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Why Is Italy's 'National Mall' So Unwelcoming?

Caserta's La Reggia palace and grounds could bring new energy and a sense of ownership to citizens of a tourist destination—if only it wasn't so hard to get in.

Anthony Flint

CASERTA, Italy—At the anonymous western gate of the palace and grounds of La Reggia in this town just north of Naples, a chiseled woman in a vague uniform emerged from a guardshack and asked for money. A gray smoldering tube of ashes grew from her cigarette, and incense was burning by the cash register, enveloping everything in swirling smoke.

Tantalizingly close was an expansive assembly of sculpture gardens, lawns, reflecting pools, fountains, and cascading waterfalls, and it was going to cost us.  Entry to the grounds is 10 euro—about $12.75. An additional charge to enter the palace was more understandable, for a UNESCO site, an over-the-top Baroque-slash-neo-classical behemoth built for kings of Naples in the 18th century. But to enter the park? While we scrounged for currency a resident was asked for her monthly permit. The border check seemed to act as deterrent against a spontaneous picnic or morning jog.

With a parting reminder that the gate closed promptly at 5:30 p.m., we entered the grounds—and something else was quickly evident. The park, three kilometers or roughly a mile and three quarters long, is at the center of Caserta, running from the palace near the train station to the hills sloping up to the north. With super-sized reflecting pools running down the middle, it’s a lush version of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., or a kind of elongated and extended Central Park. Unlike those places, however, La Reggia’s park is sealed at the perimeter—with imposing iron fencing and locked gates and dead-end pathways all the way around.

Not surprisingly, though it could hold enough people from several college football stadiums, the place was virtually empty.

This region of southern Italy below Rome has plenty of other things to worry about besides the way a park functions, first and foremost an economy that continues to be weak, with youth unemployment at 44 percent. (And President Obama gets grief!) The lack of new jobs stirred a backlash against immigrants by neo-fascists sporting Mussolini tattoos.

But what would happen if the grounds of La Reggia were opened up at dozens of possible entry points, inviting the inhabitants of the city to populate the space instead of shutting them out? People would criss-cross and walk and bike. The surrounding streets and neighborhoods would be instantly transformed; residential and commercial buildings lining the park all around would do an about-face, embracing the newly permeable amenity instead of turning their back on what is today a long blank wall.

The inevitable increase in property values, in turn, could be harnessed through a version of value capture—modest payments that are a nod to how a public action creates wealth for private owners. The newly posh addresses, the equivalent of 5th and Central Park West on either side of Central Park in New York, could help fund a conservancy to manage and maintain the urban greensward.

The king’s hunting lodge, the Belvedere di San Leugio, a palace onto itself where a fabric-making mill was also established, is at the northeast corner of the park and is being renovated to host conferences. This may be standard economic development thinking here, but if the now-closed entrance at that northeast corner was open, attendees could walk or bike back through the park to the hotels downtown.

The garden of Europe through the 18th century, Italy is understandably focused on the travel industry. A Conde Nast survey found that Italy is still a top destination after all these years, and places like La Reggia di Caserta—which might be described as Versailles without the crowds—are obviously a big draw. Embracing cultural heritage and historic sites is important for any city, in ways that transcend any revenues or jobs that might be associated, said Luigi Fusco Girard, a professor at the University of Naples.

Girard was part of the UN-HABITAT Urban Thinkers Campus held in Caserta last week—the reason for my visit, representing the Lincoln Institute. The goal was to come up with ideas and innovations for the world’s cities leading to the worldwide summit in 2016 known as Habitat III. We spent a lot of time on some very challenging stuff, like how to address rampant slums in the developing world’s cities. The topic of Caserta’s park came up in a casual conversation over breakfast—something that would only happen at an urban planning conference, right?

It seems some of us can’t help ourselves. Opening up the grounds of La Reggia at multiple entry points might not solve all of Caserta’s problems, but good things would happen. And it will make a nice case study for the next time a bunch of city enthusiasts are in town.

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