Since the late seventies urban studies have stressed how often large scale regeneration has conflicted with livability and ecological sustainability. Urban political economy and the growth machine hypothesis, brought forward by Harvey Molotch and John Logan have analyzed how the special influence held by landowners and local businesses, produces widespread cultural and political consensus for urban growth. Despite being focused mainly upon rent production, growth fueled by real estate capital is equated with progress, jobs and better quality of life. In other words, as Logan and Molotch (1987) have pointed out, urban growth is ‘value-free’, namely the importance of urban development outranks every possible objection, for example about ecological sustainability, quality of life or use value of each particular renewal scheme.
However I do think things are changing, ‘ecological sustainability’ has become something of a buzzword in the real estate and construction sectors: a large number of projects show that, for a given definition of sustainability, it is possible to deliver ‘eco-conscious’ large scale renewal. However, given that ecological sustainability has been heavily mainstreamed (cfr. Swyngedouw 2010) it is entirely possible that sustainability is entirely compatible with rent-boosting and authoritarian policymaking.
The Milan-based Garibaldi Porta Nuova project can offer relevant insights into these matters. Completed in 2013, the semi-central mixed-use area has been developed by property giant Hines and features ‘eco conscious’ prime office and residential space; it has also been highly contested by local citizens, as they claimed that the project endangered two of the few locally available green areas. Moreover citizens claimed that the sheer size and density of the project would have jeopardized livability. Early– dated late 80s to early 90s – attempts, led by local developers have failed, as citizens opposing the renewal won a series of lawsuits against local government, claiming that the plans did not match Italian standards for amenities and environmental protection. Also in the early 90s a masterplan for the area was drafted, given the size and importance of the project, the masterplan was a huge political issue within the local political elite; as a consequence it got widely debated. However given that citizens argued that the plan did not provide the local area with enough amenities and public goods the actual project never materialized.
Between 2003-2006 Hines acquired development land from previous landowners, and managed to start a new project on the same area: by 2007 the project was defined as a high-value mixed use project featuring an institutional cluster, built by Regional Government to house administrative offices and Regional Parliament. The project also features prime office space let by the likes of Unicredit – Italy’s most prestigious bank – Google and Samsung; prestige retail and residential space is also present. It should be noted that one of the key ‘selling points’ of the project was its ecological sustainability, as many of the completed buildings have been awarded LEED certifications. The overall project has now been LEED certified, moreover the ‘eco chic’ features of the project have been widely promoted on national and international press. Furthermore, the new Regional Hall will also achieve LEED certification in the foreseeable future.
However, the project also spawned relevant conflicts, as local dwellers found out that proposed development, besides being one of the most intensive developments in recent Milanese history, would have also erased two green spaces and a squatted social centre. While previous conflicts spawned a lively political debate, this time there was almost unanimous consensus over the need for an ‘ecological’ renewal, ironically no matter the costs. Local decentralized municipal administration for the Garibaldi area, controlled by a left aligned coalition had, until early 2006, supported protestors. However, as left to center opposition in municipal government begun to share right-wing majority ideas on the project, support waned and protesting citizens were easily defeated in court, as administrative judges didn’t want to challenge high-profile political decisions. In the end both green areas were destroyed, in addition the renewal led to a ‘clean-up’ of the neighbourhood leading to the eviction of several squatted social spaces, feeding an already ongoing gentrification process in the area (Semi, 2011). This consensus is explained by a local left leaning politician claiming that ‘Hines is the last opportunity this area as […] no one else has access to this amount of capital’(pers, interview spring 2012)
This example of a ‘eco-conscious’ renewal effort (which was shaped by a neoliberal ‘There Is No Alternative’ culture), illustrate how due to the complexity and size of the project, capital required can be held only by a few global actors; hence rent production becomes more desirable than democratic process or proper sustainability, as political actors must comply with the requests formulated by financialized developers and institutional investors.
However, eco-conscious renewal is not just an exercise in green-washing because things like LEED certification contribute to the creation of a higher ground rent: namely eco-conscious buildings constitute a land improvement which is widely sought after by investors, as it allows them to charge more rent to tenants and, more importantly, to avoid capital depreciation as other projects switch towards greener construction processes.
In essence what has happened is a reconfiguration of the growth machine model to account for the hegemony of financialized capital and the emergence of what While et al., (2004) have defined as the ‘sustainability fix’. More specifically, in this case the ecological discourse acts as a catalyst for a new form of value-free development. It is quite similar to the post-political model brought forward by Swyngedouw (2010): the convergence of high rents and eco-chic renewal ensures that the project is, for all purposes, removed from the political discourse, because there is supposed to be universal acclaim for these two goals.
As the case above shows ‘sustainability’ in urban renewal is a multifaceted term, it can be an actual effort to improve quality of life or it can be just the latest buzzword, covering for the finance-led swelling of ground rent. In order to ensure that ecological sustainability is met we also have to keep in mind the political sustainability of a given project, namely how transparent and accountable to local citizens are the governance institutions leading the renewal effort.
Logan, J., & Molotch, H. (1987). Urban fortunes : the political economy of place. Berkeley CA: University of California Press.
Semi, G. (2011). Zones of Authentic Pleasure: Gentrification, Middle Class Taste and Place Making in Milan. M/C Journal, 14(5).
While, A., Jonas, A. E., & Gibbs, D. (2004). The environment and the entrepreneurial city: searching for the urban ‘sustainability; fix’in Manchester and Leeds. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 28(3), 549-569.
Swyngedouw, E. (2010). Apocalypse forever? Post-political populism and the spectre of climate change. Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), 213-232.
Guido Anselmi holds a PhD from Università degli studi Miliano Bicocca, where he has just completed his dissertation on the role of financialized capital in large scale urban renewal, surveying two brownfield developments in Salford(UK) and Milan(IT). He’s mainly interested in Urban Political Economy with a comparative bent, as well as on governance conflicts in built environment production. He has written on the Financialization of US mortgage industry and will publish on finance-led growth machines in the future. He’s also a contributing author at che-fare.com on urban and data science issues, amongst other things. Besides urban conflicts he also likes to experiment with python coding and automated data collection: because of that he’s now undertaking a research project on the digital footprint of agricultural startups, for the Università di Milano (Unimi). He mantains an academia.edu profile with drafts, articles and working papers.
- LEED, shortname for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an international standard for energy saving and eco-compatible building which can be awarded to projects respecting given criteria of eco-conscious planning. Within the Real estate market LEED signals a good investment as energy saving buildings sell at a premium, because of lower depreciation when compared to energy intensive buildings ↵