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