Milan’s Hidden Watermark. The City, its Region and Water | The Plan
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Milan’s Hidden Watermark. The City, its Region and Water

Milan has a schizophrenic relationship with water. On the one hand, its three large rivers - the Lambro, the Seveso and the Olona - coursing north-south beyond the city limits have not impacted the city’s development down the centuries. Neither the perfectly symmetrical hub-and-spoke layout nor the architecture that grew out of the ruins of the ancient Roman city had to accommodate the rivers in the plains. These watercourses underpinned, however, the thriving economies of the outlying areas: the Olona was essential for the rise of the industrial hub of Legnano while the Lambro permitted the flourishing agriculture around Lodi.
Yet despite Milan’s apparent “water amnesia”, water has had a fundamental role within Milan as well, visible even today in the present-day layout of the city. But it was not natural watercourses that shaped the urban fabric, rather manmade canals, locks, basins, docks, inlets and mooring points that both followed and inspired the city’s radial development towards the Po valley plain. In Milan, water has always been subordinated to man’s designs. It was key to the city’s manufacturing and trading might, only in the 20th century giving way to the more efficient network of railway and ring roads, which in any event were constructed following the former waterways.
Once they had outlived their usefulness as routes connecting the city with the outlying plains, most of the canals were filled in during the first twenty years of the 20th century. Only one canal into an inner city docking quay (the Darsena) remained in use until 1979, ferrying considerable quantities of goods for a nation with some 5 thousand kilometres of coastline. The decommissioning of the waterways heralded the de-industrialization of the 1980s and the subsequent redevelopment of many brown sites.
Milan’s former canal system is still very present, a sort of watermark just under the surface. Were the city to rethink...

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