When in Rome – Plan your Piazza

Rome – the eternal city has always been the focus for ititiating trends. That is, other cities in the world and their societies have long sought to emulate Rome for its fashion, food and lifestyle. Even in earlier centuries Rome was placed among the great centres of Europe for leading thought, design and implementation of advanced ideas – like the Piazza – although some of those ideas such as using wild animals as a means of executing criminals were not generally taken up by other civilisations.

To the casual visitor the layout of the older sections of the city appear haphazard and a confusing labyrinth of small streets and alleyways linking open plazas displaying ancient fountains, decaying statues of long forgotten gods and incongruous Egyptian obelisks. Closer inspection however leads to a greater appreciation of a certain town planning logic behind the perceived chaos.

Creating places for people

Even in Roman times the authorities had a keen eye for community engagement and propaganda. In the absence of modern electronic communication networks the focus of getting a message across to the majority of citizens was the Piazza – an area set aside to enable citizens to gather and where they could be harangued en-masse by the civic leaders or their broadcasters. As the population grew, so did the number of these localised gathering places, often augmented by pagan temples later converted to Christian churches and bounded by markets, shops and restaurants.

Connecting streets and laneways radiate from these “squares” providing access to the surrounding residential apartments and commercial premises.alley3 Today many of these narrow thoroughfares are home to pop up Trattoria that mysteriously appear at sundown to provide alfresco dining to the many locals and visitors who populate these networks.

Whilst the historic need for these places as centres of public communication may have diminished, their role as the centrepiece of social gathering has not. They represent a highly colourful and energetic mix of local residents chatting over coffee and tourists soaking up the flavours, both ancient and modern of the architecture, streetscape, public art and general colour and movement of these very lively places.

Lessons for Australia

Street2The dynamics of these Piazza and their interlinking networks are quite different to the suburban Mall concept familiar to us, principally because of a more intimate enclosure and of course openness to the elements which in itself provides a more festive feel, at least in fine weather. This seems to generate a significant social vibrancy that encourages the mixing of different social strata and a greater informality of leisureliness which is welcome in the midst of an otherwise bustling business and commercial environment.

The narrowness of the connecting network of small streets and lanes tends to exclude road-based public transport and private vehicles generally with the emphasis being on pedestrian movement – further promoting the interaction of individuals.

In an era when we are encouraged to avoid the urban sprawl and turn to more compact and dense development in our cities, the use of the Piazza model may well represent a feature of urban planning that could benefit our yearning for a more cosmopolitan feel to Australian townscapes. We often hear people say that they long for a village atmosphere in their locality and we are seeing initiatives were footpath dining is created to encourage patrons to sit and watch the world go by whilst enjoying a drink or meal.


(Patrons of the cafe Canova in the very popular Piazza Popolo spend a relaxing espresso break watching the tourist throng)

The down side of the Piazza

There are however many concessions to greater efficiency of urban living required to allow the Piazza concept to operate. For example, that quaintness provided by the cobblestone pavements of Rome’s small streets and allyways is not the most effective surface for elderly and disabled movement and there are compromises required in terms of the size of service vehicles able to access local areas, which in turn increases the need for labour-intensive solutions to such services as waste collection.

There are in fact many vertical layers of development that add another dimension to the spatial sense of these places which now boast many archaeological sites exploring buildings and streetscapes from eras BC, directly below the hustle and bustle of the modern city. This createsarcheology5 significant challenges for city infrastructure projects such as the current extension of the underground Metro system which must be halted every time a new historic cache is encountered.

Perhaps the best example of preserving the old with he new is the Piazza Novana built over the site of the Stadium of Domition and since the 15th century a multi-dimensional civic asset. Here the archaeological site is maintained as a museum beneath the buildings circling the Piazza.

(Archaeology wonderland excavated under the Piazza Navona)

Whether there are possibilities for emulating the Roman model or not in Australia, certainly there is no doubt that both local citizens of Rome and the thousands of visitors who constantly traverse the cobblestones find a most pleasant charm in this urban form. It is clearly evident that tourists quickly fall into the leisurely habit of sipping espresso while seated at a small table that faces the Piazza to idle away an hour just drinking in the passing parade, just as countless numbers have done since the first millennium. Very few world cities can boast such a special continuity.


( Piazza Navona, Rome. Image courtesy Bestofromeitaly.com )

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