Bernardo Secchi (1934-2014) was an Italian urban theorist, renowned urban planner, Emeritus Professor of Urban Planning at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura (IUAV) of Venice and Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Polytechnic of Milano. For almost half a century, he was a central figure within European and Italian interdisciplinary debates on the contemporary city and urban design. His research was located within the wider discourses of space and societal transformations, influenced by post-’68 French theorists and nourished specifically by a wide investigation of European urban territories. In his practice, he developed plans and visions for small and large cities in Italy and Europe, including Milano, Jesi, Brescia, Pesaro, Siena, Ascoli Piceno, Bergamo, Prato, Pescara, Lecce, Madrid, Antwerp (Secchi and Viganò, 2009), Bruxelles and Moscow. In 2008 he was amongst the ten architects selected to develop a vision for Grand Paris[1]; his idea of ‘ville poreuse’ focused on the improvement of permeability and accessibility, as a strategy to ensure the fundamental right to the city. As a scholar and intellectual, he was fascinated by the multiple narratives and multidisciplinary nature of urban territories. In the books, Prima lezione di Urbanistica (2007), La città del ventesimo secolo (2008), La città dei ricchi e la città dei poveri (2013), regrettably not yet translated for English speaking scholars, he placed into creative tension the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of urbanism, informed by theoretical insights and underpinned by an engagement with spatial realities and design projects. He treated urban transformations with vivid, lucid and contemporary analyses that utilized theories as productive investigative tools to elucidate society and space rather than as merely self-referential intellectual gestures.

Secchi’s death in September marks a great loss for urbanism. The conversation below is a gesture towards bringing his work to a wider Anglophone audience, since little of his work has been translated into English. It reflects on his legacy by exploring his intellectual production (Secchi, 1984, 2000, 2005, 2012), critical pedagogy and practice, with a special focus on the exploration of his idea of a ‘new urban question’ and the formation of his reflexive urban research praxis. The ‘new urban question’ was addressed most concertedly in his last book, and is concerned with the increasing social inequalities and spatial injustice. His urban research praxis, shaped by long-term practice and experience, voracious curiosity and acute observation, aimed to dismantle disciplinary boundaries and conventional scales, focusing on a certain idea of precision, accuracy and patience. We conducted an interview with Paola Pellegrini, urbanist and scholar, and Secchi’s associate for 12 years, and asked her to offer a personal and professional reflection on Secchi’s intellectual legacy.

—Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo




”The whole history of the city can be written keeping in mind the compatibility or incompatibility of the people […] Intolerance denies proximity, it separates and creates distance between activities, buildings, public spaces, their inhabitants and users” – (Secchi, 2012: 22)

Camillo Boano/Giovanna Astolfo: Bernardo Secchi wrote and reflected extensively on the democratization of urban space, the emergence of the ordinary, and, more recently (Secchi, 2006), on the still fundamental issue of ‘comment vivre ensemble’ (how to live together), a topic you developed in recent work on proximity (Pellegrini, 2012). Can you explain it further?

Paola Pellegrini: The search for proximity is part of the patient search for the physical and feasible dimensions of individual and collective welfare, which was a major topic in Secchi’s work (see his La città del XX secolo, 2005) and can be described, in his own words, as an “attempt to give a concrete dimension, physically perceptible to individual collective welfare/wellbeing[2] and to its distribution among the various social groups” (Secchi, 2006).

But it also goes beyond this search and refers to the idea that new individual practices and the consequences on the ways of living together – such as individualization and the search for some kind of network very well explained by Richard Sennett, Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman in recent and less recent years – are the basis of new ideas of the city and territory. The search for independent and individual rhythm in the community – Barthes’s comment vivre ensemble (Barthes, 2002) and idiorrhythms-, the recent appearance of various ‘coexistence’ experiments in many European urban contexts, the revival of the notion of spatial proximity in urban design and planning practice are moments of this reasoning, trying to further articulate Webber’s idea of “urbanity without propinquity” (Webber, 1963). As an example of this revival, all of the participants to the plan for the great Paris metropolitan area in 2008-2009, in their different proposed models or solutions, claim the city must grow upon itself and densify; a renouvellement of the idea of concentration, density, compact city, direct relations…

CB/GA: A challenging concept, related to the intellectual milieu that influenced Secchi’s research and practice (eg: Bourdieu, Barthes and Foucault) is that of the ‘right distance’ (between buildings, people, functions), but Secchi left it almost un-explained…

