Mercato Lorenteggio (Milan), an intersection of care practices

My name is Erika. With Luca, Jacopo and Alice we started Dynamoscopio ("those who observe change"). We are a strange mix of designers, researchers, and practitioners of urban transformation. We are anthropologists, architects, economists.

In 2012 we got interested in a neighborhood called Giambellino-Lorenteggio, in Milan. It was undergoing change, and a tension ran through it. Its eastern end is a heavily hipsterized area, with lofts and cool parties connected with the mighty Furniture Fair. To the west there are large industrial settlements (Vodafone Italia, for example). Line 4 of the Metro is under construction here. The value of real estate is going up, or soon will. But the neighborhood itself remains low-income, home to many marginalized people. 25,000 people here qualify for subsidized-rent accommodation. Many of them can survive only because they do live in subsidized housing. Many more would have a right to, but the city does not have enough apartments available. So they are stuck in a queue.

The neighborhood was (and still is) vulnerable to gentrification. It only takes a small increase in rents to price many people out of the neighborhood. We took a political stance that people should not be driven out, and moved in.

First we investigated the area, and put our findings into a documentary film (trailer). As we did so, we fell in love with the local market, Mercato Lorenteggio (henceforth ML). This market had a problem: in 2005 a large supermarket had moved into the area. Its competition was driving many local shops out of business – including several of those in ML. It was clear that the market was on its way out.

By then, we had figured out that the neighborhood lacked resilience. Nonlocal Milanese never go there, and why would they? And even the locals do not form the thick web of social relationships you find in a healthy community. We knew one thing: working in Lorenteggio meant spending most of our time dragging people out of their apartments.

We tried to draw a sort of map of desires and problems surrounding the market. We mapped the social actors around it: the local people, the municipality, the nonlocal Milanese, the shopkeepers. The shopkeepers seemed the most promising agent of change. They are local businesspeople: if the neighborhood does well, they do well. ML itself could serve as a focal point. If we could revive it, we could show the local community that it can work its way out of a bad situation.

So we did several things.

  • With the shopkeepers, we redefined ML's unique value proposition. The supermarket would always beat us on price, and on opening hours. So we invented a brand we call DOP, Denominazione di Origine Popolare (People's Designation of Origin). This means local products – Milano is a farming city, with many farms to the immediate south of the city. It also mean "new local" products, for example we sell teff used in Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisine.

  • We made it clear that these businesses are the natural allies of the neighborhood. For example, we have solidarity campaigns. One is called "Fai la spesa per la tua scuola" (shop for your school). Shopkeepers donate part of their income to the local elementary school. Other local partners expressed interest in participating.

  • We mobilized the community on restoring the façade of the ML building. A Milan-based company donated the materials; the local people contributed manpower. Physical work on the space creates ownership and mobilization. Also, it was a great party (timelapse video)!

  • We pushed the mixed use of ML as a place for culture and socializing as well as commerce. For example, we organize courses of Arabic languages (requested by many migrant families), knitting events, etc. The market has wide corridors, and can host up to 1,000 people.

  • We moved in ourselves. Dynamoscopio runs a tiny cultural space (20 square meters) inside ML. We offer wi-fi too.

In general, we are trying to reinvent the physical space of ML and the kind of local commerce that it offers.

Who pays for this? We started out with grants. Milan is home to several charitable foundations, and some of them focus on the poorer neighborhoods. With time, we are moving towards a more sustainable mix of revenue streams. Even the shopkeepers, now, are chipping in: this is great, because it a sign of increased sustainability. Also, the work we do in Lorenteggio is good PR, and it helps Dynamoscopio get clients.

We think we are carers, in a way. We care for the community as a whole, rather than for any one person in it. "Taking care" in this context means keeping ML open and thriving; and that, in turn, means contributing to them getting income. The shops in ML are holding the line of the viability of the whole community.

We are not open by default, but we do use some of the strategies of the open source movement. Example: some migrant families from Arabophone countries wanted courses of Arabic for the children. We helped them set them up, and set them up in the market. The logic is this: if the market becomes an open platform for people to do stuff, more people will go there. This will create more business opportunities for the shops: you went for the Arabic lesson, it makes sense to do your groceries there too.

Considering, our work with ML is going rather well. In 2012 it was on its way out, with several shops closed: in 2016 all stalls are in use, and the market is thriving. The space has become more beautiful and welcoming.

