Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Milan joins a growing list of European cities embracing car-free futures for their central neighborhoods.
Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Dublin—and now Milan. Italy’s second city is the latest of a string of European metropolises to start expelling cars from its downtown. Granted, the pace at which Milan intends to turn its city core car-free is slower than most. There is no timeline for the project and the plan is to do it gradually, almost street by street. But when Deputy Mayor Lucia di Cesaris announced the pedestrianization of central Piazza della Scala last Friday, she made it clear that it is just the beginning of a steady removal of cars across central Milan that will amount to nothing less than a “soft revolution”:
“The horizon of the final project… will consist of the total pedestrianization of the historical center.”
Banishing cars from the grand but currently underwhelming square on which the Scala Opera House is located will extend to the north the already existing pedestrian zone in Milan’s heart, consisting of Cathedral Square and the area around Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the spectacular adjacent shopping arcade. After Piazza della Scala is joined up with this zone, the car-free area will gradually extend further into the streets beyond the square, turning an area that is a hub for cultural venues into a pedestrian promenade.
Meanwhile, over on the city center’s southern edge, the canal-side Navigli neighborhood is also getting its pedestrian area expanded, creating a car-free bar and café quarter to add to the just-pedestrianized Piazza Missori nearby. Put all this together and Milan will have what the deputy mayor calls “the creation of a vast area of pedestrian privilege”, the city core passing a tipping point beyond which people, not cars, will forever dominate.
It’s a transformation that the town needs. Milan’s status as Italy’s second city doesn’t fully do justice to its importance, both within the country and internationally, an importance that is also partly belied by the disjointed planning of its center. A major financial, industrial, design, and fashion hub, Milan undeniably punches above its weight, also possessing a historic core that has an imposing, solid grandeur to it that many cities would be proud to match.
But having said that, in a country with standards of urban beauty as absurdly high as Italy, central Milan can still come across as a little gruff and underwhelming. The city’s huge central square often elicits an impressed gasp from visitors on first sight, but this impression soon peters out in surrounding humdrum car-filled streets. Banishing vehicles from this area would not just unlock more of downtown as an open-air living room, but it would also help dispel the sense of Milan’s central square being an island of great design surrounded by a sea of relative banality.
Beyond the confines of the city itself, there’s another sea change to be observed. A few years back, we might have seen Milan’s makeover as a bold, innovative move. It still sounds promising today, but with the plans announced in the wake of so many other European projects to banish motor vehicles, it actually looks like something a little different— the emergence of a new orthodoxy.