City and Regional Planning

Posted April 8, 2020
  • Tourists at the Pantheon, September 2019, photo by Ashley Hahn

Q&A: Alum Ashley Hahn on Public Life in Rome

Last spring, Ashley Hahn, a city planning and historic preservation alum (MCP’08, MSHP’08), was awarded the inaugural Adele Chatfield-Taylor Rome Prize for Historic Preservation and Conservation by the American Academy in Rome for her project Preserving the life between buildings. Hahn is a longtime journalist and former editor of PlanPhilly, a news outlet that was started at PennPraxis and now is housed at WHYY. In September, she began her research in Rome, focused on how Romans and tourists interact with historic public spaces. Her research was cut short amid the worsening coronavirus outbreak, and she returned to the U.S. in March after the American Academy shut down. She spoke about her experience from a family home in New York, where she was self-isolating after returning from Italy. The conversation has been edited.

What was the project that you pitched for the Rome Prize?

I pitched a project trying to think about the preservation of public life. I’m really interested in historic public spaces, and I’ve written a lot about public space and a lot about historic preservation. I feel very frustrated with the way we produce public space right now and the way we manage it. And I think there are lessons from time — built over time — that are meaningful. And so I’m interested in trying to blend the universe of public-life studies and values-centered preservation work, to think about how to holistically care for historic cities. I’m curious about how we take care of the things that are intangible. The ways we use these places matter as much as the physical fabric. So I was interested in spending time in Rome to think about that question because it is such an extreme example, in every way you slice it. Time is different there. The traditions of public life are different there. Everything is amplified. I was really compelled by that, trying to get my head around how some of the most iconic, historic public spaces were living and breathing at this point.

Can you describe the way public space is used differently in Rome versus a place like Philadelphia or other American cities we’re all pretty familiar with?

One of the differences that’s such a pie-in-the-face for me is that in a city like Rome you’ll go to a pretty average piazza that has, by American standards, no amenities. There is no beer garden. There is no game. There is no Zumba class. There isn’t squat except other people, and maybe an interesting piece of history that you’re sitting on. There are barely benches and trash cans. And it does not curb public life whatsoever. So, what have we forgotten or never learned about using public space, and about the ways we can be together in public? I feel like Romans don’t need to be spoon-fed, to be told to spend time together outside. Whereas we are doing backflips, in American cities, begging people, coaxing them to join each other and not be afraid of it. And being sent all the messages that, “This is safe. Look at this fresh and tidy new shiny thing that we’ve put in this public space to invite you to spend time here.” In reality, that reads like a forced smile.

You mentioned that hyper-tourism became a focus of your research.

Yes. Rome’s most iconic public spaces are not for Romans any more. And the people who grew up there will tell you, “Oh, when I was a kid it was like this.” There’s a lamentation that happens, which I think is part of the Roman way of speaking about the city. But it’s a mood that comes over people, where they think about a sense of ownership of the place that has meaningfully changed since the post-war. There’s this huge economic boom that happens after World War II, and in the last few decades, with cruise ships and cheap airfare, it’s just an inundation, a lot of people around the world with a lot more money to travel. I don’t begrudge anybody the desire to see Rome. I want everybody to have that experience. But it’s fascinating to watch the consequences for a neighborhood. The historic core of the city is hyper-protected, at least on paper, but the way it lives and breathes — these are not functional neighborhoods any more. And it’s fascinating. That’s what I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about.

What were you doing day to day?

I was looking for just the way people lived. My Italian is so bad that interviewing was not a viable option, particularly early on. I did have conversations with people, but that was reliant on people speaking English or me being with somebody who spoke better Italian than I did. But I would watch them, and you can get like 75% of what’s happening by just being the casual observer. In a way, it was a very different kind of practice for me, because I’m used to being able to go up to somebody pretty indiscriminately. But I sort of put on the cloak of invisibility and just camped out.

What were you looking for in public spaces?

One rule of thumb is, a space is welcoming if there’s an equal amount of women as men, if not more — solo, especially. And if people came in groups, that meant it was a destination of choice. I did observations that were timed over hours. How long do people stay? How sticky is the place? And then I was trying to look at some design characteristics, like a sense of enclosure. Some of the rules of thumb that we kind of take as good practice when we’re thinking about designing public spaces now. How true are those when you look at historic spaces? One of the things I got stuck on thinking about there was, how do you make room for the living past? How do you make room for places that have this beautiful dimension of time, which gives them meaning and purpose, to continue that use but also to evolve?

How did the coronavirus outbreak come into play? Was there any gradualness to the change in the way you saw public space being used during that time, or did it happen too quickly?

On the one hand, there was this very human impulse to spend time outside together. The world started to get smaller, and the recommendations were like, “Limit your exposure. The kids have to stay home from school.” The valves started to close on public life. At first, that meant that people actually wanted to be outside and see each other, and at least be in visual proximity to other people. And for such a public culture, for a place that thrives in its expressions of public life, it was only natural that people wanted to be together.

But it started to be like, “Okay, we’re going to go inward here.” The police were sent around to prevent people from gathering, and if you were walking around, you had to have a piece of paper that said that you were going to or from work or the grocery store. Some friends, a couple, were stopped for walking to the grocery store together, and the police were like, “You guys shouldn’t do this. One of you needs to go to the store at a time.” So it started to become more serious. You watched the numbers creep up. And every night, there was this performance by the government around 6:30, which was like, “These are today’s numbers.” And you’d kind of measure time by what that number looked like. In Lazio, the region where Rome is, the numbers were still really small. They’ve gone up a lot, and we’re expecting the peak there to be like around now.

There was a period at the beginning of March where I felt like every day was a week and every week became a month. And the last month was a year. And I felt like a time traveler, because I have seen this movie. The stuff that the U.S. is experiencing now is what we were living a month ago. And watching the delayed responses here has been incredibly frustrating, because it’s like — we just did this somewhere else.

What are the unfinished bits of research, or of personal observation of the space that you need to do before you can take another step with this?

I need to do some interviews. I didn’t get done what I needed to get done, in that regard. What I got a window into was how a place shuts down, which is instructive in its own way, and I think instructive for the moment. I’m thinking a lot about what the consequences are for other cities.  What does it look like in Philadelphia when it shuts down? How do we reopen? Should our spaces stay the same? How do we rise to the call of making public space serve people better, and not just be a place of last resort when the gym is closed? I think all of this primes me for thinking about more than what I started out thinking this project was going to be.