Still, there are many things we would like to improve. For example, last year we organized two "swap markets", and they failed badly. Both events were popular, with a lot of people in attendance. But these were people from outside the neighborhood, many of them hipsters. This created tension, because the locals see them as harbingers that they will be priced out of the neighborhood. Another pain point is that we are unable to monitor our impact. Shopkeepers are reluctant to disclose how much money they are making. We do not even have a system to count the number of people present in the market. We would love to have some kind of tool, but somehow this sort of work always gets deprioritized, there is so much to do.

Also, we are not sure how much longer we can afford to stay engaged with ML. But we worry. What happens when we stop pushing? Another example: for a while, a guy named Manuel ran a vegetable garden outside ML. People loved it. But when Manuel withdrew, the whole thing dried out. These dynamics look great, but they are not always sustainable.

Do you know of any similar experience? We would love to compare notes.


Great work

Alberto's picture

Welcome, @Erika Lazzarino , and many thanks for the story. This idea of caring for a neighborhood, rather than a person, was what impressed me when we met in Milano last month. 

This story, by the way, might be very interesting for @Khatuna , @Max Perry , @Hasmik and @gazbee sorour . Revitalizing a public space, protecting it from economic pressure by building sustainability... seems really great. Also, I'd like @Rossana Torri 's point of view of the process as seen from the City Hall.

I am also intrigued by the ambiguous nature of success in Lorenteggio. The swap markets, you say, were popular, and brought to ML Milanese from outside the neighborhood. This was seen as a threat by the locals. So, it seems, there is no way to win! If people don't come, the neighborhood is isolated, economically fragile and ultimately unable to resist gentrification. If they do come, the locals do not like it and push back. Also, this creates tensions among the locals: Luca told me that the shopkeepers were happy to see new people (new customers! yay!), but the local people who are not shopkeepers were upset. 

So here is a big question: when caring for a neighborhood, do you think that at some point you'll have to take sides? 

a productive tension between "taking care" and enterpreneurship

Rossana Torri's picture

I'm very interested in this side of the story...

It seems to me that ML is the result of a true hybridization between “functions”, but especially between different types of operators. In a certain sense, the anthropologists that form Dynamoscopio become entrepreneurs, while "traditional" traders become innovators.

What I note especially is that ML is driven by a subject (Dynamoscopio) who took a "business risk" somewhat analogous to traders: in this way business sustainability of ML as a whole becomes a lever for collaboration between Dynamoscopio and the traders.

This is the big difference between ML and most of the projects where the promoters are responsible for carrying out activities/measuring impacts in the local context.

For all these reasons, ML can be considered a special case in the city of Milan where the revitalization of the neighbourhood markets  (as lot of them have been closed or are not vital at all), has so far been addressed in a more conventional way. In fact, starting from a public tender aimed at reallocating empty spaces and at revamping local markets, some of those markets have been reopened, basically around the idea of hybridization between food trading, restaurants, entertainment, paying particular attention to the quality and fairness of the products (for example “zero kilometer” production philosophy). Good examples are “Mercato del Suffragio” or “Darsena”.

In my view, ML goes much beyond this kind of vision and the virtuous link between economic value and social impact is a very interesting and challenging aspect also for the local administration that looks at this case with much interest.

As far as sustainability is concerned, the political turn of 2011 with the election of new mayor (civic list, left wing) and the new generation of policies that emerged since then are taking seriously the issue of how to support new businesses that are capable to produce social impact, learning from the experiments coming from different types of stakeholders.

@erica reover, after the administrative reorganization in Milan in June 2016 with a new major that follows the ideas of the previous one, “Trade and productive activities” are now more linked to “Economic Innovation”, so that we can reasonably expect that new opportunities and grants aimed at develop and scale such initiatives will be provided.

Thanks a lot to @erica and the team of Dynamoscopio for becoming part of our project!

How policy is born

Alberto's picture

Very interesting, @Rossana Torri . You offer us a glimpse into how policy makers think: we do things in a certain way, ("hybridization between food trading, restaurants, entertainment, paying particular attention to the quality and fairness of the products"), but this project goes beyond that ("virtuous link between economic value and social impact"). Since the political and administrative are favourable ("after the administrative reorganization in Milan in June 2016 with a new mayor"), we will try to have more people doing more projects like yours ("we can reasonably expect that new opportunities and grants aimed at develop and scale such initiatives will be provided"). 

This could be interesting for @Yannick and @WinniePoncelet , who started, elsewhere, a conversation around dealing with government. 

Would smaller organisations have a chance in public tenders?

Noemi's picture

I'm curious @Rossana Torri, in the new "economic innovation" labelled tenders, would Dynamoscopio or other similar, smaller organisations with potentially no track record but great ambition and ideas stand a chance? Are those tenders made for social innovators, with them specifically in mind?