Walking through the caked mud, weeds and scattered refuse which litter the Tiber river’s left bank, you encounter few tourists. High above you, held back by the massive travertine embankment as high as a four-story building, flows a river of cars, trucks, buses and scooters, one of central Rome’s only continuous traffic arteries. The noise of traffic stays up there, surrounding the few tourists who attempt to visit the circular temple of Hercules Victor, the first Roman temple constructed in Greek marble, and the slightly earlier Temple of Portunus, God of the keys, gates, and eventually ports. Most of these adventurers then head to the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, drawn by the mysteriously kitsch appeal of the Bocca della Verità, the ancient (alleged) drain cover in the form of a mask that now sees tourists line up to pose with their hand in its mouth. But a few brave ones dart daringly through the speeding traffic to gaze down into the river.
Where they are standing once stood the sloping riparian banks and later, during the early Republic, bustling port facilities replete with docks, warehouses, and a multitude of temples. Then, in the late 19th century, tired of the frequent floods, the nascent Italian capital undertook the massive public works project that would end the flooding forever. At least that was the idea.
Apart from the occasional jogger or fisherman (fishing for what in this dirty water you ask yourself?) you are alone down here. Ducks and cormorants swim amidst river grasses; Saxifraga and occasional elm trees grow out of the rocky river banks. You may see a nutria, looking something like a large rat or small beaver, a species imported in the fifties from South America for breeding (their meat was thought a delicacy and their fur was used in clothing) but later released into the wild when the farms proved unsuccessful.
The air is humid, a mist often stirred up by the fast-moving water where the presence of the Tiber Island plugs the river, forming rapids and small waterfalls. Proceeding a little further you pass the remains of the Pons Aemilius (later called Ponte Rotto or broken bridge for reasons which you will find obvious), and then under the high iron trusses of the Ponte Palatino. Before long you encounter a section where the path you are on itself becomes a bridge. Below you the vegetation is far more luxuriant and through it, in the embankment wall, you spy a heavy yellowish-grey stone arch. You have stumbled upon the outlet of ancient Rome’s first permanently engineered structure, the Cloaca Maximus.
Most people expect the first monument of Rome to have been a temple or a palace or perhaps a defensive wall. But the Cloaca Maximus is little more than a mundane sewer pipe. Since the drain’s first construction in the 6th century BCE it has been channeling storm water and runoff from the low-lying wetlands into the Tiber River, leading Lewis Mumford to call it “the world’s most cost-effective public works project.” What better example can one find of smart, sustainable urban infrastructure?
A three day trip to Bilbao, Spain reminds me of some simple solutions to apply to Rome. Of course, these are two different cities. Rome has multi-millenial cultural heritage, Bilbao much less. Rome has three times the population, and a much larger tax burden. Oh, and Bilbao is cold and rainy compared to Rome. So, potentially, Rome has more resources and greater attraction, and yet Bilbao is without doubt more livable.
Much has been written about the Bilbao effect, the result of choosing a “starchitect” like Frank Gehry to design a new Guggenheim Museum where a great landmark building and a good international marketing machine make up for a not-so-impressive collection. (Except for Richard Serra that is).
But the Bilbao effect I saw these days was more about public space, sustainable mobility and the rehabilitation of the urban riverfront. All lessons that could be applied to Rome in a few short years remaining in Mayor Marino’s term, if he stays in office.
2013-2014 No change so far but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, change takes time. It has been surprising, however, to see the same disregard for civic behavior by many civil servants in this administration as the last. I would have thought that enforcing parking and littering laws would have gone into effect on day two of the administration.
2015 All pedestrian zones are cleared of motor vehicles and protected by appropriately designed street furniture. New pedestrian spaces, such as Via dei Fori Imperiali, are furnished with new street furniture, seating, lighting, bike racks, etc. As a result, the average visitors’ stay increases to 3 days.
