The Urban Center guides (and contemplates) Torino’s unfinished transformation



Near Torino’s historic center, Piazza Castello

Torino, Italy is no stranger to the economic, social, and environmental change that afflicts all cities. Once an industrial powerhouse, the relative collapse of the automobile industry during the 1970s and 1980s prompted considerable social and economic distress and physical malaise. Yet, when the city played host to the 2006 Winter Olympics, Torino had already regained much of its economic prowess, with a rich history, culture, and built environment to boot. In particular, large scale land and infrastructure planning had led to the physical renewal of much of the city center. Ambitious development and infrastructure planning continues, especially along the city’s old industrial corridors with the “Spina Centrale” project. As all cities do, Torino has experienced constant reinvention.

For a visitor to the city, the nuances behind this story–including the challenges, debates and deep divisions that tend to accompany significant change–can be easily lost or hid behind closed doors.  This adds to the distinctiveness and value of an organization in Torino called the Urban Center Metropolitano. The chief purpose of the center is to host debates, exhibitions, research and meetings around important urban development projects in the city and its metropolitan area. It monitors projects with particular architectural or historical value, and also serves as a consultancy service for private and public actors.  While visiting the Urban Center (UC) earlier this month, I met Carlo Spinelli, who performs external communications and relations for the UC, and Alessandro Armando, project manager in the UC.

Guiding Torino’s “Transformations”

Both Carlo and Alessandro explained that the UC is a venue in which to explore and guide the urban form of the city, grounded in an understanding of Torino’s historical context and oriented toward the city’s ongoing and future development.  It has carved out a role for itself as an actor that contemplates the quality and role of new development within specific projects, but also wider process or transformation within Torino and its surrounding territory. The UC has contributed project-level support to everything from the redevelopment of the derelict grounds of an old Fiat Factory, to the hosting of several large-scale public exhibitions on Torino’s urban development. The center functions outside of the regulatory structure, meaning that public or private actors must therefore voluntarily bring a project to the UC.

To understand the implications of the UC, it’s also necessary to understand its origins. Three different organizations came together in 2005 to establish the UC – the City of Torino, Torino Internazionale (in charge of strategic planning for the city), and Compagnia di San Paolo (one of Italy’s most important philanthropic actors). Essentially, this three-pronged origin preserves the UC’s relative objectivity and independence, while giving it authority as an actor within the contentious space of urban redevelopment.

The center’s purposeful design

Its design and location are equally-important components of its function. This is especially true of the UC’s engaging visuals. A large map highlights major redevelopment areas (or “strategic transformations”) of the city, and is the backdrop to the front of the center’s rooms. Multimedia and rotating exhibitions fill the surrounding wall, showcasing the history of urban change in Torino and noteworthy or contentious projects. A blackboard by the entrance invites visitors to reflect.  The UC’s chairs are movable, making the space adaptable to multiple functions.

The UC is also right across from the Torino city offices and thus adjacent to the center of Tornio’s administrative power. This means it is situated at the traditional site where citizens come to air their grievances toward their city government. The UC’s large windows, meanwhile, allow strollers to peer in from the outside, or allow those participating in internal activities to gaze outside and consider the city’s larger context and power structures, or the lives of the Turinese walking through the plaza outside.

In acting as a place of debate, the center often plays hosts to citizens, public and private leaders, developers, architects, and all bodies that have a stake in a particular project. It thus places the debate behind a project and all of its actors out into the public. Moreover, it places this discussion within a neutral space that also forces the participants to consider the wider context and urban form of the territory in which they are operating.

Yet, while the space fosters debate and reflection around the city’s major urban projects and its continuous transformation, the UC is not foremost a space for traditional citizen participation. Functionally, its relatively small size inherently limits the number of participants that can attend each event. But this small size also allows each event to be intimate and operate as a workshop. It creates the opportunity for animated and thoughtful discussion, and perhaps greater possibility that actors will genuinely arrive at a shared understanding.

Do all cities need an Urban Center?

For an illustration of the UC’s work in Torino, I returned to the urban center for a public meeting, which focused on the redevelopment of ‘Palazzo del Lavoro,” a historic exhibition center just outside of Torino’s city center, which is now slated to become a retail center. On the one hand, proponents say that this project is necessary in order to make use of the space and raise the financing needed for the building’s restoration and upkeep.  Others contend that retail would undermine the historical integrity of the space, and question the need for more retail in this location. The meeting was expectedly contentious, but lively, informed, and timely.

Carlo and Alessandro were both keen to explain a few of their inherent challenges. The UC attempts to intervene in the processes of development, but the end result of this intervention and the power of the UC to influence Torino’s transformation are not always so obvious. But as the discussion of Palazzo del Lavoro so critically illustrated for me, both also stressed the importance within Torino of the UC in fostering a transparent and reflective conversation, and this is a discussion that is conspicuously absent from many other cities. Thus, even though the direct transferability of the UC to other urban contexts is unlikely, the UC embodies a certain civic spirit and internal determination for a high quality built environment, and this is a characteristic that all cities should certainly attempt to replicate.

For more information about the multifarious story behind the Urban Center, visit its website.


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About Bartek Starodaj

Bartek Starodaj is Program Assistant at the Urban and Regional Policy Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.