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(Re)Inventing Rome

December 4, 2019

I attended the launch of Rome’s participation in the C40 Inventing Cities competition today and was pleasantly surprised and inspired to form a team to participate. When I think back to the early 2000s when I launched Sustainable Rome, it was so rare to hear anyone talk about carbon-neutral and resilient urban regeneration. Now I hear these words coming from the Mayor of Rome! And even more impressive, from the President of FS – Sistemi Urbani (a branch of the national railway which owns a lot of abandoned or underutilized urban real estate). Everyone is now rising to the challenge of carbon neutral urban development and regeneration. It’s about time.

The seven themes of my book Rome Works are all applicable in evaluating (and planning) projects for the five sites selected for Rome. In fact, years ago I did a project for the Mira Lanza site which addressed water, waste, energy, mobility, and green space through community solutions to urban fabric. These are the backbone of the courses I teach for Sapienza and CalPoly and the methodology I use in design workshops. It’s great to see them now being proposed as a global standard for city sites.

Mayor Raggi announces the competition with Commissioners Luca Montuori and Valentina Vivarelli, Costanza de Stefani Zero Carbon Development Project Officer and Carlo de Vito of FS – Sistemi Urbani
The only problem is that although it was launched today and applications were to have gone live at 12:00, the site still says “opening soon”

Sitting Around Rome

November 24, 2019

This is a repost of a comment I put on social media this summer. It may resonate here, and remind city officials that the world is paying attention to their choices.

This was in response to a NYT article but I wasn’t fast enough to comment on the site.

I’ll have to weigh in here, because I HAVE to weigh in, having lived in Rome and worked on public space issues for almost thirty years. I am willing to see both sides. Tourism in Rome has now become unsustainable, and many (most?) tourists behave in a manner that makes Romans cringe. A few beautiful people sitting chatting on the Spanish Steps off to the side is different from wall to wall poorly-dressed tourists blocking passage and turning a spectacular monument into an embarrassment. One movie star prancing in the fountain is theater, a child dipping her feet in it is cute, but when it goes viral problems ensure. I get it. 
Here’s my humble suggestion: the city has to either limit tourists or provide services they (and residents) need. 
Virginia Raggi seems to be (unintentionally?) trying to do the former, allowing trash to pile up, transit to break down, and countless other dysfunctions aimed at ensuring that the traveler who comes to Rome never wants to come back. I admit there’s something to be said for discouraging all but the diehard, but there must be another way. 
Rome has always been an open city, welcoming to all. I believe it’s possible to design public space to support the impact of mass tourism through a strategy of common sense urbanism. 
1.Help decentralize tourism by making outlying neighborhoods and sites more accessible. 
2. Design and build more fountains and make the new ones accessible, for drinking, wading, playing, cooling off. 
3. Design and build public seating (but ensure that no one sleeps on it or uses it to sell stuff.). 
4. Provide more small trash receptacles and a procedure for emptying them, while working with merchants to reduce waste. 
Now one might argue that all of these new urban features, not to mention the millions of bodies they serve, occupy space, and space is limited in Rome. Luckily there is a way to free up a huge amount of space in the city: eliminate private motor vehicles. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. In fact, I believe, inevitable. And inevitably successful, as cities around the world that have been freed from cars show us. Then the region of Rome, and not just its historic center, will be able to equitably sustain growing numbers of visitors and residents alike.

Bright Bikes Light up Rome

October 26, 2019

Something radical happened in Rome last week. Like a sudden ray of sunshine in a cloudy sky, I caught a glimpse of day glow red along Viale Trastevere as I was biking through traffic. Parked neatly on the wide sidewalk were 7 or 8 beautiful electric bikes, brilliantly designed, complete with rigid baskets in front, lights, locks, and sturdy kickstands. They came out of the blue. Although I am pretty well informed about Rome’s plans for micromobility, the last I had heard on bike sharing was that another call for bids had gone out but it seemed that after the disastrous vandalism of O-Bike and Go-Bee-Bike no company would be foolish enough to respond. Well, Uber was. 

I tried out the system yesterday, parking my own folding bike in Trastevere, switching to a Jump bike to head across the river and up to the Esquiline to teach. I had downloaded the App previously on my iphone, and since I was already an Uber user I didn’t need to enter any further payment information. The bike opened and after a serious of instructional screens (which I ignored since I was in a hurry) I was on my way. 

The bikes are heavy, but once the electric assist kicks in I zipped along effortlessly. I had ridden electric bikes before and remember that at first it’s a bit disconcerting, as if someone is pushing you from behind, but you get used to it quickly. The ride up the hill to San Pietro in Vincoli, a real challenge on my little folding bike, was effortless. Parking was less intuitive, the App indicated that the bike should be locked, if possible, to an official bike rack (in Rome there are about 5 in the whole city). It took a few clicks to get an option to click “DONE” A moment later an email came in from Uber Base Fare 0,50  Duration Fare €,2,20 €Subtotal 2,70. 

