Magazine Contacts

Cristina Tajani, Davide Fassi

Off Campus Nolo: the markets as a place of unprecedented planning.

17 May 2021 — 12 minutes read

A dialogue between Councillor for Employment Policies, Manufacturing Activities, Commerce and Human Resources of the City of Milan, Cristina Tajani, and Davide Fassi, Associate Professor at the Department of Design of the Politecnico di Milano.
In the ‘Off-Campus NoLo’ space, inside the Covered Market on viale Monza, Tajani and Fassi discuss the issues of the hybridisation of public and local spaces, the University’s Third Mission, and the changes and challenges in society and design in a post-COVID world.

Welcome, Cristina! We are at the municipal market on viale Monza, or - as the locals call it - the Crespi Market, in this space which is Off Campus. I believe you’ve been here before - it’s not your first time, as you already visited for the opening and then again for the Spesa Sospesa project. What do you think of the fact that there is a university within a municipal market?

When we presented this, it already seemed like a bizarre idea even to us, so I can only imagine the reaction in the city government.
We felt that it was a positive result, achieved as part of a process - which I know you’re well aware of - of the redevelopment of our municipal covered markets; this physical space and your presence here represent the most original experiment we’ve had, because in other parts of the city, in other covered markets, we attempted to establish a kind of hybridisation between businesses and activities of a social and cultural nature, with the presence of associations, sure, but never - and nowhere else - had a university like the Politecnico di Milano shown any interest in experimenting with this, in becoming part of a hybrid in a place as traditional as one of these covered markets, which have a very long history in the city of Milan.

This is definitely in line with the principles of Polisocial - the Politecnico’s social responsibility programme, which was started up a few years ago with the aim of emphasising the university’s Third Mission, namely a commitment to dealing with social issues, entering into the fabric of the local area and trying to share the skills offered by the Politecnico with the wider community. In particular, Off-Campus NoLo is the second in a series, the first having opened in San Siro two years ago in an ALER housing complex and plans for a few more to open soon. For us, coming into the Municipal Market on viale Monza was the end of one journey and the start of another, given that for five years, we at the Department of Design have been working in the local area with the local communities and associations in an effort to introduce a little design logic. We’ve been working for quite a while on this market especially in our attempts to imagine it as something different. I believe that the city government’s strategy regarding the markets is very interesting, and you have always talked a lot about hybridisation, especially in recent years. In your opinion, can hybridisation be an ace in the hole for today’s businesses - a prospect for a comeback, a rebirth for certain spaces - or is it simply a passing phenomenon?

I think that this is a medium/long-term phenomenon which is also the result of an extensive transformation in the world of retail, in the retail trade, namely the advent of online shopping.
What we have observed in the city of Milan, even before COVID came along - and I think that COVID has only accelerated certain processes that were already underway - is on the one hand, the spread of electronic and digital trade via the major e-commerce platforms, and on the other, an original response from some places of business which, unable to compete on the same level in terms of price and speed of delivery, instead chose to go down a different path, namely offering their consumers not just a product - goods which people can find at lower prices on digital platforms - but a relationship-based experience, a marked emphasis on the human dimension, the personal contact, the opportunity to benefit not only from the sale itself, but also from something else, something more. And indeed, this other thing is often a relationship, an activity of a social nature, an encounter; some shops have started offering training courses, shows, beauty experiences, exhibition spaces to be used and enjoyed. To my mind, this is a fairly irreversible path, because on the one hand, the changes brought about by digital technology are pushing us towards competition on price - a level on which not every business in the area can compete - whilst on the other hand, citizens and consumers are looking for something different, which is definitely linked to the relationality, to the experience, to the aggregative social dimension. I think that due to COVID, that is definitely the dimension that will become further emphasised, because whilst our ability to work remotely using online platforms may offer us new opportunities, it also shows us that human relations, real live contact, is not entirely necessary but certainly desirable.