PP: Quoting Tommaso D’Aquino’s ‘not everything has to be defined’, Secchi has deliberately left the concept open to interpretations. Such openness enables the case-by-case definition of the ‘right distance’, explored through the socio-spatial specificity and political territories of any urban project. In fact, Secchi used to give great emphasis to the design practice; accordingly, in the Secchi-Viganò Studio’s praxis, theories and hypothesies were constantly tested in urban context and viceversa, in a continuous process of feedback. The interpretation of Paris as a post-Kyoto ‘porous city’ can be regarded also as a question for the re-definition of spatial proximity, in which urban interstices operate to densify (for example in pavillonnaire[3]), build functional and social mixité (mix), and increase accessibility to the outer areas (by inserting an extensive network of public transport). Conceptually, the notion of porosity reviews and renews those of compactness and density.

CB/GA: In his late work (2010, 2012), Secchi reflects again on socio-spatial distance, taking up Bourdieu’s notion of distinction (Bourdieu, 1984), multicultural existence and social inequalities as central to what he used to call ‘the new urban question’. Can you elaborate on his notion?

PP: A ‘new’ urban question rises in times of great crisis, with the disruption of the economic, social and institutional apparatuses. Secchi believed that the current global crisis, which he thought to be radical, and as meaningful and important as other past crises, such as the massive urbanization post industrialization, shapes a ‘new urban question’. Two other main questions shape it – increasing and increasingly visible spatial injustice, and widening environmental problems and climate change vulnerabilities. Alongside these three issues, in the development of the idea, he further added the question of accessibility and mobility as part of the right to the city/right to citizenship (Secchi, 2016: 6). These questions, particularly problematic within the major metropolitan areas, arose independently and over time became interdependent as suggested in many traditions of urban studies from Lefebvre to Merrifield

According to Secchi, the crises of capitalist economy, as for example the housing crisis at the beginning of nineteenth century, has been overcome by a stronger concentration of power. The same could occur now, with a stronger globalization. What impact will it have on our cities? First, it will probably cause a radical decrease in the public investment aimed at tackling the worsening of social inequalities, and will result in a reduction of public facilities and services (education, health, transport and housing); that is to say, a progressive decline of welfare. Secondly, it will probably contribute to an increase of the ‘territorial stigma’ (etiquettage), quoting Bourdieu and his idea about the segregation of the ‘misère du monde‘ (Bourdieu, 1993). In fact, even if cities have always been the place where difference is spatialized and therefore dramatically visible, today the phenomenon is even more evident, and the rich and the poor are less mingled than they used to be in the ancien régime city.

CB/GA: Since social inequality is central to the new urban question, the question then is, what is the responsibility of urbanism[4]?

PP: Secchi argued that urbanism cannot impact inequality or poverty directly, but it rather governs those devices that are aimed to produce and reproduce inequality and poverty: spatial, juridical, procedural and institutional devices, widely mentioned in his texts, drawing from Foucault and Deleuze, include zoning, distribution of facilities, construction of qualitative-quantitative parameters, traffic and transport policy, just to mention a few. “What changes down the history of the city is much more the regulatory sense and role of each device rather than the catalogue of devices, and it is through this regulating action that the city becomes a machine for social integration or exclusion as the case may be” (Secchi, 2006).

Often we reflected whether our skills and tools are useful and adequate to fight inequalities, marginalization and poverty. Although Secchi did not share the idea that a designer is a social or political activist, he was keen on the idea of devising open and flexible projects that people can appropriate and transform. A project should help people’s aspirations and show the kind of space that people can aspire to, as he used to say. Ultimately, the role/potential of urban design/planning is to anticipate possible futures, improving the relation between people and space.

CB/GA: Do you think that urbanism can be conceived as a device itself, with Foucault, as a biopolitical dispositif?

PP: That urbanism is a dispositif in itself is not a novelty. What is more interesting is precisely that it is a set of collated and coordinated devices, linked in some sort of organization or as Foucault’s termed ‘apparatuses’. Planning policies and regulations, either holistic or selective, employ spatial devices – such as dimensions, location, separation, connection and housing typologies – that increase or decrease social difference and the distribution of welfare/wellbeing. In the Antwerp strategic plan, some urban devices were introduced for new dwelling and living together, learning from existing practices of individual infiltration and cohabitation, couples with children reused dismissed urban parcel in the historic dense urban center – place of immigrants, abandonment, old people and shops- to create housing solutions alternative to the suburban flee in the porousness that opens up in the multiethnic urban fabric (Fini and Pezzoni, 2011).

