Cars file up endlessly on the Roman motorway. Rows of buildings align themselves monotonously beyond them. The only distractions in this uniform urban landscape are gas pumps and momentarily eye-catching supermarkets. Rome’s periphery was created without any real urban planning behind it. Its expansion seems to have merely obeyed the rules of speculative real estate. Rome’s periphery is far from the convivial facade which the marvellous architecture of the city itself has to offer.
There’s even a word in Roman dialect for this specific non-urban model – i pallazinari. ‘We didn’t think of parks or public spaces, let alone methods of transport when these buildings were built,’ explains Francesca, one of the co-founders of the Casale Podere Rosa, a social centre which is implanted on the north-eastern periphery of Rome. ‘People have to take their cars at the weekend to go to the shopping centres. Nothing has been done for them to be able to go out and meet each other near their own houses. Yet almost 90% of residents in the Italian capital live in this suburb.’
Legal squat, local agriculture
The Casale Podere Rosa is not far from the Aguzzano natural parks (whose ‘green lung’, as the French say, has been punctured by rampant urbanisation). Since 1992 this veritable laboratory of ecologist activism has led a long pacifist campaign against the pallazinariste model. Whether it’s screening films, holding conferences or ‘biosteria’, the aim is to show that it is possible to have another lifestyle which is more respectable to man and the environment. ‘We were the first social centre in Rome to explain that environmental problems were inseparable from socio-economic problems and which should be thought through together,’ says Francesca. The founders also frown upon waste and the consumerist drifts of the capitalist society, the exploitation of workers and resources from the south of the country in the name of an inequal economic and alienating model. They get active too, putting pressure on the local authorities by squatting in an old abandoned farm, which is where I meet them today. ‘Thanks to our protest the commune finally voted in a law in 1994 which legalised all occupations of empty buildings by social centres in Rome.’
The Casale Podere Rosa is a pioneer of green activism and is one of the first social centres in Rome which banned Coca-Cola, installed solar panels and put a system of group purchasing in place to help out the smaller local and organic producers. ‘When we launched that system of solidarity a decade ago there were only six or seven families,’ remembers Barbara, another volunteer. ‘The fact that there are around seventy families today shows how much the general mentality has changed.’ The families expanded on the interesting initiative by creating a job to run the project, bringing it unexpected dimensions. As of recently an organic market is held once a month in the garden, which attracts more and more locals. ‘They like to come here and speak to each other and taste the different varieties of apples which have been otherwise forgotten. Even if I am not sure that they are all familiar with the idea of Kilometre Zero and organic agricultute, at least they’re not spending their Saturdays at a supermarket,’ says Francesca, who revels in the little victories.
Short term green memory
Volunteers at the Casale Podere Rosa are afraid that their ideas could be completely distorted by the triumph of the green economy. ‘We speak of green energy everywhere but people are yet to question the system which has led to the destruction of the environment and to social inequalities,’ says Barbara. To try and generate this critical thought amongst newer generations, the association thus also works in the field of memory. With the aid of the local authorities they launched a centre for ecological culture (centro di Cultura Ecologica) in 2002 to remind citizens that ‘Italian history from the second half of the twentieth century is not only about ecological disaster but a growing critical conscience.'
The abandoned farm is within ten minutes walking distance of the Casale Podere Rosa. It is here that the archiving and conserving f all of the small and big battles which have imprinted Italian environmental history over the last few years have been implemented. For example, the centre created an online database on the over one hundred green universities which have flourished across the country since the eighties. ‘They are the basis of modern ecologist thinking in Italy,’ says Francesca. ‘They are usually based in associations and social centres and offer seminaries and conferences on environmental and economical themes. In that era your average university wasn’t dealing with that kind of topic yet.’
'Students come to the ecological centre to work in peace rather than because they’re actually disturbed by what’s happening with the environment'
In the library of the centre for ecological culture, a couple of dozen adolescents are studying in silence. Will they grab the baton and continue this long activist story? ‘There are only three libraries in this neighbourhood of around 500, 000 residents!’ says a dubious Marco, who works here. ‘They come here to work in peace rather than because they’re actually disturbed by what’s happening with the environment.’ In any case the folks from Casale Podere are impatient to take over. However, only six or seven of the original thirty activists are around to run the show as volunteers - you can sense that these green centres on Rome’s periphery might just be running out of steam.
This article is part of Green Europe on the ground, a series of reports on sustainable development written by cafebabel.com
Photos : Une : (cc)sergis blog/flickr ; Texte : ©Amélie Mouton