April 20, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Gianfranco Colitti

Naviglio Martesana in Milan: the waterways were once a vital part of city commerce. Photo by Madeleine Johnson.
By Madeleine Johnson
Published: 2013-12-13

ilan has two major canals, the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese, which run through the city's Navigli neighborhood where bars and restaurants thrive along their banks, helping to liven up the city's movida, or street-life. The waterways are part of an extensive, 1,000-year-old canal system that once ran from Lombardy's northern lakes and rivers to its southernmost agricultural basin. In fact, Milan was once labeled as "Little Venice," with water running through central Piazza San Marco and along the route of the 94 bus, which today circles a party of the city still referred to as the Cerchia dei Navigli, the Navigli Circle.

With locks designed by Leonardo da Vinci, the waterways served as transport routes for livestock, cheese, hay, coal, lumber, sand, and granite, later helping to supply the city in its early industrial phase, when Milan grew into a thriving European business capital.

In 1929, northern-born dictator Benito Mussolini, an ardent believer in all things modern, ordered the canals covered over to make way for an expanded system of trams and buses. Only in 1985 did local activists begin working to conserve traces of the city's watery past. A project to commemorate the historic role of the canals gradually grew into a full-blown restoration project. A 2011 referendum to reopen the Navigli garnered nearly half-a-million votes, and Milan's city council recently voted to reopen two canal sections.

Gianfranco Colitti is secretary of "Riaprire i Navigli."

Gianfranco Colitti, a retired economist and business executive, is secretary of "Riaprire i Navigli" ("Reopen the Navigli"), the organization spearheading the canals campaign. He chatted with Madeleine Johnson regarding efforts to reopen Naviglio della Martesana (or Naviglio Piccolo) and the Cerchia dei Navigli, the inner ring of the Naviglio Grande canal, the city's most extensive waterway. These are excerpts from their conversation.

How did the idea of making the canals usable again get started?

"Riaprire i navigli" was born in August 2012. The "Amici dei Navigli " group had already begun working to revive Milan's historic memory. But we realized we could go further and actually reopen the entire Navigli system, connecting the Adda and Ticino rivers with 90 kilometers of navigable water. We thought, "Why not give Milan the chance?" Our "crazy idea" is to redesign Milan with a focus on water.

We don't have the Thames, but returning water to Milan's center would give it a whole new dimension. Milan identifies itself through work. But you also have to consider the quality of life, being able to stroll, pause, and enjoy life's beauties. Water helps in all this.

It hardly sounds possible.

It's important to emphasize is that reopening the Navigli is already provided for in the city plan ratified by Milan's city council in 2012. The authorizations are there; the comune (city hall) has approved. All that's missing is money...

What about that?

We don't want the commune to put up the money — it just doesn't have the €140 million the project will take. If we ask Milan to find the money as part of a public works project, we'll end up waiting 15 years. We're also in a recession. Plus there's a lack of trust [for the city]. People say, "They can't even fill potholes!"

So where will the money come from?

Lock at the Naviglio di Leonardo.

We want the commune to be involved, but we're seeking funding elsewhere: from foundations, project financing, the Lombardy region, and private investors.

One model is profoundly Italian: the chapels in our historic churches that were built from contributions that came from local families and associations. There's also so-called crowd funding. The first Milan subway was built as a result of citizens purchasing bonds. Though we can't do that now, it's a model.

We're asking 60 other towns along the navigli to help. If they want to give money, we won't say no, though these are tough times. We're also asking businesses and groups like Slow Food and Eataly. We've gotten in touch with everyone in the water business, since we're working for water. For water, by water!

It's a beautiful idea. What's the reaction?

Public reaction has been positive. Whenever I mention it, people say che bello! But being Italian, it's ma, per๒ (yes, but)... Maybe we'll never be able to do it, but it's worth a try. We don't want to return to the past, but be open to the future. We want to focus on technology and modern ways of thinking.

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