Riverfront Development: Lessons from an Italian sister city - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Riverfront Development: Lessons from an Italian sister city

As the River Edge Ideas Lab enters its final weeks collecting public input on the future of Chicago's rivers, Milan's waterfront revival offers context on what is possible

Giovanni Tucci

Milan's "Grande" naviglio, one of a network of waterways designed by Leonardo da Vinci

This summer, I had the opportunity to visit Chicago and work with MPC as a research assistant on Great Rivers Chicago. I live in Milan, Italy, where I am an Urban Planning student at Politecnico di Milano. 

Milan is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe and in the past few decades has repurposed itself in various ways, focusing largely on commercial investment and programming for arts and culture. Urban planning has played a key role in this process. Large tracts have been rehabilitated with the help of international experts. Some of these projects have drawn criticism, while others have been widely successful. The city has also been promoting public and active transportation by building new subway lines and bike lanes.

Chicago and Milan share many characteristics. Both were originally developed as trade and industrial centers, and grew with heavy immigration flows. As time went on, as much of the industrial sector left major urban areas, Chicago and Milan have had to reinvent themselves in terms of job opportunities and use of space, infrastructure and building stock. Another shared similarity is our city’s relationship with water. It may seem odd to compare Milan, which is some hundred miles away from the Mediterranean coast, with Chicago, which borders the Great Lakes. However, Milan has relied for centuries on an integrated network of natural and man-made waterways (the latter called “Navigli” and designed by the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci). These Navigli connected Milan with other production and trade centers within Northern Italy. The city would never have gained its preeminent role in Italy and Europe south of the Alps without these waterways. Chicago and Milan have been “Sister Cities” since 1973 in far more than name.

MPC partnered with the City of Chicago on the River Edge Ideas Lab, which launched in September and brings to mind Milan’s “Darsena” redevelopment project.  Darsena is Milan’s historic inland port, located not far from the city center. It lay blighted for decades but reopened to the public in 2015, during MILANO EXPO. After many years of deterioration and neglect, water once again fills the basin which is 750 meters in length (2460 ft). The whole project cost about 19 million Euro, which included redevelopment and maintenance works in the adjacent “Piazza XXIV Maggio” and the riverbanks. New pedestrian and green space were developed and equipped with public facilities, cafes and restaurants. Public use and urban continuity have been two key factors in the project’s success. Previously abandoned, this area today is a vibrant destination, attracting visitors 24/7.

Milan is rediscovering its vital link with water and is re-shaping its waterways as public amenities and as environmental and mobility corridors. Recently, Mayor Giuseppe Sala announced a massive project for “daylighting” the buried canals in downtown Milan. The idea is daring, as implementation will be expensive and disruptive, causing concerns about traffic congestion during construction.

“Milan’s citizens will definitely take part in this,” Sala said. While a voter referendum on the canals plan is unlikely, citizen participation will most likely take the form of opportunities for Milanese residents to examine and comment on various competing project proposals. In any case, over the next several years the city administration will need to deal with chronic water-related issues such as flooding and water pollution.

Milan and Chicago can learn from one another as the canals project in Milan moves forward and as the River Edge Ideas Lab invites architects and urban planners from around the world to offer their visions for transforming its rivers. As a resident of Milan and as a visitor to and fan of Chicago, I will be paying close attention to how these sister cities address their shared challenges and opportunities.

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