Campaign to limit car use and you’re dead in the water, politicians once feared. Not so much now, as demonstrated by the mayoral elections in London, Paris, Bogotá and many other world cities, including Milan.
Business executive Giuseppe Sala won 42% of the vote when he became mayor of Milan in 2016, promising to transform Italy’s second most populous city for good. He took space from cars and handed it over to people. During the pandemic, his administration added bike lanes on major travel corridors and, through The program of Piazza Aperte (“open squares”).starting in 2018, it created 38 pop-up community squares.
Sala was re-elected last year, increasing his share of the vote by nearly 20 points. Reducing car use is popular, Sala and other mayors are proving.
Half of Milan’s 1.35 million residents are now within walking distance of the new public space, much of it reclaimed from cars through the quick and judicious placement of planters and the bold and extensive application of paint, a technique easily reversible way of changing the city known as “tactical urbanism”. .”
The changes are “fascinating”, he said Janette Sadik-Khan, who served as New York City’s transportation commissioner between 2007 and 2013 during the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg. She was a key and early champion of tactical urbanism. Her easily reversible changes to NYC’s Times Square—making it pedestrianized—have not been reversed.
Sadik-Khan is now a principal at Bloomberg Associates, the advisory arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies. She has helped advise Mayor Sala on his Piazza Aperte program, a relatively inexpensive but highly effective reimagining of the public realm. The initiative started in 2018. It expanded and accelerated during the pandemic. Milan was the first Italian city to be affected by COVID-19.
In April 2020, Milan launched its Strade Aperte “open roads” program of protected cycling infrastructure on main streets, creating 42 miles of pop-up bikeways, many of which have now become permanent.
The first three squares to be converted were in car-dominated neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. Benches and planters took the place of street parking, and large stretches of dull asphalt were painted with bright patterns.
This bold use of color on previously gray streets was first implemented in North American cities, advised by Bloomberg Associates, and the consultancy says that “city streets with asphalt art became much safer for pedestrians”.
(Deadline to apply for European cities cash grants from Bloomberg Associates to “reimagine dreary streets as living galleries of neighborhoods” was July 11; today, then.)
Since then, another 35 squares have been created in Milan, many of them in poor and underserved neighborhoods. I visited some of them during one Interrail enabled trip to Italy last month, using newly protected bike lanes near some of Milan’s previously car-dominated streets. Crossings that were once given over to motorists are now public spaces with ping-pong tables instead of parked cars. A painted square in front of a school is buzzing with people—playing, sitting, talking—where there used to be a bland triangle given over to indiscriminate parking.
“A more resilient city [can’t be achieved by] demolition of buildings or construction of new roads”, Sadik-Khan told me in a later phone call“You have to make better use of the roads you already have.”
Starting work with Milan in 2018, Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg Associates first advised on the transformation of squares in the working-class districts of Spoleto and Durgano.
“The streets there had become parking lots,” Sadik-Khan said.
“We moved quickly with brush and benches and turned those spaces into places for people. The result was fascinating. From the moment we threw up the first benches, people were sitting on them, even before we finished locking the benches in the ground. People are so hungry for public space.”
And, at least for Milan, people are hungry for public space filled with ping-pong tables. Local businesses store bats and balls, increasing their numbers.
“The community comes together quickly,” Sadik-Khan said.
“Recovery of space [from cars] it’s more than just that [adding] local equipment; it’s a global planning principle that can help save the planet.”
She adds: “If you want to transform a city and make an impact on the world, one of the most effective things you can do is reclaim and reimagine your streets for people. These changes are familiar – once you have city streets and public space packed with people, it’s hard to argue that it should be otherwise.”
Community buy-in is one of the keys to the runaway success of the Piazza Aperte program.
“People have very strong feelings about their roads,” agreed Sadik-Khan.
Local people got involved with the proposed changes to the program and many helped paint their own designs on the already brightly colored streets.
“Not everyone is going to be on board,” admitted Sadik-Khan, “not everyone is going to agree that there’s even a problem, and so it’s important for the municipality to show leadership.”
“It’s easy to argue about parking,” said Mayor Sala.
“But it’s hard to argue against a new city space filled with people and signs of life, commerce and a sustained purpose where there was nothing before.”
Milan is one of the global cities in the C40 group, a network of nearly 100 cities taking urgent action to tackle the climate crisis.
“Innovative solutions to climate change come primarily from cities and towns around the world,” said Michael Bloomberg, president of the C40 Board and UN Special Envoy for Climate Solutions and Ambition.