In Italy, where social cooperatives have long played a key role in filling the gaps left exposed by dwindling public services, the Città Solare is pioneering an innovative form of social tourism, bringing together the disadvantaged in need of training and employment, the marginalized in need of accommodation and tourists and travellers looking for a good-value place to stay in Italy’s Veneto region.

The name Città Solare, meaning “Sunny City”, comes from, solidarietà, lavoro, responsabilità (“solidarity, work, responsibility”). Founded in Padua in 1997, it is dedicated to the social integration and employment of Italians and immigrants through various activities in three main areas: environmental services, industrial manufacturing and hospitality.

The cooperative employs around 40 socially disadvantaged people to provide environmental services to public authorities and businesses. These include recycling collection, waste transport, recycling depot management, small building and environmental maintenance works – collecting used cooking oil, emptying bins of donated clothing for the charity Caritas and cutting grass, for example. Meanwhile, at a 400-square-metre facility in an industrial zone just outside of Padua, five to six people work on industrial manufacturing for other companies in the mechanical, electromechanical and oleo-pneumatic sectors. Currently they are assembling electric window controls for Renault cars.

The third sector in which Città Solare is active, and perhaps the most unusual, is the management of hotels and hostels. Maurizio Trabuio, the cooperative’s president, explains more. “We’ve created the brand Casa a Colori [“House of Colours”] which we use to identify the hotel service dedicated to social tourism and the housing crisis.”

Currently the cooperative runs the Casa a Colori in Padua; Casa Valentini Terrani in Padua, a few tram stops from the historic centre; Casa a Colori in Dolo, near Venice; and the Ostello a Colori in Mira, affiliated with AIG International, which links hostels around the world. In total they have more than 220 beds, and around 20 people are employed in reception, cleaning, commercial services and maintenance. At the Casa a Colori Dolo, a carefully renovated 17th-century convent, a restaurant was opened last year, Osteria del Frate dalla Manica Larga – literally, the Tavern of the Wide-Sleeved Friar, also offering training to the socially disadvantaged, and bigoli pasta with duck ragù and asparagus risotto to the public.

The hotels offer not only reasonably priced rooms for short- or medium-term stays for people travelling for work, tourism, study, medical care and cultural or sporting events, and create employment and work inclusion, but also offer temporary accommodation to marginalized people. For example, in April 2014, 50 refugees from Syria, Nigeria, Mali, Eritrea and Ethiopia arrived in Padua after being picked up by the Italian military’s Mare Nostrum operation to rescue migrants attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean from the African coast. A number were temporarily housed in the Casa a Colori and Casa Valentini Terrani in Padua.

“For visitors to the hotels, the diversity comes from the encounter with many other groups of people – refugees, people who have been evicted from their homes, released convicts, recovering alcoholics, immigrants – who they might never normally meet, but who represent an interesting life experience,” says Trabuio. “We think this combination of social tourism and the housing crisis is unique. It allows us to offer a social service at advantageous prices, and to offer a form of sustainable, conscious and educational tourism in a globalized context, from a perspective of sustainability that does not depend on public spending but lives off the tourism market.”

The Città Solare wants to spread a new idea of travelling: a shift from a consumerist, super-fast tourism to tourism that is aware, responsible, accessible and social. The cooperative wants to encourage the development of a model of sustainable tourism in its widest sense, a model that guarantees equal rights and opportunities to all people, including the weakest of society. The cooperative’s next project will build on the success of the Casa a Colori in Padua, expanding it to create a multifunctional service centre, Qui, which it hopes can be replicated in other urban locations. The traditional areas for tourists and social reception will be joined by coworking spaces, restaurants, sport facilities and performance spaces, plus bike-sharing and car-sharing schemes, an urban vegetable garden and children’s areas. Says Trabuio: “We want to create a sustainable hub, able to respond to new urban and social needs, transforming the neighbourhood into a little model of an intelligent city.”


Story originally published in 2014 World Co-operative Monitor.