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Trastevere East, Resolving a Dysfunctional Site

November 11, 2016
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This semester I have tasked my students from the Cal Poly Architecture Program with studying a neighborhood of Rome that has always fascinated me, Trastevere East, opposite Ponte Palatino. After years of looking at unwieldy and problematic sites, from Porta Portese to Testaccio to the Fori Imperiali archaeological park, I decided to move back to the historic center, to focus on the dense urban fabric that makes Rome great. I wanted a site that could be read and recognized on the Nolli Plan (the imperial fora were obliterated by Mussolini).
Located at the edge of the Tiber by Porta Ripa Grande, roughly bounded by the Papal walls to the south at Porta Portese, Viale Trastevere to the west, and the river to the north and east.
Historically it has been marked by river ports and the presence of immigrants. It has the feel of a village which is dwarfed strangely by the presence of several large institutions: such as the former San Michele convent, now the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the international ICCROM conservation organization, the ministry of education on Viale Trastevere, hospitals, churches and the Ministry of Health building opposite Ponte Palatino. Our working hypothesis —entirely polemical and admittedly unrealistic— envisions this last ministry moving to a healthier location and its building here being dismantled, at least in part.
This site is typically Roman in so many ways. Although located at the river’s edge, the connection is tenuous at best. Between the village-like streets of Trastevere and the Tiber flows a sea of cars and trucks and other motor-vehicles with few places for people to safely cross. We are in the center of town but encounter things we expect at the city’s margins: a gas station, homeless camps, and long stretches of wide high-speed roadway. Fifteen meters below the city streets the Tiber banks are overgrown, forgotten, peaceful yet slightly menacing, like a room you have always been warned not to enter.
My students analyzed the natural and anthropic systems. They observed both the positive pervasiveness of green, poking up in the cracks and climbing facades, and the invasive presence of motor vehicles, also finding their way through every possible passage and parked on any horizontal surface.
As their projects take form many are proposing radical transformations of the traffic flow, removing cars from Ponte Palatino, moving them under or above street level, in order to re-connect the ancient Via Aurelia with the other side of the Tiber, the Foro Boario and beyond the Roman Forum. This is understandable, since right now the poor pedestrian has little hope of surviving a stroll along this natural pathway. But I’ve encouraged soft solutions based on my conviction that the massive presence of motor-vehicles in cities is destined to fade, as it already has in most European and many American cities. The Lungotevere in Trastevere, unlike the Charles River in Boston, is part of the city fabric and shouldn’t be considered a north-south artery for motor-vehicles (something that needs to be conceived elsewhere). I’m encouraging traffic-calming efforts, more traffic lights with longer pedestrian priorities, speed tables, shared space, all aimed at making it harder, not easier, for cars to get through Trastevere. And vice versa, easier for people.

 

Bureaucracy and the Barista

September 11, 2016
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What would happen if Italy’s most brilliant workers were tasked with civic roles?

I went to the Roma Capitale Ufficio Relazioni con i Cittadini the other day to check on why I had no response to my emails. Nice offices, with great art by Alice Pasquini behind the photocopier.

No one was at the front desk so I waited, ten minutes later someone came in, walked passed me, then turned back and asked what I was doing there. I explained and they went into the back room, where there were three of four people chatting, and a child at a computer terminal. After 15 minutes the nice staff person was able to tell me that the mails had been received, but not why I had received no response.

So I went to get a coffee. It got me thinking.

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Imagine if Rome’s public administration were handled by its barista’s:

  • l’ufficio postale: postal worker’s juggling bills and packages to ensure that no one has to waste more than a minute in line
  • atac: public transit on time, everyone pays, and in the seconds of downtime between passenger rushes employees wipe down the stations to keep them sparkling
  • ama: trash trucks maintained with pride, dumpsters always in their place, regularly emptied, and employees ready to greet citizens with a smile, but to reprimand them for dirtying the public realm.
  • roma capitale: a clear and simple programme is posted for all to see and any request is met with a timely and friendly response.

If a Roman bar were administered by its public administration: 

  • You aren’t sure if the bar is open, where the door is, or what its hours are.  You finally get in through a side door but can’t figure out what they have on the menu or what the prices are.
  • There are lots of people behind the bar but no one asks for your order.
  • When you finally ask for an espresso the employee looks at you like no one has ever made such a request and says they will look into it. Then they light a cigarette and start texting.
  • Someone else gets a cappuccino and leaves without paying so you do the same.  Then, when the bar goes bankrupt for lack of business the staff demonstrates to complain about not receiving their salaries and bonuses.

