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Listening to the heart of Milan, to reconcile productivity and social inclusion

“A city is not planned, it creates itself. We just need to listen to it, as a city is the mirror image of countless stories”. Wise and forward-thinking words by Renzo Piano featured on the cover of the latest biannual issue of the Humanitarian Society of Milan’s journal, dedicated to “La città ideale 2.0” (“The ideal city 2.0”) and offering plenty of analyses and documentation concerning contemporary urban evolution from a humanist and technical perspective.

Let’s listen to the city, then. sophisticated and sensitive artist Alberto Savinio was already on to this: when, in 1944, he wrote I listen to your heart, city, narrating Milan and its pleasant elegant and discreet beauty (the book was first published by Bompiani, now by Adelphi). Let’s listen to it, not merely to catch moods and hopes, but also to take some wise planning decisions relating to development, direction, governance and good administration – because “the city is not an abstract form, a hybrid, a monolith, but a living creature in continuous evolution and with which we must compromise, balancing territorial dynamics with its manifold development opportunities”, as argued in the editorial of the Humanitarian Society’s journal. According to architect Stefano Boeri, accomplished interpreter of urban biodiversity, this is something that requires self-awareness: “The future belongs to today’s builders and planners. But good urban-planning needs good governance in order to make good decisions, which anticipate what we will have become in 30-50 years”.

Piano and Savinio’s opinions, as well as Boeri’s vision, come to mind because Milan is currently experiencing some significant issues – some connected to the “frailties” typical of other metropolises, too, (as mentioned in our blog of 28 February) and others more specific to a city that more than others, in Italy, continues to grow and attract people and innovative ideas, intellectual and financial resources, investments and projects.

What should we listen to, then? First of all, to that social and economic creaking noise that sounds like a warning about impending adversities and deterioration – the warning sign of forthcoming fractures in the intricate balance that’s always been keeping Milan together: an equilibrium between productivity and social inclusion, increasing wealth and widespread prosperity, openness to the most innovative cultural and economic concepts and a strong sense of social responsibility. Basically, we need to revive those complex, yet nonetheless crucial, metropolitan patterns of employment, quality of life as well as the faculty to write “a future-oriented story”.

Indeed, that creaking noise is evidence enough of this and scanning the daily newspapers, whether in print or online, it’s enough to find confirmation of it: shops are shutting down, even in central and semi-central areas (Via Mazzini, Via Lazzaretto), due to excessively high rents and an increasing lack of staff; house prices are becoming progressively unaffordable for young singles and middle-class families; the cost of life is rising in suburban neighbourhoods, too, due to their staggering gentrification; a growing anxiety for individual and social safety that, though not corroborated by objective data on petty crime, is nonetheless causing apprehension and uneasiness – a whole list of things that led to Milan dropping from second to eighth place in the Il Sole24Ore‘s annual ranking on the quality of life.

The issue is the widespread notion that Milan is increasingly turning into an insufferable “city for the rich”, beset by a transient elite bent on speculation, the New Economy and luxury consumption. A notion in stark contrast with the history, traditions and culture of an open and inclusive city that always possessed the selfless spirit of a metropolis “close to Europe” while also deeply welcoming of anyone showing progressive thinking, entrepreneurship, work skills and civic sense.

“A showcase window displaying successful modernity for those investing in luxury goods… a global city loved by tycoons but not by its citizens, who are disappointed by the reduction in services, security, the cost of housing and life”, summarises Giangiacomo Schiavi in the Corriere della Sera (12 March), who, at the end of an in-depth investigation concerning “cities under trial: should we flee the metropolis”, nonetheless invites “change but without shooting the piano player.”

Escape is not the answer, of course. Rather, we need to go for proper local governance in terms of urban-planning developments, housing legislation and investments in services that take into account the middle and more vulnerable classes, which are, after all, the cornerstones of communities and the pillars of good democracy, as Milanese tradition teaches.

Indeed, for many years now, the most perceptive noir literary authors (such as Alessandro Robecchi, Gianni Biondillo, Piero Colaprico, Sandrone Dazieri, Dario Crapanzano, Gian Andrea Cerone – just to mention a few name amongst many of Giorgio Scerbanenco’s original heirs) have been warning against a surrender to the ephemeral lure of the skyscrapers’ “thousand lights” and the many themed ‘weeks’ engendered by a widespread tendency to translate social relations into “special events”.

And, for many years too – from the Expo onwards – economic forces still showing a strong propensity for quality manufacturing have been keeping things down to earth, combining productivity, competitiveness and solidarity (as mentioned above), maintaining a virtuous relationship between the city as “a capital of knowledge and an industrial earldom” – as epitomised by Dario Di Vico (Il Foglio, 11 March), who also notes how “today Milan is facing the need to close two gaps – one that is taking it farther away from the regions and one that sees widening, at its core, polarisation and risks of social rifts. To address them both, we need a systemic vision, which is currently struggling to come to life.”

A difficult challenge, no doubt, yet an achievable one, which should be tackled and conquered by leveraging Milan’s propensity for dialogue, debate, labour, social and economic innovation – the virtuous relationships between industry, services, corporate finance and education (with its world-class universities) are just some of its mainstays.

Other ones include the gravitational pull between the north-west of Italy, looking for a new and better future (with the unanimous support of employers’ association Unione Industriali Torino, entrepreneurial institution Assolombarda and territorial entrepreneurial association Confindustria Genova), the productive Emilia region and the north-east with its “pocket-sized multinationals” – and the geopolitical background to this is the axis running from Europe to the Mediterranean. Plenty to do then, also with the involvement of the public sector, enterprises, culture and social structures.

Hence, here we are: this is what it means to listen, mindfully, to the beating heart of Milan, rather than to the pounding of instant emotional thrills.