It’s very interesting indeed to observe how our municipal covered markets, even during the toughest months of lockdown, have always remained spaces open for everyone to use and maintain relationships, and not just for the basic need to buy food. People also visited them because they represented familiar spaces of the local and neighbourhood dimension, which has now become central once again. It echoes something of that idea of the 15-minute city that many urban areas at an international level are aiming to implement over the next decade; Milan is setting store by this concept by placing spaces for hybridised use at the heart of these 15- minute neighbourhoods, and these municipal markets can play that role for many different reasons.

You were talking about the 15-minute city, and we can certainly say that at the moment, the city administration is experimenting a great deal with certain issues that all go some way towards finding a mixture of functions and services that are within walking or cycling distance. Rediscovering neighbourhood living, so that we can revive the dynamics of the past - which are still present in small towns and villages - but within the context of a metropolis, a big city like Milan. There are definitely already some good practices in place. Some neighbourhoods are better suited to these, partly by vocation, partly just naturally. For example, NoLo is undergoing a phase of transformation at the moment - something already evident from its new name - and there are several experiments in change already underway, such as tactical urbanism, the cycle path on viale Monza, streets and car parks that have now had tables set up, the hybridisation of the market: all examples that are part of a complex overarching system, all attempting to respond to people’s new needs. You were saying that the markets stayed open at a time when everything came to a standstill, and that they were able to react. One example of that is that within this market, there were home delivery initiatives set up by the traders who previously hadn’t offered that service. We ourselves organised a ‘suspended shopping’ initiative where within a context where food is sold, some food is donated to families in need. There are donations of fresh food that’s not even ‘zero-km’, but actually ‘zero-distance’, thanks to the generosity of the neighbourhood residents. In your opinion, in terms of this neighbourhood setting, is this new desire for social relations that we’re seeing in contemporary society also having an impact on the way we live, the way we access certain services. You mentioned earlier that people are looking for new forms of cooperation, of selling, of accessing the new consumer goods: what do you imagine this will look like in ten years’ time?

I have to say that the experience of the pandemic and the lockdowns have, in some ways, catalysed processes that were already in motion. Over the course of this year just gone, what we observed on the one hand was certain places in the city being left empty for health reasons, due to people working from home, especially the historical centre - places that had become business centres or with a high concentration of offices, and therefore spaces in the city used primarily for work. On the other hand, however, even in the toughest months of the 2020 lockdown, the neighbourhood dimension saw a renaissance, precisely because people were spending all day in the places and neighbourhoods that they lived in, with no need to go from residential areas to working areas, and as a result they revived the concept of neighbourhood living. For all the tragedy of this situation, I see a silver lining in the form of the development of urban areas, namely blending housing and workspaces within the same neighbourhoods, the same geographical areas of cities everywhere.
Nowadays, the idea of co-working - or, as we call it, ‘near working’ - which is the ability to work near one’s home, has become a much more concrete option for a vast number of people who previously couldn’t, and I believe that this is something that will stick around in the long term, rather than a transient or reversible shift. This also has an impact on commercial activities: over the course of 2020, in the face of a serious crisis for businesses in historical centres or office areas, we saw a revitalisation of shops in the local neighbourhood, which have also proven to be capable of reinventing themselves, i.e. of devising formulas to satisfy the needs of consumers and citizens with home delivery and measures of support and solidarity that filled the city at even the darkest of times. This is a dimension that needs to be supported and fostered by concentrating the efforts and imagination of a wide range of actors: institutions, absolutely, but also other actors who have always played an important role in this city. The ones I have in mind are places of culture or education, such as universities, but also the dimension of the non-profit sector, of associations that have historically proven to be capable of working with the public sector, and I feel that this is one of the positive aspects of Milan’s social and political history as a city. I believe that your projects are exemplary in this respect, and I know that you are also planning further steps in addition to those already underway. This opportunity to establish a dialogue between institutions, educational bodies, universities is really enriching for us, because that dialogue, that discussion, is where new ideas and possibilities can take shape.

