In the face of mismanagement, poor planning and terrible transport, we meet the heroes helping to fix the Italian capital.
Rome is a city of maxims: eternally beautiful and intransigent in equal measure. It’s the capital of an ancient empire and the seat of the Catholic Church; it is easy to forget that this city of four million is also one of Europe’s largest metropolitan areas. After at least a decade of mismanagement, however, it’s beset with massive debt – Italians have watched their splendid capital fade.
Frustration with the status quo led to the 2016 election of mayor Virginia Raggi from the populist Five Star Movement, who promised to put citizens first and finally clean up the city. She hasn’t succeeded and Rome’s plight has become international news. Reports circulate of uncollected rubbish, collapsing metro escalators, exploding buses and extreme social tension. Nothing has changed and many residents have seen public services deteriorate even further. Yet across the city there are people working to make changes. We highlight four visionaries out to fix the city.
Road safety: 15.3 crashes per 1 million bicycle trips; in 2018 (up to October) 43 pedestrians were killed, while 2017 and 2016 saw 62 and 40 deaths respectively
Trips made by bicycle in city: 1%
Increase in daily travel times due to traffic congestion: 40%
Number of buses that exploded in 2017-2018: more than 30
People injured after a Metro station escalator collapsed: 24
Debt of Atac (Rome’s public transport authority): €1bn
Amount of rubbish unable to be treated after 2018 waste-disposal plant fire: 800 tonnes a day, or 20% of Rome’s total waste
Youth unemployment rate: 31%
Architect and founder, Metrovia
Complaining about public transport is a common urban pastime but in Rome the situation is dire. The metro system has just three lines, one of them unfinished (Berlin has 10; Madrid, 13). These lines regularly fail. Buses are worse; the ageing fleet made international headlines after more than a dozen exploded in 2018 alone.
But Paolo Arsena, the founder of Metrovia, doesn’t let it get him down. “This city really can change but it has to start with public transport,” says the architect, whose organisation campaigns to improve the metro network and has, for the past two years, built up a feasible, thought-out proposal (with the help of transport experts) that is gaining traction with residents. At the heart the plan is the repurposing of the regional railways that traverse the city, creating a 10-line system worthy of a major European capital. “I saw how well Berlin’s S-Bahn [overground] network was integrated with the [regional] U-Bahn and asked myself why can’t we have this here?” says Arsena.
Metrovia’s nine rapid-transit lines would be composed of the existing subterranean lines, six new overground lines (following the railways) and one new circular overground line. There would be 22 interchanges and 49 new stations at an estimated cost of €5bn (this includes some €2.6bn already set aside for infrastructure investment in the city). Arsena estimates that the cost per kilometre of constructing Metrovia’s lines would be in the region of €30m, 10 times less than the €300m per kilometre average cost for the work currently being carried out to expand underground stretches of the Rome metro.
The logistical, practical and even economic case for Metrovia seems clear but political intransigence stands in the way. “The current administration doesn’t have the courage to effect proper change in this city,” says Arsena, referring to city hall, which recently refused to even consider Metrovia’s proposals. “Metrovia means a mobility revolution,” he adds. “But we need a revolution of mentality too.”
The key issues:
- Traffic congestion in Rome is among the worst in Europe: gridlock and road accidents plague the city and the air quality is poor.
- Public transport is cheap but infrastructure is woefully inadequate, with fewer than three fully working metro lines to serve the entire, sprawling city.
- The infrastructure that is in place has not been well maintained, resulting in terrifying accidents and headline-making injuries.
- Urgently expand the metro network, using the existing regional and suburban lines as a basis.
- Weave in a new tram network that complements the metro, while moving away from motorised transport such as buses.
- Speed up urban regeneration at the sites of proposed interchanges.
President, Ecomuseo Casilino
Claudio Gnessi isn’t afraid of a fight. “We were in danger of losing an archaeologically invaluable site to a massive private housing development that the city council was pushing,” he says of the time, seven years ago, when the protected Villa de Sanctis park was under threat. A protest by residents of the Casilino area in Rome’s eastern suburbs stopped the development and spawned a whole new approach to cultural and environmental management. “We needed to form an opposition, yes,” says Gnessi. “But we needed to propose an alternative too.”
That was the start of Ecomuseo Casilino, a voluntary organisation headed by Gnessi, a community cultural consultant who has long been involved in urban regeneration. The goal of the organisation is not only to protect and promote a vast stretch of Rome but also to revolutionise planning policy in suburban areas.
Ecomuseo is modelled on the French concept of an open-air museum and volunteers research the suburb’s history, environment, landscape and anthropology in order to highlight areas of cultural and historical significance. In the Tor Pignattara neighbourhood alone, long described as “not of interest” by official cultural bodies, the Ecomuseo Casilino has logged 146 cultural resources, such as ancient monuments, landscapes and even voice recordings and culinary traditions. “We are constantly told areas like Torpignattara are blighted or that they are unimportant in terms of culture,” says Gnessi. “This centralised, top-down narrative is intentional. It’s the first step in legitimising development that should never be allowed.” Ecomuseo offers another way: “Rather than the build, build, build policies of the past, we have created a protected green area with a cultural function.”
The organisation’s work has attracted attention and an economic bump. In 2018, Ecomuseo’s annual conference attracted some 400 delegates. Since 2017, the organisation’s 80-odd guided tours have generated enough income to pay guides, as well as boosting revenue at coffee shops and pizzerias.
