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Grande Bellezza

March 14, 2014


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.

IMG_3187Paolo SorrentinoIMG_3189IMG_3169

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.

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Rome: Resilient City

February 28, 2014
American Architecture Students exploring the neighborhoods of the still sustainable city.

American Architecture Students exploring the neighborhoods of the still sustainable city.

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!

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.

Magnificent Rome

February 11, 2014

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while might recognize some of this post, an updating of one entitled Extraordinary Rome from a year back.  Having been selected by Guardian Cities as the #1 City Blog in Italy, I’m seeing a huge boom in readers and decided to bring to the top some writing that didn’t get read as much as it could have.

Between the posts I write on the bilingual Forum Roma Sostenibile, my tweets @tgrankin, or posts on Facebook as tgrankin or romasostenibile I am reaching a growing readership.  I figure sustainability and the city are themes that should interest the administration of Rome.  Occasionally I get indirect word of projects, conventions, press conferences, etc. on related themes so I thought I should get on the press list.  Having met Marco Girella,  Capo Ufficio Stampa, and having his business card handy, I recently sent an email but have not yet received as much as an automated response.  Perhaps the “press office” is understaffed (though from the figures posted here not underpaid). It’s really surprising that I get answers from various government offices, including the White House,  but not from the City of Rome press office,  one that I would expect to be most savvy when it comes to communications.  Today I got a nice phone call from a staff member at the press office apologizing for any confusion and explaining that she had inserted our contact into the city press list;  in fact, she was surprised that nothing had arrived.  But she didn’t understand that it is normal, when receiving an email with a request, to answer directly.  I don’t know, something like “thanks for your query, we have inserted your name into the mailing list. Please let us know if you have other questions.”

I also got a confused phone call from another government office, that of the President of the First Municipio, apologising for having accidentally cancelled an appointment that the President herself had made. The “weather emergency” (it has been raining a lot as it does here in winter) was invoked as a justification for the impossibility of nailing down a 10 minute appointment.  How hard is it to answer emails and schedule appointments, something that seems so “normal” in other cultures?

Rome is not a “normal” city but an extraordinary (straordinaria) one.  In seeking to make it more “sustainable” I like to think we are making it more like itself and less like normal, standard, global cities. We don’t want Rome to be Tokyo or Vancouver or even Paris.  Sustainability means providing the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to provide for their needs, and Rome has been doing that pretty well for dozens of centuries—thus the “still” in this blog’s title.

A sustainable Rome doesn’t need to be less passionate, less chaotic, less magical, less comically astounding, less Roman.  There are centuries of accumulated experiences, materials, traces, memories and more to be shared and only a fool would try to clean that up and replace it with a sanitized “green city.”  A sustainable Rome would be filled with sounds, smells, tastes, chance encounters, vistas, poetry and contrasts.  Minus certain blight that we have come to associate with the city: motor-vehicles, globalized advertising, disorganized waste, privatized common space and resources, and a handful of other common injustices. Fighting these doesn’t necessarily mean fighting Rome any more than curing a disease necessarily means killing the patient.

It’s not an easy task to get Rome back on course, but neither is it “idealism” as I so often hear.  Italians adapt pretty well to change when it has clear advantages (the internet is pretty much ubiquitous now but I remember in the late nineties working for an internet company and hearing that Italians would never get on board!).  This weekend we will see the streets of Rome filled with bicycles, as it has more and more of late, and those willing to make the switch will realize that cycling is another win-win for Rome.  The same can be said of a return to more frugal lifestyles which consume less energy, water and other resources  and produce less trash.

We’re talking about improving the quality of life for everyone, launching sustainable economic growth, and if you want to wave the sustainability flag as well, yes, ensuring that future generations can also provide for their needs. What’s not to like?

On the road

January 13, 2014

Project drawing for pedestrian connection from Auditorium to Foro Italico

Project drawing for pedestrian connection from Auditorium to Foro Italico

Google Street View image of the pedestrian crossing at the end of Ponte della Musica

Google Street View image of the pedestrian crossing at the end of Ponte della Musica


Cleaning up the Tiber banks near Ponte della Musica (Jan 2014)

Cleaning up the Tiber banks near Ponte della Musica (Jan 2014)

In honor of this blog’s selection by Guardian Cities for the top city blog’s list, I am updating and reposting some past blogs, starting with this one written exactly one year ago but as relevant as ever.  Update: the connection between the new Ponte della Musica bridge and the riverside walkway/bikeway below has been completed. The ramp from the bike path below to the road above is completed but still fenced off inexplicably.  And, thanks to last weekend’s work by Retake Roma (along with participation of association’s like Tevereterno and various Rome-based university programs), the river banks are cleaner than ever.  But…