(photo Getty Images)

“A city is not planned, it creates itself. We just need to listen to it, as a city is the mirror image of countless stories”. Wise and forward-thinking words by Renzo Piano featured on the cover of the latest biannual issue of the Humanitarian Society of Milan’s journal, dedicated to “La città ideale 2.0” (“The ideal city 2.0”) and offering plenty of analyses and documentation concerning contemporary urban evolution from a humanist and technical perspective.

Let’s listen to the city, then. sophisticated and sensitive artist Alberto Savinio was already on to this: when, in 1944, he wrote I listen to your heart, city, narrating Milan and its pleasant elegant and discreet beauty (the book was first published by Bompiani, now by Adelphi). Let’s listen to it, not merely to catch moods and hopes, but also to take some wise planning decisions relating to development, direction, governance and good administration – because “the city is not an abstract form, a hybrid, a monolith, but a living creature in continuous evolution and with which we must compromise, balancing territorial dynamics with its manifold development opportunities”, as argued in the editorial of the Humanitarian Society’s journal. According to architect Stefano Boeri, accomplished interpreter of urban biodiversity, this is something that requires self-awareness: “The future belongs to today’s builders and planners. But good urban-planning needs good governance in order to make good decisions, which anticipate what we will have become in 30-50 years”.

Piano and Savinio’s opinions, as well as Boeri’s vision, come to mind because Milan is currently experiencing some significant issues – some connected to the “frailties” typical of other metropolises, too, (as mentioned in our blog of 28 February) and others more specific to a city that more than others, in Italy, continues to grow and attract people and innovative ideas, intellectual and financial resources, investments and projects.

What should we listen to, then? First of all, to that social and economic creaking noise that sounds like a warning about impending adversities and deterioration – the warning sign of forthcoming fractures in the intricate balance that’s always been keeping Milan together: an equilibrium between productivity and social inclusion, increasing wealth and widespread prosperity, openness to the most innovative cultural and economic concepts and a strong sense of social responsibility. Basically, we need to revive those complex, yet nonetheless crucial, metropolitan patterns of employment, quality of life as well as the faculty to write “a future-oriented story”.

Indeed, that creaking noise is evidence enough of this and scanning the daily newspapers, whether in print or online, it’s enough to find confirmation of it: shops are shutting down, even in central and semi-central areas (Via Mazzini, Via Lazzaretto), due to excessively high rents and an increasing lack of staff; house prices are becoming progressively unaffordable for young singles and middle-class families; the cost of life is rising in suburban neighbourhoods, too, due to their staggering gentrification; a growing anxiety for individual and social safety that, though not corroborated by objective data on petty crime, is nonetheless causing apprehension and uneasiness – a whole list of things that led to Milan dropping from second to eighth place in the Il Sole24Ore‘s annual ranking on the quality of life.

The issue is the widespread notion that Milan is increasingly turning into an insufferable “city for the rich”, beset by a transient elite bent on speculation, the New Economy and luxury consumption. A notion in stark contrast with the history, traditions and culture of an open and inclusive city that always possessed the selfless spirit of a metropolis “close to Europe” while also deeply welcoming of anyone showing progressive thinking, entrepreneurship, work skills and civic sense.

“A showcase window displaying successful modernity for those investing in luxury goods… a global city loved by tycoons but not by its citizens, who are disappointed by the reduction in services, security, the cost of housing and life”, summarises Giangiacomo Schiavi in the Corriere della Sera (12 March), who, at the end of an in-depth investigation concerning “cities under trial: should we flee the metropolis”, nonetheless invites “change but without shooting the piano player.”

Escape is not the answer, of course. Rather, we need to go for proper local governance in terms of urban-planning developments, housing legislation and investments in services that take into account the middle and more vulnerable classes, which are, after all, the cornerstones of communities and the pillars of good democracy, as Milanese tradition teaches.

Indeed, for many years now, the most perceptive noir literary authors (such as Alessandro Robecchi, Gianni Biondillo, Piero Colaprico, Sandrone Dazieri, Dario Crapanzano, Gian Andrea Cerone – just to mention a few name amongst many of Giorgio Scerbanenco’s original heirs) have been warning against a surrender to the ephemeral lure of the skyscrapers’ “thousand lights” and the many themed ‘weeks’ engendered by a widespread tendency to translate social relations into “special events”.

And, for many years too – from the Expo onwards – economic forces still showing a strong propensity for quality manufacturing have been keeping things down to earth, combining productivity, competitiveness and solidarity (as mentioned above), maintaining a virtuous relationship between the city as “a capital of knowledge and an industrial earldom” – as epitomised by Dario Di Vico (Il Foglio, 11 March), who also notes how “today Milan is facing the need to close two gaps – one that is taking it farther away from the regions and one that sees widening, at its core, polarisation and risks of social rifts. To address them both, we need a systemic vision, which is currently struggling to come to life.”

A difficult challenge, no doubt, yet an achievable one, which should be tackled and conquered by leveraging Milan’s propensity for dialogue, debate, labour, social and economic innovation – the virtuous relationships between industry, services, corporate finance and education (with its world-class universities) are just some of its mainstays.

Other ones include the gravitational pull between the north-west of Italy, looking for a new and better future (with the unanimous support of employers’ association Unione Industriali Torino, entrepreneurial institution Assolombarda and territorial entrepreneurial association Confindustria Genova), the productive Emilia region and the north-east with its “pocket-sized multinationals” – and the geopolitical background to this is the axis running from Europe to the Mediterranean. Plenty to do then, also with the involvement of the public sector, enterprises, culture and social structures.

Hence, here we are: this is what it means to listen, mindfully, to the beating heart of Milan, rather than to the pounding of instant emotional thrills.

(photo Getty Images)