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How to cite:
Cotella, G. (2021): Country Profile of Italy. Hannover. = ARL Country Profiles. https://www.arl-international.com/knowledge/country-profiles/italy/rev/3770. (date of access).


Italy is located in the southern part of Europe, and consists of a peninsula extending into the Mediterranean Sea and delimited on its northern side by the Alpine Arch. The country covers a surface of 301,340 km² and shares land borders (from the western to the eastern side of the Alpine arch) with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. Moreover, the country includes the two enclaved microstates of Vatican City and San Marino. Due to its peninsular character, Italy has a coastline border of almost 8,000 km on four different seas: the Adriatic on the east, the Ionian on the south and the Tyrrhenian and the Ligurian on the west. It features over 800 islands, among which are Sicily and Sardinia, the two largest islands of the Mediterranean. 

Over 35% of the country’s territory is mountainous, featuring the Alps on the northern boundary and the Apennine mountains that run throughout the peninsula backbone. The rivers are numerous due to the relative abundance of rain (mainly in the north) and the presence of the Alpine snowfields and glaciers. The fundamental watershed follows the ridge of the Alps and the Apennines and delimits four main slopes, corresponding to the seas into which the rivers flow. Most of the rivers drain either into the Adriatic Sea (Po, Piave, Adige, Brenta, Tagliamento, and Reno) or into the Tyrrhenian (Arno, Tiber and Volturno). The longest river is the Po, which originates in the Western Alps and flows for 652 km, generating a vast valley called the Padan Plain (Pianura Padana), which accounts for over the 70% of the plain areas of the country. Overall, the country hosts over 1000 lakes, mostly of subalpine origin, of which the largest are Garda (370 km²) Maggiore (212.5 km²) and Como (146 km²). Other notable lakes are located throughout the peninsula (Trasimeno, Bolsena, Bracciano, Vico). Because of the longitudinal extension and the mountainous conformation, the climate is heterogeneous. In particular, the climate of the Po valley is mostly continental, while the coastal areas of Liguria, Tuscany and most of the south generally fit the Mediterranean climate stereotype. Conditions in peninsular coastal areas can be very different from the interior’s higher ground and valleys, particularly during the winter months.

The country is a founding member of the EU, the G7, and the OECD. Italy’s economy ranks as the third largest in the eurozone and the eighth largest in the world. It is the world’s sixth largest manufacturing country and is characterised by many dynamic small and medium-sized enterprises, famously clustered in industrial districts, which are the backbone of the Italian economy. The characteristics of its economy are: a large and competitive agricultural sector (with the world’s largest wine production), its influential and high-quality automobile (contributing 8.5% to the Italian GDP), food, design and fashion industries – often focused on the export of niche market and luxury products that is capable of facing the competition from Asian economies. 

The north–south divide, which dates back to the country’s unification in 1861, is Italy’s major socio-economic weakness. The unemployment rate (10.6% in 2018) stands slightly above the eurozone average, but the disaggregated figure is 6.6% in the north and 19.2% in the south. The youth unemployment rate (31.7% in 2018) is extremely high compared to EU standards. After a strong GDP growth of 5–6% per year from the 1950s to the early 1970s, and a progressive slowdown in the 1980–90s, the country virtually stagnated in the 2000s. The political efforts to revive growth with massive government spending eventually produced a severe rise in public debt. Moreover, the country has been severely hit by the 2008 global financial crisis, which exacerbated structural disparities. 

With over 60 million inhabitants, the country is the third most populous state of the EU. However, the distribution of the population is uneven. The most densely populated areas are the Po Valley (hosting almost half of the national population) and the metropolitan areas of Rome and Naples, while the Alps and Apennines highlands are sparsely populated. The population of Italy almost doubled during the 20th century, but the pattern of growth was extremely uneven because of large-scale internal migration from the rural south to the industrial north. High birth rates persisted until the 1970s, after which the population rapidly aged; the country currently has the fifth oldest population in the world (median age of 45.8 years).

Until the 1980s, Italian society was linguistically and culturally homogeneous. Since then, however, large waves of migration have originated from the former socialist countries of Romania, Albania, Ukraine and Poland. An equally important source of immigration is neighbouring North Africa (in particular, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia), with soaring arrivals as a consequence of the Arab Spring. In recent years, growing migration fluxes from Asia-Pacific (notably China and the Philippines) and Latin America have been recorded. In 2016, Italy had about 5.05 million foreign residents, making up 8.3% of the population, a figure that exclude foreign nationals who have acquired Italian citizenship as well as illegal immigrants (of which there are at least 600,000). The country’s official language is Italian, which is occasionally natively spoken in the form of regional dialects, whose use is, however, decreasing. Twelve ‘historical minority languages’ are formally recognised: Albanian, Catalan, German, Greek, Slovene, Croatian, French, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladin, Occitan and Sardinian. Four of these also enjoy a co-official status in selected regions: French in the Aosta Valley; German in Alto Adige; Ladin in some parts of Alto Adige and Trentino; and Slovene in the provinces of Trieste, Gorizia and Udine.

General information

Name of country Italy
Capital, population of the capital (2020) Rome, 4,253,314 (Eurostat)
Surface area 302,068 km² (World Bank)
Total population (2020) 59,438,851 (World Bank)
Population growth rate (2010-2020) 0.27% (World Bank)
Population density (2020) 201.0 inhabitants/km² (World Bank)
Degree of urbanisation (2015) 35.23% densely populated areas (European Commission)
Human development index (2021) 0.895 (Human Development Reports)
GDP (2019) EUR 1,579,900 million (World Bank)
GDP per capita (2019) EUR 26,451 (World Bank)
GDP growth (2014-2019) 5.25% (World Bank)
Unemployment rate (2019) 9.95% (World Bank)
Land use (2018) 5.56% built-up land
51.82% agricultural land
29.65% forests and shrubland
11.67% nature
1.3% inland waters
(European Environment Agency)
Sectoral structure (2017) 73.9% services and administration
23.9% industry and construction
2.1% agriculture and forestry
(Central Intelligence Agency)

To ensure comparability between all Country Profiles, the tables were prepared by the ARL.

