To build the cities of tomorrow we must listen to citizens

The Piazza Duomo, Milan. Image: Getty.

When you walk into Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral), you cannot help but look up. You realise Milan is a city that has never been afraid to think big.

Duomo di Milano is the biggest church in Italy – the larger St Peter’s Basilica is in the State of Vatican City – and the third largest in the world. It took nearly six centuries to complete: We are a city that plans well into the future.

Sharing Cities is a European programme which is also not afraid to plan for the future and think big. Working with cities across the continent we are helping to realise the transformative potential of new smart technologies. We are looking at how innovators, investors and citizens can be brought together to design the cities of the future. Cities that we can all enjoy: that make better use of public spaces, that have cleaner air and shorter commuting times from homes to offices. Cities that are designed around the way we want to live rather than forcing us to live around them.

In 1386, when Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo began construction of Duomo di Milano, thinking big meant building big: creating a monument that future generations would be in awe of. He achieved his aim.

Today, in the Sharing Cities ‘lighthouse’ cities of London, Lisbon and here in Milan we do not have a blank canvas to project our grand vision onto. But we don’t want that anyway. We are proud of our cities and history built up over centuries. The days of the Roman and British Empire are behind us. It is no longer enough for distant elites to make decisions and then foist them onto a grateful citizenship. For change to work it has to come with agreement: it is about engaging citizens, listening to their ideas and working with them.

Today, thinking big is about thinking small. It is about creating small changes at a local level and then scaling up. It is about testing and replicating what works and rejecting what does not. It is about listening as much as talking. It is about enabling solutions rather than offering them.  

In Milan over the last year we have engaged with thousands of people from 250 local organisations Through engagement, people have taken a keener interest in how their city works. Where once local government was seen as something only retired people got involved with today I see young people wanting to know how they can transform Milan. Where once they were passive now they are engaged. They care if there is rubbish on the street. They want to know we can reduce pollution levels. They feel important when they are listened to and they take better care of the city because they feel their views are being heard.

The feedback we have got from these meetings has guided us in how the citizens of Milan want their food delivered, how transport needs will be met and waste collected in the future.

But it is also about sharing. By meeting citizens, we were able to talk about the risks and rewards of retrofitting old buildings to make them warmer in winter and cooler in summer. In some cases energy bills are reduced by 60 per cent as a result – in extreme cases it can be as high as 80 per cent. These buildings are like Swiss cheese. People are literally paying to heat the outside. But we were only offering 20 per cent of the cost of this retrofit, so residents had to work together to decide if the higher short-term cost to them would be worth the larger long-term gain.

The fact that we had residential blocks competing for this money tells us that we have been communicating what we are doing right. So far in in the time frame of Sharing Cities we will retrofit 25,000m2of homes, improving the lives of 7,000 to 8,000 residents. 

Through efficiencies of scale we can get this to 140,000 – 10 per cent of the population of Milan. Across Europe, cities from London to Lisbon and Bordeaux are asking us how we did it. We are sharing with them and they are sharing with us.

The changes we are making may seem subtler than the Duomo di Milano – but they will touch the lives of no fewer people. And for that, we must celebrate Milan’s historic willingness to plan for the future.

Piero Pelizzaro is Sharing Cities’ lead for Milan.


Which British cities have the bestest ultrafast broadband?

Oooh, fibre. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Between the dark web, Breitbard News and Donald Trump's Twitter feed, it's abundantly clear that terrible things often happen on the internet. But good things happen here, too - like funny videos and kitten pictures and, though we say so ourselves, CityMetric. 

Anyway. The government clearly believes the internet is on balance a good thing, so it's investing more in improving Britain's broadband coverage. But which cities need the most work?

Luckily, those ultrafast cats at the Centre for Cities are on hand with a map of Britain's ultrafast broadband coverage, as it stood at the end of 2016. It shows the percentage of premises which have access to download speeds of 100Mbps or more. Dark green means loas, pale yellow means hardly any. Here's the map:

Some observations...

This doesn't quite fit the pattern we normally get with these exercises in which the south of England and a few other rich cities (Edinburgh, Aberdeen, York) look a lot healthier than the cities of the Midlands, South Wales and the North.

There are elements of that, sure: there are definitely more southern cities with good coverage, and more northern onse without it. But there are notable exceptions to the pattern, too. Those cities with very good coverage include Middlesbrough (88.0 per cent) and Dundee (89.4 per cent), not normally to be found near the top of anyone's rankings. 

Meanwhile, Milton Keynes - a positive boom town, on most measures - lingers right near the bottom of the chart, with just 12.9 per cent coverage. The only city with worse coverage is another city that normally ranks as rich and succesful: the Socttish oil capital Aberdeen, where coverage is just 0.13 per cent, a figure so low it rings alarm bells about the data. 

Here's a (slightly cramped) chart of the same data. 

Click to expand.

If you can spot a patten, you're a better nerd than I.

One thought I had was that perhaps there might be some correlation with population: perhaps bigger cities, being bigger markets, find it easier to get the requisite infrastructure built.

I removed London, Manchester and Birmingham from the data, purely because those three - especially the capital - are so much bgiger than the other cities that they make the graph almost unreadable. That don't, here's the result.

So, there goes that theory.

In all honesty, I'm not sure what could explain this disparity: why Sheffield and Southand should have half the broadband coverage of Middlesbrough or Brighton. But I suspect it's a tempory measure. 

All this talk of ultranfast broadband (100Mbps+), after all, superseded that of mere superfast broadband (just 24Mbps+). The figures in this dataset are 10 months old. It's possible that many of the left behind cities have caught up by now. But it's almost certain we'll be hearing about the need for, say, Hyperfast broadband before next year is out.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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