall’Ara, a historic stadium. We are developing an urban planning project dedicated to this. The Saputo family is very keen to upgrade the stadium, and so are we. We will re-do the stadium exactly where it is and respecting its historical characteristics; we will not move it outside the city to create an isolated settlement, we will keep the upgrade within the city.
PI: There are a lot of people who have decided to move from the south to the north of Italy. Even your own family made the choice to leave Caserta for Bologna. At first, the people of southern Italy felt, in some ways, judged by those who were born in big cities like Milan and Turin. Do you think that this perception has changed now, or has it remained the same?
VM: My father was in the police force and was transferred along with all his family. I came to Bologna when I was five and a half. There has certainly been a difficult period of integration throughout all of Italy, but today things have changed. Nowadays, it’s not southern Italians encountering difficulties but people coming from Africa or Asia. Southerners have adapted perfectly well throughout northern cities, indeed some of them even vote for Lega.
PI: Considering the growing number of terrorism acts in the urban European centres, what measures has your administration put in place to protect citizens and tourists?
VM: Unlike in Canada, mayors in Italy don’t actually control the police force. We do collaborate with them, however, and there are standard security measures in place that should not be undervalued, especially for preventative purposes. The level of investigation of our police force is very high and so far we have had a positive reaction. We want to continue to live our lives freely, without being controlled by these terrorists.