Administrative structure and system of governance

According to the 2001 reform of Article 114 of Title V of the Constitution of the Italian Republic, ‘the Republic is composed of the Municipalities [Comuni – LAU 2], the Provinces [Province – NUTS3], the Metropolitan cities [Città Metropolitane – NUTS 3], the Regions [Regioni – NUTS 2] and the State [Stato – NUTS 1]. Municipalities, provinces, metropolitan cities and regions are recognised as autonomous entities provided with their own statutes, powers and functions in accordance with the principles of the Constitution.’ 

Article 131 of the Constitution identifies 20 regions: Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardy, Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia.  The Constitution grants autonomous status to the regions Valle d’Aosta, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Sardinia, Sicily, and Trentino-Alto Adige, granting them additional powers in relation to legislation, administration and finance.

Provinces have existed since the unification of the country, although their power and competences have changed through time. Their number has also varied: it remained between 92 and 95 units between 1927 and 1992, then jumped to 103 as a consequence of a reorganisation of the provincial authorities. Other units were then added in the 2000s, taking the total up to 110. Importantly, the two autonomous provinces of Trentino-Alto Adige (Trento and Bolzano) enjoy stronger autonomy, being de facto equivalent to autonomous regions.

Metropolitan cities were instituted only recently with Law 56/2014, replacing the ten provinces of Rome, Turin, Milan, Venice, Genova, Bologna, Florence, Bari, Naples and Reggio Calabria. In the same year, three additional metropolitan cities (Palermo, Catania and Messina) were instituted through a Sicilian regional law, which also turned its other six provinces into Free Consortiums of Municipalities. In 2016 the Friuli Venezia Giulia region relabelled its four provinces as Regional Decentralised Entities. Finally, in 2017 the Sardinia region turned the province of Cagliari into a metropolitan city, and re-joined four of the remaining seven provinces in the province of South Sardinia. As a result of these changes, the sub-regional level is now composed of 14 metropolitan cities and 93 provinces (of which the six units in Sicily are referred to as the Free Consortium of Municipalities, and the four units in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia are Regional Decentralised Entities).

When it comes to municipalities the country is characterised by almost 8,000 units, of which 70% are small towns accounting for less than 5,000 inhabitants (Table 1). This number has varied over time, and especially in the last ten years, when the state put in place a number of incentives for municipalities to merge.

Figure 1: Administrative structure Italy

Figure 1: Administrative structure of Italy

  Municipality  Population
  n. % inhabitants %
500,000+ inhab. 6 0.08% 7,311,109 12.11%
250,000 – 499,999 inhab. 6 0.08% 1,920,434 3.18%
100,000 – 249,999 inhab. 33 0.42% 4,912,857 8.14%
60,000 – 99,999 inhab. 61 0.77% 4,668,937 7.74%
20,000 – 59,999 inhab. 418 5.29% 13,637,496 22.59%
10,000 – 19,999 inhab. 706 8.93% 9,719,812 16.10%
5,000 – 9,999 inhab. 1,186 15.01% 8,373,668 13.87%
3,000 – 4,999 inhab. 1,088 13.77% 4,235,557 7.02%
2,000 – 2,999 inhab. 942 11.92% 2,316,015 3.84%
1,000 – 1,999 inhab. 1,518 19.21% 2,210,349 3.66%
500 – 999 inhab. 1,093 13.83% 805,606 1.33%
< 500 inhab. 847 10.72% 247,706 0.41%
Total 7,904 100.00% 60,359,546 100.00%

In accordance with the Constitution, the Italian Republic is unitary, while recognising the principles of local autonomy and decentralisation. Regions were effectively instituted only in 1970, even though the Italian Constitution mentions them as early as 1948, as the ruling Christian Democracy party did not want the opposition Italian Communist Party to gain power in the regions where it was historically rooted (the red belt of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria and Marche). As of today, Italy is considered a ‘regionalised’ country, with regional functions and responsibilities that were broadened especially during the 1990s via the so-called ‘Bassanini’ laws (in particular Law 59/1997), which propelled the modernisation of sub-national institutions and governance. In addition, regional statutory autonomy was enlarged by a constitutional reform in 2001, when a major change modified the division of legislative competences between the state and the regions, by distinguishing between exclusive competences of the state, concurrent competences, and exclusive competences of the regions.

In particular, the Constitution gives the state exclusive legislative power in matters of foreign policy and international relations and defence, public order and security, finance and taxation, electoral and administrative legislation, jurisdiction, education and social security, the protection of natural and cultural heritage, and the coordination of state, regional and local statistical data. 

Concurrent legislation between the state and the regions applies to the following: the international and EU relations of the regions, land-use planning, transport (including civil ports, airports and navigation networks), the energy supply, disaster relief, the enhancement of cultural and environmental property, job protection and safety, health and education, supplementary social security, and the coordination of public finances and taxation. In these areas, legislative powers are vested in the regions, except for the fundamental principles laid down in state legislation. 

The regions then have legislative powers in all matters not expressly covered by state legislation. Moreover, they take part in the preparatory decision-making processes for EU legislative acts in the areas that fall within their responsibilities, and are also responsible for the implementation of international agreements and European measures within the limits established by the law. 

