Campaign to restrict car use and you’re dead in the water, politicians once feared. Not so much now, as demonstrated by mayoral elections in London, Paris, Bogotá, and many other world cities, including Milan.
Business executive Giuseppe Sala won 42% of the vote when, in 2016, he became Mayor of Milan. He promised to transform Italy’s second most populous city for the better. Soon, he took space away from cars and handed it instead to people. During the pandemic, his administration added cycleways to main travel corridors and, with the Piazza Aperte (“open squares”) program, it created 38 pop-up community plazas.
Sala was re-elected last year, increasing his share of the vote by nearly 20 points. Taming car use is popular, metro mayors are proving.
Half of Milan’s 1.35 million residents are now within walking distance of new public space, much of it reclaimed from cars through the swift and judicious placement of planters and the bold and expansive application of paint, an easily reversible city makeover technique known as “tactical urbanism.”
The changes are “spellbinding,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, who served as New York City’s transportation commissioner between 2007 and 2013 during Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral administration. She was an early champion of tactical urbanism. Her easily-reversible changes to NYC’s Times Square—pedestrianizing it—have not been reversed.
Sadik-Khan is now a principal of Bloomberg Associates, the consulting arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies. She advised Mayor Sala on his Piazza Aperte program, a relatively cheap but highly effective reimagination of the public realm, started in 2018. The program was expanded and accelerated during the pandemic: Milan was the first Italian city to be impacted by COVID-19.
In April 2020, Milan started its Strade Aperte “open streets” program of lacing protected cycling infrastructure on main roads creating 42 miles of pop-up cycleways, many of which have been made permanent.
The first three squares of the Piazza Aperte program were created on car-dominated neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts. Benches and planters took the place of street parking, and large swathes of dull asphalt were painted with bright patterns.
This bold use of colors on previously gray streets was originally deployed in North American cities advised by Bloomberg Associates, and the consultancy says that “city streets with asphalt art became considerably safer for pedestrians.”
(The deadline for European cities to apply for cash grants from Bloomberg Associates to “reimagine dreary roads as vibrant neighborhood galleries” was 11 July; today, then.)
A further 35 squares have since been created in Milan, many in poor, underserved neighborhoods. I visited some of them during an Interrail-enabled trip to Italy last month, using newly protected cycleways beside some of Milan’s previously car-dominated streets. Intersections once given over to motorists alone are now public spaces with ping-pong tables instead of parked cars. A painted piazza in front of a school hums with people—playing, sitting, chatting—where before it was a bland triangle for the indiscriminate parking of cars.
“A more resilient city [can’t be achieved by] tearing down buildings or building new roads,” Sadik-Khan told me on a later telephone call, “you have to make better use of the streets that you already have.”
Working with Milan since 2018, Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg Associates first advised on the transformation of squares in the working-class districts of Spoleto and Durgano.
“Streets there had become parking lots,” said Sadik-Khan.
“We moved fast with paint brushes and benches, and we transformed those spaces into places for people. The result was spellbinding. From the moment we put down the first benches, people were sitting on them, even before we finished bolting the benches to the ground—people are just so hungry for public space.”
And, for Milan at least, people are hungry for public space dotted with ping-pong tables. Local businesses store the bats and balls, increasing footfall.
“The community quickly knits together,” said Sadik-Khan.
“Reclaiming space [from cars] is more than just [adding] local amenities—it’s a global planning principle that can help save the planet.”
She adds: “If you want to transform a city and have an impact on the world, one of the most effective things you can do is reclaim and reimagine your streets for people. These changes are popular—once you have city streets and public space filled with people, it’s hard to argue that it should be any other way.”
Community buy-in is one of the keys to the success of the Piazza Aperte program.
“People have very strong feelings about their streets,” agreed Sadik-Khan.
Local people were involved with the changes proposed in the program, and many of them helped paint their own designs on the now brightly colored streets.
“Not everybody’s going to be on board,” admitted Sadik-Khan, “not everyone’s going to agree that there’s even a problem, and so it’s important that the municipality shows leadership.”
“It’s easy to argue about parking,” said Mayor Sala.
“But it’s difficult to dispute a new city space filled with people and with signs of life, commerce, and a sustainable purpose where before there was nothing.”
Milan is one of the global cities in the C40 group, a network of nearly 100 cities taking action to confront the climate crisis.
“Innovative climate change solutions are largely coming from cities and towns across the world,” said Michael Bloomberg, president of the C40 Board and UN Special Envoy on Climate Solutions and Ambition.