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Under a blazing late afternoon sun, Gustavo Gandini surveys the Milanese skyline from his seventh-floor terrace. Not far off is the bell tower of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, resting place of the city’s patron saint. In the background the shiny new skyscrapers in the CityLife district emerge out of the haze, a sign that there is still work to do to clean up the city’s air (the recent boom in bike- and car-sharing notwithstanding). Still, Gandini breaks a smile while gesturing to pockets of greenery that sprout here and there from neighbouring rooftops. “We aren’t alone,” he says, before turning his attention back to one of his lavender bushes.

At first glance Milan may not jump to mind as an eco-friendly metropolis, especially given its ranking in the bottom third of Italian cities for usable green space. Yet if the curious look skyward, they’ll see that many residents have taken matters into their own hands. A quick scan of balconies and top-floor dwellings reveals that there is a green-thumbed brigade quietly at work, whose efforts to plant flowers and trees often go unnoticed by data-crunching environmentalists.

A perfect example is the home of Gandini, a professor of animal genetics at the University of Milan. On his two-level terrace he has created a floral oasis, with everything from wild fennel and roses to the common nettle and thistle vying for room and sunlight. His choice of vegetation is far from random as one of his hobbies is to boost the population of butterflies in the city; he runs a website that people can consult to learn which plant species attract the colourful insects.

“This terrace is not quite the wild outdoors but I want it to feel like we are among nature,” says Gandini, pointing out a newly arrived butterfly, known as a Painted Lady, that is in search of nectar.

One of Gandini’s followers is writer Ilaria Bernardini, who lives nearby in the city’s Ticinese neighbourhood. Her rectangular terrace is a source of food: an array of stone and terracotta pots operate as a makeshift vegetable garden to supply her with new potatoes and cherry tomatoes. It’s also a refuge where she curls up in one of her Orkney chairs to edit =her writing.

From her cosy perch she can see the bell tower of Sant’Eustorgio and her little patch of green has even become the source of inspiration for an upcoming book. It tells the story of a woman recovering from an illness who turns to gardening to create a surreal forest-like terrace. “I find this space very therapeutic,” says Bernardini. “When I step out I’m hit by the scent of mint. It grows like crazy here and I’m constantly using it in cocktails or giving it away in bundles.”

Residents eager to fight back against the city’s image as the dour cousin to Florence and Rome call on the likes of celebrated florist Rosalba Piccinni, who is known to get creative with Corten steel pots and white bougainvillea. “Outsiders still see the city as grey and imposing but you have to look closer. In courtyards, on rooftops – there are surprises around every corner.”

Another talent when it comes to injecting a bit of Mother Nature into the cityscape is landscape designer Stefano Baccari. He’s gifted at tailoring vegetation to any given space and many leading lights in design and fashion call on him to spruce up their terraces. Among them is Spanish furniture designer Patricia Urquiola, a long-time Milan resident whose home and office occupy three floors of a low-rise early 20th-century workshop. “The challenge was to give her some privacy,” says Baccari. “Since the surrounding buildings are taller, neighbours look down onto her rooftop garden. I came up with a ‘wild weeds’ arrangement, mixing grasses, bushes and plants to create a natural grill-like effect that helps to shield her from prying eyes.”

Urquiola’s roof, which has flashes of colour provided by red-pink oleanders and furniture she created for the likes of Moroso and Kettal, features shaded nooks that even from high above cleverly conceal its occupants. “As soon as the weather turns nice I’m out here for my breakfast or to have an aperitivo in the evening,” says Urquiola, leaning back on the Canasta daybed that she made for b&b Italia.

Milan’s industrial past has been turned into an advantage by homeowners looking to stake out their own sun deck. Close to the Naviglio Grande Canal in the San Cristoforo district, luxury-goods consultant Alessandra Alla converted the roof of a factory that once produced buckles into a terrace that is now home to her rambling rose bushes. The highlight is the factory’s towering brick smokestack that is now being scaled by her honeysuckle. “It is refreshing to see nature reclaim this space,” says Alla.

Of course, the most notable example of reinserting the natural world back into the city’s landscape is Bosco Verticale, a pair of high-rise apartment towers designed by Milanese architect Stefano Boeri. Opened in 2014, they are home to 900 trees – some as high as nine metres, which are anchored in specially designed tubs – and 20,000 bushes and plants. Boeri’s award-winning project produces much-needed oxygen and helps to absorb co2 and dust particles to help fight Milan’s smog problem. “When I was teaching at Harvard I saw research showing that 94 per cent of tall buildings in the world built after 2000 were covered in glass,” says Boeri. “I thought, ‘Why not have towers where birds can nest and fruit can grow, instead of these glass skins that make the city more artificial?’”

Francesco Fresa of architecture practice Piuarch agrees. He is hoping to convince officials to add a green roof to the curving white pavilion that his firm designed for Piazza Gae Aulenti. “Workers in the high-rise next door look down and just see a dull roof; we were hoping to start a rooftop farm,” he says. “We need to soften the man-made environment and make the city more liveable.”

Fresa and his colleagues have led by example, adding a vegetable garden to their own office. Using reclaimed-wood pallets filled with soil, their gardener grows lettuce, cucumbers and other produce that staff use for their lunches. “These rooftops are real treasures. It’s something we Milanese know how to get the most out of.”

How to grow your rooftop garden
Milan florist Rosalba Piccinni’s recommendations.

  1. Plant-creeping rosemary is easy to care for, aromatic and grows low to the ground.
  2. To have flowers and colour in colder months plant erica, cyclamen and eastern teaberry.
  3. Use cone-shaped terracotta planters. “They are durable in all climates,” says Piccinni. “The best come from Impruneta in Tuscany; Milanese prefer simple ones.”

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