The provinces and metropolitan cities have regulatory powers for the organisation and implementation of the functions allocated to them. The competences of provinces were reduced by the 2014 administrative reform, which transferred some competences back to the regions. The remaining competences concern the coordination of spatial planning as well as environmental protection, transport planning, construction and management within the provincial remit, data gathering and analysis in support of local bodies, employment discrimination and equal opportunities.

Alongside the competences of the provinces, the metropolitan cities are also responsible for strategic metropolitan development, general spatial planning (including communications, services and infrastructure networks), the compatibility and coherence of municipal urban planning at metropolitan level, the promotion and coordination of economic and social development activities in line with the metropolitan plan, the coordination and supervision of municipalities’ integrated services management, institutional relations with the EU, the state and other metropolitan cities, as well as the promotion and coordination of digital information systems at metropolitan level.

The administrative functions that are not allocated to the provinces, metropolitan cities and regions or to the state are allocated to the municipalities, following the principles of subsidiarity. More specifically, municipalities are responsible for social welfare, primary education, culture and recreation, urban planning, housing, the land registry, local transport and roads, local economic development, waste management, and the local police. Municipalities can provide their services alone or in unions of municipalities, as stipulated by National Law 267/2000 and subsequently by specific regional laws.

When it comes to finances, the Constitution grants municipalities, provinces, metropolitan cities and regions autonomy in relation to revenue and expenditure, although this is subject to the obligation of a balanced budget and compliance with EU law, as well as in relation to independent financial resources, setting and levying taxes and collecting revenues of their own, in compliance with the Constitution and according to the principles of the coordination of state finances and the tax system, and to share in the tax revenues related to their respective territories. State legislation provides for an equalisation fund for the territories having lower per-capita taxable capacity. Revenues raised from the above-mentioned sources shall enable municipalities, provinces, metropolitan cities and regions to fully finance the public functions allocated to them. The state allocates supplementary resources and adopts special measures in favour of specific municipalities, provinces, metropolitan cities and regions to promote economic development along with social cohesion and solidarity, to reduce economic and social imbalances, to foster the exercise of the rights of the individual or to achieve goals other than those pursued through their ordinary functions.

Figure 2: Planning system of Italy
Figure 2: Planning system of Italy

Figure 2: Planning system of Italy

Italy has been a parliamentary democratic republic characterised by a multi-party system since June 1946, when the monarchy was abolished by popular referendum and a constituent assembly was elected to draft a Constitution (promulgated on 1 January 1948). The president of the country (Presidente della Repubblica) is the head of state, elected for a single seven year mandate by parliament. The executive power is exercised by the government, and in particular by the Council of Ministers led by the President of the Council (Presidente del Consiglio). The legislative power resides in a bicameral parliament, with two houses – the Chamber of Deputies (400 members) and the Senate of the Republic (200 members) – that are elected every five years and enjoy the same powers. On the basis of the election results, the prime minister and the ministries are appointed by the president of the republic after multiple hearings with the elected political entities. Once appointed, they must pass a confidence vote in parliament to enter office. Notably, Italian democracy has been characterised by a rather high degree of fragmentation and instability, leading to often short-lived coalition governments (over 60 governments since 1945). 

At the state level, parliament holds the power to enact laws. For a bill to become law, the same text must receive the support of both houses independently. The Council of Ministers is responsible for presenting bills to parliament. In addition to presenting laws to parliament, the Council of Ministers can adopt two different types of decree that have a legal force equivalent to laws approved by parliament: the law decree (provisional) in matters of urgency and the legislative decree (non-provisional) in cases where parliament has expressly delegated legislative authority to the council. Frequent use of the power to adopt decrees has seen substantial legislative power shift from parliament to the council in recent times. At the time of writing, the government is characterised by 13 ministries with budget: Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation; the Interior; Justice; Defence; Economy and Finance; Economic Development; Agriculture, Food and Forestry Policies; Environment, Protection of Land and Sea; Infrastructure and Transport; Labour and Social Policies; Education, Universities and Research; Heritage, Cultural Activities and Tourism; Health. It also has eight ministries without budget (senza portafoglio): Parliamentary Relations and Direct Democracy; Technological Innovation and Digitalisation; Public Administration; Regional Affairs and Autonomy; Southern Italy and Territorial Cohesion; Youth and Sport; Family and Equal Opportunities; European Affairs.

The regions are the first-level constituent entities of the Italian republic. They acquired a significant level of autonomy following a constitutional reform in 2001, which granted them residual policy competence. Yet their financial autonomy is quite modest: they keep just 20% of all levied taxes, which is mostly used to finance the region-based healthcare system. Under the Italian Constitution, each region is an autonomous entity with defined powers. Every region has a statute that serves as a regional constitution, determining the form of government and the fundamental principles of organisation, as prescribed by the national Constitution (Article 123). The Constitution establishes the bodies of each region as the Regional Council (Consiglio Regionale), the Regional Executive Board (Giunta Regionale) and its President (Presidente della Giunta Regionale o Presidente della Regione). The Regional Council exercises the legislative powers allocated to the region as well as the other functions granted by the Constitution and laws, including the possibility to submit bills to parliament. The Regional Executive Board exercises the executive powers in the region, and the President of the Board represents the region, directs and is responsible for its policy-making, promulgates laws and regional statutes, and directs the administrative functions delegated by the state. The president is elected by universal and direct suffrage, unless the regional statute provides otherwise. The elected president can appoint and dismiss the members of the executive. 

