Milan is perhaps best known as an industrial powerhouse and global fashion hub. But these days the capital of Lombardy is also cementing its reputation as a true innovator in the fight against climate change.
A few years ago, the city made headlines with its striking (and admittedly quite strange) ‘Bosco Verticale’: two shrub-covered residential blocks that together hold as many trees as you’d find in a hectare of forest. And in the years since, Milan has doubled down on its eco credentials. Stefano Boeri, the architect responsible for the ‘vertical forest’, is also involved with Forestami: a city-wide plan to plant three million new trees – one for each citizen – by 2030.
Planting trees is an easy way to offset the carbon emissions produced by cities. They also cleanse the air, improve biodiversity, provide shade and cover, and counter the heat-absorbent qualities of roads and buildings.
And yet Milan isn’t just planting loads of them and hoping for the best – it’s also leading the way when it comes to figuring out how to plant those trees. In collaboration with Milan Polytechnic University, it is working to find the most appropriate species of tree, and the very specific places it’d be best to plant them.
But while Forestami’s campaign is well under way, it’s now facing another challenge: educating Milanese citizens about the importance of reforestation. Most people will agree that the world needs more trees, but many will protest when it’s suggested that they’re planted in their front garden.
‘You need to transform not just the space but the people living in the space,’ says Maria Chiara Pastore, the scientific director of Forestami. ‘You need to accept that you need space for a tree and that will leave less space for something else.’
Tree planting isn’t all Milan is doing to help fight the climate crisis. The municipality has received a €200 million loan from the European Investment Bank to fund renewable energy sources and make public buildings more energy-efficient, as well as improve its waste management and recycling centres.
By 2030, Milan also wants its entire bus fleet to be electric and all new buildings to be zero-emission structures. It’s even holding ‘hackathons’: events where groups compete to find the best solutions to Milan’s pollution problems. By improving public transport and bike lanes, the city has also reduced the number of cars per 100 inhabitants from 89 in the 1990s to just 49 in 2021.
The result of all of that is that Milan is the only Italian city to have met the objectives set out in the 2016 Paris Agreement and one of just 54 cities worldwide on track to keep global heating below 1.5C.
So how does Milan’s urban forestry project compare with other like-minded initiatives around the world? Some are going for a similar, all-out-tree-planting approach: the Million Tree Initiative has seen cities including Los Angeles, Denver, New York City and Shanghai all committing to raising a million new trees.
The UN, meanwhile, is working with Boeri and London’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens to grow 90 urban forests across 30 countries in Africa and Asia. Other cities are focusing on planting trees on streets. In London 280,000 trees have been planted since 2016, while New York is enforcing a policy that requires trees to be planted outside all new buildings.
In Milan, the reforestation campaign is already looking well beyond the city limits. Its findings are published open source online, and Pastore hopes that Forestami’s discoveries can help urban forestry efforts both throughout Italy and the rest of the world.
‘We're working in different networks, cooperating with not just institutions but everybody who is happy to,’ she says. ‘It's very open – we aren’t competitive but collaborative. There’s only one planet.’
As the global population increases – and mega-cities continue to expand – innovation is going to have to start in the urban environment. And right now, in spite of its industrial past, it seems Milan could well be the model green metropolis.
Now read about Paris’s plans to become Europe’s greenest city by 2030.