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The Tiber River: uses, interactions and
potential with the city of Rome

The Tiber River and its embankments have proven to be a critical component to the successful development of the city of Rome. The embankments have functional characteristics, as the river’s walls maintain the winter season’s stormy weather and surplus of rainwater, though harsh, annual floods limit the river’s activity for limited times through the year. They also have cultural significance, as the river’s platform edges (quay) become occupied in a variety of ways throughout the year such as by every day recreationalists and seasonal festivals. The Tiber river’s relationship with the city is unique because of the drastic change in elevation between the two. This change is elevation creates very separate spaces and each (the river and the streets of Rome) is used quite differently; there are busy streets above and tranquility at the riverbank below. This relationship naturally influences how the river is used and to what extent, other than its primary reason. However, the tranquility of the river exposes some of its negative characteristics as well, as low security and isolated areas burden its positive attributes. Through research, observation and analysis, I intend to understand the Tiber River’s current attributes (both positive and negative), what influences and influenced these attributes, and why the river is used as it is today.

Of the Tiber River’s numerous uses, an early, prominent use was for the transportation of goods into the city of Rome from cities like Ostia Antica. Ostia Antica is located approximately twenty-five kilometers southwest of Rome and in the early centuries, it bordered the Tyrrhenian Sea making it a logical place for an Italian port. Goods would be stored and shipped by watercraft along the river to bring products into the city. As Rome greatly depended on Ostia Antica for supplies, so did Rome depend on the river to allow for means of transportation. While the river functioned for Rome, it also posed as an issue to connect the land of Rome separated by the dividing water between it. Similarly, around the beginning of the first century, construction of permanent bridges began to link the two sides of land. There were five bridges constructed in or before the 1st century in the city of Rome that are still used today.I Such connections allowed for the expansion of local trade and markets within the growing city and the developing urban fabric. It was obvious, yet crucial, that the new bridges being design and constructed took into consideration the types of watercrafts traveling on the river. Using the river as a means of transportation was again a key function of the Tiber as the passageways through such bridges needed to accommodate the size and types of watercraft in use.II The river was not only used for practical purpose, but for recreational purposes as well. Among the farming and agriculture nearby and various types of goods passing through the river, the Tiber was also actively used for water sports. Rowing competitions have been held on the Tiber River since at least the 19th century. (Figure 1) Swimming competitions were even held along the Tiber River. (Figure 2)

Figure 1: Cover of “La Tribuna IIlustrata” rowing competition in Tiber River, 26 May 1895

Figure 2: Roman swimming festival, 21 July 1921

As centuries progress and Rome continues to be influenced by its interaction with the Tiber River, the city is faced with a serious issue; one that is encountered most winter seasons. Through the changing of seasons, the water level of the Tiber River’s water level fluctuates as rainfall collects. In the summer seasons, the water level is visibly lower, thus allowing for more area along the river to be used. Contrastingly, the winter seasons bring much higher water levels and problematic interactions between the Tiber River and the city of Rome. “Rivers often have a point where maximum flooding occurs, and for the Tiber, this point corresponds exactly to the area occupied by Rome.”III Not only would the rising water level flood riverbanks and temporarily occupy land, it would flood parts of the city as well. “…the city’s population resulted in both a large number of abandoned properties, particularly in the campus Martius where the constant risk of flooding made it an unattractive residential neighborhood, and a general reduction in traffic and congestion.”IV Because during earlier centuries the river’s edges were still organic and not artificially formed, the river’s high waters and current would deteriorate some areas while sediment would begin to collect in other areas, constantly changing the river’s topography. The seriousness of the rapidly changing Tiber was an issue that would have to be faced if the if there was to be a successful future for Rome near the river.

Figure 3: Plan of Rome showing flooded areas in 1870 flooding.

The predictable flooding in the city eventually led to river containment proposals. Early proposals during the 16th century varied from minor river embankments primarily concerned with protecting specifically valued areas to more elaborate plans involving full-time maintenance crews. “Crews included carpenters, masons and general laborers and were engaged in every type of activity from simple removal of detritus along the river’s banks to complete bank stabilization efforts carried out due to the effects of flooding and erosion.”V However in December of 1870, the Tiber River flooded the unprotected city of Rome for the last time. A solution was decided for a drastic fix to the Tiber’s flooding. Large embankment walls reformed both edges of the Tiber River through Rome to maintain the water during the winter season. The project was not completed until early in the 20th century as it required extensive amounts of labor, including building demolition and clearing to allow for the construction of the embankments. (Figure 4) With the embankments giving new form to the river, the existing bridges also required to be reconnect to the newly formed roads that paralleled the river (lungotevere).

Figure 4: Demolition of existing structures to prepare for construction of 20th century embankments near Tiber Island.

