FUTURE CAPE TOWN | How to co-design the future of public space? A case from Milan.

‘It is a web-platform with a square, and a square with a web-platform’

Milan, Piazza Castello: a rendering of #nevicata14, the pedestrianisation experiment that is currently taking place during Expo 2015.

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by Andrea Pollio

Piazza Castello is the second most important and iconic square in Milan.  With its medieval castle, housing Leonardo da Vinci’s and Michelangelo’s artworks, and its XIX century grand buildings, the square is a gateway between the city centre and its main green-lung, Sempione Park. Yet, for decades, Piazza Castello had just been a busy crossroad and a handy car park.

In April 2014, with Expo Milano 2015 approaching, the municipality decided to transform the square into a pedestrian area, and launched a call for ideas. In the meanwhile, just a few steps away, Expo Gate was being built, a two-building pavilion that was about to become the main representative office for Expo in the city. As soon as the call for ideas was launched, the pedestrian project became a part of the public debate, with the local government and citizens starting a discussion about the future of a place that had been long perceived as a car node.

The municipality asked Triennale di Milano, a design and art museum resting in the nearby park, to start a public co-design consultation for the future pedestrian Piazza Castello. Eleven Architecture studios were asked to draft a design proposal for the square, in the square itself, so that local residents, tourists, citizens, shop-owners etc, could take part in their creative process. For eleven afternoons in July 2014, each single firm experimented the square (using the Expo Gate pavilion) as a workplace where to engage with future users. By the end of September, the eleven design proposals were presented and publicly discussed, resulting in the selection of one that would be implemented as a temporary pedestrianisation experiment during the six months of Expo 2015, from May to October.

A participatory design workshop with Nevicata14 team and Guidarini and Salvadeo Architects.

A participatory design workshop with Snark and Guidarini and Salvadeo Architects.

#nevicata14 was the winning design proposal, developed by Guidarini & Salvadeo with a space making agency. The name, #nevicata14, is the Italian for “snowfall of 2014”, an original idea to artificially recreate what happens when a thick layer of snow covers the city, erasing kerbs, traffics signs, and all the traces that cars leave on the city. The concept was inspired by the famous 1985 snowfall, when a meter of snow occurred and transformed Milan into an entirely pedestrian city.

#nevicata 14 postcard.

#nevicata 14 postcard.

“This vision shouldn’t be mistaken with the pure architectural proposal, but it was instead the dream of a space supporting multiple uses, a space where everyone could find their way of enjoying the square”, says Yulya Besplemennova, project manager and design producer at #nevicata14. From its initial vision, the project confronted budget and feasibility limits, so the idea of covering the entire square with a white paving was opted out for a more contained strategy.

Project infographic with use map.

The actual project for the square features islands of white pavement, resembling spots of melting snow. Such strategy creates various zones with specific characteristics, thus allowing a diverse range of public uses.  There are larger and smaller structures creating zones of shade in different hours of the day, misting systems for additional refreshment, vases with trees composing little groves, benches of two different kinds for groups or individuals. All the installations are completely modular and will be dismantled at the end of Expo 2015, when the final reconfiguration of the square begin.

Laying the white paving on the asphalt.

#nevicata14 in progress: laying the white paving on the asphalt.

Yet #nevicata14 is more than the physical upgrading of a former crossroad. As Yulya tells us, “#nevicata14  works on three levels: physical – through the design of structures that define the space of the square; social: through the construction of online/offline processes and services for the involvement and empowerment of the community affected by #nevicata14; political: through the definition of a new system of rules for the use and management of the square”.

Building an offline-online wiki.

Building an offline-online wiki.

#nevicata14 was built in the collective imaginarium long before it was brought to the construction site or even to the architects’ drawings. The work started from bringing together interested contributors,  both through online and offline activities. Before it became a design proposal, #nevicata14  was  a co-authored WIKI-process with around 400 entries.  Other online activities built a digital space of collaboration on the physical space of the square, documenting and communicating its transformation.

Documenting how the square changes. Participatory activities with local citizens.

“nevicata14 is interactive, and has been so from the very beginning”, explains Yulya. “Besides the online platform for engagement, the temporary square is made of elements that can be used for diverse purposes. At the entrance, multilingual signs explain the usage rules, which have been developed collaboratively during specific workshops. The information banners also help to access other services, such as the municipal wifi, #nevicata14 website and its shared online calendar, where you can book spaces for events. It is a web-platform with a square, and a square with a web-platform”.

Information signs with rules and suggestions.

Information signs with rules and suggestions.

A crucial element that emerged during the workshop was the challenge to make Piazza Castello a place that could support day and night activities, respecting the people that work and live on the square. To do so, a special illumination system was deployed in addition to the general lighting of the square. Two white islands have special structures with punctual light, creating more private illuminated spaces, while 4 others have got smart LED projectors installed by Philips and A2A, allowing users to select different light scenarios from a smartphone app.

A collage by #nevicata14. A space of diversity.

Night atmosphere with led ambiance.

Night ambiance – photo by G. Coppari.

Shading structures in a warm Summer day. Another shading structure. Benches and trees.

As Yulya recollects, the project has also been an experiment in the way public space is funded and managed: “the initial budget of the project was almost doubled by donations of companies involved in the process and interested in supporting it. This lets us talk about a new business model for the square – a public, physical space working as a media platform with curated content and as a public event venue. Among the events and activities that took place here are the Milan Make Musica festival, a White Dinner, the Energizer Night Run, and 100in1Day. In order to sustain those activities a fund, #nevicataLAB, has been opened with Fondazione Italia per il Dono Onlus, with the idea of giving any citizen the opportunity  to contribute through crowdsourcing”.

White dinner in the square. A warm summer night. People refreshing with #nevicata14 misting systems.

“Eventually #nevicata14 is a prototype of micro public policy: conceived  as an experiment, it will provide to the municipal administration a base of tools, data and materials to guide future choices, not just for Piazza Castello, but for the design and management of public space in general”.  Like it or not, #nevicata14 offers us an example of how to experiment with public space making it a place of engagement and discussion, a more-than-physical space.



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  1. Unless otherwise specified, all the photos were taken by #nevicata14 team. 
  2. Thanks to Marco Lampugnani and Yulya Besplemennova for crafting this article.