Home from Rome: Surely surviving Modernity

“Modernism is clearly expressed by…. the segregation of activities and peoples, the specialization and isolation of professions and the systems they create, the (rapid) centralization of ever larger (capitalist) institutions (and developments), and the monopoly of certain technologies, most notably the car.”   Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis.

Campo de’ Fiori

We have just returned from two weeks in Rome. As we walked that city’s streets and lingered in the piazzas, we again appreciated that Rome has much to teach us about leading a mostly manageable, probably survivable and certainly civilized urban life. If only Rome were home.

From our front door near the Campo de’ Fiori, (and in our little apartment on stage left of what was Pompey’s ancient theater of 55 BCE, where Caesar later met his fate) we could find all of what might be needed within a short walk of a few minutes. The streets in our neighborhood were originally named for artisans and crafters: crossbow-makers, key-makers (Via Chiavari), coffee-sellers, hat-makers and more. And today, while the key-makers are gone, the character lives on. We searched beyond ground floor storefronts, looking upstairs for doctors and lawyers and insurance agencies and all kinds of other workers and workplaces we might need nearby. The little brass plaques near the entries told the story: a real mix of occupants is still present.

Brass door plaques

I have often written here about what I believe constitutes good, livable, sustainable urbanism. I have endlessly described the best cities as dense, walkable, mixed use, accessible, diverse, and more. Which brings us back to Mr. Calthorpe’s description of modern urbanism, and my observation that with grace and civility Rome has survived modern urbanism, though  most American cities and towns have not. Let us continue.

This is our neighborhood in Rome, with a half-mile walking circle (my mobility is circumscribed these days) overlaid.


From our place, we could reach quite a range of locales: great places in the public realm (Piazza Navona, Piazza Farnese, the Pantheon, others), historic structures like Sant’Andrea della Valle and Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, hundreds of places for food and drink, museums, the Justice Ministry, the French Embassy, ancient ruins, the Tiber, and more. Many treasures.

And this is our neighborhood here at home, with the same half-mile walkshed. From our place, we can almost make it to the 7-Eleven – not one of our destinations, but popular. (By calculation, Rome is 500% more dense than Rochester.) I emphasize, as I predictably do, that density promotes walkability, and walkability promotes proximity to a local life without automobiles: good urbanism. Not true of our city, but most desirable, and increasingly necessary.


Certainly Rome has been altered and changed over time. Change in any city is certain. But it is clear that change has come incrementally, slowly, carefully – not abruptly. Rome has not been slashed by a beltway or inner loop. Rome has not segregated its neighborhoods by age, income, race or religion. Rome has not been savaged by parking lots or parking garages, or a downtown mall. Somehow, Rome has survived these modern impulses.

I wondered if I could find illustrations of this fact of incremental change in Rome, and in particular in our Roman walkshed. So I looked for images of the city as it was amended in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First, here are three views of the Campo de’ Firori across 25 years, and for the sake of comparison, the 1905 location as it is today.

Campo de’ Fiori, 1880
The Campo, and the then recently erected statue of heretic Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake on that spot. Photo: 1895.
The Campo in 1905
And the Campo today, in the same spot where those children were sitting.

And then a few more views of the city as it was revised across time. Changing certainly, but not suddenly, not precipitously.

Piazza Navona 1868
The Pantheon, 1880
Piazza Venezia, 1925

And today in Rome these places have been slowly but gently altered, but remain whole, and without scars from passing time:

Piazza Navona
Piazza Venezia

Rome could be home. Rome should be home.

I want to acknowledge my thanks and give praise to D. W. Rowlands, now a Senior Researcher at the Brookings Institution, for her work on walkable density, walksheds, and her quantitative understanding of American urbanism. Her work is fundamentally important.

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