The installation of the Tiber River’s embankments introduces new interaction between the river and the bordering city. For instance, the river’s once primary function was to transport goods into Rome. With the evolution of vehicular transportation and Rome’s roadways through and around the city, the river is no longer active by boats transporting goods. This is evident by the amount of watercraft present in the Tiber’s water. In fact, watercrafts have almost become extinct to the Tiber River in Rome. One of the only activities boats are still used for is ferry rides within the city limits. More commonly at the river and more especially at its edges, are recreationalists who use the river’s much more tranquil sidewalks as a substitute to the busy streets of the city. The quay of the river stretch through the city on both sides of the river and are sparsely but commonly occupied with walker, joggers, and bicyclists receiving their daily fix of physical activity. While the construction of the embankments have added pedestrian and bicycle routes, the spaces is only inhabited by recreationalists primarily in the sunlit time of the day. The isolation of the river’s quay in contrast to the sidewalks of Rome’s city streets become much less supervised and secure. Such characteristics limit the usage of the river’s edges throughout the day.

As described previously, the Tiber River’s water level radically adjusts with the changing of annual seasons. This is especially obvious now with the containment of the river as water no longer disperses into the city but fills its designated spaces between the embankments during the rainy seasons. However, during the summer with a stable and minimal amount of water, the river’s edges are very easily accessible and usable. For this reason, the city of Rome encourages annual summer festivals at the quay of the river. The festivals offer food, music, entertainment and shopping in selecting areas of the city. (Figure 5) The evening festival goes for a few months until mid August. It is one of the most successful ways to bring the community of Rome to the banks of the Tiber River as the summer weather and water allow for such events. The festival stretches along the river for more than a kilometer expanding the amount of river space being effectively used and accessed from multiple points. Unfortunately, however, such an event can only take place for a limited time as tourists and weather greatly influence the success of the summer festivals. Such activity, or any activity for that matter, cannot take place on the quay of the river during the winter months as the river’s water often times submerses the quay and many feet above. During the winter months the intense amount of water causes the river to perform it’s obvious function, but engagement with the river merely becomes a spectacle.

Figure 5: Map shows location of activities part of Tiber River summer festivals near Tiber Island.

It’s evident the Tiber River is used during its peak summer season with flocks of tourists exploring the festivals. Contrastingly, the river’s winter season is essentially unusable to the public due to flooding. Still, there are approximately seven months that have not yet been discussed as to how the Tiber is occupied. Unfortunately, there is no stable program or series of programs offered to the river to make it valuable. Runners and bicyclist continue their use with the space and pedestrians from crossing bridges enjoy a photo or a glance, but there is nothing to consistently anchor users to the space. Appropriately stated, “the riverbed can be characterized by a chilling absence of urban life: the passage of the Tiber in Rome is still a deep wound that is slow to heal”.VI One gentleman who strongly agrees with this statement is Robert Hammond, a consultant for a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors. Hammond, who has participated in revitalizing abandoned public spaces like Manhattan’s “High Line” project, devised a social experience in hopes to exploit the Tiber River’s potential to be a successful public space.VII His experiment, inspired by William Whyte’s study of “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”, placed one hundred movable chairs at an arbitrary spot on the quay of the river and hoped to attract the public from Rome’s city street to the Tiber.VIII As easy as providing basic folding chairs and very subtly supplying a program, Hammond was able to activate the banks of the Tiber in a very successful manner. The result of the recent experiment offers valid evidence that the Tiber River can successfully host tourists and locals alike.

Figure 6: Hammond’s installation “Chance Encounters of the Tiber River” in action, 31 May 2010

Due to the unavoidable progressions, the Tiber River no longer functions how it once so successfully did. Its existence through the heart of Rome became crucial as it was depended upon to allow the transportation of goods into the city. As time progressed, the existence of the river was no longer essential as it was centuries before while Rome was growing. However, the river played a key role in Rome’s development and cannot be denied of its vital performance. Due to the rivers location and available space within such a dense city, it seems absurd to not exploit the Tiber’s potentially rich qualities. Evident through Rome’s summer festivals and Hammond’s temporary installation, “Chance Encounters,” the Tiber can undeniably be successful and productive, given a program is introduced to the space. To offer a closing statement, it would be an absolute disgrace to the city of Rome to see the rich attributes of the Tiber River remain hidden any longer than they already have, before finding a solution to see the river perform at its full potential.

I. Comune di Roma, Bridges of Rome: Ponte Milvio, Emilio, Sublicio, Cestio and Fabricio.
II. Rabun McDowell Taylor, Water Distribution, the Tiber River, and the Development of Ancient Rome, (Ph.D.Diss. University of Minnesota, 1997). pp.112.
III. Rabun McDowell Taylor, Water Distribution, the Tiber River, and the Development of Ancient Rome, (Ph.D.Diss. University of Minnesota, 1997). pp.127. Source from: Ronna, A. 1898c. Les travaux du Tibre. Bulletin de la Societe d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale ser. 5, tome 3, Nov. :1401-80.
IV. Myles McCallum, Tiberis Navigabilis: Commercial Activity Between Rome and the Middle Tiber Basin During the Roman Period, (Ph.D. Diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2004).pp.355.
V. Myles McCallum, Tiberis Navigabilis: Commercial Activity Between Rome and the Middle Tiber Basin During the Roman Period, (Ph.D. Diss., State University of New York at Buffalo, 2004).pp.382.
VI. Maria Margarita Segarra Lagunes, Il Tevere e Roma: Storia di uma simbiosi (Gangemi, 1999).pp.363. Self-interpreted translation.
VII. http://www.roberthammond.com/index.php?/project/high-line/
VIII. William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (NY, Project for Public Spaces, 2001). For more information.