The fear of the other, the poor and the stranger has often fostered the formulation of specific policies, while the history of the European city can be described as a succession of systems of intolerance, removal of the difference and normalisation efforts. The adoption of devices to prevent permeability and accessibility (such as walls, infrastructural and environmental barriers) in the past, has been replaced today by multiple and complex forms of segregation.

Secchi recalled the different experiences of the ‘new urbanism’, from the North American gated communities (where 10 to 16 million rich people live) to the South American condominos fechados, barrios cerrados and ciudad vallada, describing them as the ‘negation of a city’ where “the technical-spatial devices of the city play different functional and symbolic roles […] place suspended from the legal institutional order of the country they belong to, a limitation of its sovereignty […] where new and specific forms of governance are created ad hoc and accepted in a pact of mutual solidarity with its inhabitants” (Secchi, 2006: 380). So Foucault certainly inspired Secchi’s urban visions, not only as analytical tool but as emancipatory possibility in a renewed and attentive urban practice.

CB/GA: The vision for Paris widely reflects on the urban question (proximity, environmental problems and mobility), fostering inclusive, accessible and sustainable production of space, as the slogan you choose which makes it intelligible: ‘la ville poreuse’. Can you explain it further?

[PP] Secchi used to recall Bourdieu’s notion of social and cultural capital[5] and, more recently, Edward Soja’s notion of spatial capital, related to the benefits derived from social (network), cultural (education) and spatial assets (housing/work location and mobility options). Secchi’s way to address the urban question in the plan for Paris was to create, accumulate or redistribute (social, cultural and) spatial capital/assets, by increasing accessibility, improve mobility and access to environmental resources. In other words, by ensuring porosity and permeability.

The notion of porosity, borrowed from physics but also from literature, i.e. Benjamin, is as well analytical as a design tool, and refers to the percentage of open spaces in relation to built spaces and to the possibility to have different flows (of people, public transport, water, activities, practices, differences and vegetation). Porosity does not only include green areas and agricultural land, or abandoned, vacant and under-used lots; it rather implies the possibility to re-signify non-built areas as a whole, especially the space for mobility. Furthermore, porosity is strongly related to permeability, represented by the single connections between the ‘pores’. A porous city is widely accessible thanks to a new structure of public transport (a network described by the metaphor of a sponge) and highly sustainable new biological corridors, as well as, more space for the water network/wet lands.

In one word, a porous city can be said to be ‘isotropic’, meaning that it can provide an equal distribution of infrastructural and environmental conditions, and therefore urban(ity) opportunities. Secchi’s concept of isotropy, that was first employed by another Italian urbanist, Giuseppe Samonà, developed into a willingness to dissolve infrastructural segregation and ‘destroy hierarchies’. It has to be remembered, though, that the project for Paris is conceptual and schematic, a tool to test some hypothesis and produce new knowledge, rather than a solution per se.

“[…]The archive that I propose becomes testimony to this effort: to the attempt, for instance, to overcome the constraints of available resources and techniques, or those regarding relationships of power, of culture, of taste; to build a city in which different individuals and group cultures can represent themselves and find their own space […]” -B.Secchi[6]

CB/GA: Recalling Secchi’s definition of space as an archive[7], or a palimpsest, with Corboz (1983), seems to regard urban space as a static reality, albeit complex, where social and political struggle is deposited or fossilized. Based also on your own experience as urbanist and pedagogue, what was Secchi’s notion of space and territory?

PP: Urban space was never imagined or described by Secchi as a static reality. The idea of palimpsest entails that the inhabited territory is the result of a process of selective accumulation, i.e. in the continuous process of transformation some elements are preserved for future generations, while some others are discarded, according to the local values, cultural and economic conditions. Similarly I dare say there was not one notion of space and territory for Secchi, but many, as many as the different realities he explored. It is possible though to recall three moments in which the idea of space has changed: the ‘glorious thirty’, the thirty years of development after the last world war, when middle class emerged and large peripheries were formed; the rise of individualism and the diffused city after the economic boom in the 1960s; some sort of return to the compact city in more recent years, which many claim is resilient or must be to face the crisis, the climate change, and the decline of welfare state.

