Il villaggio de La Cordata in Barona (foto La Cordata)

Active citizenship and social innovation is empowering a urban revolution in Milan

, 5 July 2015

Milan is a city dotted with courtyards. The one of the building I just moved in is large, filled with plants, bicycles and two benches to encourage social life. The building is 104-year-old but has just won an award for innovation from Legambiente – an association that promotes sustainability – as a role model building for excellent sharing practice. In the last years its residents, drawing from the need of improving the recycling system, have set dinners and workshops on the topic and dedicated a communal area to share tools and appliances, stressing how important and nice it is to be able to count on your neighbors. But this doesn’t happen only where I live: you truly discover the essence of Milan by catching a glimpse of the courtyards once you pass the buildings’ gates. Inside, unexpected worlds await: they are the core of a diverse urban network that has no defined location but it is proof of a new energy from the citizens’ community.

Maiocchi, Morgagni e Ponzio streets are part of it: they are three of the roads that, following similar experiments in Bologna, became “social streets”. And they are among the most dynamic in Milan, where there are already 30 streets that truly treasure relationships among neighbors thanks to Facebook groups that bring them together, “open Sundays”, communal lunches and “swap parties”. “I wanted to get to know better the people around me and to figure out what to do with them in the neighbors or simply how to find a way to live it in a more fun way, starting from its relationships” says Lucia Maroni, one of the founders of the social street in Via Maiocchi. “Within a year our perception of our daily lives has changed widely, even if they are small changes and a long making process, but we believe that this experience can bring other new lighthearted communities to counteract the high individualistic approach in our cities”. A proof of Milan citizens’ proactive attitude comes from last years’ data on volunteer work, that shows a 211% increase since 2001.

Vicini di casa al lavoro per realizzare un orto condiviso in via Maiocchi (fonte:

Vicini di casa al lavoro per realizzare un orto condiviso in via Maiocchi (fonte:

If there is one innovative image that has permanently marked the history of this city is the one drawn by Bob Noorda during the Italian economic boom: by representing the first subway line’s design of Milan he recounted how fast forward the city was moving. 50 years have gone since the first “red” subway ride – as locals call the M1 – that very subway vision has become an icon and many things have changed. The city is still trying to find which image represents best its contemporary identity. The big factories don’t exist anymore; they have been converted into recreational spaces, like the Ex Ansaldo that is turning into a challeging international cultural pole. Milan today is identified worldwide as the Italian city of fashion, business, design, entertainment, education and non-profit sector. In Italy, in fact, Milan has always been a role model as a city that combines diverse productive fields, something that allowed it to hold down the crisis, with an employment rate of 65%, 10% more compared to the rest of the Country.

The crisis has also made the city somehow more alert towards new approaches to urban life. Data from the Unioncamere study on startups (founded in 1901, Unioncamere is an Italian public entity with the duty of representing and caring for the general interests of the Italian Chambers of Commerce) show that among the 3200 new companies opened in 2014 in Italy Milan comes first with 470 startups, with a strong presence of social-oriented ones. The non-profit sector in Italy has become more and more prominent: Istat data (essentially the largest producer of open data in Italy) show a 28% increase of the field in the last 10 years. Once again it’s Milan to lead by numbers and variety. FabriQ, for example, is a business incubator located in Quarto Oggiaro directly by Milan Municipality, where a social approach is encouraged and nurtured. This attitude started at the end of the 80s with one of the social-oriented projects that I believe set the pace for the future years, La Cordata, when the yuppie age was turning to an end in Milan. The team behind this project was inspired by Cardinal Maria Martini: his secular message, despite his religious role, called for integrating the outcast young people into the society. La Cordata opened of the first hostels of the city dedicated to students, in Via Burigozzo. “Our work has always been addressed to help assimilate diverse people from all walks of life, to have them coexisting day in day out” says Silvia Bartellini, the President. From that first experiment many others were born like the one in the Barona neighborhood, the “hospitality village”. Here all kind of people live together sharing spaces and experiences, from students to teachers, from the elderly to the youngest, from underage foreigners to single mothers: here, citizens can actively cooperate with local educators even where welfare workers can’t get daily. Today La Cordata is a firm with 80 employees. In Italy the legal positioning of this kind of social company is not yet clear: it is clearly not volunteer work, but a proper firm that work to sustain itself and in the meanwhile operates also for its community. “The challenge for us” – says Silvia Bartellini, who mentions Adriano Olivetti as one of her professional benchmarks – “is more than ever to understand how exactly the reference model of sharing economy overturns the welfare logic and how citizens can be the actors of a path that solves the problems in their lives. In 2015 we are going to build our new business plan with the local organizations with which we cooperate each day”.

