Renaturing Cities Conference in Milan: Social entrepreneurship 

Renaturing Cities Conference in Milan: Social entrepreneurship 

This blog begins a four-part series from the Renaturing Cities: Systemic Urban Governance for Social Cohesion conference. Over two days at the start of December, the Politecnico di Milano hosted academics, policy influencers and civil society groups who presented the best and most innovative ideas on transitioning to sustainability and renaturing cities from across Europe. There will be four blogs covering the conference on four topics: Social entrepreneurship, governance, inclusivity and architecture & town planning. 

Social entrepreneurship is the idea that social groups and members of society can engineer solutions that solve their own local societal problems. At the conference we heard of many schemes with an incredible amount of diversity in their aims and results, but that were united by the common thread of understanding that society needs to solve its own problems, and citizens are in the best position to do this.

Both successes and failures were represented. Rotterdam’s idea of “greening the river” to create an urban-waterfront seemed noble. The project was run by government branches and environmental agencies, and aimed to turn the river banks of the port city into a community park. It seemed like an idea that would facilitate water retention and act as a new social hub, the project however failed to connect citizens to the river and has been largely seen as not fulfilling its aims of getting the community engaged with the space.

In Milan numerous gravel parks have been turned into thriving green spaces, such as the Parco delle Cave, by local groups. Many parks like these have been established in Italy, and whilst near identical in aims to Rotterdam’s “greening the river” project the projects have been almost entirely successful in Italy. Parks and green spaces in social housing have also been turned over to food production by local community groups, teaching the population about how best to produce food and care for their land. The project has largely been hailed as a success, with a large amount of Milanese citizens using the new parks and green resources. Indeed, as have other Milanese social innovations, such as rooftop farming and bringing farmers’ markets to poorer areas. Parks have seen a 136% increase in species diversity in the Cassinazza neo-rural district, claims Alessandro Balducci, Vice-rector of the Politecnico di Milano and professor of planning and urban policies.

This shows the necessity for good citizen engagement and communications in any transitional project in cities, as town planners are not social groups and do not intuitively know the needs or responses of the target population for projects. By letting social entrepreneurs dictate what their society needs, rather than what people with little on-the-ground engagement feel they need, projects are sure to fill gaps in social strategy and improve social cohesion.

A film from Project Wild Thing also highlighted how a project with a simple aim, to get children more involved in nature, leads to a greater environmental consciousness that creates future social entrepreneurs. Indeed, a project in Copenhagen was led by children who wanted to make their school more green. Through finding practical innovations in a school environment, the head of innovation for Copenhagen, Jesper Steenberg facilitated outreach programmes in schools and educated over 40,000 students, allowing the students to engage on local and regional environmental issues.

By definition, social entrepreneurship is people solving their own problems in their own cities, but it was made clear that whilst the mandate for change must come from the community, governing organisations should do their best to facilitate projects in any way they can. Whether through support in a planning or development stage, through the allocation of funding, or even through making  a member of local government with expertise available to social entrepreneurs, it is clear that small groups need a significant amount of support if a whole city is going to transition to an ethical and sustainable community in the future.

Photo courtesy of Giorgia Silvestri

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Miriam is a student at the University of Sussex in Brighton. She can be found at @ThatMiriam on twitter.

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