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Rome: Resilient City

February 28, 2014
American Architecture Students exploring the neighborhoods of the still sustainable city.

American Architecture Students exploring the neighborhoods of the still sustainable city.

I’ve been following the Resilient Cities project of the Rockefeller Foundation for some time now with great interest and was spurred to write about it after a visit to the city’s waterfront yesterday. The Resilient Cities is about “making people, communities and systems better prepared to withstand catastrophic events – both natural and manmade – and able to bounce back more quickly and emerge stronger from these shocks and stresses.”  The “Still Sustainable City” blog is based on the observation that Rome has done this again and again, always bouncing back.  Yet it is overdue for a rebound.  I fear that if it falls again it may not be able to get back on its feet.

The promise and the risk of Rome lies both in its heart, the Rome known to millions of tourists, and in its hinterland, where agricultural land and natural areas still resist the onslaught of urbanization.  The entire historic center of Rome is a UNESCO heritage site, a fact that should give the administration the political mandate to enforce civic guidelines.  After all, the economy thrives on tourism and visitors stay longer,  return more frequently and spend more money when they find the city clean, hospitable, ethical and safe.  At present it is hard to apply these adjectives to this admittedly fantastic city. But that can change.

Outside of the center the traces of “campagna romana” are fast disappearing, giving way to shopping malls and housing projects. The culture of local food is strong but not strong enough to resist the “wall of money” that accompanies real estate speculation. This has to change if the city is to maintain its resilient evolution, and thankfully there are lots of organizations working toward this goal.

In Ostia yesterday with students from Iowa State University we met with Giacomina di Salvo, the Assessore (councilor?) of Urban Planning for the XIII Municipio who was very helpful in explaining the challenges facing her department and the opportunities presented by projects like the Rockefeller Foundation one.  The contradictions between the dramatic coastline, breathtaking historical and natural habitat sites, and illegal or unplanned growth are striking.  But the potential to change is huge!

The entire historical center of Rome is a UNESCO heritage site, which is highly vulnerable to stresses and shocks. Urban growth represents a significant challenge to the ability of the city—and its metropolitan area at large—to function as a whole, both under normal and exceptional conditions. The inheritance of decades of poorly regulated urban growth, informal housing developments, low-quality neighborhood planning, inadequate infrastructure provision, and sprawl, has made the city highly vulnerable to external shocks and stresses. Rome includes large expanses of still viable rural land and natural reserves, and sees resilience as a key component of a larger strategy aimed at making the city more sustainable and efficient in the long term. – from the Resilient City project website.

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