Does Rome Have Any Interest In Sustainability?

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By Anne-Sophie Garrigou

Last week I decided to go to Rome for a getaway weekend. I needed to escape from the Berlin autumn (yes, it’s already there, although the summer never showed up!), and I was interested to see what was happening in the city in terms of sustainability.

The one and only cycling lane I saw in Rome

On the face of it, Rome doesn’t feel like a green and sustainable city at all! I walked in its streets for hours and hours over four days to only encounter three plugin stations along with a couple of plug-in vehicles and one  —  only one —  cycling lane.

Something that really hit me after only walking for a couple of seconds in the city center is the noise! Living in a familial and quiet part of Kreuzberg, this was a cultural shock, and an aggressive one! I realized after a while that instead of talking to each other, my friends and I were yelling to cover the noise of the vehicles and car horns. Because of all this traffic, air pollution readings often reach emergency levels in Rome, forcing partial city shutdowns. Before its renovation, the Colosseum was covered in so much smog that it took two years and €25 million to clean it.

In 2016, more than a third of Italian households perceived air pollution in the area where they lived  —  43.4% in the Lazio region, which Rome is part of  —  while a fifth of them complained of unpleasant odors in the area they lived in.

My friend Lucia, who was born and raised in Rome, told me that it was impossible for her to not have a car, because of the poor quality of the public transportation system. One morning, she drove me with her car to the metro station so I could reach the city in a reasonable time. I tried to convince her not to, that I could take a bus and walk, but this was not about her being an incredible host. Once we reached the station 15 minutes later, I realized that a lot of people were being dropped off or picked up there as well, by family or friends with a car. It reminded me of when my parents drove me to the train station every Monday morning when I was a teenager in order for me to get to high school. The only difference is: we were living in a village with 300 inhabitants, and my school was 60 kilometers away.

Here are two interesting numbers to compare:

  • The first one is the number of passenger cars for 1,000 inhabitants in the Region of Lazio: 628.7. We can add here the number of circulating motorcycles for 1,000 inhabitants, still in Lazio: 115.2.
  • The second figure is the number of children and students who travel to school or university by public means of transport, they are only 34.8% in the same Lazio region.

In the metro in Rome, there are only two lines, and it gets very, very busy. I have lived in Paris, London, and now Berlin, and I had always complained about public transport being late, slow, or packed, but Rome reaches a different level of inconvenience. The city has been trying to build a third line for ages, but the fantastic thing about Rome is that whenever they dig, they find some ruins from ancient times, so they have to rethink the project over and over again.

Waiting for the metro in Rome.

Being a tourist and not having anywhere to be at anytime, I walked everywhere once I reached the center. But this is a much bigger problem for the 2.8 million inhabitants, especially knowing that the cost to rent an apartment is so exorbitant in Rome. In fact, it is more affordable to live in the outskirts of the city, buy a car, and pay for insurance and gas, than rent a 25 square meter studio in the city center. According to the national statistic institute, Istat, 183,200 households live in relative poverty in the Lazio region. It’s no wonder that sustainability comes after the financial aspect when having to decide between living in the city center and going by public transportation, or living in the cheapest apartment outside of the city center and going around with a private car. This is especially true for the youth, which suffer from a labor market that doesn’t seem to be adapted to their needs: in Lazio, 41% of the youth is unemployed.

Along with the two metro lines, Rome also has a network of old and dirty buses and tramways. In fact, my friend told me they recently changed all the buses (it doesn’t look like it), and the ones that were here a couple of years ago reminded her of the ones she use to take during her trip to South East Asia. Hearing this from a woman who just spent three months in Kathmandu is quite concerning.

In my desperate quest for sustainable initiatives, I asked Lucia, “what about being sustainable yourself?” — and here again, it’s not easy. Whether it is because you need a car to get to work or because organic and sustainable products are not affordable and difficult to find, she is herself struggling to live by her convictions. And it’s really frustrating.

One other environmental problem in Rome is the water treatment and use. In 2017, Italy has faced its driest springs in some 60 years, with some parts of the country registering rainfall 80% below normal. The Lazio region had even mulled a measure to stagger water supply shutdowns in certain neighborhoods of the capital for 8 hours a day in order to stop withdrawing water from Lake Bracciano because it had dropped to such a low level that it risked sparking an environmental disaster. There was a big controversy about shutting down the numerous fountains that locals and tourists use for a much needed refreshment during the summer. But one would point that the problem doesn’t come from the running fountains, but from the fact that between 30% and 50% of Rome’s water leaks from pipes.

Another thing that struck me is the waste management. There are a few recycling bins in the city centers, but they can be overflowing for days before being emptied, adding to the already abundant litter that tourists and locals alike nonchalantly scatter. And when the old little truck comes to empty them, it’s during the middle of the afternoon blocking the way for the pedestrians for a couple of minutes. I feel like I’m being a bit dramatic here, but the city can surely do better. But it is improving. When we compare the number of municipal waste disposed in landfills, we can see that the number has dropped in the Lazio region from 539.7 kg per inhabitant in 2004, to 68.4 kg per inhabitant in 2015.

Having said all that, I completely fell in love with the city because of all the marks that the centuries of history left behind, because of the incredible art and architecture, its food (my god, the food!), its hundreds of amazing churches, and everything else that make tourists come back. I really wanted to find a reason to come back, and so I looked for sustainable initiatives. Finally, I found some interesting ones! …

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