Image credit: Florin Cnejevici / Shutterstuck

Stylish, wealthy, Milan has long been a recognized fashion center. But now it’s also become aesthetically pleasing. It’s as if suddenly light and colors have begun to spread throughout a previously monochrome world; more attention has been given to the livability of neighborhoods, instead of being simple spaces to cross to go to work or a club, and then back home.

As a result, Milan has become Instagrammable: see the countless pictures of the southern Navigli’s nightlife, Porta Garibaldi’s skyline, or City Life. For a flat city with no bird’s-eye views or wide-open spaces—devoid as it is of grandeur, and with only a few iconic monuments—it’s one index of a dramatic change.

The process was triggered by Expo 2015, the second time that Italy’s second city had hosted a world fair (the first was in 1906). Organized under the slogan “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,​​” the Expo inspired a sudden spike in construction, which entailed building a lot of new parking lots, legal irregularities, and loads of poorly-paid precarious work. Expo also offered a template that turned out to be endlessly replicable on a smaller scale: Milan now routinely celebrates events and “weeks” of all sorts (digital, wine, jewelry, glass, green, games, et cetera), in addition to the traditional fashion week and design week. A showcase-city, in keeping with the most trivial marketing of Italy: everything is cosmetic, everything immediately enjoyable. La dolce vita.

But what’s behind the showcase? To answer this, we need to take a small detour.

In an essay published in 2005, entitled “Il crollo delle aspettative (“The Collapse of Expectations”), the writer and critic Luca Doninelli argued that Milan in the 1980s had a chance to become the cultural capital of southern Europe. Instead, it mutated into the infamous Milano da bere (literally, “Milan to be drunk”)—the metropolis of the new rampant middle classes that later foundered on the rocks of Tangentopoli, a massive web of corruption first revealed in 1992, which kicked off the transition from the so-called Second Republic, where large traditional parties, overwhelmed by scandals, gave way to new kinds of populist parties (such as that led by Silvio Berlusconi).

Doninelli observed how Milan had been a strangely stingy city, always ready to hide its beauty. It was as if it had embraced an austere economy of the visible whereby “any exteriority, any beauty in the spatial sense of the word, is denied.” 

In short, perhaps apart from its famous cathedral and opera house, Milan lacked splendor: it didn’t naturally seduce a visitor, unlike Rome or Florence. In fact, while not lacking in a certain charm, Milan has always been characterized by fundamental sobriety, which often veered to grayness (particularly during the autumns and winters of yesteryear, full of rain and fog). All this has made it quite different from other, more famous Italian cities: a modern metropolis, sure; but also a place where the quality of life was rather low.

Now, however, things seem to have changed: small yet obtrusive architectural changes (promoting luxury buildings or going straightforwardly vertical) and local economics (Milan has always been a pragmatic, business-oriented place) perfectly overlap. The new style nourishes the selfish soul of this city at the expense of its still-enduring-yet-brittle social traditions, but without lapsing into Milano da bere’s overt vulgarity. The expulsion of the poorest strata by rising rents and real estate prices—which in recent years have been crazily boosted—goes hand in hand with an aesthetic uniformity devoted to minimalism with a few queer touches, lots of white colors, glass, decorum, and brightness.

The first effect is a kind of semiotic trivialization, a flattening of taste. The second, more revolutionary, is the city itself becoming a commodity: and anything outside the brand image must be fought.

The simplest method is to let the cost of living soar. A real estate company can buy a building in the suburbs and can evict elderly people who have lived there for many years. Or a neighborhood bookstore and tavern which was a point of social aggregation makes way for an “affordable luxury” kitchen store. The welcome but tiny local touches of city green or bike lanes don’t really challenge an urban structure made of roads suitable for SUVs. 

Meanwhile, air pollution remains alarming. And the number of homeless people keeps rising. Estimates vary and are not easy to confirm; however, it’s clear that the pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and unemployment (but also wars and the resulting migratory phenomena) have been taking their toll. Despite the support of a few charities, the municipal government is unable to provide sustainable help for all. Since the homeless don’t contribute actively to the economy, they’re left behind in the agenda.

Of course, Milan isn’t the only global city whose poor people are suffering, and its soul getting lost. But because Milan is a quite compact metropolis, the ongoing change is more visible than elsewhere in Western Europe—perhaps even more savage, when we recall that Italian wage growth has been stagnant for 30 years. So it’s a very good place to observe a trend that’s pretty much spanning worldwide.

In an interview given two years ago, writer and architect Gianni Biondillo said: “This city that builds skyscrapers, vertical forests, foundations and cool things, at the same time is also a city that has stopped building houses for the less affluent popular strata, and also from re-evaluating and upgrading the housing stock it already has.” The current housing seems likely to explode, though the boom may hold steady until the 2026 Winter Olympics are over in Italy. Still, I’d rather not see that happen. 

I love Milan. I was born in its suburbs and have been living here for fifteen years; it’s still a very special place, a unique city in Italy. But its ruling class (and its residents) must tackle the problem of architectural and social inequality seriously before this place swallows itself.

Urgent measures could include, for instance, more courage in making the city progressively car-free; boosting the excellent public transport system toward suburban areas and making it more economical; fighting private speculation; avoiding letting public structures remain vacant or uninhabitable; decreasing the never-stopped overbuilding and sprawling; lowering rents, especially for young people; transforming brownfields into green areas; stopping the big-events economic model; and instead enhancing neighborhood economies. 

Milan would be more liveable for all citizens; maybe it would also be a little less rich and less Instagrammable, but that’s a price worth paying.

Giorgio Fontana is an Italian writer and essayist published in OpenDemocracy, Politico, and Neue Zürcher Zeitung.