Designing the City of Design

Milan, Italy’s wealthiest and second largest city, has earned its title as a global city in the international economic network, acting as the capital of fashion and design with an abundance of historical and cultural landmarks. Like any other alpha city, dynamism and development are necessary to maintain its prestige. 

The City of Milan is politically divided into 9 Municipalities, starting from the city center and expanding outwards. According to Dr. Erin Fouberg, the city is divided into geometric boundaries, which are distinguished by 3 characteristics

  1. Relatively circular shape
  2. Circular inner borough
  3. The rest of the boroughs stretch out from the inner one, with a relatively similar shape

Zone 1 is the smallest yet most important, as it’s the home to the most iconic and monumental buildings and neighborhoods. Zones 2-9 surround Zone 1, in a clockwise rotation making up the larger metropolitan area of Milan

  1. Zone 1: Centro Storico

Piazza del Duomo, Via Montenapoleone, Sempione Park, Pinacoteca di Brera etc.

  1. Zone 2: Central Station, Corso Buenos Aires
  2. Zone 3: Studies’ City, Porta Venezia, Lambrate
  3. Zone 4: Porta Vittoria
  4. Zone 5: Porta Ticinese, Chiaravalle
  5. Zone 6: Barona, Porta Genova, Lorenteggio
  6. Zone 7: Baggio, De Angeli, San Siro
  7. Zone 8: Fiera, Gallaratese, Quarto Oggiaro, Chinatown
  8. Zone 9: Porta Garibaldi, Niguarda

Unofficially, we could look at the 12 zones described in this article.


Milan is a very walkable city, due to an abundance of factors. Milan, though a metropolitan city, is not that large in size. The well-developed public transport system–with 5 metro lines, trams, and autobuses– is arguably the most efficient and well-connected transport system in Italy as a whole and allows easy access to most parts of the city.

The buildings of Milan, apart from being a mix of various materials and colors, also have a varied or staggered orientation, aimed at creating elements of surprise. Megha Sudobh writes, “As a person walks through a supposedly linear street, he comes to realize only once he/she reaches closer that one of the facades is that of a building that has been oriented differently, with streets on both sides, breaking the linearity.“ An example of this element of surprise is displayed down below: walking down the street the pedestrian notices a red building, in contrast to the neutral color pattern of the rest of the buildings.

The usage of arches and open portals evokes the curiosity of the pedestrian. The framing of and hinting at monuments, new and old buildings, and open piazzas to then be revealed as one walks close by creates an element of surprise. A notable example of this is Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and the 4 arches acting as the entrances.


The “15-Minute City” is an urban theory developed by Carlos Moreno that allows for localized living and the creation of micro-centers. It is defined as “an ideal geography where most human needs and many desires are located within a travel distance of 15 minutes”. This model and theory aims to achieve a human-centric environment and increase environmental sustainability in dysfunctional urban environments through decentralization and self-sufficiency. The four guiding principles of this theory are:

  1. Ecology – green and sustainable city
  2. Proximity – live with reduced distances to other activities
  3. Solidarity – create links between people
  4. Participation – engage citizens in the transformation of their neighborhoods

In the case of Milan, this concept became more popular during the pandemic with the adoption of the Strade Aperte project, which commenced in 2020. This rather ambitious plan includes widening pavements and expanding cycling lanes along 35 km of car-centered roads. This results in the prioritization of pedestrians and cyclists over cars, in an attempt to also tackle air pollution in the city on top of acting as a Covid measure. Some of the most defining characteristics–which were urgently taken as a result of the Covid pandemic–were implementing low-cost temporary cycle lanes on road edges to discourage the use of both private cars and public transport, as well as 30 km/h speed limits and pedestrian and cyclist priority areas.

The pop-up bike lanes act as a short-term intervention for long-term change, a process called ‘tactical urbanism’. Oftentimes, such interventions involved in tactical urbanism are subject to less bureaucratic intervention that aim to increase the quality of urban living conditions. A benefit of tactical urbanism lies in acting as a trial of longer-term plans before spending the time, money, and other resources on more drastic and permanent structural arrangements.

