How Important Is a City’s Link with Its River? A Look at Rome, Italy

Update: The new Gateway Arch grounds are now complete.

All the discussion recently about the new Arch Grounds competition and how St. Louis has lost its soul by being disconnected from the Mississippi River raised some interesting questions in my mind. I started thinking about how various cities that I’ve visited around the world embrace their natural environment, and in this case, I’ll focus on rivers.

In the case of Rome, Italy, a large river, the Tiber, flows through the city. As is the case, I think, with every major city that has a river flowing through it, the river played a major role in the city even existing. In the case of Rome, the Tiber Island, pictured above, served as a ford over the river, creating a natural nexus for trade in the Latium region.

Sometime back in the Nineteenth Century, the city’s residents became tired of the disastrous floods that would erupt over the Tiber’s banks from time to time, and essentially built large retaining walls that block off not only access, but any real use for the citizens of the city. In all the times I have walked along the Tiber, I have never seen anyone other than vagrants walking along the lower promenade; locals see it as a no-man’s land where there is no real reason to go. See the river flowing through Rome from the air here. As is common in other cities, such as along Berlin’s Landwehrkanal, Rome’s traffic engineers built two, one-way roads on either side of the new river embankments, further isolating the Tiber from its city.

And you know what? The city of Rome is still a bustling, culturally rich and amazing city despite it. It poses the question, if the city is functioning perfectly fine up on the river banks, how important is it, really, that the city be connected to its river?

Improvements to St. Louis’s riverfront are needed, but it will not be a cure-all to what still ails the city. The real work must be out in the neighborhoods, where people live and work, and have to spend their lives. The age of the “Jolly Flatboatmen” is gone, and we must live with the present.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think you raise a valid point; when you brought up Rome I also thought of Florence and they did the same thing, fairly tall walls keeping the Arno river in check, builing right up to the river wall. BUT the somewhat long, sloping grade from downtown (STL) to the river is much different than any Italian city I can think of… A.T.

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