Renaturing cities conference in Milan: Architecture and town planning

Renaturing cities conference in Milan: Architecture and town planning

This blog is part of 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.

Architecture and town planning could be perceived as the final frontier for transitions to sustainability. Whilst it may be easy to influence a small group to get on board with a transition project, convincing a whole town or city and the numerous actors than come with them is no small feat. That is what makes the fact that there have been numerous developments that have tried to tackle some of modern communities biggest problems, such as housing and green spaces, even more exciting.

At the Renaturing Cities conference, a number of speakers demonstrated the successes and plans for the future of transitional architecture and town planning. One of the ARTS Project main aims is to discover how individual projects can work together to create inspiring and innovative projects that are more than a sum of their parts. The examples of architecture and town planning certainly demonstrate the benefits of coordinated action.

Alessandro Balducci, the Vice-Rector of the Politecnico di Milano, focused on how nature is a fundamental asset for sustainable growth in Europe, and emphasised that we must use nature as a guide to social innovation. In Milan a revolution of integration is occurring in its parks, as part of a city-wide plan to create more green spaces. Parco delle Cave was former gravel park. It is now the second largest public park in Milan. Its counterpart, Parco Nord has been transformed from an ex-industrial site to a low cost metropolitan public facility. Thanks to these city-planned innovations, species biodiversity has increased by 136% in the La Sassinazza neo-rural district. Its clear from the results of these now thriving spaces that a holistic but co-ordinated approach to the transformation of spaces can have significant benefits to cities, as a coordination of efforts leads to more efficient work taking place.

Balducci’s colleague at the university, Stefano Boeri, has been putting these aims into action. One of the biggest problems in urban centres across Europe is a lack of housing available. Balducci took that problem, combined it with the problems of a lack of biodiversity and clean air, to create an exceptionally innovative solution. The “Vertical forest” is a set of two high-rise apartment blocks that features around 900 trees and shrubs. The blocks do away with energy-wasting glass as coverage in favour of the greenery, and in one of Milan’s most polluted areas it will absorbs tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The idea of putting trees and greenery inside or on buildings is extremely replicable and has its roots in the “green roof” schemes that are omnipresent in new developments, so now architects and town-planners just need to ensure that the concept doesn’t become a novelty, and becomes a part of the cities future.

Niki Frantzeskaki of DRIFT focused her discussion on the lessons learned from centrally planned projects in Rotterdam. As a port city, Rotterdam’s main source of income has been decreasing steadily over the years and as such parts of the city have begun to decay. The DakAkkers and Luchtsingel project in Rotterdam focused on the radical and fundamental rerouting of the area towards transitions to sustainability. As a coordinated effort governed by a series of interconnected bodies, but with the engagement of citizens, the project was largely considered a success. This was in contrast to Rotterdam’s “urban waterfront” plans, which has largely not achieved its aims and failed to engage citizens in the planning process. This contrast shows that whilst innovation and experimentation are vital in the co-ordinated effort of town-planning to rehabilitate areas, citizens must be engaged in the project or it will simply become another relic of ambitious but disengaged governments.

Other projects around architecture and town planning emphasized the small scale changes local governments can implement in future plans. The European Cool Roof council demonstrated how sustainable roofing technology can act as an urban heat sink and cool down the micro-climates that exist within densely populated cities. Many speakers also highlighted how allotment spaces and roof gardens can become tools for community cohesion and act as a sustainable sustenance solution. It was clear though that without mass support in terms of ease of planning permission and government or research grants, larger scale projects were less likely to get off the ground.

It seems we are just reaching a point where transitional architecture is dipping its toes into mainstream architecture and town planning. On a small scale, transitional projects have existed within new developments. But now projects must focus on becoming institutionalized and integrated within town-planning systems to make sure the future of sustainability is more than just a design fad.

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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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