The last step always seems the hardest in this city.  New pavement is laid, at great expense, in pedestrian areas, but we can’t keep cars from driving over it. Great buildings are constructed, or restored, but we can’t keep the walls free from illegal posters or the sidewalk in front of them free for people to walk.  Fuksas’ Nuvola is nearing completion, at a cost of well over 300 million euros, but the walk to it from the metro still takes you along the frightening edge of a high-speed road with no sidewalk, right through a roadside gas station!  Interested new didactic signs have been exhibited in the well-constructed viewing area overlooking the Circus Maximus, but they are too far away to read through the gate, which has yet to be unlocked, although the project was completed years ago.  A drinking fountain placed a decade ago in front of the Arch of Janus runs continuously, but no one has ever been able to drink from it because a fence keeps the public out.

It has been over a year since the inauguration of the impressive pedestrian bridge dubbed Ponte della Musica, design by London-based firm Buro Happold in collaboration with Powell-Williams Architects which I have written about previously.  The parking garage at the end of Via Guido Reni seems open, although cars are still piled up on the sidewalk and pedestrian crossing all around.  The expensive work has been done;  now it’s time for the easy stuff.  Like a safe way to cross the street.

Yesterday evening, at the end of a long day with architecture students which began at St. Peter’s, took us through EUR and Ostia Lido, and ended at Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi, we experienced the current state of the pedestrian route, and it was pretty disappointing.   The sidewalk alongside MAXXI, in fact all the way from Piano’s Auditorium to the river,  is in poor shape, and the intersections were blocked by cars as usual.  Nothing indicates the “cultural axis” that is potentially so compelling.  Simple street furniture or distinctive paving or signage would be a plus.

Once you arrive at the river, the redesigned Piazza above the parking garage looks ok but doesn’t lend itself to continuity;  to get across the street requires elaborate zigzagging, a 20 meter detour off axis to a cross-walk with a light which is green for pedestrians and turning cars at the same time, a formula for disaster.  Safely on the bridge, the views are great but there is still no connection down to the river banks, which are still a construction site.

The worst of it is at the other end of the bridge, though, where the axis continues to Luigi Moretti’s Fencing Hall and the other sports facilities of the Foro Italico.  Street illumination is dim and four lanes of cars speed at upwards of 80 km/hour (despite the city-wide 50 kph limit).  There is a faded crosswalk, and no light, between you and the bus stop.  Needless to say, getting across is terrifying.  I was not surprised to read that a pedestrian was killed by a car on this road late last night, adding to the already huge number of pedestrian and cyclist victims of killer cars in this city.

I can imagine a number of traffic calming solutions for this site, a traffic light being the most obvious, but not the most interesting or effective.  The goal is to slow down cars, and discourage drivers from even using them in the city where they already wreak havoc.  Narrowing the road to one lane in each direction, with lots of obstacles like trees, bollards, benches, etc. around which cars have to navigate, would have the effect of giving the street back to people. The only vehicles that should be allowed straight through are public buses, which brings me to the final part of the story.

Of course this location, where thousands of cars hurtle themselves toward the historical center on a Saturday night, is part of a larger problem.  They go knowing they can park for free just about anywhere, or for a negligible 1 euro an hour.  And they know the alternative is a transit system that fails o perform to standards.

A city like Rome cannot continue to accept a bus system which has vehicles, drivers, and even some sophisticated software but absolutely no dependability.  We were trying to get a 271,  an important bus, which connects Prati and the Centro Storico, in the early evening on a Saturday. You can make out the bus stop in the Google Street View image above on the left. When there are games at the nearby stadium the sidewalk is taken over by cars so you have to walk in the street to get near the bus stop.  The electronic readout showed no trace of the 271, and when I connected my iphone to the ATAC real-time server the results were, well, disconcerting.  No 271, and very few other buses.  As we attempted to use the few buses running to get to our destination, I captured this listing for a busy stop in the heart of the bustling neighborhood of Prati.  This is a sad state of affairs which Rome has to rectify.

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A screenshot of the bus availability at a busy stop in Prati at 7:00 pm on Saturday. Incredible.

6 obvious questions no one thinks to ask about Rome (or any city)

December 12, 2013

1. Why do public buildings close at night? So many big institutions such as universities, schools, museums, ministries, city offices are empty more than they are full. Why not employ more people in less space by letting work get done around the clock, in shifts? There are far more advantages than disadvantages. Think about it.