Una mappa della Milano che innova - Effect magazine

Right now you could say that the most interesting ideas by young entrepreneurs in Milan lays mostly in hospitality and social empowerment. Ostello Bello opened in 2011 thanks to a group of 30 somethings who wanted to change their lives by creating a special place in Milan, with a sustainable and entertaining approach. And they succeeded so well that it has been nominated as one the best hostel in Europe. In the Northern part of the city beyond Sempione Park, Asli Haddas, IT, hit by crisis at 34, decided to follow her dreams and opened the Gogol’Ostello, and things have worked out very well for her. It is a low cost structure with a literary cafè, thought as a melting-pot point and realized with the help of the micro-credit. There is a new hostel in Via Benaco, too, the Madama Hostel. I popped in some months ago and among the many people involved building beds and tables for the opening I met Valeria, Davide, Alessia e Matteo: they are the partners of Controprogetto, a small firm that, right in the city of design, is rebuilding the approach to carpentry. Born in 2003 as an Association within the Stecca degli Artigiani Union, an historical association dedicated to all kind of craftsmanship to be found between Via de Castillia and Via Confalonieri, they have created a new synergic work-flow: artists and entrepreneurs at the same time, along with their workshop’s products made with recycled materials, they organize hourly paid classes to share their knowledge with anyone interested in it.

Il gruppo di Contro Progetto (foto

Il gruppo di Contro Progetto (foto

This digital existence that we are all experiencing has actually called for more manual skills. Makerspaces like Opendot and Yatta! are pushing for sharing experience, at any age. In the Gorla area, a part of the city that has historically linked the industrial heart of the city hinterland with the small shops, WeMake is an open source space applied to the creation of “pretty much everything that comes to mind: clothes, furniture…” says Costantino Bongiorno, the head of this big urban laboratory. With Arduino – an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software – they hacks the old style looms so that in addiction to sewing on fabric they apply electric circuits. “Here at WeMake we share practice and knowledge, software and hardware. And this experience can be shared also globally thanks to the makers’ network. But the real bet is on the city: my dream is to have a workshop like this in each neighborhood”.


And it’s almost in every neighborhood that you can find the coworking spaces, so much so that even the Municipality has allocated vouchers for students and young freelancers who want to use them. The Hub Milano, Talent Garden, Cowo and Avanzi are among the most well-known, a meeting point between startups and networking spaces. It’s important also to mention Piano C, opened by five women that together with coworking also offer cobabysitting, to help mothers to go back to work easily.

The new use of public spaces is also something that has characterized the city lately: more than 300 public spaces were requalified since 2011. Here you can find a map: Many projects of all sorts are about to be launched: small businesses, creative, cultural, sport and social projects. There will be spaces dedicated to startups; restored farmsteads that are part of the historical farming heritage of the city such as the ones of Sant’Ambrogio, Cascina Triulza, San Bernardo and Monluè, granted by the Town Hall to create urban vegetable gardens, reception areas, shared gardens; many of the mafia properties that have been confiscated by the law have been turned into social projects; and even business incubators are now considered strategic for development and are facilitated. Reconverting existing spaces and opening them to the city is also the aim of Città Olinda, a collective project started in 1994, which has transformed the former psychiatric hospital, Paolo Pini, into a place for social integration, providing theatre productions, job placements for people with mental disabilities and summer camps for children. 

“A public space that is left empty and unused is a space that is taken away from the city” says Mayor Giuliano Pisapia. “In 2012 we introduced new rules to assign spaces that fit specific projects thought to revive the city, focusing on decentralized neighborhood and historical monuments to trace a new path and to give a new cultural, social and economic impulse to the city. I am proud of what we have done so far together with the citizens, such as being able to give new life to properties confiscated to mafia. I also think about the social approach to the council houses or to the start ups dedicated to innovation in the not-for-profit sector. There is a lot to do yet but surely we are taking the right direction”, he says.

These are only some of all the many possibilities that a smart social approach and the sharing philosophy have to give if used wisely, and people in Milan – from politicians to social workers, from citizens to my own neighbors, too – are investigating how to do it. It’s exactly this relentless work perpetrated by the citizens that make so so many future scenarios possible. Maybe that’s exactly the identity of Milan today: one consecrated to make it everyday unique in its diversity.