Stefano Boeri, Architect
As Europeans we inhabit sprawling, highly fragmented cities with an urban fabric that is relentlessly spreading outwards, leaving deserted downtown areas in their wake. Cities in which it is hard to define what is central and what is suburban. Not because downtown areas and suburbs are vanishing, but because demographics and immigration, along with melting-pot urban communities, make it virtually impossible to draw a clearcut distinction between urban centres and urban fringe areas.
If we look at the situation from the social rather than the historical perspective, people are not feeling the greatest pain and suffering in newly constructed, outlying neighbourhoods, although, admittedly, their distance from city centres is sometimes a factor for the property market, and thus can determine house prices.
Throughout Italy there are numerous places where the outskirts are located in the city’s very centre – take the “Spanish" quarter of Naples or the heart of “old Genoa”, for example. Life here is one of desolation, despair and a lack of basic services. Or Via Gola in Milan, near the city’s brilliantly regenerated former docklands (the Darsena), where 80% of council houses are occupied by squatters engaged in the drug trafficking trade. Doesn’t that usually happen in the outskirts?
Situations such as these suggest that European cities are spawning what can be defined as an Anti-city, i.e. something growing alongside and sometimes within the city, yet separate from it. Anti-cities and cities are not opposites, the former is simply another version of the latter. The Anti-city is the most recent development, and it coexists with other traditional ways of creating cities, chipping away at themselves destructively, from the inside out.
The Anti-city has two main features. On the one hand, there is a fragmented social fabric with non-communicating, inward-looking, monocultural urban units with no interest in the functioning of the geographical or anthropological organism to which they belong. On the other, human relations within the community are waning; the bonds that once linked neighbourhoods are loosening, and the sharing of practices, resources and information is disappearing.
This, I believe, is the main problem of cities today: a gradual weakening of urban intensity, exchanges and relationships. The process is leading to social impoverishment, because where there human relationships and sharing dwindle, cities become impoverished.
What is threatening city living these days is not surging in from the geographical outskirts, it is creeping in from places where intensity levels are low. Such places are not amenable to people coming together to meet and share. For me this is the conundrum: our cities are losing their intensity.
Urban policy-making should not aim exclusively at shortening the distance between inner city districts and outer suburbs, or stepping in at the local level to provide public services. The approach needs to be multi-layered, laying the foundations for a rewarding urban life, and building the setting for intense human exchanges and relationships. This means creating meeting places that individual communities can take over and manage themselves, while also accommodating interactions between different communities. A good example is the Italian “piazza”, around which city, town and village life revolves. With their blurred borders and welcoming atmosphere, these open public spaces embody the intensity I am talking about.