On the south-eastern edge of central Milan, a disused railway yard the size of New York’s Grand Central Station is being converted into a public park that will encompass residential, office and retail districts. The area, known as Parco Romana, will also house the Olympic Village for the 2026 Winter Games, which Milan is co-hosting with Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski town in the Dolomites.  

Parco Romana and its Olympic Village are the latest in a string of urban renewal projects that have redrawn Italy’s business capital and accelerated its post-industrial transformation over the past decade. While many cities around the world are redeveloping abandoned industrial and transport infrastructure, it is an exercise in which Milan has strong credentials. Porta Nuova, the high-end residential and business district which started the city’s era of urban renewal, has won real estate and architecture awards. In addition to Parco Romana, the local government is pursuing plans to redevelop six other disused railyards within or close to the city centre.  

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“Milan is in the middle of a big wave of transformation,” says Carlo Ratti, who heads one of the design firms behind Parco Romana’s masterplan. “It’s one of the most active cities in Europe today [for urban regeneration]”.  

Olympic Village 2.0 

Parco Romana adopts several novel ideas. The park includes a so-called suspended forest — an elevated network of tree-filled walkways to accommodate the single rail track that will continue to operate. As for the Olympic Village, its private developers and government officials agreed from the outset that it would be converted to student housing after the Games have ended.  

According to real-estate company Coima, one of the project’s developers, Milan’s Olympic Village will be the first designed and built in its future configuration with spaces and materials already designed for their conversion. Coima’s CEO Manfredi Catella gives the example of the 10,000 square metres of surfaces required by the athletes, and which would normally be dismantled. “Obviously that is a major waste, so we are designing the student accommodation [and] incorporating the surfaces as permanent use,” he says. “We have to design the space to minimise any retrofit.”  

Students over the following years will have more gyms, more medical services and more catering services. That is the legacy that the Olympics and Paralympics will leave in Milan

Vincenzo Novari

The project’s stakeholders want to avoid the mistakes of previous Olympic hosts which invested large amounts in structures built for temporary use without a viable long-term plan. Much of the infrastructure for Sochi’s 2014 Winter Olympics was abandoned within a year. Rio de Janeiro’s aquatics centre and Olympic stadium suffered a similar fate after its 2016 Summer Games. In 2020, a Brazilian court ordered its Olympic Park be closed over safety concerns.  

In contrast, Milan’s athlete village has been planned as student housing, while also meeting the International Olympic Committee’s rigid requirements for athletes. “We are not designing an Olympic Village. We are working with the developer to build student housing with all the services the athletes will need,” says Vincenzo Novari, CEO of the Milano Cortina 2026 Foundation, the Olympics’ organising committee. “Students over the following years will have more gyms, more medical services and more catering services. That is the legacy that the Olympics and Paralympics will leave in Milan.” 

Leveraging global events 

The desire to make the village a valuable, long-term investment for the city drove the decision to prioritise its permanent function, says Mr Catella. It also spurred the government’s decision to locate the site in Parco Romana, which had already been earmarked for redevelopment. Milan’s only other new construction for the Olympics — PalaItalia, which will be among Italy’s biggest indoor sports arenas — is being built in another redevelopment zone nearby called Santa Giulia. “It will not be Milan adapting to the Olympic Games, but the Olympic Games adapting to Milan,” says Martina Riva, the city’s councillor for tourism, sport and youth. “There won’t be brand new developments dedicated to the Games, but rather the exploitation and acceleration of projects already in the pipeline.”  

This strategy is consistent with Milan’s track record of using international events to spur urban regeneration. Not without major governance hiccups and flaws, the city made the most of the World Expo it hosted in 2015 to push through transformative projects. Among others, it redeveloped Darsena — then a neglected dockyard in the Navigli nightlife area — and work is underway to convert the Expo site itself in the city’s north-west into the Mind innovation district — a multi-use development that includes a start-up hub and the University of Milan’s new science campus. “It’s always important for a city that hosts the Olympics or Expo to combine the short-term vision with how it can be part of the lasting urban fabric,” says Mr Ratti. 

Milan’s local government is also using the Olympics to accelerate developments not linked to the sporting event, such as Mind and a new campus for the Polytechnic University. "These projects weren’t created for the Olympics, but they present the world with a more beautiful, more redeveloped city. So, we must try to speed up their implementation timelines,” says Giancarlo Tancredi, the city’s deputy mayor for urban regeneration.  

Virtuous investment cycle 

Milan’s urban renewal activities have helped reposition it in the eyes of investors and become a magnet for foreign capital. Mr Tancredi says international investors’ interest in these projects over the past decade has been very high. 

Both of Milan’s Olympics projects are backed by foreign investors. The consortium that paid €180m to acquire and develop the Parco Romana site includes French real-estate firm Covivio. The project’s value has not been made public, but fDi understands it to be around €1.25bn. Meanwhile the PalaItalia arena is being developed by German ticketing firm Eventim, which plans to invest €180m in the project.  

Based on the city’s Expo experience, however, the Olympics’ biggest FDI impact could come after the event. fDi Markets data shows that, based on five-year averages, cross-border investment into Milan increased 66% after the 2015 Expo. This is widely attributed to the city’s increased international visibility and knowledge, but Mr Catella believes that the city’s next big international event will bring further benefits. “The Olympic Games strengthen the solidity of Milan as a city where if you invest you can rely upon clear rules and defined timings,” he says. “It becomes a reliable city.”

This article first appeared in the February/March 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here