Milan and the wider region of Lombardy were the first epicentre of COVID-19 in the Western world. Considering this extraordinary role, other places have much to learn from the failures and successes of the city’s crisis management. Despite severe resource shortages, Milan already began planning its socioeconomic recovery in mid-April. Building on public-private partnerships and a comprehensive adaptation strategy, the recovery measures address the current health crisis as well as future urban challenges.
Two months ago, Milan was booming. As capital of Lombardy, one of Europe’s
richest regions, the city is Italy’s economic powerhouse. It is central to
various economic sectors like finance, trade, fashion, design, furniture,
human sciences, publishing and the media; and its influence on the Italian
productive system goes way beyond its administrative borders. In the 20th
century, Italian factories were concentrated in the so-called “industrial
triangle” between Turin, Genoa and Milan. Today, economists consider the
“triangle” between Milan and the cities to its south and east, Bologna and
Treviso, to be more significant in terms of GDP and logistics. In recent
years, Milan has also become one of the most visited tourist destinations
in the European Union (in 2019 it received almost 11 million visitors).
Since the city hosted the 2015 World Expo, people from around the world
have enjoyed its pleasant lifestyle, cultural and culinary attractions, and
global events such as Milan Fashion Week and Salone del Mobile. Even the
weather has changed: renowned for its fog, Milan has become sunny as never
before, probably because of climate change.
Milan’s boom phase has experienced an abrupt slump since the COVID-19
pandemic hit the city in February 2020. Milan and the wider region of
Lombardy found themselves being the first epicentre of the pandemic in the
Western world. Considering this extraordinary role, other places have much
to learn from the failures and successes of the city’s crisis management.
Multi-stakeholder alliances and public–private partnerships will be vital to addressing
the socioeconomic repercussions of the health crisis.
Everything happened very fast. On February 19th a 38-year-old man tested
positive for the new virus in a health centre in Codogno in the province of
Lodi in the Milanese hinterland. Two other people were infected in Veneto,
the adjoining region. On February 23rd schools in northern Italy were
closed and ten towns in Lombardy were placed under quarantine, in so-called
“red zones” whose borders were controlled by the police to prevent people
from entering and leaving. In Milan, many public offices, museums, shops
and restaurants closed. They reopened for a few days, when the mayor of
Milan, Giuseppe Sala, launched the social media campaign “Milan does not
stop” in an effort to help keep everyday life and business running. While
the initiative was at first welcomed, it was soon criticised as
irresponsible. On March 4th the central government shut schools in the
whole country. Four days later the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte,
declared all of Lombardy, an area of 10 million people, a red zone. On
March 10th a nationwide lockdown was imposed.
Graph 1. Number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Milan. Source: MilanoToday / Region of Lombardy
When analysing the impact of COVID-19 on Milan and the city’s response, it
is important to emphasise that although the capital of Lombardy has been on
the frontlines of the emergency, its administrative powers and economic
resources have been very limited. In fact, as the Italian healthcare system
is the responsibility of the regions, they have led the response to the
pandemic – as has been the case with State Governors in the United States.
Further, while the Italian government is mobilising hundreds of billions of
euros to manage the health, social and economic crises provoked by
COVID-19, the Municipality of Milan, a truly global city, was only able to
allocate a few million euros to tackling the emergency. Indeed, the city
government’s departments have had to cut their budget by 22% to compensate
for the drop in city taxes that have resulted from the pandemic. Direct
support from the national government has also been meagre. The government
only transferred around 7 million euros to the Municipality of Milan, which
were earmarked mandatorily to helping poor people with food and medical
The city’s lack of resources and its dependency on the regional and central
government are described in the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy (Comune di
Milano, 2020), released by the municipality on April 24th. The document
details how, in order to launch the city’s recovery phase, which involves
implementing new healthcare policies and measures (mapping, tracing,
treating, etc.) as well as addressing socioeconomic shocks, support will be
required from higher levels of government.
Yet despite operating with severe limitations, the Municipality of Milan
has taken various measures to address the emergency in its territory. To
increase the number of intensive care beds, it collaborated with the
Italian army on building the city’s first provisional hospital, and with
the Department of Civil Protection to design a second brand-new hospital.
