The Social Viability of Culture-led Urban Transformation Processes: Evidence from the Bicocca District, Milan

This paper investigates the relationships between cultural activities/investments and urban transformation processes, with reference to the transformation of the Bicocca district in the metropolitan core of Milan.
Bicocca has experienced a radical change in its social, economic and environmental profile as a consequence of the transition from a heavily industrial development model to a characteristically post-industrial one.
This case study offers an instructive example for the understanding of how intangible resources determine transitional modes and outcomes of urban transformation, and in
particular of the leading role of cultural investment in the shaping of the local network of knowledge production and circulation, sociality and identity. The paper stresses the need to strike a careful balance between the physical and intangible components of cultural initiatives—i.e. between activities and investment in facilities (cultural ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ respectively). Whereas the latter provide relatively immediate benefits in terms of economic impact and of endowment of usable physical capital, it is equally necessary to pursue carefully selected programmes of initiatives that involve and challenge the local community at various levels, fostering a social attitude based on intrinsic motivation rather than on instrumental opportunism. Without proper, supporting ‘social software’, massive investment in new cultural facilities may assume a dysfunctional ‘cosmetic’ character that is likely to exacerbate the critical aspects of urban transformation rather than tempering them.

Article by Pier Luigi Sacco, Giorgio Tavano Blessi
Published in Urban Studies 2009 46: 1115

From the Conclusions (excerpt)
(…) In the Bicocca case, the leadership orientation of the real estate developer has caused the prevalence of a conception of culture in terms of physical assets (i.e. the provision of cultural facilities) and of attractive and entertaining events. In spite of the fact that the majority of the local inhabitants have become aware of the activities (and of the existence of the related cultural facilities), results in terms of actual involvement have been relatively modest relative to the characteristics of the urban context under examination. Cases like this should be carefully considered when refl ecting on the evolution of cultural policy and activity design approaches to the transformation of urban environments (…).

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