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Rome’s Mixed Metaphors

July 9, 2017

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A couple of months ago New York Times columnist Frank Bruni called me to ask about Rome. On a recent trip he had been struck by the paradox of newly cleaned monuments surrounded by developing world squalor, and he wanted to know my take.

His report was published in this article.

I told Frank that for decades Rome had survived through compromise, making little deals to get things done. “We’ll turn a blind eye to this if you see that the trash gets picked up.” Not since the beginning of Francesco Rutelli’s tenure in the early ’90s have there been big ideas;  rather a series of small arrangements have allowed the once eternal city to hobble along in gradual decline. Many Romans, concerned solely with their personal/ family interests and not the greater civic realm,  have been satisfied with this arrangement.

I tried to say that things were changing, and wanted to believe it. That Mayor Marino had begun to attack this system of favors and corruption in 2013, and paid the consequence by being ousted from office in the back rooms by his own political party, and that current Mayor Virginia Raggi could still continue to fight these interests.

A tireless optimist, I really didn’t want to add to the perception that the current administration is incompetent and there is no hope. The world’s most resilient city cannot just fail because of incompetence.

Instead, wouldn’t it be great to communicate to the world a series of Roman success stories?

Here’s an example of the news we’d love to report on. Warning: the list below is at present only WISHFUL THINKING disguised as FAKE NEWS

Rome announces (FAKE NEWS):

  • the successful re-structuring ATAC and Roma Mobilità so as to ensure respect for existing transit schedules, vehicle maintenance and clear communications with riders (in Italian and English at least).
  • the protection, through physical barriers and police presence on foot, of pedestrian spaces from motor vehicles and in general the application of the traffic laws to provide serious disincentives to those who today frequently ignore speed limits, red lights, and parking restrictions.
  • the elimination of free parking within the center, and an increase in parking fees
  • a contract to install new durable and high-visibility horizontal signage, increasing the number of raised pedestrian crosswalks and speed tables.
  • reprogramming of traffic lights to give priority to pedestrians over drivers, reducing the pedestrian wait from the current 1.3 minutes to maximum 30 seconds and programming pedestrian-activated push buttons to actually shorten the wait time.
  • the elimination of sub-standard vendors and food trucks in public places in support of quality commerce
  • the inauguration of the first of a thousand kilometers of new bike lanes
  • the inauguration of a world-class bike sharing program
  • the reopening of the successful Farmer’s Market on Via San Teodoro

We will have to wait a while for the above, since the REAL NEWS has been less inspiring. I’ve heard complaints recently from friends in academics who have been told they can’t seat their students on public steps, for example at the Trevi fountain, to give an art-history lesson or drawing workshop which they have done for years.

And yet, they rightfully observe that these monuments, where we have always taken our students, are now surrounded by vendors, food trucks, illegally parked vehicles, and trash. Just like the photos that accompany the New York Times article above.

Instead…Rome announces (REAL NEWS):

  • the closure of Rome’s drinking fountains
  • rampant toxic brush and tash fires on the outskirts of town
  • a ban against pedestrians sitting on steps or balustrades (even those designed as seating) around Rome’s monumental fountains such as the Trevi
  • the announcement (complete with the presence of motor vehicles in the Campidoglio pedestrian zone designed by Michelangelo)  that Rome will host a high-speed car race through its streets!
  • a request for annulment of fines levied for illegal use of bus lanes by private vehicles because there wasn’t enough communication of their existence

I don’t want to use Rome’s filth as a metaphor as Frank Bruni does; far better to use it as a medium for creative expression as William Kentridge did, selectively cleaning the Tiber walls as seen behind the Mayor in the photo below. The metaphors are definitely mixed and it is up to all of us to work to warrant more positive ones.


Mayor Raggi takes part (“alla sua insaputa”, or unbeknownst to her) in the civic cleanup event #teverepulito last April after the administration had been invited repeatedly to participate.


Wet Feet, Monumental Fountains

June 10, 2017


I’m stepping out on a limb here with a short post that lacks both research and images. I am told it is illegal to wet your feet or wade in monumental fountains in Italy and as the temperatures in Rome soar these days more and more people are cooling off by doing just that. And the blogosphere and social media channels are overflowing with outraged Italians, many of them my friends, for whom this seems a great sin. I honestly don’t get it.