“by urbanism I mean not so much a set of buildings, projects, theories uniformed around the common rules of a theme (urban), a language and discursive organization, much less I mean an academic discipline, but the traces of a large set practices: those of the continuous and conscious change the status of the territory and the city.” -B.Secchi[8]

CB/GA: Such a notion of urban space, as the product of a multiple, complex and stratified agency, reveals the difficulty of a holistic understanding of current transformations, calling for a continuous reflection around disciplinary boundaries (architecture and urbanism) merging economic, social and geographical dimension. What was Secchi’s definition for urbanism?

PP: Secchi was very cautious about the possibility of attaining a holistic understanding of socio-spatial urban transformations, and was skeptical about any projects with holistic demands. Reality is getting more and more complex and the territory is constantly changing, so being holistic is greatly naive. In such an uncertain frame, disciplinary boundaries were considered an obstacle for the real understanding of urban transformations, but also an obstacle for the design itself. Urbanism, according to Secchi, was a mixture of architecture, urban design and city planning, an act of formation/composition (composizione), that was differently conceived according to the specificity: in Antwerp it involved a selection of actions and interventions; in Paris and Brussels a vision about space.

An urbanist should not be a rispecchialista as some Russian artists in the 1920s who claimed that art can only mirror the contemporary social structure. Nevertheless, he/she should not think that the future is an extension of the past and present. An urbanist should rather design the future in order to increase the welfare and wellbeing of inhabitants. Secchi often mentioned the critique that Leonardo Benevolo, an Italian historian of architecture, addressed of the planners’ lack of timing and the habit to intervene a posteriori rather than anticipate change; building on this, Benevolo also suggested that an urban intervention can be effective only by addressing its political content.

Facing the increasing difficult task of understanding and engaging with the complexity and multiplicity of phenomena, Secchi tried to elaborate an alternative approach to tackle inhabited urban territories, based on a reflexive and investigative method. Averse to heroic and exogenous plans (so popular in the current climate of urban super expert and archistars), he tried to reveal embedded socio-political processes, privileging accurate analysis, close observation and walking through. Walking in the city – which is not a metaphor, he walked for long periods in the cities he was planning and taught students to keep walking in the territories – means concrete experience, progressive understanding of aspects

CB/GA: He was later criticized for such a ‘weak’, almost nihilist approach aimed to recognize intrinsic legitimacy to most urban phenomena, including sprawl. Such a weak, humble approach to urbanism appears to us as an important element to be disclosed to a wider public. Can you further elaborate?

PP: Secchi’s approach was neither humble nor weak, but rather elementarista, as resonates in the title of the Ph.D. thesis of Paola Viganò, his partner and associate for almost 25 years, published as ‘La città elementare’. It advocates that the de-composition of a city into its elementary components is the starting point of the cognitive process as well as of the design process, which are considered a unity. The reason for this method stems from the recognition of the difficulty of understanding and grasping the contemporary city, which has radically changed – due to social changes and territorial expansions and contractions. Therefore there is a need to use the rilievo, that is to say the accurate survey and mapping of every single element of the urban territory encountered – buildings, roads, trees, fields, materials, signs, uses – their characteristics and relations; the very first lines of the first page of his ‘Prima lezione di urbanistica’ list these elements. This way, attention was given to ordinary objects, abandoning traditional grammar and syntax of description, in order to start a new understanding of the urban.

Secchi used to say that this method emerged also in reaction to a drift of the 1970s, when the hegemonic role of sociology and economics in city planning resulted in a detachment from physical reality; a renewal of content and methods was therefore necessary. In the 1990s each city plan developed by his equipe (team), the plan for Prato particularly, started with the rilievo of the whole municipality and its representation on boards at the scale of 1:2000. This inventory showed the not sequential, non-hierarchical character of the contemporary city and its often-fragmented random paratactic layout. In design, this method produced taxonomies and matrices and their collage, abandoning generalizing categories for a new urban palimpsest.

Studio Secchi Viganò, Antwerp Plan

Studio Secchi Viganò, Antwerp Plan


CB/GA: In conclusion, albeit being explicitly interested pre-eminently in European urban territories, Secchi visited (Cidade informal no Seculo XXI and Arquitetura, Cidade, Metrópole – Democratizar Cidades Sustentáveis) South American megacities like São Paulo and Rio on several occasions, giving lectures and interviews and participating in conferences, tackling topics of informality, vulnerable areas and urbanization of favelas. From your understanding, did those urban realities inform his thinking and influence his projects? In other words, did he find similar urban questions?

