What do we mean when we talk about culture? UNESCO defines culture as “the distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group,” including art, literature and other creativity, as well as the ways we and our societies live together — such as our languages, values, traditions, practices and beliefs. Culture is beauty and, as the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “Beauty will save the world.”
As a policymaker, I would simplify and extend this definition to argue that culture is an identity card, like a passport, for a people. And, just like a passport, culture doesn’t just define who we are; it opens borders for us, allowing us to build bridges with other cultures, driving social and economic development as it does so.
Matera is known for its cave dwellings — the Sassi di Matera — with houses, shops and monasteries carved into the limestone cliffs. There is evidence that habitation began as far back as 9,000 years ago, but the town was formally founded in 251 B.C. Sadly, Matera fell into poverty and neglect to such a degree that, in the 1950s, its inhabitants were evacuated into nearby modern housing. While this was necessary for their quality of life, it also had the negative effect of shearing the local community from its heritage — its culture.
However, rebirth and regeneration came in the 1980s with a new vision for Matera: A historic tourism destination financed through government and private investment, with hotels, museums and restaurants taking up residency in the cave dwellings, leading to a return for the community and the growth of a vibrant and creative arts scene. Milestones such as Matera being recognized in 1993 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2019 as a European Capital of Culture are a source of pride for us, but more important still is the Matera community’s reconnection to its culture and heritage. When my government in 2014 decided to put forward Matera as the European Capital of Culture, that was the most important symbol of radical change: From poverty to European leadership thanks to a vision, thanks to culture.
The community of Matera has been able to regenerate its identity, build bridges and drive economic renewal through the tourism and hospitality industries, with support from connected sectors such as agriculture and film. And, indeed, all of Italy can be proud that this site of world heritage stands proudly alongside others as a place where a modern community lives in harmony with its past, its modern economy sustaining and being sustained by its history.
As proud as we in Italy are, we are not alone in taking this approach.
The AlUla region in Saudi Arabia is the next great opportunity to establish a global destination for culture, history, heritage, and ecotourism. With the launch of the Royal Commission for AlUla’s “Journey Through Time Masterplan,” AlUla and Saudi Arabia are following this community-inclusive, culture-first approach. And, as was the case in Matera, the regeneration of AlUla will be built on respect for the culture of the past.
One of the ways this is being implemented is in the AlUla Sustainability Charter, which encompasses economic, environmental and social sustainability to move from responsible development to sustainable development. The charter helps to address the most pressing challenges of the future (urbanization, scarce resources, climate change) by studying and learning from sustainability as practiced by our ancestors.
The masterplan guiding the first and most important phase of AlUla’s development is backed by extensive scientific studies on the area’s human patterns and environmental and geological evolution.
And this will be living culture: AlUla will be a living museum. The AlUla Framework for Inclusive Community Development ensures that the region’s people — the guardians of ancestral values, techniques and traditions over millennia — are central to the long-term success of AlUla’s development as primary beneficiaries and partners.
I believe this is key to the value of this masterplan. It values culture, both in terms of what a people creates and how it lives as per the UNESCO definition and in terms of who it is, where it is going and how it feels. And AlUla could become a city of the future, not only a city of the past. The masterplan is connecting the past and future of AlUla and connecting its community with the world in a way that will empower, inspire and fulfill its people and the Kingdom for generations to come.
Everyone walking in this magical place believes in that project and believes in the simple quote: “Beauty will save the world.”
- Matteo Renzi is former mayor of Florence, former Prime Minister of Italy, and member of the board of the Royal Commission for AlUla.
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