On how to change your city life (while writing a phd)
Let me begin this story by telling you about my wonderful afternoon yesterday:
I got home with both of my girls (3y and 1y). We went to visit my neighbour Maria. Just few month ago she recommended me a kindergarten for my older girl and finally we discovered that both of our girl will be in the same class next year. We spent about 1.5h at their home, the children play together and Maria gave me two whole bags full of clothes that are not fitting her children anymore and that i could use. I came back home and it was time to make dinner. my daughters were tired and i found myself cooking while doing hundred of other things, trying to keep them calm. When i was really at a point I thought dinner will never be ready, my neighbour, Pilo, (a young guy living in the next door with his girlfriend) comes and asks if he could take my older girl over to plant some beans on the balcony. He takes also the younger girl! I am alone in the house, cooking dinner, hearing music! After dinner, the girls went to bed and we set on the balcony enjoying the summer evening. Someone is calling me from above. It the Dario, the neighbour who lives above us and his balcony is watching ours. he asks if we want some cake and then puts it in a bucket attached to a cable and passes it down.
I do not live in a village. I do not live in a commune, I do not live in my house for the last 10 years. I live in Milan, in a new big city dwelling of 100 apartments for the last two month. And still, by how my day went, i felt like i had all those things I miss about living in a small place: relationships, mutual help, conviviality, relax.
How did it all happen? Well, something you can not really predict and design. But some things can be done to make your life a little better. This is what i did:
We decided to buy a house about 3 years ago. At the same time i began to work on my phd in Design in the Politecnico di Milano. I am a service designer and for the last years have been working on social innovation, creative public spaces and sustainable cities. The topic of my PhD was related to housing from the social point of view, but i did not know what is it going to be exactly. The apartment we decided to buy was still to be built and was to be constructed by the cooperative we formed with the other future residents. We did not know each other really and our cooperation was mainly a legal form. We were supported and assisted by CCL, an organisation made for assisting construction cooperatives. It was clear for me that my research will not be a theoretical one and that I could use some “on field” experiments. And here it was, just waiting for me: what if we could know our neighbours before we even move in? How will this influence our neighbourly life afterwards? what can we make together through these relationships?
I spoke with The president of the Cooperative, Graziella Antoniotti, about the project and she was very supportive. We arranged for a public presentation in which i could launch the idea. It took some time for it to happen. In the meantime i created a dedicated social network for our building using NING. The public presentation took place about one year before the building was ready. In the presentation i showed some examples of stuff you can do together: organic food purchasing groups, car sharing, self organized babysitting, cloth exchanged and more. I also explained why I think meeting each other before moving-in is important. Then i invited people to connect to the social network i created. During this meeting I already got some positive reactions from people. Some did not care so much and only one was against the initiative. In the two weeks that followed only about 12 people joined the network. They were not many, but the spirit was right. People introduced themselves, added their pictures and began to write ideas on the Forum. People came up with ideas like shared WIFI, Book-Sharing, furniture purchasing groups and so on. We discussed those on line and had through time 3 face-to-face meeting. We made another presentation to everyone and by the day we moved in we had about 50 members on the network. Some of the initiatives are happening already. Shared WIFI, for example. And the best thing, I had NOTHING to do with the success of the initiative. Alessandro took his time preparing powerpoint presentations and contacting companies… he was assisted by Carlo and together they organised evening social events where they explained the project and got people involved. At first i had to be there, to assist people, to encourage them to share ideas, to ask each one of them personally if they come or not to the meetings. Today things just go by themselves and the great afternoon I had yesterday has happened not because of me. but because all the people that are around me and have my same wish about leaving more humanely in the city.
I want to end with a phrase from Charles Leadbeater: “ Cities are cradles for innovation because they are where knowledge, culture and self-governance come together. That is how the narrow and the broad circuits of creativity connect. Cities are experiments in how to live together creatively”.
My research study is moving on, my life has changed since I moved in. you see… you don’t need much, you can probably do the same thing in your own building. and if you need some help, just call HousingLab ;-)