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Smart and historical City

In these last years, many architectural theories and urbanistic studies focused on the concept of “Smart city”. But before analyzing that and its historical and contextual declinations, I think that it’s important to understand the needs that brought to the definition of this planning strategy.
We live in an age profoundly marked by social, environmental and economical crises; for many years we have based the development of our society on unsustainable models, and the result is clear when you look at the disorganization of many urban realities and at the spreading of neighborhoods where the quality of life is simply unacceptable. The attempt to improve and to rectify situations like these, ensuring at the same time a consistent and sustainable development, made it necessary to define a new model of development, adaptable according to each context in which can be inserted, and that takes into consideration not only the physical city but also the social capital contained in it.


The term “Smart city” was born in the USA to define a new model of adaptable development, that could be applied to ideal cities, which were meant to distinguish themselves from the real ones thanks to a high level of automation, based on the exchange of informations and on the utilization of new technologies.
The european definition, introduced in 2010, adds to this concept the idea of inclusiveness, where the utilization of technology is deeply connected to the social capital, which has to be intended as the definition of it given by Pierre Bourdieau: «the sum of material resources or less, which each individual or social group obtains thanks to its participation to a network of interpersonal relationships.»1
Basically, this new enunciation would make urban planning a theme open to all citizens or, to be more clear, to all the city’s “users”, ensuring a high level of participation and inclusivity that aims to improve the quality of life by integrating environment, technologies and people.
The Smart city would become an interconnected city through the utilization of new information technologies: mobility and energetic efficiency are central themes in this kind of planning.
Starting from this definition it would be interesting to analyze concretely just how these new paradigms, that can be well applied to urban and modern contexts, may be compatible with historical cities. Is it possible to preserve cultural heritage and, at the same time, make a city “smart”?

When it comes to working in contexts with a high historical value, it’s not easy to follow the guidelines suggested by smart development, mainly because it’s always hard to find a balance between historical and contemporary, especially if our objective is to safeguard cultural heritage. Historical cities, full of charm and art, are a good way to attract tourists, but sometimes they are not performing in terms of public transport and energetic efficiency. When you intervene in places like these, even before your final goal, which is the creation of intelligent and eco-sustainable cities, it is necessary to operate with the lightness of a feather and the precision of a surgeon, in order to implement and improve, avoiding brutal alterations.
In this period we see a general tendency to city’s verticalization, which consists of the insertion of high-performing skyscrapers in the urban fabric: this seems to be the only solution proposed by visionary projects and biomimetic architectures, that successfully adapt themselves only to bare environments.
Is verticalization the only solution for historical cities too?!

Using innovation as an alibi, recently are being proposed only questionable projects, which tend to forcefully insert themselves in the urban context, twisting its nature instead of enriching it.
Are historical cities destined to become a part of projects like Acqualta 2060, presented during the Biennale di Venezia of 2010 in order to “save” Venice from the raising of the sea’s level, or like Paris 2050 (Vincent Callebaut Architects), which is meant to make the european capital“smart”?
A wall of skyscrapers would surround the lagoon, confining it in a modern and performing prison, reducing it to a “Little Italy” that can be seen only from above.
Biomimetic architectures would invade the Parisian rues, taking control of the city, which would be forced to kneel before these new giants.
Are these really the only proposals to save historical cities?

The ninth article of the Italian Constitution states: «The Republic promotes cultural development, as well as scientific and technical research. It safeguards the landscape and the nation’s historical and artistical heritage.»2.

The abovementioned projects are obviously not cultural promoters.
It is unquestionable that cities need to evolve and to adapt to contemporary reality, because this is necessary for them to survive, otherwise they will become mere touristic attractions for the middle-class. The city needs to keep on living and evolving at its own pace, without being forced by external forces, according to its origins, to its citizens, to its economy… only this can ensure their preservation. The historical heritage’s safeguard it’s tightly linked to its adaptation to contemporary life models; however, this doesn’t give us the right to destroy its internal balance. Quoting Renzo Piano: «It won’t be the skyscrapers to heal the suburbs». Maybe these skyscrapers won’t even save the old towns. The key to salvation is creating a place where the city and its inhabitants can communicate with each other.
This concept, deeply bound to the definition of Smart city, it’s clearly conciliatory and positive for historical realities.
The topic of people’s participation, of urban codes’ rewriting, the relational and the managerial element, all these things can easily co-exist with a historical context.
This idea of active cooperation becomes a problem only when people leave the city.
Maybe provocative, but still dramatic, it’s the recent Venice’s case, a concrete and physical city which is depopulating, leaving space for tourism. It’s not a dystopia written by professors, but a reality that has always functioned with its canals, its markets, its museums, its universities… now it’s besieged, sold, commodified only to produce something in terms of budget, at the expense of values and people.

Citizens are the city’s soul, they define the relations and the essence of a place, the invisible element that’s part of the city, just like the soul it’s part of the body.
I think this is a Smart consideration: like any other operation, it requires moderation and sensibility. I believe that preserving these places’ forma urbis it’s an honor and a duty, and we can do that only by connecting the city’s DNA to the project, which has to adapt to each context.

Translated into English by Matteo Annecchiarico.

¹ Salvatore Settis, Se Venezia muore, Torino, Einaudi, 2014, pp. 107.
² Costituzione della Repubblica Italiana, Principi Fondamentali, Art. 9, 1948.

– Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili, Giuliano Einaudi Editore, Milano, 1972
– Gambino R., Il paesaggio tra conservazione e innovazione, in Linee nel Paesaggio Esplorazioni nei territori e della trasformazione, Utet, Torino, 1999.
– Holly Giermann,, last modified 8/01/2015, date of consultation 5/09/2019.

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Architect graduated from the Polytechnic of Milan in 2017 with a thesis on the redevelopment of the military batteries of the Island of Spargi; after a short experience in Dublin, she began a collaboration with a Milanese architecture studio, in 2018 she obtained the qualification for the profession. She currently collaborates on international architecture, interior design and exhibition projects. Her idea of architecture is based on an inseparable dialogue with the existing in a perspective of active redevelopment of places, where art remains a starting point and a design reference. Passionate about art and photography.
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