April 20, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Gianfranco Colitti

By Madeleine Johnson
Published: 2013-12-13

I've heard that Milan Expo 2015, which will promote agriculture and sustainability, is building a canal along the Strada Verde, a green mile-like string of parks around the city.

Unfortunately we were born a year or two too late for Expo, otherwise we could have worked with them. As for their canal project, why build a "fake Naviglio" when there are already several real ones?

What's your biggest challenge?

It's not a technical one, because the Navigli ... are just covered or filled in. The canal bed is still there and water still runs under Via Melchiorre Gioia and Viale Piave. The biggest challenge is talking to investors in terms of goals and returns.

We focus on tourism, telling them the canals are navigable from Lago Maggiore to Lago di Como, a richly historic area with monuments and villas. It could be like Brenta [where boats ferry tourist from Padua to Venice]. We envisage a bicycle path that connects to one along the Po River all the way to Venice. Some 300,000 people per year use the bike route along the Danube. If we even got half that...

We also talk about renewable energy from micro-turbines. We can use the elevation changes or the flow of water along the streambed to produce energy. Heat pumps could heat nearby residences.

Then there's the matter of real estate values, which rise wherever there's a subway stop. The same thing could happen with buildings along the Navigli. Reducing cars and making life more tranquil along the Via Melchiorre Gioia will raise housing values and help create wealth.

And the objections?

There's an old idea the Navigli were sewers. But people actually swam in them. Even though the canal beds were cleaned and a sewer system installed toward the end of 19th -century, the sewer idea remained. In 1929 and 1930, Italy conceived of the city and the nation in a new way. There was Futurism [the modernist art movement.] The car represented modernity. The canal was a thing of the past and needed to be buried. Maybe that was right at the time. But it's different now. The car is no longer the center of all things. Area C works [Milan's strict traffic reduction system].

Who opposes you and why?

Skeptics have four big questions: Rats and mosquitoes, the [future of the] movida, transport and financing. Rats and mosquitoes are fake problems. Mosquitoes don't breed in moving water and rats avoid clean water. The movida in Via Ludovico il Moro [the street has cafes and nightspots] is a zoning issue that has nothing to do with water.

What about traffic problems the effort might create?

The project would take no more than two to three years, since we can't close the center any longer that that. Traffic would be rerouted to the outer ring roads. The center of Milan is already virtually closed anyway.

It would have to happen in two phases. The first would improve the state of Via Melchiorre Gioia. The second — working on the cerchia — is harder because the old shoreline would have to be modified for traffic and building access. The Naviglio abutted the houses and main entrances were on the water. Building entrances are now on inner streets and they'd need to be turned around again. La sciura Milanese (Milan signora) won't be happy if she can't bring her shopping home. And you can't parachute people in!

What's next?

For now we're working on awareness, because the project needs citizen support. They do want water in Milan. First, we have to make people sensitive to the issue, and second, we need to propose solutions. We must work like mad!

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