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Back to the glorious mess that is Rome

December 19, 2011

Back in Rome after some months in a smaller city on the coast and even smaller towns in the mountains, and a couple of trips to big European cities Paris and Amsterdam to see how things are done differently (well, better), I’ve spent my first day back getting re-acclimated to Rome, the real city (traversing it and using it in the course of my first day back) and the virtual city (reading various blogs and newsletters by activist groups).

I’m struck by the multitude of complaints, most of them valid but resulting in the classic battle of good vs. perfect.  My barber complains about the homeless sleeping on benches and leaving a mess behind, but cares less about the scooters parked on the sidewalk (including, I presume, his own).  There are blogs ranting about graffiti, blogs complaining about illegal billboards, blogs complaining about potholes and blogs whining about inefficient public transit. Letters to the editor complain of countless real problems but often end up bickering amongst themselves, claiming that their pet peeve is worse. I’m especially interested in the blogging battles between the NO-PUPs and PRO-PUPs (“pup”, pronounced “poop”, has nothing to do with dogs or their droppings but stands for Urban Parking Plans). They are both against the presence of illegally parked cars that plague the streets of Rome, but disagree vehemently on whether putting cars underground will solve the problem or simply act as a magnet for more traffic in the city center (as is documented in scientific studies, but there I go taking sides).   See, I’m guilty of the same prejudice, more irate about the offenses of the privileged who should know better, the multinational scofflaws, than the casual tagger.

But really, we’re all fighting the same battle to make cities better places for people.  So I thought it useful to list the problems facing Rome and try to prioritize them in my own terms with the goal of putting them in perspective.  Here’s what I’ve come up with in the order they come to mind, and then in my order of priority.  Notice I haven’t included problems like corruption, unemployment or the stagnant economy which are not just urban problems, preferring to focus on the tangible problems facing city-dwellers and visitors on a day-to-day basis.  I’ve also listed as separate problems phenomena that are clearly interconnected, such as excess vehicles and danger to people.

What are the problems facing Rome and how do we prioritize them?  Here’s my random list:

  • Danger and hostility to people (pedestrians, especially children, elderly, cyclists)
  • Noise Pollution (primarily from motor vehicles)
  • Air Pollution (primarily from motor vehicles)
  • Visual Pollution (including illegal signs, graffiti, litter, cars, tv aerials, a.c. units, illegal building additions and constructions)
  • Slow mobility for people: congestion on streets, often caused by illegal parking, illegal occupation of public space by merchants.
  • Congestion and poor management of public transit
  • Excess private vehicles and shortage of parking
  • Poor drainage leading to flooding and surface erosion
  • Reduction of green space effecting microclimate
  • Bureaucracy, causing solution of problems to require excess mobility

And here’s my attempt at prioritizing them (without the detail so see those above)

  1. Danger and hostility to people
  2. Congestion and poor management of public transit
  3. Air Pollution
  4. Reduction of green space effecting microclimate
  5. Poor drainage
  6. Noise Pollution
  7. Excess private vehicles and shortage of parking
  8. Slow mobility for people
  9. Visual Pollution
  10. Bureaucracy

And some rationalization for the order: the first problem is one that affect the health and very survival of people (Italy has one of the highest traffic mortality rates in the world, with a traffic-related death almost every hour on average). The second is integrally tied to the first. Many of the top problems in my list further intensify the negative experience of the citizen on foot, encouraging more private auto use.  I include the problems of illegal merchants, graffiti, etc. as they are clearly unacceptable, but they don’t make it to the top of my list as the most urgent since graffiti rarely kills people the way automobiles do and as a pedestrian I can more easily bypass the illegal gadget seller than I can a double-parked car. But they’re all problems and if someone wants to campaign to fight anything which mars the city, even cigarette butts between cobblestones, more power to them.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2011 12:09

    Click to access international-road-traffic-sept-06.pdf

    The world is a big place … if you read the above statistics you will see that Italy does NOT have one of the highest traffic mortality rates in the world … the USA actually scores higher (see WHO list above) and New Zealand too. But I agree that everything should be done to curtail these unfortunate and mostly avoidable deaths …


  2. December 19, 2011 14:41

    To your list you need to add a problem which is either a subset of many of your points or a priority on its own, depending on one’s point of view.


    Th clutter which you describe results in a severely redistricted accessibility to the physically and visually disabled. This is a result of both:
    1) the selfishness of the citizenry (parking on sidewalks or blocking egress from them, parking across crosswalks etc.), but also
    2) the insufficient planning of, and lack of protection for, public access to the streets and sidewalks for those with with any number of disabilities including those associated with advancing age.

    The result of this of course is that a certain percentage of the population of the city, is significantly and disproportionately disenfranchised from the most basic urban right – to move about the streets – and those who brave the situation do so at no small risk to their safety. Moving about the streets is a right in itself, but it is inextricably associated with access to employment, shopping, healthcare, exercise etc.

    Here is one of several such instances from my walk home this morning:
    Crossing the very busy Corso D’Italia near Piazza Fiume one finds a crosswalk with a pedestrian walk light – a kernel of good planning. However, someone has traditionally set up a makeshift outdoor clothing market right at the end of the crosswalk. This forces pedestrians to either struggle though the clutter of the stalls or to walk into the traffic of the intersection to access the crosswalk, then on the other side of the street, the zebrastripes hit a median and simply end abruptly, one lane short of the sidewalk, as if the painters simple lost interest in finishing them. So naturally, the path is blocked by what are now “legally ” parked cars right in the path of pedestrian; forcing those who can to shimmy between tightly parked vehicles, and forcing the rest to move along the traffic in search of a place to pass. Anyone with less than good vision will struggle through this dangerous obstacle course, anyone in a wheelchair has no hope of passing here.

    Negligence + selfishness does not make for good civic life in a great city.


  3. Tom Rankin permalink*
    December 19, 2011 23:09

    Thanks Josephine and Scott for the feedback. This was actually a post from several months back which jumped to the top when I edited it.


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