Now $3.00 for a ride across town isn’t bike-sharing rates (the standard policy was always to charge a small hourly fee and make money through advertising), but for very good service it isn’t actually excessive. Public transit is cheaper but it’s hard to compare; the Jump bike got me right to my destination in minutes, very unlikely with a bus or metro. It’s still cheaper than a taxi and in most cases faster, although I wouldn’t do it with luggage or passengers. As I see it, the Jump bikes are a welcome addition to the mix of Rome’s mobility options. 

Jump_circle.png

I almost hesitated to write this positive review after my return trip when I was charged a €25 surcharge for parking in a no-parking zone. This was probably my fault — I hadn’t read the rules very carefully — but as the €0.20/minute clock was ticking and I hit a red light at Ponte Garibaldi across the street from where my own bike was parked I decided to park it near the corner. A warning appeared that I would be fined )— I thought because I was too close to the corner so I moved the bike further down between the trees where it wasn’t blocking anyone and where scooters were already parked. 

The App is still a bit glitchy and the areas that should have been indicated as off limits in the map aren’t shown. The instructions at some point sent me to the map of London, where parking areas were clearly indicated.  When I received the notice of the fine I contacted customer support and sorted it out, they removed the fine but said they wouldn’t be able to do it a second time. 

What I realized is that Uber has prohibited parking near the river, a smart move after previous bike sharing bikes were thrown off the bridges and into the water. The weight of the bikes should discourage vandals from moving them, and it makes a lot of sense to hold riders responsible for not obstructing pedestrians. 

I give the new Uber Jump bike sharing service Five Stars.  If you want to sign up to try it out use my link and I get some credits https://www.uber.com/invite/tomr1165

Sadly it looks like one of these beautiful things has already been thrown in the river. (Hopefully followed by the idiot that committed this crime)

Testing Patience

April 5, 2019

Next week a very influential travel writer will drop in on Rome for an update and I would REALLY like to be able to share with him my usual positive outlook on the world’s most resilient city.
But it is getting harder to maintain optimism.

From afar, the headlines about broken transit and abandoned public spaces could seem like “strumentalizazzione” (instrumentalizing?) and raise suspicion.

It’s easy to point blame. It’s better to give the benefit of the doubt. Bla. Bla. Bla.  Rome has endless treasures so there is no need to focus too closely on its defects.

That said, it is frustrating — and that is the word I hear most often in my circle of friends, Romans and immigrants like myself — to try to help and be ignored.


I would like to tell my travel writer friend to renew his invitation to readers to come to Rome and spend enough time to really enjoy it. His positive message translates into millions of euros of revenue for a city that needs it.

I’d like to tell him to wander the streets of the ghetto and admire the turtle fountain. (The rare photo below captures it the way it should be, but it is more often overrun with cars, trucks and segways as in the lower photo.)

I’d like to be able to remind him how great it is to walk from the Campidoglio to the Tiber Island, to experience so much of Rome’s ancient history in such a short space. But it has become so dangerous to cross the street below the Campidoglio that the pedestrian crossing that the previous administration erased is once again half-visible, people tentatively step out but jump back in the face of speeding traffic. And if they do make it across they are faced with disappointment at the gates to the archaeological passage from the Theatre of Marcellus to Portico d’Ottavia, closed indefinitely.

I’d like to take him down to the river’s edge to show him how the city has finally renewed its interest in its most valuable green infrastructure, but the steps smell like urine and, once down there, the homeless sleeping under the bridge and the graffiti on the walls give the place a menacing air not for everybody.

I’d like to tell him to write about how you can be strolling in the picturesque back streets of Trastevere one minute and then a minute later hiking through the romantic Villa Sciarra park climbing the Gianicolo hill. But the streets of Trastevere are filled with cars and garbage (don’t say it’s not true!) and the gate to Villa Sciarra has been closed for months. About the latter, my multiple letters to the mayor and her staff have gone unanswered, as if one of the greatest green spaces in the city is not of interest.

I still say come to Rome, stay longer than average (but never enough), enjoy the incredible variety, the charm, the aesthetic wealth, the great food, the dramatic Romans. But don’t ignore that much of it is broken and should be fixed.

Villa Sciarra, off limits for months now, with no sign of reopening

Returning to Rome

February 23, 2019

After a long period of silence on this blog I have been coaxed back into writing.

Honestly, there are so many problems to address that I risk releasing a stream of laments that would be depressing to any reader. My usual optimism is being tested. Rome has become ungovernable and yet it continues to be administered as if things were normal.

I get press releases from Roma Capitale announcing new buses, progress on the Metro C, new hires in the police force, and many other positive notes which to someone reading from afar may sound encouraging. But the day to day reality of living in Rome has never been so dire. (Well, it was worse, perhaps, under the Borgia or during the Sack of Rome of 1527).