If I make a list of things I see everyday in Rome, and put them in order of negative impact, wading in fountains is way off the charts (by which I mean, its importance is negligible compared to serious violations).  I see huge dangerous motor vehicles speeding through red lights, double-parked on busy streets, parked in pedestrian zones. I see people throw trash out their windows onto public streets, drop cigarette butts on sidewalks where children are walking. I see invasive and crass advertising everywhere damaging the image of Rome, I see ugly mass-tourist commerce occupying spaces where previously there were artisans.  It’s become difficult to cycle through the city because of all the huge tour buses and their huge tour groups that move as compact packs even when on foot. I see exterior air-conditioning units churning out hot air on protected buildings, such as the cultural superindendents’ offices.   I am outraged by all of this.

I also see some restaurants moving their tables out onto the piazza beyond the legal boundary, I see some residents hosting travelers “informally” in their homes to make some extra money, I see hot urban dwellers or visitors dangling their feet in the cool water of public fountains. I get it that there are regulations which should be respected, taxation and hygiene policies to enforce, and that’s fine. But I’m honestly not nearly so outraged by this latter behavior as I am about the list above. I’d rather see public cafe tables in the street than big private toxic fuel-consuming metal boxes (i.e. cars). I’d rather see people cooling their feet in fountains rather than burning fossil fuels to run eyesore air-conditioning units. Am I missing something?

I like to respect local customs. I take off my hat when I go into a church, although I am not religious. If wetting one’s feet in a public fountain is really offensive to Italian culture, I’ll explain that to my students and suggest they take a cold shower.

It’s just really hard to stand in front of a bunch of hot, well-educated students, after a day of detouring around cars on sidewalks and near misses as taxis speed through pedestrian crossings, past piles of trash, graffiti, beggars, pickpockets, scam artists and illegal sale of everything imaginable,  and explain that they can’t put their feet in a fountain because it’s disrespectful.

I’ll cross post to FB in hopes of getting some input from friends.  Addendum: lots of buzz, including this article by Jason Horowitz in today’s NYT.


Once in a While, Orvieto

April 16, 2017

Rome is great, especially in the spring, but once in a while I find an excuse to escape to Orvieto, in southern Umbria, one of the closest cities to Rome that has managed to free its historic center from automobiles.

Once was on our honeymoon; although we were directed to Firenze we got a late start and Orvieto seemed a nice town along the way. The last time, a few years ago, was to join a group of study-abroad students for drawing sessions, attracted by great perspectival streets for urban vignettes, and few cars to intimidate the sketcher.

The other day it was for an international conference on Green Infrastructure where I had been invited to present a paper. Since my topic was on cycling initiatives I thought it appropriate to use my folding bike to reach Termini Station and then bike around town in my spare time while there. Knowing Orvieto to be a hill-town, and relatively small, I didn’t expect this to be especially practical. It was more so than I had thought. In this post I will first describe my transit experience, and then a few notes about the town itself.

At Termini I brought the bike into the hip, new, high-quality food court, Mercato Centrale, where I leaned it on a crate of artichokes while I got an excellent café at the bar next to Bonci’s bakery. When they announced the track, the cursed 1B (about 500 meters from the head of the other tracks) I was glad I had my bike. I was there in seconds, folding my bike and storing it safely while I found a window seat.

Upon arriving at Orvieto station, I had no intention to bike up the hill — and no need to — since the town is blessed with a smart people-mover, a funicular.  It was a bit awkward to cram my bike into the crowded car but since I was the last one in and my bike pressed against the door no one else was inconvenienced.

At the top of the hill I unfolded my bike and headed up the main pedestrian street and within a minute was joining friends for a coffee in the heart of medieval Orvieto. In between conference events I zipped around town, careful not to go down hill to far knowing I’d have to come back up. At the end of the day, the coast down to the funicular was so easy that I was tempted to continue all the way down to the rail station, but the light rain and my prepaid funicular ticket convinced me to descend the way I had come up. I made it home with a few changes of transit and no need to open the bike again until I was at the station just down the street from my home.

If I think about the other options: driving my own car and dealing with traffic, tolls, parking would be unthinkable unless I were carrying something heavy, or stopping in remote places on the way. Transit alone without the bike would have been fine—just a bit slower with a lot more walking.

As for Orvieto, I always find it charming and this time gave a little more attention to one of its artistic highlights, Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgement (especiallyThe Damned Cast into Hell). I hadn’t previously noticed the grotesque border paintings, or paid much attention to the portraits of Ovid, Dante and other writers between Signorelli’s dramatic scenes of Heaven and Hell. No one else was in the chapel, and the afternoon light was perfect.

The menacing subject matter continues on the 14th century stone bas reliefs of the facade, where I stopped to consider another version of the Last Judgement, now sadly protected by glass so not so visible.

