Within this space, researchers tell their story in the first person. Imagine it as a great research diary to which everyone adds their experience – be it a story or just a page. After Paolo Schito, today it is the turn of Gabriele Pasqui, Professor of Urban Policies at the Politecnico di Milano
The Politecnico di Milano is a major technical university, one of the highest rated in Europe and beyond. Everyone knows that at the Politecnico we train engineers, architects and designers. And that we produce international patents and publications, and partner with many large and small companies. Perhaps not everyone is aware that the Politecnico di Milano is an important interlocutor for the Public Administration and public policies.
In my department, Architecture and Urban Studies, an important part of the research is carried out in the context of public policies and actions, through partnerships, agreements and consultancy that operationally support the initiative of the State, as well as Regions and local Bodies, and many other Public Administration agencies.
I would like to tell a story, one among many, of the way in which the DAStU carries out research through operational partnerships with the Public Administration. It is a story in the making, and that seems to me to exemplify a way of understanding research also as a form of civil commitment and social responsibility.
I teach Urban Policies at the School of Architecture, Urban Planning and Construction Engineering, and for many years I have been studying the suburbs, the way in which social inequalities are structured within urban spaces and the possibilities of material and immaterial intervention in these challenging loci. I studied the topic (if you are interested, you can watch my TEDxPolitecnico di Milano talk at the link below), and when I was the Head of my Department and the Social Policies Rector’s Delegate, I supported initiatives of direct commitment and of research-action in the suburbs of Milan and beyond.
The suburbs issue cannot be confined to segregated research fields. To tackle the problems of the suburbs, you need the knowledge of an architect and an urban planner, as well as a sociologist and an anthropologist. It takes resources, players and integrated tools. But above all, it takes research conducted with an awareness that expert knowledge is not enough; it takes an understanding of how to activate the resources of citizens, put widespread intelligence to work, and build places and opportunities for activation and participation.
The challenge of degraded suburbs is particularly complex, and our knowledge is put to the test to produce a corpus that is actually usable. And the pandemic has further exacerbated these problems, especially for certain categories of residents: girls and boys who faced challenges with on-line schooling, the most fragile families at risk of poverty, and the elderly.
An ongoing partnership with the Lombardy Regional Government was born of this complex scenario, and I would like to briefly share it with you. During the long weeks of the first, terrible lockdown, Francesco Brignone, a talented regional official who deals with community planning, and who, several years ago, graduated in Urban Planning at the Politecnico di Milano, exchanged with me, remotely, ideas and proposals to define the contents of the Regional Operational Programme for the 2021-2027 planning cycle, in particular as pertains to urban issues.
We shared in the idea that it was useful to steer the most important municipalities in Lombardy to identify critical areas in their territory and to consider an integrated and multi-sector sustainable development strategy centred on addressing inequalities and social fragility exacerbated by the pandemic.
We also discussed launching a survey to solicit the expression of interest of all the provincial municipalities or those with a population exceeding 50,000 (in Lombardy, there are 19 of them), in which local administrations were invited to propose a preliminary threefold strategy: standard of living, schools, and social and health services.
The purpose of the expression of interest was to select the most interesting preliminary strategies, awarding each municipality a maximum of EUR 15 million (up to a total of approximately EUR 150/180 million).
It is within this context that a possible partnership between the Lombardy Regional Government and the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies materialised; indeed, an agreement was eventually signed in November 2020, with validity until the end of 2021. In this agreement, I was joined by a young and talented research fellow: Alice Buoli.
Our role consisted in guiding the Coordination Unit of the Regional Community Planning Office, and, in particular, of the working group coordinated by Federica Marzuoli, in drafting the text of the expression of interest, and in working side by side with the Region in its interactions with the Municipalities during the preparation of the proposals. After the Regional Evaluation Unit ranked the proposals, we supported the development of the strategies through meetings with all the Municipalities to be financed.
What kind of research would this be, you might ask? Basically, we supported the drafting of public documents, organised presentations to the Municipalities of the philosophy and objectives of the expression of interest, drew up an Italian and European best practices document that served as a source of possible inspiration for the Municipalities, and met countless times with managers and officials.
Well, my idea is that this activity, carried out in support of public action, is a very interesting variation of the use of our skills in a real context. The feeling is that we have done something really useful for administrations and citizens, placing the authority and expertise of the Politecnico di Milano at the service of public policies.
And there is more. While working on this endeavour, we (I) learned a lot. Often our reflections are decoupled from real processes. In this case, we were able to measure ourselves with the daily routine of administrative action, but also with the possibility of building an experimental programme of some interest, capable of giving greater accuracy and concreteness to the preparation of seemingly boring planning documents.
At the same time, at least we hope, we leveraged huge resources by practicing an approach that is sensitive to the characteristics and territorial uniqueness of our cities. In doing so, we challenged the administrations (including the Region) to think and work “out-of-the-box”. We shed light on the need to support intangible actions to fight poverty and inequality on a platform of places and significant physical opportunities.
In my opinion, this too is research, although it is not easy to bring it back into the standard (and sometimes limited) channels of accreditation and publication. It is a research that deals with relevant social issues, helps to innovate financially significant processes, and attempts to introduce elements of innovation in public action and in programming and planning processes.
Like never before, in the difficult future that the pandemic has shaped for us, it seems to me that we can say that we are in need of this new way of conceiving socially-meaningful research.