This week, the Pope welcomes mayors from around the world to the Vatican. Shutterstock

Mayors from around the world are gathering this week at the Vatican, which has quietly put together a record of urban innovation both inside its walls and across Rome.

VATICAN CITY—When Pope Francis issued his much-noticed encyclical last month, it was his call for action against climate change that grabbed headlines. But buried deep in the 184-page letter was a surprising statement on urban planning.

In a section of the document called “Ecology of Daily Life,” Francis focused on the importance of cities, neighborhoods, and public spaces as places to create and preserve quality of life and a sense of belonging. He highlighted the need for better housing and to integrate slums and rundown neighborhoods “into a welcoming city.” He even touched on the need for better mass transit. (Read an excerpt of this section of the Pope’s letter here.)

This week, Francis will dive even deeper into urban policy. Today, the Vatican welcomes more than 60 mayors from around the world. The eclectic agenda covers mayoral efforts to combat climate change as well as modern forms of slavery. Many of the mayors will stay the next day for a second conversation about how cities fit into the world’s new Sustainable Development Goals meant to guide development work around the globe for the next 15 years.

The mayors will see a Vatican that—even before Francis—has been quietly putting together a record of urban innovation. The initiatives are happening partially within the walls of the tiny city-state itself. But they’re also happening across the broader metropolitan area of Rome, where the Pope heads the local diocese of the Catholic Church, and where the Vatican holds a unique spiritual, political, and economic influence over local affairs.

Here are five ways the Vatican and its partners in civil society and Rome’s local government have been putting into practice some of the urban ideas Pope Francis wrote about in his encyclical.

Integrating the urban fringe

“It is important that the different parts of a city be well integrated and that those who live there have a sense of the whole, rather than being confined to one neighborhood and failing to see the larger city as space which they share with others.”—Pope Francis

Every 25 years, Catholic pilgrims from around the world descend on Rome for a “holy year” known as the Jubilee. For centuries, the event has been a cornerstone of urban planning, with investments in infrastructure and public spaces to handle the crush of pilgrims. The last Jubilee, in 2000, drew 25 million tourists, who mostly visited the Vatican and four papal basilicas in central Rome.

Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino responded to the Pope’s call for a “Jubilee of the suburbs” with a plan to invest in streetscapes, parks, and squares in Rome’s distressed outer-ring neighborhoods. (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/Landov)

Francis is shaking this up. In April, he announced an “extraordinary Jubilee” to begin this December. Furthermore, Francis—who as Cardinal in Buenos Aires worked extensively in the poor suburban villas and barrios de chabolas—has called for a “Jubilee of the suburbs,” with celebrations to be held in Rome’s neglected urban outskirts. (For the first time, central churches around the world will also open their "holy door," exactly as happens in Rome.)

Responding to the Pope’s surprise plan, the city of Rome is hastily putting together a plan of 38 actions in the urban suburbs worth a total investment of €50 million. The Giubileo di strada plan (Jubilee of the street) focuses on fringe neighborhoods most visitors to Rome never see, such as Prima Porta and Divino Amore. It will upgrade streetscapes and install much-needed parks and squares, many of them next to churches.

“The Jubilee has always been seen as an occasion to plan further developments of the city,” Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino told us. “We are fostering an action of mending through a scientific analysis of urban needs. There are some suburbs where the Catholic Church is very committed but where churches don’t have an open space in front.”

The Italian government has criticized Marino’s plan, objecting that most of the works are not linked to the traditional holy places in central Rome where many millions of pilgrims will surely visit anyway. But city officials say investing in the suburbs will leave a longer lasting impact for the residents who need it most.

“The neighborhoods chosen are inhabited by the local middle class but have poor infrastructures,” says Giovanni Caudo, the deputy mayor in charge of urban regeneration. “We want to link the regeneration of these spaces to the general sense given by the Pope to this Jubilee.”

Churches as public works

“Those who design buildings, neighborhoods, public spaces, and cities, ought to draw on the various disciplines which help us to understand people’s thought processes, symbolic language, and ways of acting.”—Pope Francis

The Roman Catholic Church is also making investments in Rome’s outer areas. One legacy of the last Jubilee is the “50 Churches for Rome 2000” plan, which is still continuing to build new parishes in the suburbs. Some of these churches have been built by famous architects, such as Richard Meier, who designed the Church of the Jubilee in the peripheral area of Alessandrino.

Many of the new churches were criticized as too modern or even ugly, and out of place in the deprived suburbs where they were built. However, architects and urban planners underline the positive role these structures, which also include community centers and residences for priests, play in these largely unplanned neighborhoods.

Architect Marco Petreschi designed the new church of San Tommaso Apostolo, completed in 2013 in the Infernetto neighborhood. He notes that the area had 30,000 residents but not a single square or place for people to meet. “Beautiful or ugly, these churches constituted a reference point,” Petreschi says. “They were an element of regeneration that nobody else gave before to those suburbs.”