2. Vice-versa, why don’t more people work at home, rather than leaving their homes empty all day? Much of the work we do can be done anywhere we have internet. Instead of the daily exodus from home to work and back we should be seeing a constant buzz of decentralized movement in an efficient, constantly peak transit system.

3. Why do municipal police need cars? I mean, I understand why taxi drivers need cars, and UPS guys need trucks, but the police only use their cars to drive a few blocks and then leave them double-parked while they sit in them or stand next to them. They would be much more unencumbered if they just walked around like they do in other cities. If they really need to chase a criminal, a car isn’t going to help them in this city; bike would be faster by far. And if they need to get across town for some reason they can take transit or call a cab.

4. Why do we provide places for people to throw their trash for free? If people are going to  acquire stuff they don’t need and can’t use, they should be willing to deal with it. If I bring home a bunch of junk I have to find a place to put it, or eventually rent more space, but we still act as if there is some “away” where we can throw our waste and forget about it. We should charge people rent on the space their waste takes up, for its full lifetime.

5. Why do people look up to politicians? People that work in public administration are really at the lowest rung in the ladder;  they serve at the pleasure of the most common citizens who can vote them in or out and who pay their salaries, which by the way, are outrageously high. I respect good politicians and enjoy talking to them, as I would the barista or my barber, yet I don’t feel particular reverence for them. We would be in awe of our teachers, our farmers and our artists. But I don’t remember the last time I saw a motorcade cutting through red lights and blocking traffic because a farmer needed to get to her garden or a schoolteacher to his class.

6. Why do we let regular people drive motor vehicles? These things kill thousands of times more people than firearms, use priceless and finite resources, and have a huge negative impact on the quality of life in our cities and yet we just act as if it’s normal that a guy can drive one around to get from place to place. Cars should be used as rarely as chain saws and only for jobs for which they are uniquely suited, like carrying a bunch of people or stuff to remote, out-of-the-way destinations.

Pragmatic Optimism

September 27, 2013


I was asked the other day how I thought the new administration of Rome, in office now since June, was progressing.  My answer was positive, but with reserve.  I shook hands with the new mayor on June 13th when he took often and pleaded with him to “make us proud”, which he promised to do.  Yesterday we met again, at the presentation of Pietro Abbate’s interesting book Fare di Roma un capolavoro,  and I congratulated him on living up to his promise, so far.

The “reserve” comes from the daily experience we all share in Rome–the long list of annoyances from the cars blocking the wheelchair ramps to the dirty, inefficient transit system to the blah blah blah, the list goes on.   Numerous blogs and twitter feeds document this continuously and I have suggested previously that before the mayor expends too much effort on sensational new urban initiatives it would behoove him to enforce basic rules of civic behavior, starting with public officials.  I think that is starting to happen.

After many failed attempts I recently received a fantastic response from a member of the mayor’s staff.  I won’t quote it in full here, nor does it matter who the exact author is.  The overall message was on-target:  this city needs “maintenance” in order to become a “normal city” where daily life is less exhausting and where rules are respected.  But the letter went on to affirm that Rome will never be a  “normal city”;  an observation I made in a previous post “Extraordinary Rome“.  It must be an extraordinary city where normal civic standards are only the lowest common denominator.


Bit by bit, slowly (much too slowly), with growing citizen participation which Abbate points out is key, this is starting to become a reality.  Yesterday I saw one less car in the pedestrian area outside the cultural superintendency (why not eliminate all these cars?), one more ticket on an car parked in a tow-away zone by the Campidoglio (why not tow them all?), one more bus departing on schedule.

Thus, I continue to hold a “pragmatic optimism” that Rome is on track to see a cultural, civic, and (why not) economic revival in days, months and years to come.

From 41 to 14 celsius in one kilometer

August 12, 2013


Rome in August used to be like Cape Cod in February.  Where there were usually traffic jams, now there was peace and quiet, and hours of battling crowds turned to minutes of blissfully unhindered flow. While the contrast is not as totalizing as it once was–few can afford the long vacations and many have discovered the joys of August in Rome–there is still a refreshing seasonal shift.  Yes, it is hot, and the plethora of air-conditioning units everywhere make the streets feel hotter, but stone monuments, dark medieval churches and the shade of rock pines still absorb and block the summer heat.  A trip to the coast or to the mountains or both can still be made in a day.

