Cities are going through a period of great change, due to the health emergency. The space of our immediate surroundings becomes the new (re)starting point. The neighborhood is far from a forgotten reality

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the strategy of the “15-minute city,” a proposal of the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo to cope with the spread of the virus. The plan calls for everything we need to be within 15 minutes’ distance on foot or by bike. This is nothing new. Many other European cities, prior to Paris, have gotten organized to apply a distributed, less centralized model. But today the pandemic seems to make this the most immediate and effective solution. The objective is to diminish movements and to encourage people to make maximum use of their own neighborhood. Along these lines, Beppe Sala (mayor of Milan) has launched “Milano 2020.” The plan will concentrate on districts and enhancement of public space, with initial changes like the widening of sidewalks and a boost for bicycle lanes. Over the short term, then, the theme of mobility will be one of the first concrete effects of the new strategies for sustainable development.

The new proximity

But movements are not the only factor to consider when we approach the environmental problem. “It is a long-term project, not so much about the transformation of districts as about the need for a cultural change that can only be activated through contamination.” These are the words of Marta Savoldelli of OpenDot, a reference point for innovation in Milan, as well as a FabLab and research hub – founded by Dotdotdot – working on multidisciplinary participatory design combined with consulting strategies and mastery of digital fabrication technologies. “Sustainability is a wider-ranging concept and the neighborhood becomes sustainable to the extent in which social relations, trade proximity and technology find space.”

Local manufacturing

The areas of intervention are multiple: “In this moment we are moving forward, together with the municipal department headed by Cristina Tajani, with a project that is still in the early phase, regarding the problem of crafts in Milan,” Savoldelli continues. “Very often crafts companies do not have the tools and knowledge they need in order to survive.” So to avoid making things elsewhere and then having to transport them, with all the associated factors, there is a need to bring making back into the city, through “reskilling” of people: “The idea is to offer technological support focusing on communication and digital management of companies, with the aim of keeping them alive. This permits creation of sustainable production of high quality, whose added value also has not just local impact, but also benefits for the entire surrounding area.”

A connected system of districts

The attempt to transform the city from a single centralized object to many multifunctional elements makes sense only if the various parts communicate with each other and contribute to the functioning of the entire system. In this sense, knowledge of connected technologies is indispensable. “To additional access with respect to what small size is able to offer radically alters your possibilities.” At times, being born at a distance of 5 km can make all the difference: “We have to consider that fact that not all neighborhoods are equal. In this sense, the marginal zones often become pockets of poverty incapable of offering adequate services.” This is why QuBì has been created, a project of Fondazione Cariplo that focuses precisely on the reduction of these differences, where OpenDot, together with the network for the Umbria Molise district, has approached the theme of poverty in schooling: “We have inserted a piece of digital training to support the neighborhood association that offers educational services for children.” A fundamental resource, without which the peripheral zones would once again become isolated, forgotten areas.

Regarding the urban panorama and its growth, there is still much to be done. The true problem is to recognize the differences and respect the diversities. “One solution that works for all just doesn’t exist. We have to learn to approach each sector, understanding its rules, in order to develop a specific solution for each different place.”

Circular local markets

But how can such complexity be governed? By directly involving the users in the design. “Co-design is our method to approach necessities. We do not do problem solving, but problem finding, reasoning together with people on the definition of the problem for which to find the most efficient solution,” Marta explains. In the case of Reflow, a project on regeneration of neighborhood markets in a circular logic, they began precisely with people. “We interviewed the people who shop and work in the zone, to understand why they continue to make not very sustainable choices, when better alternatives are known to them.” Only when the problem has been defined is it possible to find responses. “There will be many small, flexible solutions to be tested, modified and adapted, until we find the one that functions best to fulfill the needs of the situation.”

The neighborhood market is just one example of the many practices of revitalization of common spaces that form the basis for rethinking of the neighborhood, sharing the factor of generating social value. “It is not possible to think of these spaces separately from the social relations they set in motion. To think of improvement only in economic terms cannot work, because it becomes speculation and pushes away the people who made it happen.” After all, the ability to establish relations is one of the fundamental characteristics of human beings, and also the main factor of society, without which it would be impossible to move forward for any length of time.


Photos from the project Milano, quartieri in progress (marzo 2019) di Matteo Cirenei - Instagram @photoarchcom.