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Plan zero: Milan prepares for the post-pandemic ‘new normal’

Milan’s Chief Resilience Officer shares how his city is working to address the COVID-19 emergency today, while also looking ahead to what’s next.


Milan already had a plan to plant three million new trees in the city by 2030 to fight climate change and improve air quality. Now, in the light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it will space them at least a metre apart to support social distancing in case of a similar outbreak in the future.


This is an example of how, even while they are in the eye of the fast-moving coronavirus storm, cities are also starting to prepare for the ‘new normal’ after the emergency phase passes whatever that may look like.


Planning for the unknown


Speaking on a recent webinar organised by the Global Resilient Cities Network (GRCN) and the World Bank, Piero Pelizzaro, Milan’s Chief Resilience Officer, noted how Milan’s coronavirus response effort is split into three groups: emergency management, community support for those who are uninfected but in quarantine, and a taskforce for ‘plan zero’ when the emergency ends.


Immediate measures include the closure of public spaces, remote working, lifting traffic restrictions and tolls, moving city services online where possible, suspension of some taxes and many more.


"At the end of this emergency, we will have the second crisis economic and social."


“We are now facing the first crisis, but it’s not the only one,” Pelizzaro said. “At the end of this emergency, we will have the second crisis economic and social. We cannot wait until the end to start thinking about how we can respond to that, because that could be even bigger than what we are facing at the moment.”


Milan is the capital of Lombardy, Italy’s worst-hit region. Yesterday, Lombardy’s health commissioner reported that the number of coronavirus cases had grown by 1,555 compared to the previous day (to 29,761) after a jump of 3,200 recorded on Saturday. The cities of Bergamo and Milan both showed signs of improvement, but the number of cases increased significantly in Lombardy’s Brescia. Officials said it was too soon to confirm trends or relax measures.

Three pillars for plan zero


The three pillars of Milan’s ‘plan zero’ are green wayfinding, digital infrastructure and environmental transition.


Pelizzaro said the tree-planting initiative is an example of how the emergency could help cities rethink design in a more human way.


He added that the pandemic, which now sees millions of people working from home globally, has highlighted how “all our life is based on the internet”. He said in the light of this, there could be a shift to more publicly owned digital infrastructure.


Pelizzaro praised the efforts of the private sector, including delivery companies which have helped get food to isolated people and sharing economy organisations like Airbnb, which is preparing to house health workers and recovering citizens who can’t stay at home due to quarantined family members.


However, the pandemic has also highlighted the need for mechanisms which ensure the private sector is capable and ready to switch from one type of production to another. For instance, several perfume companies and breweries are now producing hand sanitiser gel but in some cases, the shift has taken too long, Pelizzaro said, noting: “We need to stop thinking in silos.”


Climate action


Since Italy went into lockdown on March 9, NO2 levels have fallen around 40 per cent in Milan, according to the European Space Agency. Similar drops have been observed elsewhere, including China and South Korea, following coronavirus shutdowns.


The environmental outcomes offer a sliver of “good news from this terrible situation” and may guide thinking “about what could be the future of the globe and our cities,” Pelizzaro said.


"We need to rethink our way of moving; we need to rethink the economy."


“We need to rethink our way of moving; we need to rethink the economy,” he commented. “And there is a huge opportunity to create a huge programme of investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” which could help with recovery and meeting environmental goals.


What does the future hold?


A key question, though, which none of us has the answer to, is when things will be back to ‘normal’ and indeed how we will even know that in such an unprecedented situation.


Pelizzaro believes an important milestone will be when people feel safe to hug each other again.


There are two levels of trust, he said: “The institutional trust in [addressing] the emergency and then going back to normal...and also the emotional trust. That human trust is an essential element of ‘plan zero’.”


He urged cities to start thinking now about actions which will prepare people to gather again in public spaces without being scared when the time comes.


“We don’t have to look only at technology or health. We [must look at] emotional and psychological action at the same level of importance,” he commented.


After outlining Milan’s key actions on coronavirus, Pelizzaro said: “It’s still not enough; we need to do more,” but he concluded by invoking the slogan which is appearing on brightly coloured banners draped from windows in Milan and throughout Italy. It reads: “Andrà tutto bene,” meaning “Everything will be OK.”

  • Register for the next webinar in GRCN’s series (March 26), which will focus on smart technologies to tackle coronavirus, including lessons from China and Tel Aviv.

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