Trastevere East: Resolving a Dysfunctional Site

This semester I have tasked my students from the Cal Poly Architecture Program with studying a neighborhood of Rome that has always fascinated me, Trastevere East, opposite Ponte Palatino. After years of looking at unwieldy and problematic sites, from Porta Portese to Testaccio to the Fori Imperiali archaeological park, I decided to move back to the historic center, to focus on the dense urban fabric that makes Rome great. I wanted a site that could be read and recognized on the Nolli Plan (the imperial fora were obliterated by Mussolini).
Located at the edge of the Tiber by Porta Ripa Grande, roughly bounded by the Papal walls to the south at Porta Portese, Viale Trastevere to the west, and the river to the north and east.
Historically it has been marked by river ports and the presence of immigrants. It has the feel of a village which is dwarfed strangely by the presence of several large institutions: such as the former San Michele convent, now the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the international ICCROM conservation organization, the ministry of education on Viale Trastevere, hospitals, churches and the Ministry of Health building opposite Ponte Palatino. Our working hypothesis —entirely polemical and admittedly unrealistic— envisions this last ministry moving to a healthier location and its building here being dismantled, at least in part.
This site is typically Roman in so many ways. Although located at the river’s edge, the connection is tenuous at best. Between the village-like streets of Trastevere and the Tiber flows a sea of cars and trucks and other motor-vehicles with few places for people to safely cross. We are in the center of town but encounter things we expect at the city’s margins: a gas station, homeless camps, and long stretches of wide high-speed roadway. Fifteen meters below the city streets the Tiber banks are overgrown, forgotten, peaceful yet slightly menacing, like a room you have always been warned not to enter.
My students analyzed the natural and anthropic systems. They observed both the positive pervasiveness of green, poking up in the cracks and climbing facades, and the invasive presence of motor vehicles, also finding their way through every possible passage and parked on any horizontal surface.
As their projects take form many are proposing radical transformations of the traffic flow, removing cars from Ponte Palatino, moving them under or above street level, in order to re-connect the ancient Via Aurelia with the other side of the Tiber, the Foro Boario and beyond the Roman Forum. This is understandable, since right now the poor pedestrian has little hope of surviving a stroll along this natural pathway. But I’ve encouraged soft solutions based on my conviction that the massive presence of motor-vehicles in cities is destined to fade, as it already has in most European and many American cities. The Lungotevere in Trastevere, unlike the Charles River in Boston, is part of the city fabric and shouldn’t be considered a north-south artery for motor-vehicles (something that needs to be conceived elsewhere). I’m encouraging traffic-calming efforts, more traffic lights with longer pedestrian priorities, speed tables, shared space, all aimed at making it harder, not easier, for cars to get through Trastevere. And vice versa, easier for people.