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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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Trastevere Follow-up

December 21, 2016



project rendering by Tyler Kirkpatrick

Following up on the previous post, now that the semester has come to a close, I’d like to share some observations about how students from California approached designing for a complex and difficult site in central Rome.  Some common themes emerged.

  • The first challenge they found on the existing site was the inconsistent design of public space, relentlessly occupied by cars, poorly maintained, unclearly defined. I encouraged them to think specifically about the ground plane, how to keep it accessible, to define it with paving, landscaping, and street furniture to make it clear who had priority where. We removed cars from the surface but put structured parking below their new building(s) for motor vehicles that need for valid reasons to be stored locally. The result in almost all cases is an urban space for people.  Where today pedestrians are humiliated when attempting to cross to Ponte Palatino, most projects proposed workable solutions, either significant traffic calming or separation of motor vehicles from people.

Read more…

Trastevere East, Resolving a Dysfunctional Site

November 11, 2016

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

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.


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.

bar-1-1 Terracina Workshop FA10 - 05

Moving Rome

August 31, 2016
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.
Porta Portese: the tram stops here but you can’t get to it!

Rome’s New Administration, Benvenuti

July 11, 2016

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, Commissioner for Simplification (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.