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Moving Rome

August 31, 2016
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Returning from summer travels, which had me driving an SUV from Phoenix to Los Angeles(!!) but also reconnecting with my sustainable urbanism roots with visits to native American cliff-dwellings and Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, I am beginning the semester back in Rome with a short note of optimism about MOBILITY. 
This week I attended 2 open meetings of Roma Capitale’s Mobility Commission (led by 5-star movement councilor Enrico Stefano‘) during which city officials and technicians listened (really) to proposals by citizens and associations and answered (intelligently) with pretty concrete information. For example, in answer to the decades-old request for a “Bike Manager” instead of saying we are working on it they appointed Paolo Bellino and after years of talk we finally have a single person accountable for urban cycling mobility (poor Paolo!). When asked about the timeline for bike lanes and bike sharing Stefano’ was rightly reluctant to make “campaign promises”  which couldn’t be kept, but simply by speaking about the problems and solutions intelligently he exuded confidence that these solutions are in the works. Simple solutions, like shaving a couple of meters from the wide consular roads to create bike lanes, like eliminating the fake bike lanes on sidewalks and making real ones, like providing bike parking outside transit hubs. And like seriously launching  a European bike-sharing system (the one former mayors promised by “the end of March”). I hope Stefano’ (who also answers tweets!!) and Pietro Calabrese (who co-chairs the commission and actually arrived by bike!)  are indicative of the quality of administrators we can expect in the years to come. 
But what really makes me optimistic is that upon leaving the meeting in the pouring rain which flooded streets and blocked traffic, I biked a few blocks, decided to stay dry and (folding my bike) hopped on the urban rail from Ostiense to Monteverde and was home in no time. Ostiense station, which until last year provided a gruesome spectacle to those heading to Eataly or Italo, was now clean and devoid of the usual homeless encampment.  It almost felt like a modern European city for a change. 
There is still much to be done of course. Later after the rain subsided, as I biked back to my studio, I passed the new tram stop at Porta Portese. After years, the #3 tram actually runs on this line again, cause for celebration. The stop has been redesigned, the street has been repaved. It could use a sheltered waiting area and some benches but that may arrive.
What really catches my eye here, the huge contradiction which I’m sure has its origins in some disconnect in the city hierarchy, is the “temporary” barrier which prevents pedestrians from reaching the tram stop when coming from Porta Portese.  The ramp is literally blocked by barricades and a sign saying “no pedestrians”.  I’m very curious to know what happened here. Did the designers count on a pedestrian crosswalk which no one has yet implemented?  Did someone just say “that’s dangerous” and instead of a solution they put up a sign and walked away?  This one I’ll be monitoring, waiting for the day that people can get off the tram and cross the street to the city’s biggest weekly marketplace without having to climb a fence. Until then, if sustainablerome can be of any assistance to the city’s mobility team, we’re here to help.
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Porta Portese: the tram stops here but you can’t get to it!
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Rome’s New Administration, Benvenuti

July 11, 2016
Rome from Gianicolo Hill

I’ve been considering for a few weeks what to write to welcome Rome’s new city administration. It would be presumptuous to offer expert advice unless requested (never stopped me before), but every time I look at the city I think of problems, projects, and priorities.

To quote a university president with whom I met the other day, if you have twenty priorities you have no priorities. Now that the Mayor has defined her staff, ten motivated professionals ready to get to work, I’ve decided to humbly suggest one priority for each, hoping that my “immigrant” point of view with twenty-five years of experience working on civic design issues may be of interest and even of use.

Sindaco Virginia Raggi’s priority should be to mediate between the people and her staff, to assure that, on the one, hand the voice of the people reaches the right ears and, on the other, that the work of her staff is communicated to her constituency. This can be done quite easily (and the Movimento 5 Stelle has vast experience with this) with a range of social media tools, direct emails, and public assemblies, with no need for traditional media like newspapers or television. If a citizen has an idea or makes an observation, she should be able to communicate it in minutes to the city and receive a timely response. 

 

Il vicesindaco Daniele Frongia con delega allo Sport (Assessorato alla Qualità della vita, Accessibilità, Sport e Politiche giovanili)

As Vice-Sindaco I image Mr. Frongia will have his hands full assisting the Mayor, but in terms of Quality of Life, Accessibility and Sport, I think the priority should be to make it safe and pleasant to walk or bike in Rome again. This city has fallen into the ironic trap of most American communities, where people drive their cars to the gym to work out, or simply drive because they are scared to walk.

In America in recent years younger people have been abandoning car ownership, saving money and living healthier lives. In my opinion, Mr. Frongia should launch a campaign to make daily life in the city a healthy activity for all citizens, not just an extreme survival sport for the brave few.