In the past two decades it has undergone a major urban transformation, including two urban regeneration projects:

  1. Porta Nuova 
  2. City Life


This project was a city plan (2004) aiming at transforming an abandoned, historic industrial park into a business-residential district, whilst implementing green solutions. This city plan is an investment of over €2 Billion. It follows the criteria listed:

  1. Sustainability and resilience
  2. Connectivity and Accessibility
  3. Urban Quality

Arguably, the highlight of this urban regeneration project is the Bosco Verticale Project.

Bosco Verticale is two innovative and sustainable residential buildings in the Garibaldi Reppublica area in Milan, designed by the Boeri Studio. The green infrastructure project, which was completed in 2014, attempts to promote sustainability and achieve environmental targets by saving land and creating a biological habitat. The two tall residential buildings, which act as the first vertical forest in the world, aim to achieve vertical urban densification, whilst simultaneously increasing biodiversity in order to tackle pollution in the city of Milan. Milan is very susceptible to smog and experiences high levels of air pollution, due to the fact that it is surrounded by mountains leading to air getting stuck in the middle of the valley creating a smog bubble.

The Bosco Verticale has many benefits to offer. Firstly, it favors the formation of an urban ecosystem in an attempt to encourage plant recolonization. It acts as an environmental corridor, strengthening the greenery of the city and encouraging the formation of a sustainable urban network. Moreover, building a microclimate and increasing biodiversity helps to tackle numerous kinds of pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, in turn minimizing heat-island impacts. Thirdly, it can be used as an anti-sprawl instrument in an attempt to control urban expansion through intensification effects attributed to its 80m height.

“A symbol uniting biophilia and urbanism as a matter of fact” – Carella

The success of this urban regeneration project is supported by statistical data and has managed to obtain globally renowned certifications. For example, it has obtained the LEED for Cities and Communities, a certification looking at 5 areas (sustainable cities, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality) which encourages responsible, sustainable, and specific plans for natural systems and other factors that contribute to social welfare and quality of life. It has also received an award for the Best Urban Regeneration Project at MIPIM 2018. Looking at the statistics of this project, every euro invested generated 2.7 euros in additional value. It also generated over 4500 employment opportunities in the quaternary sector, increasing social welfare.


Built between 2010 and 2015, this project was designed to achieve a balance between public and private functions including residences, offices, shopping, green and public areas, and others.

According to the biggest 3 architects involved in this urban project:

“Milan is the city that best represents the international face of Italy, comparable to London, Frankfurt, and Paris. In this sense, for us, designing in Milan brings us into contact with the most modern face of Italy”

Zaha Hadid, Arata Isozaki, Daniel Libeskind

The 3 architects designed the 3 famous Citylife Towers – the Allianz Tower, the Libeskind Tower, and the Generali Tower – which are among the tallest buildings in Milan and Italy as a whole, acting as important architectural landmarks. In the middle of the towers is located a fairly large shopping area in the Tre Torri Piazza, accessible by the M5 metro line.

Citylife is a good example of smart mobility and is the largest car-free area in Milan, due to the innovative underground road, parking, and underground system in addition to the cycling and pedestrian paths.

Environmentally, Citylife attempts to tackle climate change in various ways. One of them is to reduce the heat island effect (when urbanized areas experience higher temperatures than outlying areas), mitigating heat wave impact through the use of greenery, shading, light surfaces, and water features. For example, the natural color of the stones provides an appropriate Solar Reflectance Index to tackle the urban heat island. Additionally, the control of the outflow of rainwater peaks and reduction of waste rainwater disposal to the sewerage allows the reuse of water coming from house services.

The city will continue transforming in the years to come with more infrastructural projects. Environmentally, Milan still has a long way to go to deal with the high levels of pollution and smog, but such drastic, and also variable, measures and models applied are directing the city towards the right path. 


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