During a recent trip to Italy, again and again, I heard the phrase repeated “Don’t bother driving in Rome.” Good advice. To drive is to be caught in the soul-destroying and labyrinthine city street network, forever bottle-necking into tiny, one lane roads, battling cars in a city that’s not meant for them. How could you ever enjoy such a place trapped on the wrong side of the windshield, blocked off from what makes this city so great – its pedestrian roots. Rome is a large city, but it’s best seen by foot. And though the metro’s reach is limited by underground ruins, it is fast and efficient, making it a good launching point for pedestrian jaunts.
The journey in Rome starts with a walk down one of the many slim alleyways and streets. These pedestrian-friendly veins of the city are densely-packed and shop-lined, bustling with foot traffic – rarely a car in sight – full of bakeries and wine bars, eventually opening into beautiful public spaces. Many of these spaces are surrounded by shops, trattorias and outdoor cafes, with locals and tourists alike enjoying dining al freso, basking in the sun and each other’s company. Architectural elements lead the eyes to the center of most of these spaces – perhaps a small park with benches. One might also see a beautifully-designed, triangular piazza, encompassing a fountain of a sinking ship, in turn, abutting the most famous staircase in all of Italy – the Spanish Steps. People are everywhere, eating gelato, bargaining for wares in the informal markets, or just sitting on one of the grandiose stoops, sharing a conversation. The Spanish Steps are a good example of a public space with plenty of economic and social activity. Humans have taken over the adjacent road, so cars are forced to follow their traffic laws as opposed to the other way around. Because of this, we see more activity and business for the surrounding shops and vendors.
Perhaps one of these slim streets opens into the Piazza Navona. The 400-year-old battle between Borromini and Bernini is on display in the center fountain – one of three – and the chapel just beyond it. If overly dumbstruck by the sheer audacity of the baroque, one can blindly stumble into one of many outdoor cafes and trattoria lining the piazza for a nice leisurely meal, taking in the sights from the sideline, watching the street performers and the rest of the public as they meander by. Yet another reason to leave the car behind: many Roman piazzas and squares are pedestrian and bicycle traffic only. Though these places can be massive, the fact that there are no cars blasting by and human beings are walking everywhere tends to humanize the scale. A lesson for public spaces here: What was once daunting becomes easily traversable by foot when there are no automobiles to dodge and no traffic signals to contend with.
One might also be led, via winding alleyway, into Campo de’ Fiori. Formerly a flower-selling square, Campo is now a daily open-air market, aflutter with human traffic, shopping for clothing, breads, vegetables, wines, cheeses, spices, and fruits of every variety. Give your feet a rest at one of the many open trattorias lining the square or grab a slab of pizza by the kilo at Forno. The relationship between food market and restaurant is plain to see. The same ingredients people are shopping for in the square are integral to the restaurants surrounding it. The purchasing process becomes a method of connecting, and ultimately, a process of building and maintaining relationships. You can see echoes of this tradition in the Durham and Carrboro farmers markets, as well as the farm-to-table/restaurant movements. Nothing gives a community or city a better sense of place than an open-air market filled not just with vegetables, but with the human interaction we so desire. It’s also nice to see that this tradition has no geographic limit. In Carrboro and Durham, as in Rome, this is not just some anachronistic and quaint fetish, but a vital part of the local community.
The Roman piazza formula is complex, evolving over many centuries, but many of them incorporate at least four elements: a center, which might include a place for congregation or relaxation – a park, garden, or an artistic point of interest; architectural elements, including steps, chapels, bridges, palaces, and ruins; economic points of interest, including markets, restaurants, shops, and cafes; and pedestrian and bike traffic only areas – if not official, then openly nourished by constant foot and pedal traffic.
Though we don’t share much in common with Roman art and history, we do share a need for community and a sense of place, a desire for safety, good health, walkability, public beauty, and a thriving local economy in our built environment. While some Roman piazzas may be ostentatious to our modern sensibilities and wallets, Rome gives us a formula for how these spaces can and do work.