A part of the town that was damaged in the quake three years ago.
L'AQUILA: Three years after a quake devastated L'Aquila, this town has launched a bid to become a hi-tech European city -- to the scepticism of thousands of people still living in temporary housing.
Large parts of the centre remain boarded up even as local architects work with the council on a smart city project to rebuild using cutting-edge techniques that has the backing of Prime Minister Mario Monti's government.
"The idea is to turn the tragedy of the earthquake into an opportunity to rebuild in an intelligent, innovative way while preserving the city's heritage," Alfredo Moroni, the town councillor overseeing the project told AFP.
It is an ambitious aim in a town still traumatised as it marks the third anniversary of the April 6, 2009, tragedy that claimed 308 lives.
Shoes and broken ornaments still lie in the dust in abandoned homes and few people venture through the empty streets or into the sunlit main square, where an elderly priest stands solitary guard over a collapsed mediaeval church.
"L'Aquila is just like Pompeii, a ghost town visited by people who come just to see the ruins," said pensioner Giuliano Guetti, referring to the part-buried Roman town near Naples which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in AD 79.
"We feel isolated, totally cut off from the world. There's nothing here, nowhere to socialise... before any 'Smart' plan we need basic services like a local shop or bar to make us feel like normal citizens," said Guetti, 78.
In a protest against the lack of reconstruction, members of a local cultural association are collecting thousands of colourful crochet samples sent in by supporters which they will then knit into banners to go up around the city.
The urban knitting initiative is an attempt to bring back colour to our historic centre, a reaction against the grey and the emptiness which we can no longer tolerate, the Animammersa association said in a statement.
A highly critical report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development last month condemned a culture of inaction and called for a radical overhaul of social services and the local economy.
The smart city project includes plans for a pedestrianised city-centre with bike sharing schemes, buildings fitted with solar panels and a facility to allow local inhabitants to consult their doctor via video link.
But with 170 hectares of the centre standing empty, dotted with makeshift shrines to the victims of the earthquake, there is widespread disbelief among locals that a plan to modernise L'Aquila will ever be enacted.
'We have to hope'
"The government implemented emergency measures after the quake and got everyone into housing -- in new builds, hotels or barracks -- but after that we were abandoned and there's been a serious social breakdown," Moroni said.
Critics accused the then premier Silvio Berlusconi of incompetence and his civil protection agency of trying to exploit the earthquake for financial gain.
Nearly a quarter of L'Aquila's pre-earthquake population of 75,000 is still living in wooden houses, hotels, army barracks and new builds in remote areas with no public services. Thousands more have moved away altogether.
Only four families have moved back into the city centre, officials said.
Billionaire Berlusconi's downfall last November and his replacement by reform-minded Monti has given momentum to the smart city idea, which has its roots in a project drawn up by a group of young local architects.
As stray dogs wander through the maze of alleyways and abandoned buildings with gaping holes in their sides, architect Marco Morante explains their plan.
"Just after the earthquake we formed a group called Collettivo 99 and argued that the city could be restored and transformed using renewable energy sources, anti-earthquake systems, the Internet," said Morante, the group's head.
"We wanted to create the West's first technologically smart mediaeval city, but no-one listened. We now need to move fast or we risk no-one wanting to return in years to come to a city they no longer feel is their own," he said.
"With Monti's government, we finally have the chance to be heard," he added.
In Bazzano, a suburb of L'Aquila hit hard by the quake, residents living in temporary housing a stone's throw from their rubble-strewn houses welcome the plan but warn of growing social unease and a lack of trust in the authorities.
Repair man Riccardo Turco said that while they were grateful to have a roof over their heads, "it leaks when it rains. But no-one cares, no-one comes."
His neighbour, 68-year-old Rachele Raperelli, who moved into the blue wooden houses after a year living in a tent camp, dismissed the plan as empty words.
Raperelli, who underwent surgery after a wardrobe fell on her during the earthquake, broke down in tears as she said how much she wanted her house back.
"My husband goes morning, noon and night to just stare at our home in ruins, he can't move on. I have my roots there, I was married there," she said.
There is also widespread scepticism among residents that the region can find the money for the project amid a biting financial crisis in Italy and Europe.
"How are they going to make a smart city with the crisis? I sleep in a wooden house in my garden because I'm still afraid there may be another earthquake. I don't plan for the future," said housewife Letizia De Paolis.
Despite misgivings, other inhabitants say the plan is their only hope of reviving the city.
"We can't know whether the plan will work, but we have to hope," said Giovanni Benevieri.
"Without hope we are left with nothing but a dead city."