2016 At the Tiber Riverfront, public competitions for light infrastructure and artistic programming proposed for years by Tevereterno are carried out to revitalize the urban riverfront and create Piazza Tevere as a new cultural magnet for Rome. Traffic along the Lungotevere is reduced, sidewalks are widened, high-quality cultural programming is supported in place of low-quality commercial actives, and the river starts to return to the city as a public space. As a result, the average visitors’ stay increases to 4 days and many young Romans decide to stay and start ventures here rather than emigrating.
2017 A thousand kilometers of new bike paths are created in the city by removing on-street parking, while widening and protecting sidewalks. Car-ownership and traffic mortality drops and Romans start to emerge from their cars and spend money at local businesses again, instead of shopping malls. As a result, the average visitors’ stay increases to 5 days and foreign businesses start to look toward Rome as a respectable city in which to invest.
2018 Six new tram lines are inaugurated and integrated with the existing surface bus system (which has since been contracted to a Swiss company to manage according to a precise schedule) and the Metro system which is now open 24/7 and cleaned by former mid-level managers removed from their office posts for lack of productivity. The city is now a model of resiliency, having rebounded from the near collapse of 2014. Its cultural heritage and world-class public spaces can now be appreciated by all its residents and visitors (including the children, elderly and disabled who in 2014 were unable to use the streets dominated by automobiles).
Note that no big investments or “starchitects” were necessary to bring about this urban renaissance, just an administration with courage and a strategy.
Rome the “Quintessential resilient city”
Last Saturday a small group of volunteers turned out to celebrate the cleaning of the Tiber river banks that was carried out last month, and to demonstrate normal civic intentions to keep the river park clean. We brought gloves and trash bags and a bike trailer (thanks to Ciclonauti) to cart away any trash we collected. Despite the best efforts of the city’s waste-management company and others, the river’s edge was still littered with bottles and cans and other detritus.
The event had been scheduled by TEVERETERNO Onlus, the association dedicated to revitalizing Rome’s urban riverfront as a public space for site-specific artistic practices, together with Retake Roma. It had already been rescheduled several times:
- In February, as a parallel event to the Tevereterno presentation at TEDx. But the river was too high and the river banks were flooded.
- April, in agreement with the Mayor’s office and the U.S. Ambassador to Italy. But the mayor cancelled at the last minute because the Mayor of Vienna was in town (and the Ambassador thus cancelled as protocol dictated).
- In mid-April, after having firmed up the date in agreement with the Mayor’s office and the Embassy, the Mayor announced that the river would be cleaned preemptively (actually by social cooperatives financed by the Lazio Region coordinated by AMA). This is when the organizers decided to turn it from a real clean-up into a symbolic celebration of “#teverepulito”, the clean Tiber.
- Finally, yesterday, all was set for the day, Mayor, Ambassador, Councilors, President of Primo Municipio, were all expected to participate.
Early in the morning there was a light rain but by 10:00 it had stopped. But at about the same time the sun came out, a press announcement came in from the mayor’s office saying the event had been called off due to the bad weather. The #teverepulito event was actually not called off at all, but the organizers had to call the Ambassador to explain the Mayor’s decision (and the Ambassador thus cancelled as protocol dictated).
It would be easy to chalk this up to the cultural differences between Italians and the rest of the world–the “fear of weather” that has the city announcing emergency shutdowns when it rains for more than an hour. But the experience also speaks of a more interesting phenomenon, almost an embarrassment on the part of the administration about its river.
Even in the center of Rome the Tiber is a no-man’s land, a hinterland in the middle of the metropolis.
The day before #teverepulito Roma fa Schifo published a series of photos of syringes on the steps leading to the riverbanks. It is easy to point to the river’s blight, but people are only now starting to rediscover the river’s beauty. Which makes it all the more fascinating, and all the more worthy of attention.
I’m reposting an entry I wrote a few years ago in this season of back-t0-back holidays. Happy reading, and happy Easter, Pasquetta, Natale di Roma, Earth Day, Liberation Day, Workers Day (and happy anniversary to my wife Lucia!).