Sustainable transport

“The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them.”—Pope Francis

The Vatican is too small to have its own transportation ministry, but is big on symbolic acts aimed at setting a good example. To get around the Vatican grounds, Francis famously eschewed luxury vehicles for a used Renault, and often simply uses his own feet for transportation. (In Buenos Aires, he frequently rode the subway.) Traffic is not an issue inside Vatican City, as it’s mostly off-limits to private cars. Although outside the Vatican walls each morning, hundreds of cars driven by Church employees queue up in search of parking.

Vatican officials often must coordinate with Rome city government around mobility issues, particularly in the case of big events like the Jubilee. Rome’s transit system is notoriously crowded and underfunded and Francis gave the city only nine months to prepare for the next one. Mayor Marino is trying to be creative about how to add capacity quickly, and is talking about re-opening an unused railway line that connects an area near the Vatican with an area to the north of Rome called Vigna Clara. Other new capacity, particularly for the suburban areas, will most likely come from increasing bus service.

One of Rome’s most interesting transportation plans is for bicycles. It’s a circular trail that will form a 44-kilometer (27-mile) ring around the city. Known as the GRAB (Grande Raccordo Anulare delle Bici), the trail will connect sightseeing hotspots in the center such as St. Peter’s Square and the Colosseum with parks and archaeological sites outside the city. It will become one of Europe’s longest cycling paths.

The GRAB is a bottom-up project promoted by the bikers association VeloLove, as well as many civic networks and Legambiente, Italy’s leading environmental association. The city is aiming to complete the project by the time of the Jubilee. “If the GRAB will be ready by the end of this year,” says Legambiente’s urban affairs chief, Alberto Fiorillo, “it will be a sign of how the presence of the Church can allow new types of use of public spaces by residents and tourists through a sustainable mobility.”

Renewable energy

“Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance, and financial resources.”—Pope Francis

The use of rooftop solar panels is a big deal in cities around the world today, but the Vatican was actually a solar pioneer.

Solar panels cover the roof of the Paul VI hall near the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. (REUTERS/Tony Gentile/Landov)

Back in 2008 under Pope Benedict XVI, the roof of the main meeting hall of Vatican City was covered with photovoltaic modules. The installation produces 300 megawatt-hours of energy per year, equivalent to the annual consumption of almost 100 families, making the building completely self-sufficient as far as electricity is concerned. In addition, a solar cooling plant provides 70 percent of the energy needs at a cafeteria for employees.

A more complete renewable-energy plan remains on the Vatican’s to-do list. Meanwhile, some ambitious projects have been blocked. One of these is a controversial plan to install what some say would be Europe’s largest solar plant in a rural area of Rome. The plan is meant to compensate for the emissions of Vatican Radio transmitters placed there, but it has met opposition from local residents.

Social inclusion

“The feeling of asphyxiation brought on by densely populated residential areas is countered if close and warm relationships develop, if communities are created.”—Pope Francis

Across Rome, a number of interesting initiatives are underway to tighten community bonds, especially among the poor and Rome’s growing population of refugees. Many of these efforts are led by civil society groups with ties to the Vatican.

One such effort is aimed at keeping elderly persons engaged in their communities. In a suburban area called Colli Aniene, the non-governmental organization Caritas launched an initiative called Quartieri solidali (“responsible neighborhoods”) focused on mobilizing volunteers to help elderly persons with daily tasks or to take outings into the center of Rome. In a number of apartment buildings, the program has tapped a responsible resident to be a coordinator for elderly residents. That coordinator is in charge of staying in touch with the elderly residents about their daily needs and finding people and resources to help solve problems.

Other efforts are run by the Comunità di Sant’Egidio, an international volunteer network with 10,000 members in Rome. One initiative in the suburb of Tor Bella Monaca links people with mental illness with artists who guide them in creating artworks—some of the pieces were on view recently at the Venice Biennale. Through another initiative, volunteers turn abandoned buildings into “Schools of Peace” where youngsters can go after school to do homework, eat healthy food, and also prepare sandwiches and hot meals for the poor. Valeria Martano, a teacher and volunteer who was the only civil-society representative invited to hear Francis present his encyclical, says the effort helps “to restore these places of human and physical beauty located in deprived suburbs that suffered an incredible and constant decline in Rome.”

Meanwhile, in the city center, an international Catholic organization known as Centro Astalli is working on welcoming refugees who have been coming to Rome from Africa and Central Asia. At different sites around the city, including former theaters and hotels, the group serves meals to hundreds of migrants every day. At the same time, empty monasteries have been turned into so-called “communities of hospitality” where small numbers of asylum-seekers shelter with nuns or friars. At one such site in the wealthy neighborhood of San Saba, Centro Astalli organized dinners and other activities for asylum-seekers to meet with neighborhood residents. The point: to build trust and a mutual understanding across cultures, a key part of Francis’ encyclical message.

“Pope Francis is more forward-looking than us Europeans,” says Martano, citing Francis’ Latin American background. “Most of these urban problems showed their consequences first in the metropolises and megacities rising in the Global South.”

Top image: giulio napolitano/​

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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