Lessons from Milan’s emerging metropolitan debate

Last year, officials elected in six of Italy’s largest cities automatically became ‘metro mayors’ for their surrounding region. But are local primary polls and governance reforms enough for political innovation?
Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala speaks during a rally in January. In June 2016, Sala became the first official to lead the metropolitan area of Milan. (Marco Aprile/Shutterstock)

As cities and regions of Europe have gained importance in terms of social and economic regulation, many have wondered whether local elections will assume new political significance as occasions for debate over local urban development.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of a unique round of local elections in Italy: Last June for the first time, mayors elected in 6 of the country’s largest cities automatically became “metropolitan mayors” of their surrounding regions. Those polls followed 2014 reforms introducing metropolitan institutions into these areas. (The reforms actually affected 14 areas; the remaining eight cities will hold metro elections before 2020.) These mayors now are tasked with leading the new institutions — and with responding to the evolving public debate and political dynamics of these regions.

In the run-up to the elections, Milan received particular attention. The capital of the Lombardy region, the city received accolades for what was widely seen as its successful hosting of the 2015 Universal Exposition and for a perception of honesty on the part of its local government. Journalists and politicians were going so far as to refer to a “Milan model”.

[See: Why the world needs a Metropolitan Compact]

In the aftermath of that process, then, it’s time to ask: Does the “Milan model” appear to include metropolitan innovation, offering politically viable solutions to the much-debated challenges of metropolitan governance? The new metropolitan Milan area, after all, is enormous: Nearly 3,000 sq km, it’s home to more than 5.2 million people.

Some key observations can be gleaned from last year’s primary elections for the political centre-left. That process, which unfolded between January and March 2016, offered a unique opportunity to present competing ideas on the thorny challenge of metropolitan government. Milan’s experience could offer important lessons not only for the rest of Italy’s major urban centres, which continue to wrestle with these issues, but also for other cities contemplating the benefits and complexities of metropolitan governance.

Muddled debate

In Milan, complex political dynamics were set in motion by the 2015 decision of Mayor Giuliano Pisapia not to run for a second mandate. Pisapia was a popular leftist mayor who had been elected in 2011 after 18 years of right-wing local governments. Given the political importance of the Milan mayor’s office, his sudden decision forced then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leader of the progressive party Partito Democratico, to recalculate his own national strategy.

The result was a decision to select the centre-left mayoral candidate through primary elections, as Pisapia had been in 2010. Through that process, three key candidates emerged: Pisapia’s vice-mayor, Francesca Balzani; the former chief executive of the 2015 Milan Universal Exposition, Giuseppe Sala; and the municipal deputy in charge of welfare, Pierfrancesco Majorino.

[See: ‘Metropolitan cities’ are born in Italy]

From the start, each of these candidates framed Milan’s “metropolitan question” differently. One variable emerged in how the candidates emphasized the new metro area’s size versus its wealth. Sala focused on the metropolitan city of Milan as “the largest in Italy”, while Majorino reminded voters that the metro area was “the fourth-wealthiest in Europe”.

Sala, who eventually won the final election, emerged as the candidate who seemed the most aware of Milan’s actual “metropolitan dimension”. For instance, he repeatedly referred to the urban continuum that links the core city with neighbouring municipalities. In many regards, however, it soon became clear that none of the candidates had a firm grasp on the intricacies of metropolitan governance. Indeed, the same can be said of much of the electorate.

Milan was one of six Italian cities to usher in a new metropolitan era in elections last year. Eight others will follow by 2020. (Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock)

A notable example came with the release by local progressive elites of a “metropolitan manifesto”, endorsed by several public personalities. This document focused on potential improvements in terms of competitiveness and quality of life that could result from an integrated and autonomous governance system for the metro area. Over these details there was no disagreement: Each of the three main candidates explicitly embraced the views expressed in the manifesto.

[See: As Expo 2015 nears, Milan embraces the sharing economy]

In fact, much of the manifesto relied on a misunderstanding over how metropolitan governance was already being practiced in Milan — practices that were not reformed by the new set-up. For instance, the metropolitan city of Milan is not in charge of European structural funds meant for metropolitan areas — the core city is. And there is still no universal direct election of the metropolitan mayor, as this requires an act by Parliament; instead, the metro mayor continues to be elected only by the citizens of the core city.

Despite such misunderstandings, some important issues regarding the impacts of metropolitanization were debated during the campaigns. One central subject that emerged was over the degree of fiscal autonomy that would be accorded to the core city versus the metropolitan city. Balzani claimed that it would be possible for local governments to halt the transfer of local taxes to the state, for instance. Sala countered that Milan deserved privileged fiscal treatment by the state, by virtue of the “special projects” that could be realized there.

This debate was not the simple result of political posturing: These approaches would lead to importantly different results for Italy overall. Balzani’s proposal would allow greater fiscal autonomy for any Italian city or metropolitan city, while Sala’s suggestion would reinforce Milan’s dominant role for public and private investments in Italy.

[See: In a fractured metro area, New York’s Regional Plan Association finds common ground]

The reorganization of public transport also received attention. Balzani proposed testing a new fare policy aimed at making bus and tramlines free for users, for instance. Sala responded that this would be unfair for residents of metropolitan municipalities.