 

Marcello Minenna, assessore al Bilancio e Partecipate (Assessorato al Bilancio, Patrimonio e riorganizzazione delle Partecipate)

Money is key to any city’s administration, and Mr. Minenna’s job is to ensure “accountability”, a concept for which there isn’t even a word in the Italian language. This means collecting debts, leveraging assets and thinking creatively of new sources of revenue. The lost opportunities are heartbreaking: uncollected fines for millions of traffic violations, underutilized public property, mismanaged funds, and red tape which scares away foreign investment. I tried to facilitate a meeting between a foreign donor and Mr. Minenna’s predecessor a few years back and the office didn’t even return my calls. So, Mr. Minenna, please finish the job begun by the Marino administration, get the accounts in order, however many 16-hour days it takes, and then publish the results online where everyone can see the city’s books.

Paolo Berdini, assessore all’Urbanistica (Assessorato all’Urbanistica e infrastrutture)

I have read with great interest Mr. Berdini’s writings for years, and share his goal of quelling the rampant and often corrupt real-estate development that has marred Rome for decades. But his job now is to direct growth, not just block it. I don’t know what happened to the job title but when Giovanni Caudo, another respectable urbanist, held the role until last year it focused on “urban regeneration”. This should be Mr. Berdini’s number one priority, to continue Caudo’s mission to locate those underutilized or abandoned pockets of property which give Rome the quality of swiss cheese, to render it not just possible but convenient (using a combination of incentives and regulation) for private entrepreneurs to give these properties back to the city as innovative developments or green spaces.

 

Laura Baldassarre, assessore al Sociale (Assessorato alla Persona, Scuola e Comunità solidale) Ms. Baldassarre’s underlying priority must be integration; Rome has always been a multi-cultural capital and it has immense human resources going to waste or  worse, under attack. The first job is a census of the marginalized, but an “operational census” where situations which are unacceptable are not just noted but resolved on the spot.  A child found begging on the street or a family living in a trailer must be treated as emergencies to be solved within hours, not years.

 

Luca Bergamo, assessore alla Cultura (Assessorato alla Crescita culturale). I like the term “cultural growth” and like to think this doesn’t mean an increase in cultural venues and events (Rome already has plenty) but increased access to and benefit from the culture which already crowds the city. Culture must thrive, not just struggle to survive. The priority should be to manage it better; each museum or monument should have one clear Director held accountable for operations, for hiring and firing personnel, for fundraising and marketing. Once this is working, we can simplify procedures for new cultural proposals.

 

Linda Meleo, assessore ai Trasporti (Assessorato alla Città in movimento)

Here I’m going to break my own rule that limited me to a single priority; several priorities must be addressed simultaneously for mobility to break out of the dysfunctional loop it has been in for years.

  1. Eliminate free parking. Enforcing the rules on the books to penalize drivers who park illegally can start today (what are you waiting for?) would make the option of driving in Rome much less attractive. Then more gradually, eliminate the legal free parking zones and raise the fees on the paid parking, the only choice left for those who insist on using cars in the city center.
  2. Hold ATAC responsible for its schedules. If a bus or metro doesn’t leave the capolinea on schedule someone must pay a price, from the driver on up to the CEO. Once the existing schedule works, look at rationalizing it.
  3. By eliminating many cars from the city streets, the first two priorities already make Rome a much more bike and pedestrian friendly city.  To complete the emergency job in the next month, get some good white paint and use it to create a. pedestrian zebra-stripe crossings, lots of them, especially where they have been eliminated in recent months, and b. bike lanes, narrowing too-wide streets, or inserting them where illegal cars have been removed, everywhere (the biking associations will help you).

These are pretty big jobs and require some investment, so starting to enforce the traffic laws seems a no-brainer.  Making motorists pay for their dangerous and illegal behavior will bring in the cash needed short-term and eliminate the problem long term.  I don’t know if Ms. Mileo has the authority to compel the police to do their job, but I assume Mayor Raggi does.

 

Adriano Meloni, assessore al Commercio (Assessorato allo Sviluppo economico, Turismo e Lavoro)

The question comes to mind, why is tourism severed from culture to be relegated with commerce, but as long as the team plays together it isn’t important. Rome needs to move in the direction of more civilized capitals, supporting activities which follow the rules, pay taxes and help preserve tradition of promote innovation. The priority should be to simultaneously break monopolies and enforce regulations. It should be easy to open a business within the law and impossible to run a business outside the law. To ensure this, the rules must be made clear and enforcement must be immediate and ruthless. It would be fantastic to see on the Assessore’s website a very clear regolamento and to never see a violation of these rules in the city. Like with mobility, existing (rampant) violations provide a much-needed temporary source of revenues to fund the department’s work.

