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Milan must wager on students and knowledge for an “open”, more balanced and inclusive metropolis

Milan considers and reconsiders itself, keeps on investing in its universities – currently well-placed in international rankings thanks to the quality of their teaching and research (200,000 students: an extraordinary wealth of minds, knowledge and passion) – and critically scrutinises, too, the prevailing factors determining its “attractiveness”, as it strives to improve living conditions and economic development, spread social welfare, culture and participation. All in the effort to remain – constraints and contradictions marking our difficult times notwithstanding – a civitas, an active space inhabited by a cives, a community made of mindful and responsible citizens, rather than just an urbs, a mere cluster of structures, edifices, public and private buildings.

A notion that, nowadays, not only informs politics and public administration but also – and above all – civic organisations, cultural associations, business and financial institutions and “third sector” enterprises.

The myth of a Milan that never stops – cherished by most in the wake of the Expo – has been dispelled, so much so that even mayor Beppe Sala now says “No to a 24/7 metropolis: this idea of a city running around the clock, a city that never sleeps, no longer feels right… because I believe that cities need to rest too, just like human beings, with business hours that are suitable to most” (Corriere della Sera, 18 October).

The sparkle of the “thousand lights” of finance and fashion, and the disenchanted creativity of dejected citizens (see Il milanese imbruttito blog) are finally giving way to the growing awareness that social divides, new and old poverty, issues such as traffic, pollution, safety, and so on, must be addressed. Moreover, issues inherent to so-called overtourism are disrupting neighbourhoods, social habits, foods and cultures, engendering a mass homogenisation that’s overshadowing urban peculiarities.

If nothing else, the city continues to attract capital and talent – both still on the rise, fortunately (“Milan, queen of investments” reassures us Il Sole24Ore, 19 October) – and thus, by necessity, will have to tackle the intolerable rise of living costs and inaccessible house prices, factors that are actually discouraging those younger generations choosing Milan to get an education and set up companies and demanding accessible life and employment options.

True, the council has started to undertake some first significant actions (“20,000 new low-cost houses in 10 years: Milan’s plan to beat high rents”, headlines la Repubblica, 14 October). And businesses – supported by Alessandro Spada, president of entrepreneurial association Assolombarda (Corriere della Sera, 17 October) – are willing to become the “custodians of the city”, taking up the invitation proffered by the archbishop of Milan, Mario Delpini, and have floated the idea for a “Milanese alliance” that will turn Milan into a “welcoming metropolis” attentive to its younger population’s demand for a better future.

After all, Milan has always been distinguished by its hospitable culture, one of its most positive traits whose roots go back to the medieval edict drafted by bishop Ariberto d’Intimiano in 1018: “Those who know what work is come to Milan. And those who come to Milan are free people” – that is, work and entrepreneurship as the foundation for citizenship (readers of this blog will already be familiar with the quote).

Over time, the open and well-rounded city that was Milan (its gates were actually toll houses, i.e. trading posts, rather than hostile or defensive measures), not too hard-edged – architecturally, too – found its identity and function as a hub where the major routes connecting Northern Europe and the Mediterranean met, a Western culture with pathways to the East. Furthermore, during an era marked by great migrations engendered by the economic boom, a move from the centre to the “industrial triangle” in the north, Milan has always been much more hospitable than other cities whose factories were marked by a harsh Fordist ideology – indeed, Milanesi si diventa (Milanese are made, not born), as epitomised by Carlo Castellaneta’s excellent novel.

Between the 1920s and the dynamic and proactive post-war period, even the rationalist style beloved by its most talented architects gave way to the notion of “beauty’s fecund power” and moulded the city’s spirit so as to “create a new heritage beside the ancient one, a new artistic style”, which entailed the concept of a linear and democratic beauty, typical of welcoming and inclusive cities. (Indeed, those architects are celebrated in a recently published, fascinating book by Gianni Biondillo, Quello che noi non siamo (What we are not), published by Guanda, including Giuseppe Terragni, Giuseppe Pogatschnig Pagano, Piero Bottoni, Franco Albini, Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini, Edoardo Persico, as well as young BBPR ones such as Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Gian Luigi Banfi, Enrico Peressutti and Ernesto Nathan Rogers, who designed the Velasca Tower and whose passion rubbed off on their teachers, too, as in the case of Gio Ponti and Piero Portaluppi). Such aesthetic and ethic heritage needs to be reassessed today, to as to avoid the deterioration of a metropolis affected by the ephemeral and fragile rhythms of non-resident “city users” and revive, instead, the qualities and virtues of a sustainable and forward-looking cives where citizens are empowered.

