Raise the shutter (RS) is a tender issued by the Municipality of Milan in November 2013, whose results have been published in January 2014. Its aim is to improve the economic performance of peripheral dilapidated areas, located both in the northern and southern neighbourhoods of the city: there, the Regional Public Utility Society for Housing owns quite a number of empty shops and workshops, that were part of public housing projects, but have been closed for a long time. To reuse them, the municipality is providing the selected participants with a subsidized rent (up to 90% less than the market price for the first 5 years); free grant (covering up to 25% of the opening business costs), favourable credit conditions (up to another 25%), and a municipal guarantee fund to access bank loans (for the remaining 50%). All in all, the municipal support sums up to a maximum of € 500,000. This investment can be considered as targeting economic performance, since it supports business opportunity in disadvantaged areas, enriching the social fabric of the area with new, diverse functions and persons.
To achieve this goal, the Municipality had to collaborate and agree a road map with the Regional Public Utility Society, since this is not the standard way public estate is allocated.
The target group is made up by small and micro-enterprises (existing or to be established yet) that are interested in opening offices in the involved areas. Applicant firms (42) were requested to provide a project and a business plan, which was ranked to allow the best projects to access 9 lots (Comune di Milano, 2014b).
Due to the dilapidated conditions of the neighbourhoods and housing projects where the lots are located, RS can be considered as a micro-level regeneration project: economic initiative should be part of the revitalization of the area, increasing the diversity of functions, users and inhabitants.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
In this case, the concept of diversity is quite different from what we have seen in the other nine case studies, and refers to the ‘neighbourhood diversity’ we mentioned in Barberis et al. (2014, 18): here, diversity is seen as positive; to enrich disadvantaged, stigmatized and mono-functional districts, a mix of new inhabitants can improve the economy performance of the area, and the circulation of resources, new ideas, and new activities can revitalize the area, with a positive effect on social cohesion, too.
Diversity is taken into account (a) in the tender, as far as the target businesspeople is considered (young and women applicant received an additional score: a young women could get up to 28% of her final score from these criteria); (b) in the selection, that resulted in a mix of traditional and innovative firms active in quite different sectors (from greengrocers to video production, from vintage car restoration to ‘green’ businesses dedicated to gardening and ‘no-oil’ mobility).
In this respect, the underlying idea seems quite based on (commercial) diversity as an engine for new and plural lifestyles, that may positively affect the social and economic life of peripheral housing projects.
At the same time, this ‘positive’ diversity goes hand in hand with a ‘problematic’ one, i.e. the actual condition of disadvantage of target neighbourhoods, inhabited by families at risk (materially deprived, elderly, immigrants). Though, this diversity does not come out in the public discourse supporting the project, and it is an unsaid background to municipal action.
Main factors influencing success or failure
Given the early stage of the project, this dimension is hard to assess. It may have a positive impact on the (self-)perception of the neighbourhood as a place of opportunity. The measure grants also a mid-term sustainability (subsidies last for some 5-6 years), which could be enough to allow firms to become profitable: this came with a relatively low investment by the municipality. € 500,000 means some € 10,000 per year per business, more as loss of earnings than as a direct cash investment, money that can return as taxes if the firms are profitable.
The factors behind this potential success are an effective partnership between public actors that grounded a flexible and purposeful use of public estate that was left somehow abandoned for a long time, and an interpretation of diversity as enriching also in ‘weak’ neighbourhoods.
As for the factors that may influence the failure, on the one hand there’s the poor connection with the otherwise diverse inhabitants of the involved areas, and the fact that interviews and press releases on this project never mention its contextualization in larger renewal projects. Actually, the three areas where the shops are located are undergoing other social investments (e.g. social housing and/or community animation – even, the community centre set by the above mentioned initiative ‘About Niguarda’ is literally surrounded by one of the lots of the RS call), but an explicit coordination cannot be found. The Municipal Department for Housing is promoter, sponsor or supporter of most of them, but the other actors involved (NGOs, firms, inhabitants) do not seem to be involved in a larger strategy. So, as a negative factor we may consider the risk of uncoordinated actions that may lead to unexpected outcomes if different approaches to diversity frame different actions.
RS is an example of initiative aiming to foster economic performance of the city through the regeneration of underused public estate in peripheral areas. Its main innovation is in the allocation criteria defined in the call. At the same time, even the attention on economic performance of dilapidated housing projects is quite a new focus for Milan, and may show a change in the type of public aid (from passive to activating and empowering). Though, this general goal could be undermined by a limited coordination with other actions ongoing in the same neighbourhoods.
Website: Tira su la Cler