Unanswered questions

The debate also touched on the metropolitan city’s role in implementing labour policies. In fact, this is one of the only areas in which the metropolitan city currently plays a major role — although it is uncertain whether this will remain the case. As it happened, the issue emerged only marginally in the campaign and was not developed.

“One variable emerged in how the candidates emphasized the new metro area’s size versus its wealth. Sala focused on the metropolitan city of Milan as ‘the largest in Italy’, while Majorino reminded voters that the metro area was ‘the fourth-wealthiest in Europe’.”

One issue that did not emerge at all during the campaign was the integrated management of parks and natural areas in the metropolitan territory. This is odd, given that this is the other field in which the metropolitan city currently plays a relevant role, through the direct management of a vast agricultural green belt on the southern edge of Milan.

This too remains up in the air, as the Lombardy region is currently reorganizing how parks and natural areas are managed. But the redistribution of responsibilities could be an opportunity for the metropolitan city to affirm its capacity of action vis-à-vis the region and state — although, again, the candidates did not take stances on this aspect of the issue.

[See: Six regions in England to vote for ‘metro mayors’]

The introduction of metropolitan cities in Italy injected into the public debate a new territorial frame of reference — one that impacts on the daily activities of households and offices. An immediately visible way in which the governance of metropolitan dynamics determines local well-being in Milan is the existence of the “urban fare limit”: When someone wants to take public transport from the outskirts to Milan, they will have to pay a different price from someone within the municipality. Naturally, this issue has tended to grab the public’s attention.

Metropolitan Milan covers nearly 3,000 sq km.

Economic development likewise received significant focus in the public debate, particularly around how the metropolitan scale could allow Milan to be competitive with other urban regions in Europe and beyond. In fact, Milanese socio-economic elites, including representatives of entrepreneurs in various economic sectors, are well aware of the importance of an efficient metropolitan system for international competition.

Yet there has been almost no public debate on a host of potentially controversial issues that will still need to be decided in the new metropolitan era. Which policies, for instance, should be adopted for the long-term development of the metropolis, within a single European economic space and competitive global markets? What new political parties may be needed in recognition of this new political space — and how should newly emerging socio-economic trends play into defining those parties?

“In many regards, it soon became clear that none of the candidates had a firm grasp on the intricacies of metropolitan governance. Indeed, the same can be said of much of the electorate.”

Against these looming questions, the tenor of Milan’s centre-left primary elections in Milan seems fairly ambiguous. On one hand, the process did open up a range of perspectives and did surface some important issues: around fiscal autonomy, the political economy of urban services (especially the conditions under which public transport is delivered), and power struggles over control of labour, agricultural and urban food policies.

[See: Four challenges to metropolitan governance]

On the other hand, these issues need to take hold in the public discourse and become part of the ongoing political discussion if Milan is to become an example not only of economic and social innovation — as widely celebrated in the press — but also of political innovation around metropolitan spatial planning and management of public services such as transportation. Such an institutional framework would also help create an equitable and balanced model of growth of the urban economy.

Case worth watching

A year after Italy’s landmark metropolitan elections, it is clear that the topics addressed by local public debate and the underlying metropolitan challenges are common to many other cities and metropolises. Urban governments and urban civil societies keen on bolstering equity and sustainable growth at the metropolitan scale might take from the case of Milan the lesson that metropolitan institutions are not simply about formal setups, but first and foremost about the dilemmas of governing metropolitan dynamics at different territorial and political scales.

In order to address metropolitan development, it is important for urban political and economic actors to distinguish local from national interests, to pay attention to how local collective services are delivered, and to focus on local capacity in policy-making.

[See: The ‘Grand Paris’ era begins]

In March 2016, Sala won the primary electoral competition, and in June 2016 he won city elections to become mayor. Since then, three main directions have shaped the medium-term strategies of his city administration.

First, Milan has positioned itself as a possible destination of those European agencies and financial institutions that will have to relocate from London as a consequence of the British vote to leave the European Union. Second, the city has been negotiating with the national government for special fiscal conditions to allow for the redevelopment of the Universal Exposition site. Third, the city administration has renewed its attention toward peripheral neighbourhoods and drafted a programme of urban regeneration in some deprived areas of the city.

These endeavours reveal a clear strategy to increase the international attractiveness of Milan as a safe place for investments and to redistribute wealth within the city. However, Milan’s internationalization strategies do not have a solely municipal relevance: They also affect metropolitan development and may even contribute to territorial imbalances at the national level.

A politically innovative approach would imply addressing the issue of territorial solidarity not only at the urban but also at the metropolitan and inter-regional scale. Because Milan has proved itself capable of politically innovative solutions in the past, and because the city finds itself in a very positive current situation, it is a case worth monitoring for those seeking politically viable solutions to the challenges of metropolitan governance.

NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that only six of the 14 cities affected by the 2014 reforms have completed elections.

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Matteo Del Fabbro

Matteo Del Fabbro is a PhD candidate in urban studies at the Gran Sasso Science Institute and a visiting doctoral fellow at Sciences Po’s Centre d’Études Européennes.