The provinces are the intermediate level between a municipality and a region. Since 2015, after Law 56/2014 entered into force, provinces have been classified as ‘institutional bodies of second level’. Usually, the province’s name is the same as that of its capital city. Each province is headed by a president or commissioner (Presidente o Commissario) assisted by a legislative body (the Provincial Council – Consiglio Provinciale), and an executive body (the Provincial Executive Board – Giunta Provinciale). The president and the members of the Provincial Council are elected together by mayors and city councillors of each municipality of the province. The executive is chaired by the president, who appoint the members (assessori) of the Provincial Executive Board. In each province, there is also a prefect (prefetto), a representative of the central government who heads an agency called the prefecture (Prefettura – Ufficio territoriale del governo). 

The metropolitan cities were instituted in 2015, in compliance with Law 56/2014. They are at the same level as the provinces, but hold more powers and competences. A metropolitan city is composed of a central city, which serves as the seat of government, and its surrounding municipalities. It overlaps with the territory of the former province in 13 of 14 cases (with the exception of Cagliari). Each metropolitan city is headed by a Metropolitan Mayor (Sindaco metropolitano), assisted by a legislative body (the Metropolitan Council – Consiglio metropolitano) and by a non-legislative assembly (the Metropolitan Conference – Conferenza metropolitana). The Mayor of the Capital Municipality of the Metropolitan City automatically becomes the Metropolitan Mayor. The mayor is the chief executive and administrative officer, convenes and chairs meetings of the Metropolitan Council, administers city offices, supervises the functioning of city services, and prepares the city’s budget. The Metropolitan Council proposes laws and amendments to the Metropolitan Conference, and approves programmes, regulations and rules submitted to it by the mayor, such as the budget. The Metropolitan Council consists of mayors and councillors of each commune in the metropolitan city, elected from amongst themselves. The Metropolitan Conference adopts or rejects laws and amendments approved by the Metropolitan Council. It is the ultimate approving body for the city’s budget. The Metropolitan Conference is composed of all mayors of the municipalities within the metropolitan city.

The municipality (comune) is the basic constituent entity of the republic. It is headed by a mayor (sindaco) assisted by a legislative body (the Municipal Council – Consiglio comunale) and an executive body (the Municipal Executive Board – Giunta comunale). The mayor and members of the Municipal Council are elected together by resident citizens: the coalition of the elected mayor needs an absolute majority in the first or second round of voting. The Municipal Executive Board is chaired by the mayor, who appoints the other members (assessori). The capital city of Rome is a special municipality featuring a higher level of autonomy (Law 42/2009). It is divided into 15 municipalities, each governed by a president and a council who are elected directly by its residents every five years. Other municipalities with at least 250,000 residents are divided into boroughs (circoscrizioni) to which they delegate administrative functions like schools, social services and waste collection; such functions vary from municipality to municipality. These bodies are headed by an elected president and a local council. Due to historical legacy, some municipalities also have additional sub-divisions, whose designations vary (rioni, quartieri, terzieri, sestieri, contrade, etc.). Moreover, municipalities are usually composed of (i) a main city, town or village, which almost always gives its name to the municipality, and (ii) a number of outlying areas called frazioni, each usually centred around a small town or village. 

The judiciary power is independent of the executive and the legislative branches, and it resides with the High Council of the Judiciary, presided over by the president. It is based on Roman law and the subsequent Napoleonic code. The Constitutional Court (Corte Costituzionale) rules on the conformity of laws with the constitution. The judiciary power is organised into a three-tier system:

(i)    tribunals, labour tribunals and courts of first instance, which are usually located in each province and metropolitan city, and which are responsible for the first level of judgment;

(ii)    appeal courts (with civil, labour and crime divisions), usually located in each region, and responsible for retrying cases judged by the entities above;

(iii)    the court of cassation or the court of last resort, centralised at the state level and responsible for ensuring the correct application of the law in the first and second tier, and for resolving disputes when they reach divergent judgments.
Judges are public officials and, since they exercise one of the sovereign powers of the state, only Italian citizens are eligible for judgeship. Italy’s independent judiciary enjoys special constitutional protection from the executive branch. Once appointed, they serve for life and cannot be removed without specific disciplinary proceedings conducted in due process before the High Council of Judiciary.

Figure 3: System of powers Italy

Figure 3: System of powers of Italy

Spatial planning system

Spatial planning in Italy is based on a traditional urban and physical land use planning approach. The EU Compendium of spatial planning systems and policies lists the Mediterranean states, including Italy, under the so-called ‘urbanism’ approach, characterised by ‘a strong architectural flavour’, ‘urban design, townscape and building control’ and regulation ‘undertaken through rigid zoning and codes’ (CEC 1997: 37). The urban historian Guido Zucconi (1989) describes the origins of Italian spatial planning as the result of a struggle between different disciplines to control urban planning, which architects finally won in the 1930s. It would not be misleading to summarise the evolution of Italian planning culture as a permanent oscillation of planners’ attention between the administrative duty of land use regulation (Campos Venuti 1967) and the search for a new poetics for urban design (Secchi 1989). However, as will be further detailed below, the Italian spatial planning system has evolved through time into a fairly complex configuration, characterised by a high regional heterogeneity and by numerous experimental, innovative episodes, often triggered by the influence of the European Union (Janin Rivolin 2003; Cotella/Janin Rivolin 2011).

Constitutional and legal framework of spatial planning

The 1948 Constitution identifies spatial planning competences under urbanistica as defined in Article 80 of Presidential Decree 616/1977, which concerns the regulation of the use of the territory, including all conceptual, regulatory and management aspects relating to safeguarding and transforming the land as well as protecting the environment. More recently, the 2001 reform of Title V of the Constitution changed the wording from urbanistica to governo del territorio, indicating a wider approach to spatial dynamics that, broadly speaking, may be translated as ‘territorial governance’ (although the word governo has a more hierarchical flavour and is usually translated as ‘government’). According to Article 131 of the Constitution, the latter is a shared competence between the state and the region, whereby regions are entitled to approve their own spatial planning laws within the general framework law defined at the central level.