Thus, we’re back to knowledge and universities, and the significance they have in shaping the “great Milan”, injecting it with energy and ideas leading to decisions and reforms that will bring about the economic and social “paradigm shift” needed to re-establish a European and Mediterranean geopolitical balance.

In fact, these are the notions informing the educational and civic decisions made by the Polytechnic University of Milan, the Bocconi University, the Università Cattolica, the University of Milano-Bicocca, IULM and the Humanitas University – the latter has recently been celebrating its tenth year of activity and boasts 40% overseas students amongst its 2,700 student body, and whose new Innovation Building hosts the MedTec School, which offers medicine and engineering courses in collaboration with the Polytechnic, with the experimental aim of applying research and disciplines such as nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence, biomedicine and big data to all “life sciences”.

Great news pertaining just such an approach – where multidisciplinary culture combines with education to drive development – also come from La Statale, the University of Milan, as construction of the buildings that from 2026 will house its scientific faculties has begun in MIND (Milan Innovation District), the former Expo area: an investment of 120 million for a population counting 23,000 people amongst students, professors, researchers and technicians, and an ambitious project for a campus dedicated to researching cutting-edge technological platforms linked to the high-tech activities of companies in the area.

The new campus’ design was entrusted to Carlo Ratti, architect and professor at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston, as well as one of the most authoritative international expert in smart cities.

As Ratti explains (Il Sole24Ore, 17 October), “Meeting on campus is essential to the renewal and creation of knowledge. Great discoveries, both for the better or for the worse, are made when a group of people, united by the same calling, gathers into a physical space. It is an ancient concept that, over the centuries, has inspired the Athenian Acropolis, European monasteries and universities in the Middle Ages, or institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and Pavia. Spaces and environments that promote meetings.”

In fact, with regard to the University of Milan’s MIND campus, “the proximity to the innovation district could become one of the drivers for urban innovation in the Lombard capital.”

Ratti insists that, “Our architectural vision for the campus attempts to meet these criteria. A place that fosters the concept of meeting, between people and different academic disciplines. A learning-by-doing campus, to use John Dewey’s concept. From here, the principle that in urban planning we term ‘Common Ground’: an uninterrupted public space, open to everyone, unravelling through the neighbourhood via walkways, cloisters and a courtyard system.”

Here it is again, then, Milan as an open, cultured and inclusive city. Not only ‘the place to be’ but a metropolis in which to work, live and learn – in which to thrive, basically.

(photo Getty Images)

Milan considers and reconsiders itself, keeps on investing in its universities – currently well-placed in international rankings thanks to the quality of their teaching and research (200,000 students: an extraordinary wealth of minds, knowledge and passion) – and critically scrutinises, too, the prevailing factors determining its “attractiveness”, as it strives to improve living conditions and economic development, spread social welfare, culture and participation. All in the effort to remain – constraints and contradictions marking our difficult times notwithstanding – a civitas, an active space inhabited by a cives, a community made of mindful and responsible citizens, rather than just an urbs, a mere cluster of structures, edifices, public and private buildings.

A notion that, nowadays, not only informs politics and public administration but also – and above all – civic organisations, cultural associations, business and financial institutions and “third sector” enterprises.

The myth of a Milan that never stops – cherished by most in the wake of the Expo – has been dispelled, so much so that even mayor Beppe Sala now says “No to a 24/7 metropolis: this idea of a city running around the clock, a city that never sleeps, no longer feels right… because I believe that cities need to rest too, just like human beings, with business hours that are suitable to most” (Corriere della Sera, 18 October).

The sparkle of the “thousand lights” of finance and fashion, and the disenchanted creativity of dejected citizens (see Il milanese imbruttito blog) are finally giving way to the growing awareness that social divides, new and old poverty, issues such as traffic, pollution, safety, and so on, must be addressed. Moreover, issues inherent to so-called overtourism are disrupting neighbourhoods, social habits, foods and cultures, engendering a mass homogenisation that’s overshadowing urban peculiarities.

If nothing else, the city continues to attract capital and talent – both still on the rise, fortunately (“Milan, queen of investments” reassures us Il Sole24Ore, 19 October) – and thus, by necessity, will have to tackle the intolerable rise of living costs and inaccessible house prices, factors that are actually discouraging those younger generations choosing Milan to get an education and set up companies and demanding accessible life and employment options.

True, the council has started to undertake some first significant actions (“20,000 new low-cost houses in 10 years: Milan’s plan to beat high rents”, headlines la Repubblica, 14 October). And businesses – supported by Alessandro Spada, president of entrepreneurial association Assolombarda (Corriere della Sera, 17 October) – are willing to become the “custodians of the city”, taking up the invitation proffered by the archbishop of Milan, Mario Delpini, and have floated the idea for a “Milanese alliance” that will turn Milan into a “welcoming metropolis” attentive to its younger population’s demand for a better future.