 

Paola Muraro, assessore all’Ambiente (Assessorato alla Sostenibilità ambientale)

It’s very hard to pinpoint one priority, as Rome is losing many battles: waste management, air quality, water quality, all are suffering. But in the same way Marino chose one symbolic priority in Via dei Fori Imperiali, I’m going to suggest that Ms. Murano focus on Rome’s forgotten resource, the Tiber, which has been much in the news of late for good (Tevereterno’s Triumphs and Laments by William Kentridge) and bad (cheap commerce, homeless and homicides).  There are pragmatic projects ready to be examined which could eliminate the flooding, clean the water and render the river again navigable to become a river park in the heart of Rome. The river would be a good start in the re-greening of Rome.

 

Flavia Marzano, assessore alla Semplificazione (Assessorato Roma semplice). I’m not sure what to say about this somewhat Orwellian concept of “Simplification”.  Like the Assessorato of “legality” (which seems to have disappeared) this should be the underlying goal for everyone in the administration. Should we have a commissioner of Honesty and a commissioner of Niceness or Punctuality? I’m in favor of granting Ms. Marzano or the Mayor herself one special delega, that of accountability, to ensure that this great staff get the job done or pay the price for failing.

 

On Christo’s Floating Piers project

June 24, 2016
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One great way of reflecting on Rome is to go elsewhere for a few days and then come back.  For the past couple of days that place has been Brescia and Lake Iseo, site of Christo’s latest site-specific art work, Floating Piers (and I’m writing on the train back toward the Capital).   Read more…

Rays of Sunlight on an Ecologically-challenged Rome

June 7, 2016

Nothing compares to Rome. Each day in the Roman life  brings experiences you would be lucky to encounter in a year elsewhere in the world, encounters with art, history, architecture, music, ideas. Extraordinary people, extraordinary places. In some places beauty is available only to the wealthy;  in Rome so much is free to those willing to open their eyes and explore.

 

But every silver lining has a cloud around it, and framing those extraordinary jewels Rome presents some of the most outrageous afflictions, out of place in any capital city, especially in the “developed” world.  It would be as tiresome to list them as it is annoying to have to report them to the authorities knowing that they will probably remain unresolved.

The situation has reached a turning point and Romans (including adopted ones like myself and many others) are rolling up their sleeves and working to fix what is broken. Some could examples were pointed out by Elisabetta Povoledo in this article in the New York Times last month.

There are many others, emerging from grassroots movements with focuses such as public space advocacy, transit equity, social justice, and environmental protection. From Urban Cyclists to Guerrilla Gardeners, Rome is teaming with smart organizations that know how to leverage digital media to obtain media visibility and get change done.

Miraculously, even the world of politics is catching up, launching programs for Rome which go beyond populist demagoguery to address tangible, simple challenges.

This weekend Romans voted for a successor to Mayor Ignazio Marino, who won by a landslide three years ago but was forced out of office after his work to fight corruption started to bear fruit. His own “democratic” party, (PD) met behind closed doors to force his resignation.

In the first round of elections this weekend a majority of voters chose to abandon the old political parties, especially the PD, and elect a young lawyer, Virginia Raggi, with no ties to traditional party politics.  Raggi’s platform addresses the specific problems faced by Rome and offers simple solutions, not unlike those that were being implemented by Marino when he stepped down.

The reason a Raggi government would be different is that she is not a pawn of the political system; they can’t remove her the way they did Marino.  She could enact change quickly and efficiently, starting with the simple application of existing laws, and removing public officials and employees of city controlled agencies (AMA and ATAC at the top) who neglect to carry out their obligations, a situation that has gone on far too long.

It’s too early to announce change; an old-style PD government might still be elected. If this happened, it would be a clear sign that most Romans are happy with the system as it is. And non-Romans will continue to see Rome as a cool place for a short visit, not to stay too long and certainly not a place in which to invest.

Rome in the New York Times

April 29, 2016

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An article this week in the Europe section of the New York Times cites blogger Tom Rankin’s efforts to bring attention back to the Tiber through the work of the association he directs, Tevereterno Onlus.

“Our mission is about reactivating a public space that we think has been forgotten, taking an abandoned piece of infrastructure and using site-specific contemporary art to make that space a place once again,” said Tom Rankin, the director of Tevereterno, a nonprofit organization.

Tevereterno requisitioned this downtown section of the Tiber more than a decade ago to create a dedicated public space for contemporary art, called Piazza Tevere.

Today it wants arts projects — Mr. Kentridge’s mural has been the most ambitious so far — to change the way Romans think about the river, acting as a “catalyst for change along the river’s lengths,” Mr. Rankin added.

Most capital cities with rivers, he noted, “have cleaned up their act long since.”

Here’s the link to the complete article.