I actually think that this is a great opportunity for both the university and the world of research to get a chance to work in the field, getting our students out of the classroom and trying their hand at working on the ground with real people. It’s especially valuable for those who will soon be entering the world of work - almost an internship of sorts that teaches you, educates you, gives you the opportunity to deal with people first hand. That’s partly the reason that Off-Campus was started: at the moment, we have four interns and at least three students working on their theses, and we’re trying to coordinate them on a project that could be brought into this market - which is so full of opportunities - but also into the neighbourhood. By taking part in calls for tenders, we are trying to set up an ethical neighbourhood delivery service, trying to meet the needs of the small trader who’s been put at a disadvantage by the prices of large-scale distribution, as well as the existing major delivery channels with a lack of the staff required to be able to make deliveries, but all as against a level of demand that has obviously seen a boom during the pandemic. So what we had in mind was this idea of a second-generation rider who undergoes a training course that we can provide within our own spaces, with the combined skills of the Politecnico and the neighbourhood. Many VAT-registered businesses are suffering somewhat at the moment, but these are centres for knowledge and learning, so the idea is to try to make use of this source of ‘zero-km’ training as well. We’re also considering taking some actions within the municipal market on viale Monza, specifically focusing on the micro-design of the spaces where we have a façade that is worthy of being considered a piece of protected architectural heritage which deserves a renovation, as well as outdoor spaces that can become social courtyards. With all this, we’re trying to bring together a selection of interesting businesses and organisations from the neighbourhood. One of these is, of course, Radio NoLo - our first partner - which now has a station based in this space, but also other neighbourhood businesses which all contribute their skills, all from the world of creativity, art and entrepreneurship. There are quite a few municipal covered markets in Milan, and especially in recent years, they have undergone some interesting transformations: apart from what is happening here, could you give some other examples of similar situations of positive development in the city of Milan?

There are 23 markets in total - quite a large number - and they are distributed fairly evenly over the entire city, so there’s effectively a presence for every neighbourhood. As you were saying, over the last few years, some of these spaces have begun a process of redevelopment and hybridisation: one which springs to mind in particular is the Lorenteggio market, to stay in a suburban area, where businesses have a long-established dialogue with associations and aggregative social activities, with a desire to include the residents of the neighbourhood. In a different way, other places have also started redesigning themselves: the Morsenchio market, for example, which is also in the suburbs, responded to one of our calls for tender and has created a self-managing consortium of operators within the market, working on redeveloping its spaces, but also on social and community-minded activities for the neighbourhood.
In more central areas, we have the Wagner market and the Darsena market, which have been overhauled and reimagined in different ways.
Others are also taking steps in the same direction: Rombon is a historic market that is now practically deserted, and they are working with us on an idea for redevelopment by Sogemy, the company that manages the fruit and veg market, and so that would be a further experiment with wholesalers putting together a project for retail sales, mainly for short supply chain products, in that space but also other markets further out of the centre.
From the outset, the real challenge of this project for us has always been doing more with less, because we’ve just been through a phase in which public budgets, especially those of local authorities, have been reduced more and more every year, and we were faced with the challenge of dealing with spaces that needed redevelopment projects - including structural ones - without any significant public resources to invest in them, but with great determination to tap into other types of resources in the form of organisation, design, and public-private partnerships.
That’s really the key to this process: working together with operators of a different nature to think up and establish virtuous processes where, unfortunately, there is not much in the way of public resources to invest. The issues that you raised, along with the projects that you referred to in this market, are proof of how we have to work going forward, namely by trying to put together pieces of projects and resources that also come from other sources, such as, for example, EU calls for applications and projects. This makes all our work that much harder, of course, but also more stimulating in terms of the cooperation we see between public authorities and actors of different kinds.

Thank you very much for your time and I hope to see you here again, maybe when the market is a little livelier. We are still in a situation in which certain businesses are closed, but I hope to see you when we’ve already implemented some improvements, with these projects that we are trying to put in place and - fingers crossed - with the funds we hope to receive. So thank you and until next time!

I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again very soon.