That said, having various levels of administration involved in these
interventions has certainly reduced their speed and efficiency. It may be
argued from these experiences that in an emergency, big global cities work
better when managing policies autonomously and coordinating directly with
the federal government. This also became evident in the poor handling of
the crisis in retirement homes (managed by the regions), in which large
numbers of people died, and jails in Milan and other cities (managed by the
Ministry of Justice), where riots broke out in the first days of March.
The City of Milan has demonstrated great inventiveness in overcoming its
financial constraints. Mayor Sala launched a Mutual Aid Fund to raise money
from the private sector and individual donors, which has been very
successful. The fund’s effectiveness contains two lessons: firstly, that
municipal governments increasingly depend on a variety of urban
stakeholders and, secondly, that public–private partnerships are
fundamental to fighting the pandemic.
An environmental sustainability strategy for Milan is not only crucial in order to
mitigate climate change but also to prevent future epidemics.
Multi-stakeholder alliances and public–private partnerships will also be
vital to addressing the socioeconomic repercussions of the health crisis.
Milan has a very strong network of organisations devoted to solidarity that
reacted promptly and efficiently. Many disadvantaged groups have been
helped by the Church, companies, philanthropists and civil society
organisations, and important entrepreneurs have supported hospitals and
research centres. Recognising the great value of these initiatives, the
Municipality of Milan created the website “Milanoaiuta” (“Milan helps”) to
coordinate support in four main areas: funds for food, assistance for
elderly and fragile people, home delivery and volunteers willing to help.
Showing foresight, Mayor Sala was one of the world’s first mayors to
initiate plans for the post-coronavirus socioeconomic recovery of his city.
In an interview with the Corriere della Sera newspaper in early April he
identified three priorities for Milan’s step-by-step recovery: the
adaptation of digital and mobility infrastructures to the requirements of
social distancing; the creation of new rules of conduct for public spaces
such as stadiums, cinemas and theatres; and support for the local economy,
especially for small businesses, shops and other commercial activities that
are at risk and that constitute the “soul” of the city (Giannattasio,
2020). The abovementioned Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy lists five further
governance priorities for the recovery phase: 1) civic empowerment and
social inclusion; 2) support for companies and shops, digitalisation, urban
regeneration and social innovation; 3) employment; 4) mobility, public
space and the creation of a “15-minute city” (an approach currently being
implemented in Paris); and 5) sustainability. Policies in these areas will
be particularly geared towards vulnerable groups, including the elderly,
children and women.
Mr. Sala’s leadership in initiating recovery policies for his city was also
recognised by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which appointed him
Chairman of its Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, which was
launched on April 16th. The C40 Taskforce will pay particular attention to
the relationship between health and climate policies, a topic that will
also be of central concern to Milan in the future. Milan and the region of
Lombardy are among the most polluted parts of Europe and it has been argued
that this environmental condition favoured the spread of the coronavirus in
the area. By contrast, in Rome, where pollution levels are lower, the
outbreak of the virus was far better contained, in spite of hundreds of
trains travelling between the two cities daily until March 8th. An
environmental sustainability strategy for Milan is thus not only crucial in
order to mitigate climate change but also to fight future pandemics.
The coronavirus crisis in Milan and other cities calls for a more general
discussion about the future of cities. Urban areas need to become both
flexible and efficient, open and able to prevent another major outbreak of
the virus. In particular, this balancing act will require cities to address
the following challenges:
Too many levels of responsibility reduce efficiency: the
administrative relationship between global cities and the federal
government needs to be rethought in order to increase
Investments in healthcare, urban regeneration and environmental
transition will be necessary to fight future pandemics and attract
Urban infrastructures and mobility will need to be completely
reshaped in order to allow for social distancing.
Social segregation is a big threat: vulnerable communities are more
exposed to the virus and need to be protected, or they can put
everyone in danger.
Working and leisure habits will need to change, but cities also
need to protect their “soul” (events, streets, shops, etc.) if they
want to continue competing globally.
In order to deal with these challenges, new urban governance qualities will
be required: creativity, flexibility and the ability to cooperate will be
part of the essential skill set of any effective future municipal
government and mayor.
Comune di Milano. Milano 2020. Strategia di adattamento, 14 April, 2020,
(online). [Accessed on 07.05.2020].
Giannattasio, Maurizio. “Come sarà Milano dopo il coronavirus, il sindaco
Sala: ‘Da San Siro al metrò, così progettiamo la ripartenza a tappe’”,
Corriere della Sera, 27 March, 2020, (online). [Accessed on 07.05.2020].