Spring in the Eternal City: Urban and Regional Studies in Rome

April 1, 2010

This spring, 24 undergraduate urban and regional studies (URS) students are studying urban planning in Italy as part of the Cornell in Rome program. As Europe’s oldest city, Rome is a literal palimpsest of urban planning — and the students are peeling back the layers — studying ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and modern Rome through experience-based classes.

Although AAP has a delightful 17th-century palazzo as its home here, students spend most of their time at critical historical sites and in the neighborhoods where they are exploring current-day planning issues, or on field trips to other parts of Italy. 

The Rome Workshop requires students spend about 20 hours per week in assigned peripheral neighborhoods to explore such issues as public space, social housing, infrastructure services, immigrant integration, and economic development challenges.

The course uses an inductive, hands-on approach based in part on Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City. Students emulate professional practice by adopting techniques of investigation they have studied in their first two years of the URS degree. Qualitative approaches, including structured observation and citizen interviews, are combined with quantitative analysis using Italian census and cadastral data as well as the students’ own observations — all mapped for later sharing with neighborhood residents.

This year’s neighborhoods of study include San Saba, one of the oldest — and architecturally most interesting — social housing sites in Italy that reflects, in part, Clarence Stein’s Garden City designs; Quadraro, an “O Zone,” a self-built neighborhood where housing was built before infrastructure (water, sewer, roads) were laid out; Donna Olympia, the densest neighborhood in Rome and site for Pasolini’s famous novel, A Violent Life; Italia, a neighborhood loaded with private streets (gated and turned into parking lots) and an innovative time share market scheme not unlike the Ithaca Hours scheme back home; and finally, Gustianno Imperatore, a neighborhood where the multi-story apartment buildings are tilting and cracking due to subsidence and planners are trying to create renewed interest in social engagement in public space.

The Rome Workshop makes planning and the city come to life for the students. Even though many do not speak Italian, they can use their observation skills as planners to create useful data for the residents and learn a lot about urban planning and design in the process.

Experiential learning is the hallmark of the Cornell in Rome program and one reason why students find it such a powerful learning experience. For faculty, too, it’s a great opportunity to use this large city as a classroom.

By Mildred Warner, professor of city and regional planning

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