Interview with Ezio Manzini, author of a book on the revolutionary idea that has made its way over the last two years

You write proximity, you read care. There is something to which Ezio Manzini, theorist of design, innovation and social sustainability, honorary professor at Politecnico di Milano and author of essays appreciated translated all over the world, it holds a lot when it comes to a concept now in the public domain such as that of  “city of 15 minutes”.

“The concept is simple: proximity must not simply mean the possibility of carrying out any type of activity in a short time and without having to, for example , use polluting means. This is the starting point. Proximity means increasing connections, opportunities for encounters, human relationships. Here, this vision, in the definition of the city of 15 minutes, I think is lost a bit”.

To these concepts, and to the revolutionary idea that began to emerge two years ago, when the Franco-Colombian professor's theories Carlos Moreno on a freer and more humane city, in the size of pedestrians and cyclists, were adopted by the first citizen of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, Manzini dedicated a book, Abitare la prossimità - Living in proximity (Egea Editore), which is both the synthesis and the starting point of a dream, already substantiated in numerous concrete experiences around the world, from Paris itself to the now famous Superilles of Barcelona, the macro-blocks with a predominantly pedestrian vocation that conceive streets as a public space and no longer as infrastructures for mobility.

Professor Manzini, what is the city of 15 minutes?

It is above all a very powerful claim, as evidenced by its penetration in the last two years . A strong definition that reaches people. In essence, it is made up of a series of initiatives that already partly had a history and a theorizing. I am thinking, for example, of Jane Jacobs, who fifty years ago began to look at the lived city (the Cité) and no longer at the built one (the Ville), observing how urban quality depended on the combination of diversity: of people, of events, of social forms. For some time now there have been local people and communities who have organized resistance to the city of distance. Barcelona, for example, which is one of the cities with Milan that I talk about most in the book because I know well, has a long tradition of reinventing urban planning in a key social.

The heart of his essay is that this urban model of proximity cannot be resolved in shortening distances with services, but must coincide with that of care. What does that mean exactly?

Care, first of all, is a series of practices, it is the responsibility of supporting, repairing and maintaining life in wider ecosystem of which we are part. Therefore, it is something that cannot depend on the single, but must be generated collectively by multiple interdependent entities. There is a beautiful African proverb that says that it takes an entire village to educate a child. It is clear that our cities are not and will no longer be a village, but what the city of proximity helps to recover is the widespread collective strength. By cure I do not mean the action of someone towards someone else or something at a specific moment: we have all been children, as in the African proverb, we will all grow old, many of us will have children and we will all have diseases.

We all have and will need care. When we all act with empathy towards others, we put in place caring relationships. Children once played in the streets independently, without anyone controlling them, when in reality there was a spontaneous network (shopkeepers, pensioners, people at the window) that did it. The arrival of cars, progress, has canceled all of this, but it is also true that even where there are no cars, children no longer play alone on the street, because that system of relationships and trust that allowed it has failed. Proximity and care means reactivating that trust, and cannot be achieved simply by closing the roads to cars.

But this model of city that cures is no longer actualizable, could it ever return?

The city that heals as it did in the past cannot return. The care of the future cannot ignore how things have evolved: from technology, for example, and how it has changed us for better or for worse. I believe that we need to take up and contextualize that idea, starting from an updated service idea. Today, for us, services are something we passively use: the shop under the house or the hypermarket, taxis or trains, the caregiver or the national health service. The services on which we should focus are those collaborative, those that break the polarity between those who provide it and those who use it, between those who are active and those who are not, between those who are experts and those who are not. 

Some examples?

The care circles in which groups of citizens who share the same health problem mutually support each other with the help of experts. collective living, in which condominiums share and manage common spaces together. The community gardens, cultivated by neighborhood associations and open to the neighborhood itself. These are all examples that produce trust, empathy and the ability to dialogue, or rather the resources that are the weft and warp of every social fabric.

In Barcelona, to cite another case, the Superilles , which had already transformed the roads into infrastructures for mobility to social spaces, are evolving into Superilles Sociali, that is a new form of territorialization of home care, through a reorganization of operators and their work at neighborhood. This is an example in which the claim of the city of 15 minutes also becomes a perfect case of proximity and care.

To what extent must the public sector be and to what extent the spontaneity of private individuals to translate these concepts into practice?

There is no precise recipe, but rather a direction that foresees the contribution of both entities. In Milan, for example, unlike Barcelona, ​​proximity is more a matter of spontaneous initiatives, subsequently espoused or encouraged by the municipality. Let's say that private interventions should be encouraged avoiding that they can take negative turns, generating for example those phenomena of gentrification that often accompany the redevelopment of certain neighborhoods such as Nolo. On the other hand, it cannot be the Municipality alone to guide the transformation, both components are essential. The town hall must be like a good gardener who prepares the ground, but does not take the stage.

Are there concrete signs, coming from laws or from the public sector, that give you hope for the development of the city of care? 

In Mission number 6 of the NRP on health there is also talk of the territorialization of the health system, of community houses. Covid has made us understand how important it is to develop this territorial dimension, something that we could and should have aimed at well before.