I booked a ticket on the Underground Orvieto tour that I had heard good things about, and got some advice from the ticket office about where to go to appreciate the walls and the views to the countryside — a short bike ride or a long walk away.

The underground tour was only available in English when I wanted to go and the guide’s English was fairly basic, but the caves were captivating and well-presented. The selection of subterranean spaces we visited in 45 minutes presented a variety of functions, from Etruscan wells to medieval tufo quarries, 18th century pigeon farms and 20th century bomb shelters.

With some time to kill before my train, I stopped near the Duomo for a glass of wine and some local delicacies: pecorino, salami and crusty white bread. When an elderly woman came in to buy bread I applied the “yield-to-locals” policy I always try to instill in my students and guests, letting her make her purchase while I waited. But like most of what I saw in Orvieto, this place was tailored for foreign visitors. A former alimentari turned tourist-outlet, ironically named Bottega Vera, it was well-designed, comfortable, and reasonably priced and the food and wine were great. Like most of Orvieto it seemed to work quite well.  I suspect that after a few days I would yearn for the authentic grit of Rome and its devil-may-care attitude toward its guests. (Except that much of Rome has become even worse in its pandering to mass tourism, without even bothering to provide quality or design.)

Is it too much to ask for a city, big or small, which relies on tourism for its livelihood, to maintain its character and preserve its traditions, while constantly improving so as to better satisfy its long-term customer base? I don’t mean making travel easy or cheap, I don’t mean pandering to mass tourism (in fact I’m fine with shopkeepers ignoring the crass tourists who haven’t made an effort to learn enough to say “buongiorno.”)  I mean keeping a focus on the quality of your core product but always making the experience a little better. I mean sweeping the streets outside the shop, experimenting with ways to reduce waste, using social media to share local knowledge. Resist the temptation to cheapen your brand to sell to tourists who don’t appreciate your product and will probably never come back. Forget that other shops seem to have gone this way and are selling more. Let your competition cater to the trash tourists. Focus on those clients with discerning taste and they will spread the word. Don’t worry about copy-cats. If this catches on, all the better; a more attractive city, by definition, will attract more discerning people who will stay longer and return frequently.


March 23, 2017

Last week I went to a marketplace for a press conference.

The building, the Mercato Metronio in Rome’s San Giovanni neighborhood, a masterpiece by mid century engineer Riccardo Morandi, has seen better days but the discussion was promising. As in, promises were made: Mayor Raggi and Commissioner Adriano Meloni promised to upgrade 15 different markets around the city, not just as venues for sale of food but also as social spaces. The documentation of the existing situation has been complete and now the transformations are ready to begin. The cost is estimated at €4 million.

The challenge is to attract people (who are by now accustomed to supermarkets or Eataly) to local markets.  I see this happening through a number of simple steps.

The first involve the greater urban context:

  • reduce the convenience of using a car in the city, eliminate “free parking” so that the option of hopping in a car for a trip to the supermarket remains a rural, not an urban, phenomena.
  • simultaneously — and in keeping with the first solution—make the walk to the market more pleasurable: removing obstacles (usually cars) from sidewalks and crosswalks
  • provide cycle parking at markets and incentives for innovative startups like Zolle which will use cargo bikes to deliver produce to buyers’ homes.
  • If transit is present at marketplaces, ensure that it functions efficiently, on schedule; when buses are infrequent and crowded people don’t consider them an option to carry groceries.

The marketplace itself should obviously be clean, light, airy and beautiful, like the new Testaccio market for example. Stalls should be open all day, if possible, and it should attract business through social activities such as bars, restaurants, workshops, laboratories, playgrounds, libraries, cinemas. There is no reason a market should be JUST a market and then empty the rest of the day and Sunday

  • Does it have free public seating?
  • Does it have free public wifi?
  • Does it have drinking fountains?
  • Does art play a role? Is design memorable and good?
  • Can deliveries be made without blocking public access?
  • Can sections be closed off while others remain open?
  • There’s a growing business of food tours and workshops. Markets should have industrial kitchens for food demonstrations and cooking lessons (like Eataly does!)

When I think of great markets (like Santa Caterina or Boqueria in Barcelona) I think of great public spaces which have little in common with supermarkets. Rome’s markets can return to being good places to shop and with a little effort become great places to do more than shop.

Against Fairness

February 12, 2017
Campagna Amica market on Via San Teodoro yesterday

Campagna Amica market on Via San Teodoro yesterday

The sudden closure this weekend of Rome’s favorite farmers’ market has led me to think about why efforts to do the right thing sometimes produce the wrong results.