Since November I have watched work proceed slowly on Piazza Cinque Scole where I teach. Bids had gone out for the repaving of the square. Repaving, not the design of urban space, to the improvement of pedestrian experience, not the construction of structured, underground parking, but simply repaving the square. Cobblestones were removed and are now being repositioned. It is wonderful to watch the skilled workers doing the job that has been done for centuries. But there is one major difference; rather than laying them in a bed of sand with permeable space between the stones, the joints are being sealed with asphalt. And this isn’t a mistake on the part of the building crew: it was actually requested in the brief. Thus a principal benefit of this traditional paving, that it allows rain water to be absorbed rather than rushing to the storm sewers, has been discarded.  Eventually when they complete the work the fencing will come down, cars and trucks and scooters will move back into the piazza with all their weight  defeating these months of work and thousands of euros of investment.

Elsewhere, a new building has appeared in the archaeological site of Circus Maximus, exactly on axis of the Via Terme di Caracalla at the point of arrival of the Appian Way in central Rome. Where one used to be greeted with the iconic view of the stadium stretching between the Palatine and the Aventine, there is now a banal brick wall. This was not built illegally, nor was it simply allowed by the authorities; it must have actually been commissioned by the cultural heritage authorities since they oversee this historic and listed site.

PH: Paolo Gelsomini

Transit is at a breaking point with several metro stations shut due to needed repairs, no sign of the electric buses which traversed the center years ago ahead of their time, and the fact that transit can be tracked by apps has done little more than give us the frustration of noting that at rush hour on a heavily frequented route there are “no buses” whatsoever.

Rome is now second only to Bogota’ for the amount of time wasted in traffic. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Codice della Strada, the traffic regulations, are now regularly ignored by many. Stopping at red lights, not to mention stop signs, has become an optional. While the Mayor talks about creating new pedestrian zones those already in existence, like Piazza Borghese or Piazza Farnese,  have become open air parking lots.

Several of the new eating places I had grown to love, such as DON in Trastevere which makes great fried pizza, have been forced by confusing local ordinances to remove tables and stools that had allowed clients to eat inside, and instead been reduced to squalid take-out joints. It’s not clear why they are not allowed to provided this useful public service in their own property when outside on Viale Trastevere the sidewalks are blocked everyday with cheap markets of imported junk where little diesel generators spew fumes to provide lighting and big diesel vans stay double-parked in the street all day.

This is the Rome I would love to see improved, the Rome it is easy to dismiss as hopeless, but what’s the use in that? This is the world’s most resilient city with the world’s most resilient citizens.

Last Days of Sketching Tiber exhibit

January 11, 2019

I’ve decided to keep the exhibit of urban sketches and sketchbooks up at my studio on Via Banchi Vecchi for another couple of weeks so if you are in the neighborhood drop by.  Opening hours are not guaranteed because my teaching schedule keeps me away some days, but if the lights are on just come on in.

Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 39 Roma

American tragedy, Roman tragedy

October 7, 2018

Today I can’t stop thinking about two men in the news yesterday, both about my age, as white and privileged as myself. 

Yesterday I read that Brett Kavanaugh had been appointed to the highest position of my country’s justice system despite having demonstrated to an audience of millions his inappropriateness for this job.  

Like many of my fellow Americans I had been glued to the hearings, moved by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s account of her attempted rape by Brett Kavanaugh, and shocked by his creepy, immature and dishonest defense. It seemed implausible that a democratic government could ignore the many problems that such an appointment would bring: conflict of interest, political partisanship and implicit threats to his political opponents, clear evidence of the judge lying under oath and a well-documented history as a sexual predator. He is now a Supreme Court judge, with an absurd amount of power to abuse. 

Any faith I harbored in the idea of justice has been whittled away. 

Later, descending the staircase from San Pietro in Vincoli where I teach at Sapienza University, I encountered emergency vehicles where I normally risk my life crossing at the crosswalk on Via Cavour. The body of Giorgio De Francesco, 54, lay covered by a reflective mylar blanket like the ones marathon runners are given at the finish line. He had just been killed by a motor vehicle, a tour bus speeding down Via Cavour. It could have been one of my students, or a tourist, or me, or anyone. 

Living in Rome I have become as accustomed to this scene as I might be to gun violence were I still living in the States. In Rome we all witness motorists’ reckless disregard for human life constantly: excess velocity, running red lights, cell-phone use while driving, and all manners of parking to impair visibility.  Within the hour as I walked home I saw hundreds of examples of reckless driving, including vehicles speeding through the red light at Via della Greca, beneath the windows of the municipal police. Already this week two pedestrians had been killed and four seriously injured in what the newspapers inexplicably continue to call “accidents.”  Many Romans drive with criminal negligence but are rarely treated like criminals. 

What links these two seemingly unrelated tragedies other than their echoing in my mind as signs of the injustice of our times?

Two men in their mid-fifties, like myself. One who seemed to do everything possible to disqualify him for the position for which he was being interviewed, gets the job and goes on to prosper. Another, a civil servant in the Italian national government, has his life cut short while he is exercising his civic right to cross a street with his wife.

In both cases, the facts are evident. We know there is injustice and corruption in the Trump administration. We know that illegality and reckless driving reign in Rome. We can name the people responsible for fighting these afflictions. Our taxes pay their salaries. How can it be so hard to hold them accountable?