Tuesday, 8 March 2016
Making a 'sustainable' park - thoughts from a visit to Rome
"Towards a sustainable park" proclaims the blurb on the posters that have been carefully pinned to the solid but, one hopes, temporary fencing. Or rather it says that in Italian complete with diagrams, pictures and the mindless impenetrability of bureaucratic language.
So what is this 'sustainable park' you may very well ask? After all that word 'sustainable' is one of those weasel words so confounded by being discussed and contested that the sense and purpose of the original word is lost in a fog of verbal concern wrapped around with calls for poorly specified action.
As we arrived in the park, it was clear that is was - as your mum would say - in a rather sorry state. It wasn't just the temporary fences or the lack of grass where the grass should be but rather the impression that nothing much had happened for a very long time. Yet the park had sustained - it's probably among the world's oldest parks (the very definition of 'sustainable' one might suggest) so it's not its continued existence that is the bother for those bureaucrats but something else.
Indeed, despite its slight sad state the park was well used combining the dog-walking and children playing functions of parks with a newer purpose of providing a place for African immigrants to lounge around - taking a break from the tough job of trying to flog cheap stuff to tourists (the plaintive cry of 'selfie selfie' being the newest street call from those trying to get folk to buy a selfie stick). And there's a basketball court (or rather whatever the Italians call a 'multi-use games area') where a bunch of young men were playing volleyball as well as what might once have been a properly laid out five-a-side pitch.
Along the sides of the slightly potholed paths are trees. Big trees - mostly stone pines, that icon of Italian treedom - and smaller trees. A multitude of trees. And it's these trees that are the problem with that sustainability. We have - as well as the conflict with regular every day uses of the park - an additional complication for this is Rome and the park is the Colle Oppio, one of the original seven hills of ancient Rome. Meaning, of course, that underneath every inch of the park lies irreplaceable ancient heritage. Those lovely trees - and most of them are lovely - have root systems that are gradually destroying that precious remainder of the lost city. The structures that remain - old bath houses, thermal springs, mosaics, monuments and homes - are unstable, quite literally crumbling away resulting in the project to do something.
And the something is - at its core - trying to get to a balance between the park as a place of play, the park as a green place in an urban environment and the park as a preservation of the past. You get a sense that each tiny piece of completed betterment has only come as a result of careful bartering between the heritage champions, the greens and the local folk who want somewhere to sit or a place for their children to play.
When people ask about political decision-making, we tend to think about new laws or grand strategy. We seldom consider that the toughest political places are these very contested places where many good things are wanted but their priority is contested - ancient ruins worth saving, trees that help the city breathe, playgrounds for toddlers to swing and gardens for us to walk. We can have all of these things but only if we accept some limitation and it falls on the political process - in its broadest meaning - to decide on those constraints, to broker agreements between trees and ruins, and to referee the disputes and disagreements. While all the time knowing that there's an imperative to get the job done, to make that sustainable park.
Right now the Colle Oppio is a mess. At some point it won't be. The challenge will be - and I hope this is the case although my Italian is far too limited to understand everything the signs say - to balance those competing needs, to make a place for tourists (Colle Oppio is 400 yards from the Colosseum), residents, workers and the inevitable flotsam of a city park.