Battlefield Darsena. A story of guerrilla (gardening)

The Darsena, for many people of my generation and before, represented a place to go to experience the alternative soul of the city of Milan. However, the Darsena, means also “tradition”, since is one of the principal canals, which, like a net, weave together the streets of the city, located in one of the most suggestive and tourist areas of Milan: the Navigli area.
by Carla Sedini

All Images by Carla Sedini

The Darsena, for many people of my generation and before, represented a place to go to experience the alternative soul of the city of Milan. However, the Darsena, means also “tradition”, since is one of the principal canals, which, like a net, weave together the streets of the city, located in one of the most suggestive and tourist areas of Milan: the Navigli area.

Today, the Darsena is a construction site.

I am going to start at the beginning.

My beginning.

I lived in the province of Milan, and every Saturday I used to go and spend my day on the Darsena, to visit the Senigallia Fair, a market where you could find art crafts, music, secondhand and brand new clothes from different countries, etc. You could taste a particular attitude of the city, and you could feel the energy that spread from the union of so many different people. As, “il Rosso” (n.d.r. literally “the Red”), one of the historical exhibitors of the fair, said: “When you enter in the fair you feel like you’ve always belonged here and in some way, the fair itself belongs a little bit to you as well!”. One day the news that the Senigallia fair was going to be moved to the parking area in Porta Genova came. It was a shock for me, even if while I was growing up I was loosing the habit of going every Saturday on the Darsena banks. However, the news was shocking because of the project of the Municipality. Albertini’s district representative (ndr Gabriele Albertini was the Mari of the city for two legislatures, from 1997 to 2006, for the centre right-wing coalition. At these days the Mari is Letizia Moratti) proposed building a huge parking area under the Darsena. On the 24th of September 2004 the agreement was signed. Now it is 2010. Fortunately the parking has never been built. However, the Darsena is not what it was anymore. The Darsena now is a horrible huge hole on the underground level filled by garbage and piece of junkies, populated by rats, pigeons and some seagulls. After the deliberation in 2004 several events have passed by: more or less organized protests claimed by groups of citizen (as, for example, the Navigli Committee), the construction of a dam, the discovery of antique rests (the old border of the Darsena from 1800, the basis of Spanish Bastions from 1500 and a wooden basin from 1400), the suspension of the road works, which actually would have never started again considering the enormous waste of public money. The building society, which gained the call for tenders during the suspension, was still receiving money, even if the workers disappeared from the area. Notwithstanding the money it received, the society left the area unguarded, and it never cared about cleaning and maintaining the Darsena in a good state. Because of this state of abandon, the Darsena area was involved in the ambitious project which started in 2009: the operation “Say it with flowers. Milan can revive” which consists of guerrilla gardening in several areas of Milan, such as viale Monza, Rubattino, Paolo Sarpi and also the Darsena (www.guerrillagardening.it). The interesting thing is that the idea of an action of guerrilla gardening in the Darsena was proposed by a photographer, Alberto Callari, who has his origins in Rome. Everything started at the Biennale of Venice, where Alberto saw a historical picture, from the end of WW2, of the Duomo square, which in those years, in order to fight the hunger, was sowed with wheat. Alberto, who lives near the Darsena, thought that it would have been wonderful to have something similar in that abandoned area. Once he came back to Milan, he decided to enlist the help of the architects Alessandra Mauri and Barbara Fenati, with the intention of shedding light on what was happening in the Darsena. “We have here an enormous historical and natural collective good which is going to the dogs! What we can do to stop this vicious process?” Alberto and his companions asked, as a piece of advice to the group of the Milanese guerrilleros headed by Michele and Alberto.  Therefore, in March 2009 the first intervention in the Darsena was made. It was something “little”, but able to bring attention to that area. “The place is rotten, full of garbage and syringes of junkies…it’s true! So the only thing we can do is cleaning by ourselves, and literally dirt our hands and give this place a new life!” Alberto said. The interventions were minimal in order to protect the spontaneous vegetation of the area, which is really valuable: epilobium, willows, typha angustifolia, carex, poplar, calamintha nepeta, bidens, bluddeja, and many other species are all present in what has been called the “Amazonia Ambrosiana”. The group of guerrilleros, composed of citizens, members of the “Salviamo i Navigli” (ndr Save the Navigli) group and volunteers from Legambiente and the Navigli Committee (about 20 people) cleaned the whole area and, collecting all the materials thrown here and there, built several tanks which they filled with soil and seeds. The goal was to give the Darsena a new and a better image and also some hope. The interventions of guerrilla gardening have been isolated because the municipality provided resources only to eradicate many plants and, most of all, those spontaneous plants, which probably were thought to be weeds instead of valuable specimens. Also for this reason the small group, composed by Alberto, Alessandra and Barbara, supported by other citizens, wrote and proposed to the municipality a real project for the Darsena renovation. The project proposes creating a temporary garden in the area, mainly characterized by the spontaneous vegetation and the archeological rests, building some passages, like during the Salone del Mobile, giving the opportunity to citizens and tourist to appreciate this new role of the Darsena. The municipality has already said that there is no money to invest in it; therefore Alberto, Alessandra and Barbara are investing their time and are trying to collect some funding, just in case the project is accepted. As for the question “Why a ‘temporary’ garden and not a permanent one” Alberto answered that this is a necessary choice because of a structural problem of Italy, where it seems to be impossible to have a project with wider and longer prospects. Yes, this is a real “Made in Italy” story, in the worst sense. Indeed, also among this group of citizens, volunteer and experts, who are strictly opposed to the idea of the municipality building a parking area or to the new project which is very much focused on the commercial and leisure devotion to the Darsena sight, there are opposite factions. Another good proposal came from the “Comitato Navigli” which has a different opinion about the image of the Darsena. The members of the committee are more oriented towards tradition. They asked the municipality to break the dam and restore the water flow and the banks. As Gabriella Valassina, representing the committee, said, they have already proposed this project with the support of Legambiente, Fai, Italia Nostra to the councils’ zone (ndr consigli di zona), regional and municipal superintendence and local authorities, but they did not receive an answer. The risk, according to Gabriella Valassina, is to have a requalification of the Darsena, which had merely entertainment and commercial purposes, instead of, as the committee would like, cultural and historical ones. The committee would like to recall the original artistic and manufacturing activities of Darsena, which characterized the area in the past and also would recuperate the navigability of the Darsena, connecting it with the other two Navigli (Grande and Pavese).


What will be the future of the Darsena? Who will win the “fight”?

It is hard to be optimistic when in a Facebook group called “Milan wants its Darsena back!” the administrator and the architect Luigi Caprella alerts his audience that in the Piano dei Servizi (Services Plan) at the table number S.02/A3 the Darsena is still defined as a parking area. It is hard to be optimistic when the municipality is very much aligned with the merchants, who in Milan have much political power. It is hard to be optimistic when on this battlefield even those who would have play on the same team, seem to fight each other.

About the author

Carla Sedini

Carla Sedini is a sociologist and a PhD in Quality of Life in the Information Society. She has been collaborating with the Department of Sociology of the University of Milano-Bicocca since 2003. She deals with the study of the role of creativity in educational, economic and urban contexts with a particular attention to the theme of creative and knowledge industries, working in National and European research.
She was born in the periphery of Milan and she lived most of her life there, a part in Toronto and frequently travels for work reasons. At this moment, she lives just in front of the Naviglio Pavese, which in some way gave her the idea for the article she wrote for “Cities”. She usually uses photography in her studies and also in this case she personally cured the pictures that accompany the article.


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