London’s North Circular and Milan’s equivalent Tangenziale reveal a lot about how the two cities function – and Milan’s messy local logic has much to teach us
I have found myself travelling a lot recently between London and Milan, with the inevitable late-night or early-morning schlep around the north-eastern quadrant of the north circular to home and a similar journey around Milan’s Tangenziale; arrival and departure always soundtracked by taxi-drivers’ fondness for easy-listening. Who doesn’t love staring out of the window?
It got me thinking about what’s the same and what’s different about the two routes. Both function in the same way: an orbital route connecting a series of lateral routes to and from the centre, facilitating avoidance and tangential movement. And both cut through the haphazard edges of the city – scrub, suburb, backlands and industrial districts loosely strung together in an often messy agglomeration.
Milan may look chaotic from the Tangenziale but seems to me to provide an easier context for a local life, with everything jumbled up but close to hand
But they are both very different and tell us something of the cities they are encircling – how they work and what they prioritise. London’s edges are more orderly, with sharper boundaries between uses, and are dominated by swathes of suburb, dotted liberally with logistics centres and fast-food outlets. They are overtly influenced by patterns of movement – whether from home to work or the delivery of goods and services – but all within a landscape pattern of hedgerows, evident now in hawthorn’s acid-green spring leaves. The north circular has blurry edges, with a stand-off distance between road and gardens.
Milan is different: it is far messier, with a jumble of cheek-by-jowl industry and housing, a mix of sparkling new against decaying fragments. From the Tangenziale you feel very aware that Milan is a city of work, of making stuff – ceramics, food, engineering, obscure components, all in dusty sheds either standing alone in residential neighbourhoods or crushed together right up against the highway barrier. There’s also more tolerance of scale dissonance: smaller homes set against massive apartment blocks, with manufacturing sheds mixed in. Milan is intense right up to its edges: more urban, less suburban.
London looks more orderly but seems to be hard-wired to make local life more difficult and dependent on moving longer distances to get access to what you need
People in Milan still focus on familial connectivity and you can see this in the mix of uses around its periphery. Living above or near the shop remains an Italian characteristic – there’s a need to feel connected to your locality, both home and business. A city of small family businesses creates its own pattern. In London the world of work and social connection is the opposite: its local centres may seem to have the character of places occupied by connected people but they are in effect suburbs – dormitories where those who stay behind during the day are hard-pressed to make it work as well as it should.
This applies to Hampstead as much as to Stratford. The service economy has its own influence on our city – people need to gather to create and enact their business. Being as close to the heart of things is important in a city of services rather than manufacture – anything not needing regular face-to-face engagement may as well be elsewhere altogether. Centralising creates its own logic.
Milan may look chaotic from the Tangenziale but seems to me to provide an easier context for a local life, with everything jumbled up but close to hand. London looks more orderly but seems to be hard-wired to make local life more difficult and dependent on moving longer distances to get access to what you need.
You might think Milan would be the city to suffer longer journeys, given its almost perfectly radial arrangement. But it benefits from not only the Tangenziale at its furthest edge but also a number of orbital routes built in roughly concentric circles as the city expanded outwards from its mediaeval core, creating opportunities for tangential as well as radial movement – and so for more robust and flexible neighbourhoods where local services and activities are easier to sustain. Instead it is London that suffers from a relentless edge-to-centre dynamic, with suburbs turned like sunflowers to the sun, oriented towards the core and disconnected at the edges.
We know that we need to adjust patterns of movement to create a more resilient city, not just to make it more sustainable but also to respond to changing patterns of work and life, with more working at home or in shared spaces – or wherever a good wifi connection can be found. We need to change the old certainties and create a more resilient and flexible future. Equally, more equitable access to social infrastructure and local connections needs to be built in.
In London we could learn a lot from Milan, whose rules about who does what where are scaled to the locality and to people’s needs. Perhaps we should tolerate a bit more messiness – an acceptance of the incremental and incidental and how mixed-use neighbourhoods are most likely to be created by many people making local decisions, as they do in Milan. We’ve instrumentalised it too much; made sweeping policy gestures that leave little room for nuance in the locality. All this is exacerbated by the imbalance in land-use values that creates its own incentives to keep on rolling out dormitory areas of soulless super-suburbs in the form of tall buildings where people sleep and that’s it – sleepy suburbs only envisioned as part of a megacity.
Milan impresses with its vitality and sense of local and city: it seems to me to be not just liveable, but lovable through its messy local logic.
Selina Mason is director of masterplanning at Lendlease