The Italian planning system is still based on Law 1150/1942, which was approved during the Second World War when the country was still a monarchy. At the centre of the system is the Municipal General Regulatory Plan (Piano Regolatore Generale Comunale, PRGC). According to the law, the PRGC is produced by municipalities (alone or in unions), is based on the concept of zoning and allocates particular uses and characteristics to all areas of land that it covers. It is comprehensive in its proposals and prescriptions. Demands for comprehensive reform of the national framework for spatial planning have been a recurring leitmotiv since the post-war period. Parametric coefficients for the quantitative determination of public spaces and services (the so-called standards) were introduced in 1967 together with further detailing of the zoning procedures in response to the growing threat of speculative processes. At the same time, several proposals were advanced towards a reform of the legal framework for the distribution of building rights (Campos Venuti 1967; Astengo 1969). These attempts aimed to introduce principles of equity in economic gains and to reduce backstage pressures in the decision making process concerning the elaboration of land-use plans. Despite these efforts to introduce more equitable practices in the distribution of building rights, either through radical legislative reforms in the 1970s (Campos Venuti/Oliva 1993) or through articulated legal/economic procedures called processi perequativi (equalisation of land transformation gains), this remains a controversial issue (Urbani 2011), although several pieces of legislation (in particular at regional level) have tried to define operative legal frameworks. 

Through time, the national framework law was also enriched with new local planning instruments. First, the piano di recupero was introduced at the end of the 1970s (Law 457/1978), which aimed at addressing the management of the transformation of existing built-up areas, as a reaction against uncontrolled urban growth and change. Then, during the 1990s, the consolidation of the EU sustainable and integrated urban development paradigm (Cotella 2019) led to additional legislative innovation that brought in new and more effective procedures to enable the renovation of cities and their deprived suburbs. Laws 179/1991 and 493/1993 introduced integrated programmes (programmi integrati) and urban regeneration programmes (programmi di recupero urbano) as an attempt to complement rigid zoning and regulations with more flexible tools, building on public-private collaboration. 

During the 1980s, and also as a partial consequence of EU influence, the legislative framework was amended with the approval of new laws concerning the environment and landscape. Law 431/1985 introduced landscape plans (piani paesistici) and Law 183/1989 instituted instruments dedicated to the protection and management of water basins (piani di bacino). This process eventually led to the introduction (2004) of the ‘regional landscape plan’ (Piano Paesaggistico Regionale), which awarded the regions a leading role in landscape planning. 

Despite the abovementioned innovations and a number of proposals for new spatial planning framework laws, the last of which dates back to the mid-2000s, no comprehensive reform of the national spatial planning framework has hitherto been approved at the central level.


The Italian spatial planning system has experienced increasing regionalisation since the 1970s, when regions were created and provided with related competences. All regions started to approve their own spatial planning laws, leading to an increasing heterogeneity and divergence of regional spatial planning systems and practices (Vettoretto 2009: 190; Gelli 2001). More specifically, most of the regional laws on territorial governance that have been adopted in the last 20 years, albeit with different interpretations, have sought to address topical issues such as: 

  • the normalisation of innovative renewal and regeneration programmes at local level; 
  • the introduction of communicative and participatory processes in planning;
  • the involvement of private stakeholders in territorial transformations and service provision (through a widespread use of contractual approaches and procedures);
  • the systematisation of various local processi perequativi (equalisation of land transformation gains) at a local and supra-local level;
  • the introduction of ex-ante and ex-post evaluation of plans and programmes with various processes, from environmental assessment to integrative approaches, which aim to assess the impact of spatial transformation on the territorial system. 

These themes have been relevant to almost all the new regional laws, but the way they are dealt with varies considerably as a consequence of the heterogeneity of norms and spatial planning approaches. Nevertheless, common trends can be highlighted, in particular with regard to two main aspects: (i) a shift from ‘urban planning’ to ‘territorial governance’, with the remit of spatial planning expanded from the compliance-oriented control of land uses towards the integration of territorially-relevant policies and the introduction of public-private collaboration; (ii) growing adoption of strategic spatial planning approaches and techniques, in particular in urban planning, leading to the more or less formal subdivision of the PRGC into two different instruments, one of a more strategic nature and the other deputed to regulating land use. 

Overall, the various regions present significant differences in terms of instruments and their names, procedures, objectives and functions, which also depends on the time when each law was developed and approved. The lack of a coherent national legal framework and the delegation of new planning laws to the regional authorities have led to those reforming trends that have animated the national spatial planning discourse over time impacting the various regions in different ways. The cohabitation of 21 regional spatial planning systems in the country can be seen in the varying timeline of regional legislation in this sphere (see Figure: Chronological evolution of regional spatial planning legislation).

Figure 4: Chronological evolution of regional spatial planning legislation

Figure 4: Chronological evolution of regional spatial planning legislation (INU 2016)

Subdivision of competences and the main spatial planning instruments

Spatial planning competences are assigned to different levels of government (state, regions, provinces, metropolitan cities and municipalities), which are tasked with defining regulations and instruments, organised in a mostly hierarchical way. The production of spatial planning tools is, however, solely a competence of regions, provinces and metropolitan cities, which are supposed to define orientations for the territorial transformation of their respective territories, and of the municipalities, which prepare the main spatial planning instrument around which the system pivots – the PRGC.

