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.


What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.

This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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