Milan and the invisible space revolution: how to change cities by reconfiguring mobility flows

by Federico Parolotto



The legacy of the mono-functional approach to the road network

The common element of cities around the world (with a few rare exceptions) is the car: its ubiquity is the true unifying element of distant and disparate urban settlements .

Private transport in Europe continuously grew since the 60s to become a mass phenomenon in the 70s- a phenomenon that has continued to the present day.

The capillary access provided by the car has allowed a progressive suburbanization of European cities and to a higher extent of American ones. The historic urban centers of Europe have progressively lost inhabitants to the suburbs, which are often only accessible with private transport.

The extraordinary growth of cars in cities has generated extremely dense urban flows; in order to provide an answer to the growing problem of traffic the cities’ road networks were reconfigured to provide maximum vehicular capacity.

This process has determined a progressive erosion of public space and the severing of pedestrian connectivity.

The need to ensure vehicular circulation has produced a reconfiguration of public space exclusively on the basis of vehicular variables; streets and squares have been transformed into movement channels whose geometric layout has been redefined solely in terms of traffic engineering.

The contemporary urban space of Western cities is still characterized by street configurations built after the early 70s with the aim of accommodating the exponential growth of private transport.

We believe it is time to challenge the layout defined 40 years ago in order to produce a new city; a contemporary city that despite substantial traffic flows is organized to give a central role to public life.

Strategies for a transition towards a new city

All cities in the western world have being defining strategies for a progressive reduction of urban traffic; this reduction is necessary both for the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels and because of the desire of improve the quality of the public realm.

The progressive shift from private to public transport will be a slow and complex process but it is necessary in order to ensure a future for our cities.

The strengthening of public transport and the reduction in the use of the car, as well the revision of the land use distribution as developed in the last 50 years thanks to the capillary access granted by the car, will give significant results in the medium to long term. The transition has started, yet the drastic reduction in the presence of private traffic in cities is a feasible target but not an immediate one.

The end result will need to lead to cites in which urban space addresses the needs of soft mobility. A city in which the traffic flows will be drastically reduced in order to ensure more sustainable urban mobility models.

The quality of the micro-environment, and therefore of elements such as natural and artificial lighting levels, emission concentrations, and acoustic qualities, will become a central element for the development of a sustainable mobility ensured by public transport, mobility on demand, pedestrian and bicycle access, transport modes that are necessarily linked to the quality of the micro-environment because of their exposure to the external condition for a significant part of the trip.

It is important to define the strategies for the transition to a better quality micro-environment.

An integrated approach to urban space design

The role of designers of open spaces has to change: too often re-thinking the space is just an aesthetic  adjustment of earlier decisions in which road and junction geometries already set by Municipalities in the name of a traffic engineering are never really challenged.

It is time that designers resume an integrated approach rather than limiting themselves to surface and urban furniture design; it is time to address open space in its structural configuration challenging the way streets and squares function.

Possibly because of the progressive decrease in social interactions between citizens or the lack of profitability (open spaces do not generate immediate revenue), design has been suffering from a lack of an integrated approach, thereby limiting the design process to a set of constraints – paradoxically the only model simulation that is being applied for the street network around the world has been focusing on traffic alone, neglecting other modes of transport such as the bicycle or pedestrian movement.

We believe that with the recent development of sophisticated simulation tools we have to introduce a holistic approach to the design of urban space, designing the flows as much form-shaping.

It is time to address the constraints, to introduce performance-based urban design that centres on people rather than cars.

An incremental approach to generate a new Milan

Milan is one of the most emblematic examples in Europe of the car’s pervasive presence, which determined a reconfiguration of the urban spaces from squares to traffic junctions impermeable to pedestrian connectivity.

Milan’s streets and squares are the most extraordinary example of the lack of interest of the community in public space and its subsequent abandonment to the presence of the car. In Milan, squares no longer exist as public spaces, they were often redesigned in favor of the car in the 70s and have not changed since then.

Piazzale Cadorna is an emblematic example of the very few squares in Milan that have been redesigned in the last 20 years. More than an analogy of the fashion industry, the sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen seems to represent an ironic attempt to stitch the square severed by numerous “movement channels” back together.

In most of the world’s cities the road infrastructure is oversized, not unlike an hydraulic system the tubes and the joints are not consistent in size, with some sections too large for the amount of flow that will go through them. Milan’s streets and square network, like those of most cities around the world, is characterized by inadequate and inefficient geometries given the traffic flows that they accommodate.

We believe that there is a possibility of re-addressing a large number of Milan’s streets and squares, modifying the road section as well as the junction configuration with no reduction in traffic capacity; we can create a new city by redesigning the flows, reducing the space of traffic movement and therefore gaining surfaces for other possible urban uses. It could be the beginning of a de-paving process progressively “demineralizing” the city.

The “flow design” strategy can change how public space works in Milan: with an incremental approach of discreet interventions we can progressively generate a new city.

One Response to “Milan and the invisible space revolution: how to change cities by reconfiguring mobility flows”

  1. 1
    flow-n | Sottsass and Piazzale Loreto:

    […] Our approach for Piazzale Loreto is different: it is based on the reconfiguration of the mobility flows crossing the square, allowing pedestrians to move at grade. Junctions are designed to be tighter and the space dedicated to vehicular movement is minimised. The phasing of the signalised junctions allows both cars and pedestrians to move smoothly across the square. […]

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