During the pandemic lockdown, the citizens of Rome were entranced by images of ducks swimming in the city’s fountains and grass conquering the unused cobblestones of its historic piazzas. They took comfort in the knowledge that nature was reclaiming their neighborhoods. But spontaneous nature has always existed in big cities, often unobserved by the public.
Rome sprawls over 1,200 square kilometers (about 463 square miles). It’s not much smaller than London, but only a quarter of its land has been developed, and its population is less than a third of London’s 10 million. While it encompasses one of the highest numbers of protected green zones and arable land in Europe, an unconstrained urban wilderness has been reclaiming territory for centuries. Clambering up the archaeological ruins celebrated by Piranesi, it is now creeping over the city’s numerous abandoned construction sites and appropriating its unused spaces. Not surprisingly, Rome possesses a high level of biodiversity, unmatched by most major European cities.
The Italian capital is also characterized by a tradition of activism, as resourceful citizens attempt to compensate for weak local governments hampered by outdated bureaucracy and often unable to control powerful real estate developers. The lake—the Lago ExSnia in east Rome—has become a symbol of their continuing involvement. In the early 1990s, a Roman developer attempted to convert a textile factory in disuse since the 1950s, the Snia Viscosa, into Rome’s largest shopping mall. The project was opposed by the local community, which sought to protect rare green space in Pigneto, one of the city’s highest-density neighborhoods. When construction crews began excavating a pit for the parking lot, they accidentally hit an aquifer; water flooded the cavity and proved impossible to divert to sewers. Rome’s only natural lake, the Lago ExSnia, was formed around the concrete skeleton of the aborted shopping center.
For the last 30 years, local citizens, environmentalists, academics, artists, and even a well-known Italian rap group have rallied to defend the lake and prevent further development. They have convinced the local municipality to seize most of the grounds, which have been revamped as a 7-hectare (17-acre) park, self-managed by a neighborhood-led forum that acts as the park’s custodians. In 2020, the Regione Lazio, Rome’s regional authorities, declared the park and the lake a “natural monument.” It turned out to be a well-timed intervention. During lockdown, the park offered a sanctuary in the heart of the city, and the haunting structure of the doomed shopping mall and the old factory ruins only added to the allure.
Over time, a remarkable ecosystem has evolved, one that supports 90 bird species, four EU priority habitats, and more than 300 plant types. In an interview with Ylenia Sina for Slow News, botanist Giuliano Fanelli recounted the advanced process of spontaneous renaturalization taking place at the Lago ExSnia, envisaging two paths ahead of mankind: one toward total collapse, the other toward a system in which man and nature are united. The lake represents the second path. Sadly, though, the battle is not over. The goal of the forum, whose slogan is “No Cement in East Rome,” is to pressure public authorities to seize all the remaining land and establish an “ecological corridor.”
Stalker, a Roman architecture/activist/research collective and a member of the Forum, was one of the first to discover the Lago ExSnia. In 1996, its manifesto described “the spaces of confrontation and contamination between the organic and the inorganic, between nature and artifice.” The collective chose to focus on those residual zones and the communities who inhabit them, engaging with marginalized groups in playful, open collaborations. Influenced by both land artists and the Situationists, Stalker organizes collective walks—what it calls “psychogeographical investigations”—that serve as instruments for mapping “territories” and their transformations, and, more recently, to raise public awareness of social and environmental issues.
Lorenzo Romito, co-founder of Stalker, and Giulia Fiocca organize these explorations. They consider the Lago ExSnia a place where citizens from all walks of life come together to form a community with a common goal: to defend, monitor, and encourage a spontaneous rewilding of their neighborhood. Advocating for the establishment of a community-led “agency for socio-ecological regeneration,” Romito calls it D.A.F.N.E (Environmental Damage and the Formation of New Ecosystems) and urges the local government to support it.
It was a plea that did not go unheeded by Luca Montuori, the astute urban planning counsellor for the 5 Star Party local government, who attempted to push forward some courageous sustainable regeneration policies before his party lost the local elections last autumn. Montuori, professor of architecture and urban design at Roma Tre University, intended to construct an Anello Verde (Green Ring) in east Rome to cover 750 hectares (1,850+ acres) of land, of which two-thirds would encompass an ecological corridor. For decades, this vast territory around the lake has contained a hodgepodge of both public and private land: degraded public parks and decaying archaeological monuments; sectors designated for public green zones and later abandoned; disused constructions sites and landfills; interstitial spaces; urban wilderness; informal settlements and unbuilt land owned by developers. The corridor would amalgamate all the territory into a network of natural spaces connected by bicycle lanes and pedestrian paths leading to the big regional parks at either end—the Natural Reserve Valle dell’Aniene and the Appia Antica Archaeological park—and to Rome’s main railway line on the perimeter. Real estate development in the corridor would be prohibited, and large tracts of land in private hands would be expropriated. Developers would be compensated with more-expensive buildable land near the main railway junctions on the borders of the Green Ring.
What’s particularly striking is Montuori’s acknowledgment of the informal and collective use of the land by neighborhood associations, and not just at Lago ExSnia. Local organizations have taken over segments of this jumbled territory to reclaim green public spaces and promote a wealth of social, cultural, athletic, and ecological activities while pressuring public authorities to connect the natural zones. The neighborhoods played a significant part in the Green Ring’s participatory planning process. So far, the new Democratic Party administration has not implemented Montuori’s plan, but it is pursuing some of his ideas, along with those proposed by the local organizations.
Rome is not alone. The ideas of urban wilderness, rewilding, Diller and Scofidio’s “wild urbanism,” are hot topics in international urban planning policies. The Milanese architect Stefano Boeri describes Rome as the city of the future and of our species, with its combination of “wild and controlled nature, agriculture, and ecological niches alongside segments of history and archaeology.” While environmental activism is on the rise worldwide, in Rome, a particularly inventive social and ecological movement is taking shape, formed by the peculiarities of the city’s urban landscape, politics, and culture. With biodiversity decreasing at rapid rates and the looming threat of irreversible climate change, the forum’s vision for protecting urban ecosystems, working in close collaboration with grassroot organisations, encourages some optimism for the future.
Featured image: Lago ExSnia, Parco dell Energie, and neighboring east Rome. Photo by Pierre Kattar, 2021.