Subways are funny, disorienting things. Riders might head down some steps in the pulsating heart of a city’s historic core and, after a crowded and shaky journey through near darkness, ascend identical steps into a new world. Such was our experience when a fellow urban planner and I popped out of the ground at Arco di Travertino station. We were there to complete one of our very first assignments for the urban planning workshop in Rome: navigate a neighborhood we’d only seen through Google Maps with nothing but a bare-bones itinerary, limited language proficiency, and fully charged iPhones. Without landmarks, an obvious grid, views back toward the city, or a professor to blindly follow, we were planted at the peak of the stairs for a solid couple of minutes attempting to figure out where we were supposed to go and how we were going to get there. We were aliens, dressed differently than any of the pedestrian traffic and more than once completing an about-face right after slowing and apprehensively checking our screens.
The beginning of the journey demonstrated to us yet again the dangers of only understanding urban space in plan. Our first objective was to enter a nearby park, a space our phones two-dimensionally illustrated to us as green, vast and impossible to miss but which was tucked behind an intricate neighborhood in reality. Finding the hidden entrance among these houses had the effect of introducing us to the non-historic core of Rome. The periphery varies greatly in design and density, with this particular neighborhood constructed in a very informal manner including self-built housing, collections of car parts, and a variety of potted plants. Cats and grocery bags roamed the dusty streets, and Virgin Mary statues sat in yards wrapped around houses with several types of facings and enough additions to render what might have once been the core of the home invisible. Most of Rome, peripheral or otherwise, is like this, stitched together from architectural palimpsests eclectically embellished by generations of users, some more egotistical than others, all messes of materiality and style constituting a physical identity that exists as a unique whole. Many neighborhoods adhere to the theme. This historic center just gets the most attention.
Eventually we did make it to the park, and it was astonishing. Much like exiting the subway into a jarring new landscape, we left the various relatively enclosed spaces from before for a vast natural scene. We could see all the way to the mountains in the far distance. While the neighborhoods preceding and succeeding our time in the park were characterized by the typical urban sensory experiences of siren sounds, graffiti patterns, concrete textures, and visually busy sightlines, this space was open and quiet. Our eyes were guided out to the distance by aqueducts that only terminated in hills and horizon. The rhythmic alternation from tight urban space to infinite parkland was optimal and almost necessary for the neighborhood, and its success as a space was evidenced by the many users, human and canine, traversing its gravel paths and moss-covered ruins.
Our journey concluded with a short walk through some dense residential streets that culminated in a stop at Mercato Tuscolano III, a completely enclosed space memorable above all else for its movement—shoppers scavenging for the right goods and vendors grabbing the attention of potential clients, the whole scene washed in the noise of hundreds of conversations atop the punchy colors of fruit and advertisement. This movement was stimulating for the bystander and somewhat frustrating for the mover, but was altogether an exhilarating experience in a part of Rome most visitors would never know existed. The periphery is where we’ll be working this semester, studying two neighborhoods and their inhabitants while focusing especially on urban agriculture. Living a block from the Pantheon is definitely nice, but I’ll be looking forward to our Thursdays a few more kilometers outward.