It has indeed been a strange spring so far in Rome. First, back in March we had the Ides (15) of March, the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne “miracle day” (16), the Rome Marathon (20) and the Spring Equinox (20), some of my favorite rites of Spring, all overshadowed by the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy on March 17th. Italian flags, usually only seen during World Cup season, sprouted everywhere. The Comune di Roma (a title which roughly means “municipality” and which is held by all cities and towns above a certain size) had the previous year essentially dissolved and changed its name to Roma Capitale, an entity with a unique status as the nation’s capital. Now the city was decked out to earn that title, at least symbolically.
April saw no let up in the festivities. April 21, Rome’s 2763rd birthday. April 22, the planet’s 41st Earth Day. April 24 Easter , April 25 Pasquetta (Lunedi’ degli Angeli). Sorry, Easter Monday just doesn’t say much, but this is a big holiday in Italy, famous for picnics in the countryside. April 25th is also St. Mark’s feast day in Venice. And April 25th the national holiday marking the defeat of Fascism by the partisans, one of the more important secular holidays in Rome, but this year the secular meaning was overshadowed by the religious pomp.
Not even a week later hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims started to arrive in Rome for the festivities marking the beatification of Pope John Paul II (JPII was the event’s catchy logo). Only six years after his death, he was on the fast track to sainthood and Rome was again decked out in kiosks and porta-potties ready for a big event. Where a month earlier there had been speeches praising Garibaldi and the defeat of the Papacy by the non-clerical Italian state in 1861, there were now images of the deceased Pope. Outside my studio the night of April 30, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims held a candlelight vigil. The following day, May 1, they flocked to St. Peter’s square to hear the current Pope officiate at the beatification ceremony.
But May 1 is already a holiday, one of the most important in Europe, celebrating workers and labor. Pasquetta had seen people out post-Easter picnicking instead of commemorating the defeat of Fascism; now a week later the Pope was stealing the thunder of the working class. After the morning’s events at St. Peter’s started to wind down, the annual union-sponsored free concert outside St. John’s in the Lateran started to get underway. Commentary about the “two piazzas” was not lacking. There were logistical glitches in both; many pilgrims couldn’t get anywhere St. Peter’s and the sound system at St. John’s, at least when I was there, was on the blink leaving the crowd confused but amused. At the latter, there was a strong presence of campaigning to promote the rights of socially precarious workers, the right to publicly managed water (a referendum will be held in June to fight planned privatization of this precious resource) and to reaffirm Italy’s long-held commitment to reject nuclear energy in favor of safer renewable alternatives. The other referendum in June is a vote to prevent the Italian head of state from avoiding to stand trial in the case of criminal allegations, and there has been a concerted effort on the part of the government to sabotage the referendum campaigns to lower the risk that any of these (but in particular this last one) should pass. I stayed clear of the pilgrimage events so I don’t know if the referendum was publicized there as well, but the Vatican has not to my knowledge taken a stand on any of the issues (although Vatican citizens can vote in the referendum).
During an interview with CNN several months ago I was asked about the Vatican and my only comment was that there seems to be a parasitic relationship between Rome and the “state within the city”, but that it wasn’t always clear which was the parasite and which the host. This weekend, Rome has “played host” on a big scale, plastering the city with images of JPII, kitsch souvenirs, setting up kiosks and toilets and turning a blind eye to pilgrims sleeping in the streets. This latter phenomenon is ironic since the city had just undergone a campaign to evict Rom residents and bulldoze their camps the week before to clean up the city for the event, causing the Rom to seek asylum in the extra-territorial church of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. Meanwhile, the battle continues for ten families who have lived for generations farming the land in the Aquafredda Park but are now facing eviction, by land’s “owner”, the Vatican.