After all, Milan has always been distinguished by its hospitable culture, one of its most positive traits whose roots go back to the medieval edict drafted by bishop Ariberto d’Intimiano in 1018: “Those who know what work is come to Milan. And those who come to Milan are free people” – that is, work and entrepreneurship as the foundation for citizenship (readers of this blog will already be familiar with the quote).

Over time, the open and well-rounded city that was Milan (its gates were actually toll houses, i.e. trading posts, rather than hostile or defensive measures), not too hard-edged – architecturally, too – found its identity and function as a hub where the major routes connecting Northern Europe and the Mediterranean met, a Western culture with pathways to the East. Furthermore, during an era marked by great migrations engendered by the economic boom, a move from the centre to the “industrial triangle” in the north, Milan has always been much more hospitable than other cities whose factories were marked by a harsh Fordist ideology – indeed, Milanesi si diventa (Milanese are made, not born), as epitomised by Carlo Castellaneta’s excellent novel.

Between the 1920s and the dynamic and proactive post-war period, even the rationalist style beloved by its most talented architects gave way to the notion of “beauty’s fecund power” and moulded the city’s spirit so as to “create a new heritage beside the ancient one, a new artistic style”, which entailed the concept of a linear and democratic beauty, typical of welcoming and inclusive cities. (Indeed, those architects are celebrated in a recently published, fascinating book by Gianni Biondillo, Quello che noi non siamo (What we are not), published by Guanda, including Giuseppe Terragni, Giuseppe Pogatschnig Pagano, Piero Bottoni, Franco Albini, Luigi Figini, Gino Pollini, Edoardo Persico, as well as young BBPR ones such as Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, Gian Luigi Banfi, Enrico Peressutti and Ernesto Nathan Rogers, who designed the Velasca Tower and whose passion rubbed off on their teachers, too, as in the case of Gio Ponti and Piero Portaluppi). Such aesthetic and ethic heritage needs to be reassessed today, to as to avoid the deterioration of a metropolis affected by the ephemeral and fragile rhythms of non-resident “city users” and revive, instead, the qualities and virtues of a sustainable and forward-looking cives where citizens are empowered.

Thus, we’re back to knowledge and universities, and the significance they have in shaping the “great Milan”, injecting it with energy and ideas leading to decisions and reforms that will bring about the economic and social “paradigm shift” needed to re-establish a European and Mediterranean geopolitical balance.

In fact, these are the notions informing the educational and civic decisions made by the Polytechnic University of Milan, the Bocconi University, the Università Cattolica, the University of Milano-Bicocca, IULM and the Humanitas University – the latter has recently been celebrating its tenth year of activity and boasts 40% overseas students amongst its 2,700 student body, and whose new Innovation Building hosts the MedTec School, which offers medicine and engineering courses in collaboration with the Polytechnic, with the experimental aim of applying research and disciplines such as nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence, biomedicine and big data to all “life sciences”.

Great news pertaining just such an approach – where multidisciplinary culture combines with education to drive development – also come from La Statale, the University of Milan, as construction of the buildings that from 2026 will house its scientific faculties has begun in MIND (Milan Innovation District), the former Expo area: an investment of 120 million for a population counting 23,000 people amongst students, professors, researchers and technicians, and an ambitious project for a campus dedicated to researching cutting-edge technological platforms linked to the high-tech activities of companies in the area.

The new campus’ design was entrusted to Carlo Ratti, architect and professor at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Boston, as well as one of the most authoritative international expert in smart cities.

As Ratti explains (Il Sole24Ore, 17 October), “Meeting on campus is essential to the renewal and creation of knowledge. Great discoveries, both for the better or for the worse, are made when a group of people, united by the same calling, gathers into a physical space. It is an ancient concept that, over the centuries, has inspired the Athenian Acropolis, European monasteries and universities in the Middle Ages, or institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and Pavia. Spaces and environments that promote meetings.”

In fact, with regard to the University of Milan’s MIND campus, “the proximity to the innovation district could become one of the drivers for urban innovation in the Lombard capital.”

Ratti insists that, “Our architectural vision for the campus attempts to meet these criteria. A place that fosters the concept of meeting, between people and different academic disciplines. A learning-by-doing campus, to use John Dewey’s concept. From here, the principle that in urban planning we term ‘Common Ground’: an uninterrupted public space, open to everyone, unravelling through the neighbourhood via walkways, cloisters and a courtyard system.”

Here it is again, then, Milan as an open, cultured and inclusive city. Not only ‘the place to be’ but a metropolis in which to work, live and learn – in which to thrive, basically.

(photo Getty Images)