In the light of the shared legislative competences between the state and the regions, the state should define the general guidelines for planning activity and specify land-use guidelines through deliberative acts for which there are no corresponding planning instruments of direct relevance. More specifically, the Ministry of Infrastructures and Transport (Ministero delle Infrastrutture e dei Trasporti) owns the formal national competences for spatial planning. Through time, the ministry has also been responsible for producing a number of sectoral plans, such as the National Housing Plan (Piano per la Casa) and the General Plan for Transport and Logistics (Piano Generale dei Trasporti e della Logistica). Within this ministry, the National Council of Public Works is a technical advisory body supporting the ministry and the regions concerning all relevant spatial planning matters and especially those related to the provision of public interventions. The Ministry for Southern Italy and Territorial Cohesion (Ministero per il mezzogiorno e la coesione territoriale) manages the development funds for the Italian regions, with particular attention to the EU funds and the relations with the sub-national levels (first and foremost regions and metropolitan cities). Within this framework, particularly relevant is the National Strategy for Inner Areas (Strategia Nazionale per le Aree Interne), which was introduced in parallel to the 2014–2020 programming period and which is currently being overhauled (see Practical example 1) (Cotella/Vitale Brovarone 2020). Other ministries are responsible for managing sectoral strategies and policies, such as those related to environmental protection, biodiversity, water, energy, etc., which may potentially have a more or less direct impact on spatial planning activities at the lower levels. Importantly, between 1950 and 1992 a special body called Cassa del Mezzogiorno was responsible for financing the infrastructural and industrial development of the southern regions of the country (Felice/Lepore 2017). However, at the central level no comprehensive spatial plan or spatial orientations were ever produced, if one excludes sporadic initiatives throughout the 1970s (the Progetto ’80. Renzoni/Ruffolo 2012) and the 2010s (the Piattaforme Territoriali) (Fabbro/Mesolella 2010).

The regions must produce a Regional Territorial Plan (Piano territoriale regionale) for their own territory, taking into consideration any relevant state-level guideline (see Practical example 2). This instrument presents the main orientation for socio-economic and spatial development, addressing the issues of environmental protection and infrastructures. It indicates objectives, methods and norms, which are, however, scarcely prescriptive. However, this plan is legally binding for the sub-regional levels, which themselves have to establish coherent plans. Due to the abovementioned varied evolution of the heterogeneous regional laws, regional territorial plans are nowadays different in form, functions, procedures and even denominations (Piano urbanistico territoriale in Umbria, Piano territoriale regionale generale in Lazio, Piano territoriale regionale in Emilia Romagna, Piedmont and Veneto, etc.). However, recent reforms have been united in the attempt to overcome the traditional approach to spatial planning through the introduction of more strategic-oriented instruments. Moreover, regions are also responsible for producing Regional Landscape Plans, which were introduced in 2004 by national law to adapt to the European Landscape Convention (Council of Europe 2000). Landscape plans cover the entire regional territory and have two main purposes: (i) a cognitive purpose, focusing on the analysis of regional landscape features (natural, cultural, property) and transformation dynamics in order to identify the risk factors and vulnerabilities of the landscape, and to address other acts of programming, planning and land protection; (ii) a directive purpose with legally binding measures (prescrizioni), requirements for adaptation measures (direttive) and simple recommendations (indirizzi) for sub-regional plans and sectoral plans. Finally, regions play a supervisory role consisting of regulating and controlling sub-regional spatial planning activities (provinces, metropolitan city and municipalities). 

Provinces and metropolitan cities are responsible for the coordination of municipal planning activities, and they pursue this function through the Provincial Territorial Coordination Plan (Piano territoriale di coordinamento provinciale) (see Practical example 3) and the Metropolitan General Territorial Plan (Piano territorial generale metropolitan) respectively. This instrument contains prescriptions and indications for land use, to which local authorities must conform in the exercise of their respective competences. It determines guidelines for the different zonings according to the predominant use, and may also issue prescriptions limiting land consumption on the basis of the existing building density. It also defines the sites for major infrastructure and lines of communication, the areas for erosion prevention and water flow control, and the areas for nature reserves or parks. The plan covers the whole provincial/metropolitan territory and has no time limit. The provinces/metropolitan cities can also issue comments regarding local PRGCs (supervisory competence), which are, however, neither mandatory nor binding. Overall, the procedure for the making and approval of the provincial plan may vary according to the different regional legislative frameworks. In addition to the above, all metropolitan cities must design and implement a Strategic Metropolitan Plan (Piano strategico metropolitano, lasting for three years) to coordinate and orient spatial development. In doing so, each metropolitan city is allowed to specify a sub-division of its territory and design a statute in order to organise and specify its competences and spatial tools. Each region can assign other competences to the metropolitan city. Metropolitan Strategic Plans should be consistent with the development vision promoted by the Regional Territorial Plan, and constitute a reference for the plans produced by the municipalities.

Municipalities (alone or joined in unions) are obliged to prepare the (Inter-)Municipal General Regulatory Plan (see Practical example 4). This instrument defines land use for the whole territory of the municipality(ies) it concerns. While PRGCs are usually provided with one or more implementation tools, they also allow for direct implementation by owners through building permits. It has no time limit and its provisions are in force until they are varied or replaced by a new plan. Monitoring is not formally envisaged, however regional regulations usually require municipalities to submit the plan to periodic reviews. The plan regulates land use and indicates the main communication routes, public areas, areas for public buildings, protection for the environment and landscape, etc., and prescribes, through implementation regulations, the physical and functional status of the individual zones of the territory. The plan-making procedure is determined by regional law and the region (or the province acting on its behalf) traditionally assesses the plan. 
The varying regional spatial planning legislation has led to considerable heterogeneity in how the PRGC looks in the different regions. Overall, the main distinction is between the traditional form and a reformed configuration, which divides the instrument into a structural/strategic plan and an operational plan. In terms of the formal orientation of the different regional systems (Properzi 2003; Janin Rivolin 2008), at least three planning models can be observed (De Luca/Lingua 2012):

