Giving new identity to a peculiar location, reactivating its social and cultural role and transforming the way citizens experience it: this is Small Public Works’ intention. Behind the project is Milan-based cultural enterprise, esterni. Founded in 1995, the group aims to produce and promote events and site-specific interventions in the urban environment.

small public works

Every April, for Milan Design Week, esterni curates the Public Design Festival, a large event that pushes to positively change the way people live in cities. It involves numerous residents, students and professionals in implementing productive ideas and proposals.

This year, the concept to reshape the Quartiere Operaio Umanitaria is one of the project’s more fascinating endeavors. This historic working-class district is owned by the city council and was built in 1906 in Via Solari 40, near to the better-known Tortona area.

Because of the high value placed on fostering community in the early 1900s, the architectural complex was equipped with various common spaces close to the residences: a library, nursery, gym and bowling center. This last place in particular, left in a state of abandon for around twenty years, is the focal point of the Small Public Works intervention.


Esterni and their supporters have turned the former bowling center and its surrounding into a public square and a pleasant meeting point. Painted wooden benches and tables, flower boxes and planted pots have been assembled by hand and spread throughout, transforming the area into a nice courtyard. It was made possible by contributions from Spazio Abitare and the District 6 Council, along with participation from residents and 34 students from a master’s course at IED (European Institute of Design).

For the official opening of the new “Bocciofila”, the group organized a public event complete with a community lunch with the resident and the students, as well as an entire day of guided tours and games.

Characterized by its simple, yet fine design and a low budget, Small Public Works represents collective action for a social purpose. It is a great example for how change might be planned on the larger urban scale. It demonstrates that a little can go a long way in efforts to change our urban environments, and that a good dose of creativity and willpower can mean much more than cash.