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Public Space in Rome

October 27, 2020

Some excerpts from the writing I am doing these days about the challenges of public space in the eternal city.

Cities are complex urban artifacts which facilitate flows — flows of people, resources, data, flows of energy, money, ideas. They are neither organisms nor machines; they are cities. They work best when they allow unobstructed and casual movement of people, when civic spaces are available for spontaneous encounters, what Hannah Arendt called the “space of human appearance.”

When planning for mobility we shouldn’t always automatically think of moving people from point A to B to get C but may discover that C can come to us, or that I can get C nearby from a local provider. A good rule of thumb in civic planning is to eliminate externalities and instead ensure that everyone pays a price or penalty equal to the harm done, regardless of where it is done. If the negative impact of a bus is x divided by the number of passengers y then each passenger should pay x/y, even if some passengers may not have even the minimum resources and that is another problem to be solved. 

Holding individuals and organizations accountable for the costs associated with their behavior may seem impossible amidst the chaos of the city but we have increasingly smart technology designed to do just that, to monitor and guide complex processes. If Google can learn from my online behavior and send me targeted advertizing, our municipal governments should be able to monitor our waste disposal, our mobility choices, our water consumption and charge us accordingly. This may raise fears of big-brother if we think of our city officials or corporate engineers in back rooms monitoring our lives, but transparency can go along way to making them accountable for what goes on in those rooms. 

Sure, good old civil behavior would be a simpler and nicer solution, but it seems to have gone out of fashion and shows no signs of coming back. 

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