It’s hard to live in Rome in view of Michelangelo’s cupola, breathing the fumes and risking death under the wheels of “Christian Rome” tour buses and Vatican-plated Mercedes everyday, and not feel a bit cynical.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Grande Bellezza is a feast for the senses, and as such is very much like the city it portrays. The city and the film are surreal, they make you laugh out loud, as Oliviero Toscani did on the program Piazza Pulita last week after watching a short expose on La Grande Monnezza, “the great trash heap” that is also Rome.
At the ceremony tonight to award Sorrentino honorary Roman citizenship, Carlo Verdone spoke eloquently of Rome’s state of “decomposition”, but also of how he believes Rome is always capable of resisting the decay into which it repeatedly falls. I was moved by Verdone’s words about the state of abandon of the Tiber and the importance of those of us who know how to love Rome, whether or not we were born here. Sorrentino, he pointed out, is just the latest in a long line of “foreign” directors who have shown Rome in a new poetic light.
Sorrentino’s words on the eternal city were less optimistic; he described Rome as a long series of errors from which the city never learns, a long and fruitless struggle to be contemporary. But he ended his poignant talk with an incredible list of “outtakes” from the film, “bellezze” that he has seen in Rome that didn’t appear in the film. A bizarre stream of consciousness description of those scenarios we can’t help but love, with all the decadence, hypocrisy and pure theatricality that makes Rome, well, Rome.
The party celebrating Rome’s new citizen was sedate compared to Jep Gambardelli’s parties in the film, but no less spectacular. Twilight on the Forum from the terrace of the Campidoglio, good company, abundant wine and food. What more could you want?
Spoiler alert: You may just want to skip the photos of the Roman “pedestrian areas” that greeted me upon leaving the Campidoglio. Yes, that is the turtle fountain on the left. No comments are necessary. Verdone is right, we who love Rome won’t let it fall again.
I’ve been following the Resilient Cities project of the Rockefeller Foundation for some time now with great interest and was spurred to write about it after a visit to the city’s waterfront yesterday. The Resilient Cities is about “making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.” The “Still Sustainable City” blog is based on the observation that Rome has done this again and again, always bouncing back. Yet it is overdue for a rebound. I fear that if it falls again it may not be able to get back on its feet.
The promise and the risk of Rome lies both in its heart, the Rome known to millions of tourists, and in its hinterland, where agricultural land and natural areas still resist the onslaught of urbanization. The entire historic center of Rome is a UNESCO heritage site, a fact that should give the administration the political mandate to enforce civic guidelines. After all, the economy thrives on tourism and visitors stay longer, return more frequently and spend more money when they find the city clean, hospitable, ethical and safe. At present it is hard to apply these adjectives to this admittedly fantastic city. But that can change.
Outside of the center the traces of “campagna romana” are fast disappearing, giving way to shopping malls and housing projects. The culture of local food is strong but not strong enough to resist the “wall of money” that accompanies real estate speculation. This has to change if the city is to maintain its resilient evolution, and thankfully there are lots of organizations working toward this goal.
In Ostia yesterday with students from Iowa State University we met with Giacomina di Salvo, the Assessore (councilor?) of Urban Planning for the XIII Municipio who was very helpful in explaining the challenges facing her department and the opportunities presented by projects like the Rockefeller Foundation one. The contradictions between the dramatic coastline, breathtaking historical and natural habitat sites, and illegal or unplanned growth are striking. But the potential to change is huge!
ROME’S RESILIENCE CHALLENGE
The entire historical center of Rome is a UNESCO heritage site, which is highly vulnerable to stresses and shocks. Urban growth represents a significant challenge to the ability of the city—and its metropolitan area at large—to function as a whole, both under normal and exceptional conditions. The inheritance of decades of poorly regulated urban growth, informal housing developments, low-quality neighborhood planning, inadequate infrastructure provision, and sprawl, has made the city highly vulnerable to external shocks and stresses. Rome includes large expanses of still viable rural land and natural reserves, and sees resilience as a key component of a larger strategy aimed at making the city more sustainable and efficient in the long term. – from the Resilient City project website.