Everything within easy reach. This seems to be the future that cities are preparing for in the post-pandemic phase. Major cities such as London, Paris, Milan or Madrid will still exist only if they guarantee their inhabitants a sustainable standard of living. The merit in this has definitely become clear in recent years, even becoming a necessity due to the coronavirus pandemic, as highlighted by the increasingly pressing demand from citizens to travel as little as possible to obtain goods and services. This has led to the major cities having a rethink, imagining a future similar to that of cities such as Barcelona, famous for its self-sufficient neighbourhoods called "superblocks".
Paris is the latest example of this. The "15-minute city" was one of the items in the "Paris en commun" electoral manifesto, the political platform which Mayor Anne Hidalgo won re-election on last summer to remain in charge of the French capital. The idea devised by the mayor of Paris is a reference to the concept of the "Human Smart City", developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at Paris-I University. According to the Franco-Colombian academic, it is necessary to "revamp the concept of proximity, articulating it according to the six functions which every neighbourhood should guarantee: living, working, providing, caring, learning and having fun."
These are concepts which are radically different from the past, which therefore raises questions about urban planning, as Moreno told the French newspaper "Libération": "It is important to start deconstructing cities and thinking about them in a different way to in the 1990s when we believed that we would solve the problem of spatial fragmentation using technology, which would allow us to go faster and further." Moreno's ideas have therefore begun to take shape in Anne Hidalgo's administration plan: Paris' first lady has already launched the pedestrianisation of the Champs-Elysées, which will significantly change one of the symbolic locations in the French capital. This action has already been applauded by Parisians, who in fact see this decision "as one of the symbolic steps of the next decade", and which will soon be accompanied by the introduction of new cycleways, a plan amounting to EUR 350 million, which will see the removal of 60,000 seats in private cars, as promised in the election campaign.
"It is important to start deconstructing cities and thinking about them in a different way to in the 1990s when we believed that we would solve the problem of spatial fragmentation using technology.
This is a model which Milan also now seems to want to take inspiration from. It is no coincidence that mayor Beppe Sala has already announced in an interview with "Corriere della Sera" how his political manifesto for the next five years – in view of the forthcoming elections – starts precisely from the neighbourhoods, "which provide a resource for the city. Believing in the 15-minute city means guaranteeing citizens access to all primary services within a quarter of an hour on foot or by bike. The measures required to achieve this are to lengthen the metro route, reserve a share of public construction for social housing and work on a district heating system."
Covid therefore presents a kind of opportunity, as also underlined by Federico Parolotto, founder of "Mobility in Chain", an agency specialising in planning sustainable mobility systems. "The pandemic has opened up an incredible window into the city's future, where sustainability and a good quality of life can be the main values," emphasises Federico. These are concepts which have already supported the city's development in recent years. One example is the pedestrianisation of Piazza Castello, carried out in 2014 for the Expo the following year, which immediately became a case study in terms of the radical transformation of one of the most iconic locations in Milan. The second example is the installation of cycleways in the Corso Buenos Aires. "The project actually dated back to the time of Carlo Tognoli, but with the outbreak of the pandemic, the project was fast-tracked within two months." A change of pace is now expected in other areas.
The pandemic has opened up an incredible window into the city's future, where sustainability and a good quality of life can be the main values.
Susan Claris and Damiano Scopelliti have highlighted on Arup.com how Milan should seize this opportunity to make a definite green breakthrough. Two changes have been recommended: switching to forms of mobility other than private cars and making the streets greener. As Federico Parolotto points out: "these two steps don't require a great deal of effort. Deciding to extend and widen the areas reserved for pedestrians and cyclists are tasks which can be carried out at zero level, i.e. at street level, which could entail huge benefits for the whole of Milan. These operations would also allow better mobility along 20 or 30 kilometres wide across the city." Trees and benches would enhance the quality of life in the area. "The work that would be done in Milan is very similar to what will be done in Paris. In fact, many areas of the city are the legacy of an outdated urban concept which saw cars and vehicles at the heart of the city, neglecting pedestrians and bicycles almost entirely."
Nowadays, things have changed, which can offer the chance to imagine a different future even for more peripheral areas. "We only need to think of Via Melchiorre Gioia, whose urban design still carries on the mentality of the 1970s. Making these avenues similar to boulevards would add prestige to the area and would also help enhance the Naviglio Martesana canal, which is nearby." Another reason for this, explains Federico, is that "tourism, for example, clearly cannot stop at everything there is within just 15 minutes. Copenhagen is a model to follow, which has now built a brand based on sustainability, which also attracts tourists, who are encouraged to ride around the whole city by bike." The Danish capital shows that clearly everything cannot be reduced to within 15 minutes "because there are goods and services which may be even further away. But what it does do is give you a strong sense of community with your neighbourhood, which is something inconceivable if we think about how cities were viewed until recently, along with a strong sense of belonging." These are certainly values which it would be nice to use as a basis for starting again.