PP: I think that the new urban question was greatly influenced by his recent familiarity with South American megacities, which he considered to be of great relevance. He tutored some interesting Ph.D. theses focused on inclusion-exclusion dynamics, the requests of urban space by the consuming middle class, the influence of catholic culture and politics on the realization of contemporary settlements in South American cities.

Also Asian and Russian megacities were very influential in his reasoning. The effort was often to make comparisons between well-known urban realities and new ones; fully aware of the different urban histories and models, he tried to produce generalization efforts to prevent the risk of being captured by the specificity of single situations.

CB/GA: Building on Paola’s last reply, it is worth recalling that we increasingly live in a ‘world of cities’ where “cities are shaped by processes that stretch well beyond their physical extent”, as Robinson (2014) puts it. As a result, it is possible to produce those generalisation efforts that Paola mentioned, to radically de-territorialize the urban, to have global conversations on the aspects of contemporary urban life and to formulate ‘travelling theories’, as Edward Said advised us. It does appear tautological that the urban epicentre from which to explore urban theory is no longer located exclusively in the so called Global North, Europe or US, but in a much more fertile arena that results in the “comparison as learning” (McFarlane, 2010), a multi-directional learning that might happen across different contexts, overcoming the impasse of the pioneering studies that were only focused on Western cities. “Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos…” (Van der Haak, 2005)[9]. The lesson of Bernardo Secchi can therefore open new research directions towards a new urban question able to stimulate intellectual and practical investigation in cities that “are embedded in multiple elsewheres” (Mbembe and Nuttall, 2004).

Paola Pellegrini is Lecturer of Urban Design at IUAV of Venice and the Politecnico di Milano. She was Visiting Associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, MASS, and Research Associate at the Department of Urbanism at IUAV of Venice with prof. Bernardo Secchi. Her research mainly focuses on spatial analysis and theory of city planning design tools – in particular the “scenario construction” both as a cognitive practice and proper urban planning tool, planning proposals for tackling sprawling metropolitan areas, new concepts for infrastructure and urban heritage.

Always combining academic research and professional practice, Paola collaborated with the Secchi-Viganò Studio in Milan to the Pesaro city plan, the Strategic Plan for Antwerp and the “Grand Pari” of Paris; most recently she develops cross-border and transnational cooperation projects funded by the European Community for transport infrastructures development and cultural heritage conservation.



[1] Grand Pari(s), Paris, France. Consultation of research on the future of great Paris metropolitan area. Client: Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication de la République Française. See also: http://www.b-ondstudio.com/?portfolio=grand-paris-paris-france-studio-b-secchi-p-vigano and http://www.ateliergrandparis.fr/index.php

[2] See also

[3] Pavillonnaire is the low density settlement in the periphery of mainly single family houses with garden.

[4] “Urbanism has strong and specific responsibilities in the worsening of inequalities” (Secchi, 2012).

[5] “Rich not only denotes persons, families, groups that have a high income and/or conspicuous assets. The term rich is also used to define persons of a consistent cultural or social capital, with an extensive network of relation amongst the dominant groups of the society, that confer a status and often an income that is equivalent to or above that of persons with high income capital” (Secchi, 2006: 373).

[6]  Original in English here.

[7] See also.

[8] Translation by the authors

[9] Rem Koolhaas’ postulation in the film ‘Lagos Wide & Close. An interactive Journey into an Exploding City’, Netherlands 2005, Directed by Bregtje Van der Haak (120 min).




Arquitetura, Cidade, Metrópole – Democratizar Cidades Sustentáveis Conference, IAB (Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil), Rio de Janeiro, 27 February-1 March 2013

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Cidade informal no Seculo XXI Conference, São Paulo, Museu da Casa Brasileira, 12 April 2010.

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Secchi B (2006) The rich and the poor. In: Viganò P and Pellegrini P (eds) Comment Vivre (ou ne pas vivre) Ensemble. Officina (original in English), p.373-382.

Secchi B (2010) A new urban question: Understanding and planning the contemporary European city. Territorio 53

Secchi B (2012) La Città dei Ricchi e dei Poveri. Roma-Bari: Laterza.

Van der Haak B (director) (2005) Lagos Wide & Close. An interactive Journey into an Exploding City. Netherlands  (120 min)

Webber M (1963) Order in Diversity: Community Without Propinquity. In: Wingo L (ed) Cities and Space: The Future Use of Urban Land. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 23-54



Camillo Boano is Senior Lecturer at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit and co-director of the UCL Urban Laboratory at University College London (UCL).

Giovanna Astolfo is a Teaching Fellow at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London.

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