  • a classical compliance-oriented model in regions that have not yet reformed their urban planning laws (Piedmont, Sicily, Sardinia, Marche, Umbria, Valle d’Aosta) and that are still regulated by National Law 1150/1942 and its principles;
  • a hybrid model, in which the distinction between the structural and operational levels is part of a hierarchical traditional system (Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Apulia, Veneto, Lazio, Friuli Venetia Giulia, Campania, Basilicata, Abruzzi, Calabria);
  • a performance-oriented model, based on non-hierarchical and collaborative planning processes in which each institutional level approves its own instruments after activating contractual processes with the other institutions and stakeholders involved (e.g. Tuscany) and with strong interaction with private stakeholders (e.g. Lombardy). 

From the Cassa del Mezzogiorno to EU cohesion policy: A renewed role for the Italian central government

Since the country’s unification in 1861, Italy’s spatial, economic and social organisation has been characterised by a strong north-south divide: from north to south, the number of urban systems decreases and the links between them become weaker (Clementi et al. 1996; Bonavero et al. 1999). As a consequence, the so-called questione meridionale (southern issue) imposed itself on the attention of policy-makers, leading to the introduction of policies explicitly focusing on the development of the southern regions, one of which is the abovementioned Cassa del Mezzogiorno, which ran from 1950 to 1992. Despite this attention, regional economic planning was kept separate from spatial planning, and did not produce any impact on the system. Any attempt to establish a closer relation between spatial planning, economic programming and sectoral policies have usually proved unsuccessful. As a consequence, the system continued to embody a substantial separation between decision-making and the implementation of sectoral policies on one hand (each of them autonomous and dependent on a ministry) and urban planning instruments, particularly those at municipal level, on the other hand.

The 1988 reform of the Structural Funds eventually contributed to the termination of the Cassa and to a reorientation of the logic of Italian regional policy towards those governance principles and mechanisms that were brought in for the first time by the new cohesion policy. The unconditional, unmonitored distribution of resources to southern regional and local authorities had to come to terms with the exogenous conditions that the European Commission had attached to the distribution and use of the Structural Funds. The traditionally weak strategic attitude of Italian central government agencies (CEC 2000) which, ‘despite the traditional state intervention in the economy’, did not allow for any ‘government reflection on the dynamics of territorial development and on the possible measures to direct them towards forms of re-equilibrium’ (Salone 1999: 169), had to quickly adapt to the required programming logic (i.e. multiannual framework, eligibility objectives, co-financing and continuous audit) in order to benefit from the first round of EU cohesion policy. As a consequence of economic conditionality mechanisms, national agencies began to develop an increasing awareness of their role, with the new cohesion policy that ‘favoured a progressive alignment between national and European regional policy’ towards intervention that ‘involves territorial criteria’ (CEC 2000: 98-99; Janin Rivolin 2003; Cotella/Janin Rivolin 2011).

A decisive institutional provision in this direction was Law no. 488/1992, by which Italian regional policy shifted from ‘extraordinary’ intervention in favour of the Mezzogiorno to a proper spatial policy dealing with imbalances throughout the whole country. This ‘new deal’ for national planning was designated Nuova Programmazione, and assumed ‘the territory as a reference for development policies’ (MTBPE 1998: 10, translated in Janin Rivolin 2003). In 1996, the Department for Development and Cohesion Policies was created to plan and manage Structural Funds and the new regional policy tools that came with them (Gualini 2001), a procedure that constituted a radical innovation to Italian custom (Janin Rivolin 2003) and that paved the way for the introduction of a Ministry for Territorial Cohesion in 2010 and of the abovementioned National Strategy for Inner Areas.

The incremental innovation of local practices

The EU’s key principles (subsidiarity, integration, partnership, sustainability, etc.) also contributed to producing a remarkable impact on the technical and administrative culture of regional and local authorities, especially throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The Italian municipalities started to experiment with the EU URBAN programmes (Urban Pilot Projects, URBAN Community Initiative) and those regeneration programmes and instruments that have been introduced through time by the Italian government in response (Janin Rivolin 2003). This led to an increasingly fertile dissemination of good practices and to triggering additional innovation through emulation and dispersion. A growing and spreading awareness of the territorial governance possibilities offered by the EU has given a great impetus to the increasing sophistication of Italian spatial planning systems, with some regions (Piedmont, Tuscany, Puglia, Sicily, etc.) gradually introducing their own programmes and mechanisms for urban regeneration.

As a result, the sectoral and hierarchical orientation that traditionally characterised public policies was put into question through new forms of cooperation, collaborative and negotiated activities between the various sectors and levels of the public administration. In particular, the involvement and participation of voluntary committees, associations and citizens in the development of action programmes, allowing fuller use of the social resources available for urban policies and a strengthening of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the actions taken, has had significant implications. Furthermore, the urban programmes introduced by the EU in the 1990s have triggered a large set of innovative practices. For example, the emphasis on distinct areas of a city/territory (run-down neighbourhoods, deprived urban areas, places of excellence, etc.) progressively deconstructed monolithic concepts like ‘urban system’ or ‘city planning’ (Cremaschi 2002). Other innovations concern the promotion of thematic networks and programmes, which has facilitated an increase in the number of actors involved in urban policies, with a strengthening of their capabilities of self-organisation into aggregations that are adaptable according to specific issues or situations. 

