The future of Milan, European city

Today Milan needs to have a large and active debate about its future, above and beyond architectural and infrastructural issues

"Ago, filo e nodo", Piazza Cadorna, Milano. Credits Giorgia Ionita

What will Milan be tomorrow and what will it represent? Italy could never afford for this shining city to disappear or fall apart because no other Italian city could ever be what Milan represents today for the country. After decades of evolution, this great metropolis saw much progress during the '60s, regressed to a dark city during the '70s, bounced back as the roaring city of the '80s, fell to a labor-intensive and dull city during the '90s and rose majestically to shining city during the 2010s of the 21century. Evolution, regression and evolution again, but always with a window open to the world. Milan did not look much to the rest of Italy for inspiration, taking its cue from the world’s megalopolises instead, adapting, in a smaller scale, to the local community but mirroring the globality of the world’s most sophisticated communities.

Today's debate about rejuvenating the city circles around the same topics being discussed in Paris, London and Berlin much more so than in Turin, Florence, or Rome. Resolving the questions of urban forestry, sustainable mobility and the availability of services, including adequate transportation, are the order of the day. in addressing these issues, we will see a return to the famous "Global Village" (or like a great former major of the city told me few months ago, "to a small global village") to which Milan can really look up to and work towards becoming.

A relevant problem, much more difficult to solve, are the suburbs. Milan, different from London, Paris, Berlin or New York, is surrounded by a suburban area not far from the city center and well connected to it. Despite its role as a major city, it is structured like a typical Italian town, with suburbs found not kilometers away from the city center but abutting the city center itself. This is a problem because the residents of a city center have a very different lifestyle and expect more opportunities than those in the suburbs, and having the suburbs and its residents so close to Milan’s city center limits the availability of viable space within the city that could attract investors and residents in search of big-city life and willing to pay the costs associated with being in the city.

A very relevant initiative that could solve this issue is the "C40 Reinventing cities program", a great collaboration by many cities in the world together, Milan included, on several projects to rehabilitate adjoining suburban areas to conform with the security and cosmopolitan qualities of city centers. This month we see the conclusion of “Project Loreto," a large and famous square that will be pertinent in linking Milan’s hub to surrounding areas via a large, iconic public park that will at once separate suburbia from the city center and connect them both harmoniously at the same time.

"Ago, filo e nodo", Piazza Cadorna, Milano. Credits Giorgia Ionita

As I passed through Piazza Cadorna some days ago and saw the monumental statue - a giant needle erected by architect Gae Aulenti in the '90s, in the middle of the square - I realized that Milan has been attempting to join the center with the suburbs and hinterland for many years. Only through making this connection can the city grow and rival the great European metropolises, London included. But it is not just an infrastructural overhaul that Milan requires. The hardest task the city faces is a mending of its soul, of the communities of Milan. The city was the promised land during the last 10 years in Italy, but when Covid came, people left in droves and escaped to their smaller hometowns where importantly, the cost of living is lower.

Today, Milan needs to have a large and active debate about its future, above and beyond architectural and infrastructural issues. To paraphrase Cavour, the first Italian prime minister after the Italian unification in 1861: we have built up Milan, now we must build up the Milanese people. So, before any further progress can be made, Milan needs to build its identity for the future along with the citizens and mimic the other European greats (London included) while doing so.

The mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, when he came into office, dedicated one of the first meetings to the mayor of London Sadiq Khan. The encounter, in 2016 when Milan was a candidate to host the European Medicines Agency, was dedicated to the pharma, tourism and finance sectors. Today, more focus should perhaps be given to citizen lifestyle and needs.

Another tactic could be hiring a night mayor, a role created in Amsterdam, New York and many others in 2018, dedicated to organizing the cities’ nightlife to stimulate the economy. Since Milan's nightlife activities bring in about 40 mln euros per month, in this delicate moment of balance after the ravaging effects of Covid, a night mayor could be just the person the economy needs to return it to normal and galvanize the city’s nightlife into a rousing success, a challenge for many big cities.

These and other ideas come in part from a cooperation between Milan and other metropolises, supported by a team from the Bloomberg Foundation, which has established a presence in Milan since 2016 with the mission to help the city and the mayor to evolve according to the standards of the largest metropolises in the world.

Today, a new and large-scale meeting between the mayors of the main metropolises of the world is needed, best if held in Milan, perhaps under Gae Aulenti's statue, to build a new future together, with Milan acting not as an individual "model city,"  but as a piece of the overall puzzle. What Milan needs is precisely what former mayor Antonio Greppi said in his open address to the city following the Second World War: "We will rebuild, anyway". It was not a simple message of hope, it was a concrete commitment to the city and its future. With Covid, just like after the Second World War, it is not just one city that needs to be rebuilt but an entire world. The difference as opposed to 70 years ago when infrastructure was the focus, is that today, the city does not need to build buildings but rather, rebuild its soul.

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