In the centre of Milan, meanwhile, the most significant project is the transformation of the former Varesine railway works at Porta Nuova, with a system at the heart of it all formed by the lively Piazza Gae Aulenti, the “Trees Library” park and Piazza Lombardia, home of the local government offices. We can see around us other examples of rundown and decommissioned or abandoned areas that have been transformed.
Amongst these examples there are cornerstones and important reference projects, such as the transformation of the Millennium Park in Chicago, which was originally a station and railway hub and is now a magnificent public park in the heart of downtown Chicago with really high quality, stunning architecture. But what has met with even more public approval is the transformation in New York of the West Side Line, a stretch of elevated railway in the western part of Manhattan, into a garden and city park, now known as the High Line.
Over the last few years there has been a new awareness of the importance of communal spaces in cities: what stage are we at in this process of cultural change and in the implementation and execution of projects?
If we put to one side the desire to amaze at all costs, with all kinds of extravagant proposals, we are noticing the development of projects that are constantly improving, they are becoming more and more selective and more technically valid.
Style, form, design, but also a search for new materials. How important are these choices in making cities more welcoming and liveable?
Choosing which materials and technical solutions to use is very important.
Open spaces are almost always public spaces, or become so by means of a deed of transfer or easement once construction work has been completed by private developers.
However, because of the high cost of maintaining these spaces, and local authorities not having resources to carry out adequate maintenance, projects need to use durable, resistant materials that are able to provide and maintain proper performance properties over time, without losing their characteristics and technical or aesthetic qualities.
Sustainability and urban spaces are becoming more and more closely associated. In your opinion, what interventions should be prioritised in cities to take us in the right direction?
Sustainability: ecological, social and economic sustainability. Ecological and social basically means reducing our carbon footprint, that is, making the widest use possible of materials with raw materials and production processes, as well as transport options and application methods, with “low environmental impact”, paying careful attention to the hidden aspects of the impact they have, and on the use of materials and equipment which, if manufactured abroad, may conceal the fact that they severely damage the ecosystem and employ low-wage labour.
As far as economic issues are concerned, we need to be forward-thinking and careful about putting too much emphasis on the initial benefits of sustainability, while economic benefits must be calculated across the entire life cycle of a building or structure, including the final disposal of materials. Spend wisely at the outset to guarantee a long service life with low maintenance costs; this should be the golden rule. Which interventions should be prioritised? Parks and gardens! Plenty of parks and gardens in cities, and soft mobility. More pedestrian zones and cycle lanes, backed up by an extensive network of underground or elevated rail transport, without falling into the easy trap, and enticing promises, of apparently harmless electric vehicles, which are proclaimed as being emission-free, while disguising the fact that emissions are generated elsewhere (such as in fossil-fuel driven power stations that pollute other areas) to produce the energy required to manufacture, move and dispose of them.
On the subject of cities of the future, we shouldn’t overlook the issue of redeveloping outlying neighbourhoods and suburbs. How can landscape architecture contribute to the regeneration of such areas?
Redeveloping external spaces can make a significant contribution to redeveloping rundown areas in the poorer parts of cities. It provides the opportunity for redevelopment work in places with areas that need to be reclaimed, but this can only happen by means of a series of other kinds and types of concerted action. To put it more simply, a nice piazza may help a little, but it certainly doesn’t get rid of poverty.
Redevelopment projects on street furniture and décor are usually entrusted to local councils, but the private sector can also make a significant contribution. What is your opinion?
In Italy, most of the projects and plans for public open spaces rely on the initiative of private developers of urban regeneration programmes, normally under the control and in cooperation with local authorities. But the private sector does play a significant role in development plans, or redevelopment plans, for public open spaces.
Then there are areas in which residents can play a direct role, as individuals or in the form of groups and organisations, to stimulate or by taking direct action, like what happened in New York with the Guerrilla Gardening groups, which has also been replicated in Milan, or through a more peaceful approach such as the community gardens initiative on the Lower East Side in New York.