The key issues:
- The culture of Rome’s sprawling suburbs has long been overlooked by city officials.
- Historically, culturally and archaeologically significant sites are being lost – razed over and replaced by ill-thought-out developments that don’t serve the community.
- Suburban residents and businesses are losing out on opportunities as the city’s booming industry – tourism – stays concentrated in the centre.
- Create more public space. There’s often little of it in the suburbs.
- Revolutionise urban-planning policy. Invest in cultural and environmental infrastructure instead of ill-thought-out developments.
- Continue to build a cultural strategy that shifts attention away from the crowded centre.
Founder, Retake Roma
Rebecca Spitzmiller remembers the moment in 2009 that inspired her to found Retake Roma. Every centimetre of the walls in the elegant hallway of her 1930s apartment building was covered in spray-painted “tags”. And outside her front door, in the streets of the Viale Eritrea neighbourhood, there was litter. Lots of litter. “My urban environment was affecting me emotionally,” says the American, who has lived in Rome since 1984. “I was getting depressed; people at the shop or bank would ask me why I was crying.” She decided to take action by removing the graffiti herself.
She and her son set about treating, scouring and repainting the travertine marble and stucco walls. Five days later, their entrance was clean. Ten years later Retake has become a phenomenon, with 80 volunteer cleaning teams all over Rome and groups across 35 cities in Italy. By removing graffiti, giving city walls a lick of fresh paint or commissioning murals, as well as clearing parks and piazzas of litter, Retake is giving the city a refresh.
A professor of international business contracts at Roma III University, Spitzmiller describes the all too familiar broken-window effect that has blighted so much of Rome. “That’s why when they tag again, it’s vital to make it disappear the next day,” she says. Retake, however, is not about blame. “We don’t want to wage a war on these kids, call people out or shame them.” Spitzmiller describes how she has engaged with nearby schools, where at first she would be confronted with sneers from what she suspected were teenage taggers. One student, however, wrote to Rebecca apologising for her classmates’ behaviour and invited her back. Soon after, teenagers showed up at a tagged church and joined the Retakers.
Spitzmiller admits that there are still challenges. One metro station has been cleaned up 33 times. “There is no law enforcement or political will to tackle this head on.” But frustration hasn’t stopped her. The war on graffiti might not be won but hundreds of courtyards, walls, piazzas and gardens are now tag and litter free.
The key issues:
- Rome has long been known for its colourful graffiti but recent years have seen street taggers and vandals marring public spaces.
- Rubbish collection in the city is not fit for purpose, with bins regularly overflowing, litter covering streets, squares and parks, and residents routinely complaining about the smell and hygiene worries.
- A fire at a waste-treatment plant in December 2018 tipped the dire rubbish problem in Rome into a crisis.
- Keep up momentum in the fight against graffiti by engaging communities and recruit more volunteers.
- Seek more corporate sponsorship to fund staff and outreach (a household cleaning brand is already on board).
- Lobby city hall in a practical way by asking waste-disposal experts to demonstrate best practice.
Founder and CEO, Luiss Enlabs and LVenture Group
With an azure sky meeting the white travertine arches above Rome’s Termini station, it is hard not to be positive about Luiss EnLabs, a vast start-up space set up in 2013. But this is Rome and things are rarely simple, says Luigi Capello, head of LVenture Group, a venture capital company that manages this 5,500 sq m accelerator space in a colossal wing of the 1930s fascist-era station building.
A lack of investment prompted a brain drain post 2008 that Capello says he’s striving to plug, painting a picture of Rome that is not nearly as sunny as his offices. But with a relatively large student population of 300,000 and top-notch universities such as Luiss (the venture’s official academic partner) and La Sapienza, Rome’s human potential is obvious. And so Luiss EnLabs has gathered some 60 local and international start-ups working on everything from food technology to analytics and big data, with Capello’s LVenture Group offering “micro seed” (up to €145,000) or “seed’” (up to €250,000) investments to help them grow. Within the modernised, lofty spaces of Luiss EnLabs, a Roman start-up culture is being fostered. The list is impressive, from GenomeUp, a software that supports patient diagnosis through DNA analysis, to Moovenda, a food-delivery platform.
While Rome’s bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure are entrenched, Capello points to some of the more tantalising aspects of resettling in Rome. “Despite it all, quality of life is high here. Maybe because there is less capacity, prices are still competitive.” Good, inexpensive food, affordable rent and a pleasant climate all help make Rome tempting.
Capello and his LVenture Group have also found that there is opportunity and growth to be had here. The key, says Capello, is to align closely to the institutions and resources doing well, and avoid those that aren’t working. By investing in and promoting promising start-ups, the venture that Capello has created is becoming a success in the face of difficulties that would make most venture capitalists wince.
The key issues:
- Rome was hit hard following the 2008 global economic crisis. Companies relocated, job opportunities were scarce and unemployment skyrocketed.
- Despite Rome’s myriad quality universities, the city had trouble retaining young talent. A sizeable brain drain saw graduates move abroad to work.
- Ambitious Romans who wanted to stay in their hometown were stymied by failing infrastructure and little official support.
- Increase collaboration between universities, corporate sponsors and state institutions.
- Continue investing in early-stage start-ups and those business that are ready to scale up.
- Keep lobbying for much better transport and mobility for the city.