Carlo Ratti, in a short letter entitled Nudi al Concorso*, explains why despite all the byzantine efforts to implement fair and impartial public competitions (for university positions), the results in Italy are almost always less than satisfactory. Instead, in the US — and I’m not saying the US is better, especially not these days— the administration “simply” chooses the candidate who they believe to be best qualified, and it usually works. Because when those who manage a project are personally accountable for the results, they only choose a friend or a relative if they happen to be the best for the job.  Read more…

Barcelona and Rome

February 1, 2017

This week Rome launched an agreement with the Catalan city of Barcelona regarding a series of themes of the digital economy: open data, participation, smart city strategies, transparency, and the digital agenda. Barcelona’s Mayor Francesca Bria met with her Roman counterpart, Virginia Raggi, to discuss what promises to be an important step for both cities. Rome’s Commissioner for Innovation, Flavia Marzano, said the initiative “will help stimulate Rome and restore its place in the international scene.”

For Rome, if it is properly inspired to follow Barcelona’s lead in urban innovation, it could mean bringing Italy’s capital back from the brink of collapse to finally start to count again in contemporary discourse.

Over the years I’ve travelled to Barcelona repeatedly, both independently and accompanying student groups on architectural and urban design workshops and investigating initiatives such as Pobleneu and the Mediatic Building, MACBA/Centro di Cultura Contemporanea, and various experiments such as the occupied former hospital Can Masdeu.

Below are some of the images from those trips. I always find inspiration in Barcelona and return to Rome optimistic that we can get back on track toward sustainable growth in Italy’s capital.

Bridging into the New Year

January 1, 2017

As 2017 begins a series of coincidences have me reflecting on the challenges and opportunities facing Rome in the coming months.

Last night travel writer/guru Rick Steves posted a piece about the importance of bridges (over the walls which our president-elect likes). He asked to use some of my drawings of Rome’s bridges, saying “To celebrate our commitment to tolerance, diversity, empathy, and the value of overcoming fear by understanding people whose life experiences give them different perspectives than you or I might have, I’d like to share Tom’s bridges with you.”  Rick’s audience is huge (his Facebook page alone has half a million followers) so the eyes of many are on Rome’s bridges today.

Every year the city of Rome organizes end of year events, usually with big concerts and fireworks, and this year, in addition to a spectacular event held throughout the night at Circus Maximus, it hosted La Festa di Roma on and around the bridges over the Tiber. Despite an ongoing campaign to discredit and denigrate the administration of Rome’s Mayor Virginia Raggi, these events seem pretty well-conceived and well-organized. Instead of one big monster event there are many, dispersed throughout the city along its natural urban spine, the Tiber river. They appeal to a wide demographic: creative workshops for kids, dj sets for youth, classical concerts for all ages. One of the organizations I have worked with in recent years, TEVERETERNO, is participating with a walking tour of the William Kentridge public art project Triumphs and Laments and there are collaborations with major arts organizations, coordinated by the City’s Commissioner of Culture (and Vice-Mayor) Luca Bergamo.


These New Years’ events should be a sign of innovative, positive change, but as so often happens they have spurred more negative criticism than support, and I think I understand why.  While the administrators have the right intentions, ambitions and attitudes, they are working with political machinery biased to protect old power structures. Piloting this machine doesn’t mean they can easily dismantle it and rebuild it; even steering it toward a target is hard when the opposition places obstacles in its path. Mayor Raggi is right that it will take a little time to achieve tangible results; the tools available to get there are broken and need to be replaced or repaired.

Talk of transparency and efficiency falls short of the reality: that it is hard to get a response from the administration whose staff is still living in a world of slow, hand-delivered stamped documents. It’s frustrating to want to help when even emails with subject headings like “Rome and American Investments” offering logistical support to reach global benefactors go unanswered!

My frenetic online activity promoting Rome’s bridges to a pretty decent social following received great responses globally. Locally, the offices of Luca Bergamo sent me an unsigned email “please find attached a letter from Mr. Luca Bergamo. We wish you a very happy new year.” with a scanned, stamped, “protocollato” letter saying essentially the same thing.  I like to think that there is an ironic Duchampian intentionality in the conceptual Byzantine quality of this communication, but I fear it may really be the way the administration is forced to operate.

The bureaucracy that has perfected the ambiguous response, the refusal to give a straight answer or apply a simple rule has created an essentially impenetrable wall which any well-meaning citizen finds it impossible to penetrate (and which isolates the well-meaning administrators from the real city).

I hope that 2017 will see this ancient wall bridged, taking advantage of the 21st century distributed communications tools most of use so that we can help Rome become not just magnificent and eternal but perhaps even a little bit normal.

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