Palermo Renaissance Part 1: Rebuilding Civic Identity and Reclaiming a City from the Mafia in Italy, 1993-2000

In 1993, Palermo residents elected Leoluca Orlando mayor with 75% of the vote. At the time of Orlando’s election, a series of assassinations of high-level anti-Mafia leaders had left the city reeling. For decades, the Sicilian Mafia had held a strong political, cultural and physical grip on the city. Orlando’s election affirmed that voters wanted him to continue what he had begun but couldn’t complete during his first mayoral term (1985–1990): to purge the government of Mafia influence and help restore Palermo’s cultural and economic vibrancy. Prior mayors had tolerated or assisted Mafia activity while the city center deteriorated, cultural life and business activities dwindled, and the education system weakened. Backed by a national crackdown on organized crime, the mayor used his second and third terms in office (1993–1997 and 1997–2000) to engage civic groups and businesses in revitalizing Palermo. By the time Orlando left office in 2000, his administration had renovated or reacquired hundreds of public buildings and monuments, built a cultural center and founded a downtown concert series, kick-started entrepreneurial activity and tourism, built dozens of schools and integrated civic consciousness into classrooms. Those actions helped reawaken civic pride. Although subsequent city administrations abandoned or rolled back many of the reforms, Orlando’s administration helped define and lead a “Palermo Renaissance.”
Laura Bacon and Rushda Majeed drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in Palermo, Italy, in March 2012. Aldo Civico, assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Rutgers University and cofounder of the International Institute for Peace, provided initial ideas and guidance on this case. Roberto Pitea, Valentina Burcheri, and Brian Reilly provided research assistance. Case published September 2012.
Two companion case studies address simultaneous reform efforts in Palermo from 1993 to 2000: “Palermo Renaissance Part 2: Reforming City Hall” focuses on the city’s budget, taxes, one-stop shop for licenses and documents, and citizen outreach. “Palermo Renaissance Part 3: Strengthening Municipal Services in Palermo” details efforts to improve service delivery, management, hiring, and bidding processes in Palermo’s water, gas, transportation, and waste management services. 
Cosa Nostra
civic identity
public spaces
historic preservation
Leoluca Orlando
Focus Area(s)
City Management
Building a Reform Team and Staff
Countering Criminal Economies
Getting the News Out/Managing Expectations
Critical Tasks
Building citizen support
Making services accessible
Municipal centers of government
Overcoming corruption
Revenue generation
Revitalizing urban spaces
Core Challenge
Credibility (trust)
Institutional traps (spoilers)
Norm coordination
Principal-agent problem (delegation)
Country of Reform
Case Studies
Laura Bacon and Rushda Majeed