Through time, new institutional and non-institutional actors and practices have come to populate Italian spatial planning and, although the termination of the URBAN Community Initiative seems to have reduced the national momentum, its legacy remains. The relation between the new instruments and the traditional ones in terms of timing and character remains rather problematic. As things are, the risk of confusion and distortion is counterbalanced by the chance for genuine product and process innovation in the methods and styles of urban and territorial governance. In this perspective, urban planners started to be progressively involved in the design and implementation of innovative ‘plans’, not only in the sense of a new interpretation of the urban planner’s traditional work (Laino 2002).

The rise of strategic planning

Over the last three decades, as a consequence of the above stimuli and without any significant reform of the national legislative framework, dozens of Italian cities of large and medium size (such as Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence and Genoa, but also La Spezia, Pesaro, Trento), as well as spontaneous aggregations of municipalities have started to adopt strategic plans, adding to or integrating statutory local plans (see Practical example 6). Strategic spatial planning activity at the (inter-)municipal level is not regulated by any specific law. Strategic plans are based on a voluntary cooperation process among various public and private subjects that together decide on a shared development trajectory, define some strategic objectives and engage in the realisation of a certain number of actions. In this way, local actors seek to address the problem of coordination between different public institutions and the need to integrate and reconcile economic interests, social and cultural representative organisations. The role of private subjects is crucial, not only for financial issues but even more for the knowledge and consensus needed to realise effective interventions requiring a high coordination capacity.

These experiences are interesting for two main reasons. The first concerns the rise of a so-called ‘cities protagonism’ (Bagnasco/Le Galès 2000) deriving from the economic and political changes brought about by globalisation. In this context, many Italian cities adopted strategic planning as a tool to address the challenges of the crisis of the Fordist industrialisation model and to support the local economy and employment in the face of growing international competition. The second reason is a reaction to the (at least) partial erosion of the sovereignty of the nation state (Sassen 1996) and to its reduced redistributive capacity, with cities that had to learn how to coordinate public and private ‘actors, social groups and institutions in order to reach objectives which have been collectively discussed and defined in fragmented, even nebulous environments’ (Bagnasco/Le Galès 2000: 26). 

Contractual agreements in search of vertical and horizontal coordination

The above changes are recognised and generally welcome within the country’s spatial planning debate. The new principles are seen, at least in general terms, as a redesign of the relationships between the state, the local authorities and civil society. Whereas the relevance of these changes varies from region to region and between local contexts, there is no doubt that some innovations have been introduced, which seem to recognise and validate the role of actors and resources traditionally excluded from decision-making processes, and resulting in an overall redefinition of political and administrative action. This is confirmed by the centrality assumed by local authorities in a very wide range of policies and by the confirmation and consolidation of a number of regulatory institutions that are intended to simplify and streamline the work shared by public authorities at various levels and, eventually, to define a contractual model for interaction between public and private actors (Governa/Salone 2005).

This occurred through a number of legislative changes throughout the 1990s, which redefined competences among central and local levels, and brought about cooperative modes among public subjects (vertically and horizontally) and between public administrations and private subjects. More specifically, these reforms introduced a number of institutional tools to carry out vertical and horizontal governance:

  • the Accordo di programma (Programme Agreement; Law 142/1990, Art. 8), an instrument for coordinating inter-institutional partnerships, which was already used during the 1980s as an extraordinary measure to implement public works for which particularly rapid procedures were necessary and to enable automatic variation of the urban planning instruments in force;
  • the Conferenza dei servizi (Conference of Services; Law 241/1990, Art. 14), a contractual procedure for coordinating public actors at various levels but which, in contrast to the Accordo di programma, binds the contracting administration only to a particular intervention;
  • the Intesa istituzionale di programma (Programme Institutional Agreement; Law 662/1996, Art. 203), which involves negotiations to coordinate actions taken by administrations or agencies;
  • the Accordo di programma quadro (Framework Programming Agreement; Law no. 662/1996, Art. 203), which is a contractual model for public-private partnerships.

Overall, the adopted provisions are an attempt to alter the institutional system, reforming the monitoring process and the division of competences and powers between the state, the regions and local authorities in pursuit of a simplification of administrative action and of higher levels of efficiency in public administration (Governa/Salone 2004).

Important stakeholders

Institution/stakeholder/authorities Special interest/competences/administrative area
Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport Infrastructure and transport networks of national relevance;
national public works
Consiglio Superiore dei Lavori Pubblici (within the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport) Public interventions (infrastructures, housing, etc.) of national relevance;
technical advice to the ministry in relation to spatial planning matters
Ministry for Southern Italy and Territorial Cohesion Regional policy; territorial cohesion
Agency for Territorial Cohesion (under the supervision of the President of the Council) Support for EU cohesion policy programming and management
Regions Regional level planning

For the Piedmont region:
Regione Piemonte

Environment and Territory Department:
Regione Piemonte (Ambiente e Territorio)
Metropolitan cities Metropolitan level planning

For the metropolitan city of Turin:
Città metropolitana di Torino

Department of Territory and Spatial Planning:
Città metropolitana di Torino (Pianificazione territoriale)
Municipalities Municipal land use planning

For the municipality of Turin:
Città di Torino

Department of Housing and Territory:
Città di Torino (Casa e territorio)
Unions of municipalities Municipal, land use planning

For Lower Romagna:
Unione dei Comuni della Bassa Romagna

ESPON National Contact Point Regional development and policy-oriented research
Istituto Nazionale di Urbanistica Spatial planning research and practice (more practice-oriented)
Società Italiana degli Urbanisti Spatial planning research and practice (more oriented towards academic debate)
AESOP National Representatives Spatial planning education and research


  • Attachment 1: Map of Italy

  • Attachment 2: Planning system of Italy

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