In summer I start my days early, opening up all the windows to let the cool night air penetrate my home or studio.  The alibi of August means any writing or drawing I do gets extra credit, what might normally seem stressful because of deadlines becomes satisfying in summer.  It’s okay to take stay up late and sleep in the next morning.  Gelato in the morning, why not?  Sure, take a siesta. Everything is more relaxed in Italy, and still more so in August.

stone monuments, dark medieval churches and the shade of rock pines still absorb and block the summer heat

Cruising Napoli.  Last week I spent two non-consecutive days in Naples scouting for a fall program, visiting Posillipo, Pozzuoli and Cuma one day, Herculaneum, Oplontis and (cringe) Pompeii another.  The city emptied of its chaos felt strangely like going back in time,  to an era of few autos zipping through grand spaces and along winding roads between craggy rocks and shimmering sea.  Compared to Rome I found in Naples something I would never have expected, a respect for civic order.  Even the gypsy parking attendants showed a certain conscientious attention to public space, directing us to park where the car wouldn’t be an obstacle.  But I am probably just projecting.

Rolling Rome.  In Rome, little more than an hour away by fast train, I spent a day with a couple from Washington, D.C., she a retired English teachier, he a retired architect confined to a wheelchair and interested in seeing modern and contemporary architecture. It wasn’t the first time I had faced this challenge–I had consulted with Howard Chabner  on an evaluation of Rome from an accessibility standpoint in 2005 and again in 2012–but it hadn’t become any easier.  A sweltering hot day, and a Monday to boot, when most museums were closed, the challenge of finding a shady, naturally cool or air-conditioned respite was made nearly impossible by small barriers that able-bodied travellers wouldn’t notice.  Often there are curb cuts at one intersection but not  at the other end, or when they are there are cars blocking them.  Luckily my foodie friend Katie  was along to facilitate, scouting ahead to find possible routes and potential obstacles.  When slow-going meant finding a lunch spot earlier than expected she tracked down some options and we settled on Perilli al Flaminio which wasn’t bad, although a bit pricy for what we had. We were able to overcome the small step at the entrance (thanks to some scrap lumber and some helping hands from the construction site next door) and coax the owner into turning on the air-conditioning.  In Rome people are always willing to help out, as long as it’s not really their job to do so.  Sadly both Renzo Piano’s Auditorium and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI were inaccessible, not by design but by management, the public spaces closed for construction and the Monday closing hours applied absurdly not just to the museum but to its piazza.  A long day ended getting  (good!) gelato at Neve di Latte while waiting for the (great!) accessible and air-conditioned taxi to arrive.

The next day, after a short and fast ride on the Freccia Rossa,  I am baking on a terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples.

Hiking Abruzzo. And the following day, I am baking in a campground in Abruzzo on the other coast,  30 km. from the Adriatic Sea, at the base of the highest mountain I have ever climbed.  La Majella (prounounced “my-yella”) is the second highest peak of the Appenines after Gran Sasso.  From the fantastic campground we happened upon, Kokopelli, run by a delightful English couple Kevin and Jackie (sp?), it was a half-hour drive to the end of the road but the temperature dropped from 41 to 14 centigrade (105 to 57) as the elevation rose by a kilometer.  We encountered two Tibetan monks (!) descending from the trails;  I bowed instinctively and was greeted with a smiling, accented “buon giorno”.

The next day, we left camp at 7:00 am, were at the bakery preparing sandwiches at 7;30 and packed and walking away from the car at 8:00. For the next 3 hours we climbed and climbed, through cool pine forests (Pino Mugo) and up rocky inclines.  At a certain point we paused in a crevice which was cool and shady and I took off my sweat-drenched t-shirt to dry it in the sun and put on a warm sweatshirt and ate dried fruit and drank cool water.  We still had a ways to climb to reach the “bivacco Fusco”.  There we saw a herd of chamois running across the snow and up the steep slopes of Monte Focalone. When we finally got to Monte Focalone, the chamois were nowhere to be seen and the landscape was hot and dry, shards of flaky grey stone like slate crunching under our feet. By day’s end we had been hiking for close to eight hours straight, covering almost a vertical kilometer!

Finally, to complete the picture of extreme contrasts, the week ended in ice. Not the glacier visible in the north-face of La Maiella but the aftermath of a sudden hailstorm that struck Caramanico Terme and left the ground thick with white ice and the rooftops of the village looking like ski season. Glad we weren’t on the mountain at the time, or at the beach, or anywhere but under cover. I’ve come to expect weird weather, and seen snow, flooding, earthquakes and drought within the same region and  almost the same season, but this week drove home the magnificent, spectacular power of nature.

Negotiating accessibility-challenged streets of Rome

Negotiating accessibility-challenged streets of Rome
Posillipo, Naples

Posillipo, Naples

Camping Kokopelli, Abruzzo

Camping Kokopelli, Abruzzo

Caramanico post-hail storm

Caramanico post-hail storm



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