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The Tragedy of Line C: The World's Great Cities Have a Monumental Problem. By Building for the Future, Must They Erase the Past?
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Rome—all roads leading to Rome are measured from a patch of grass in the middle of Piazza Venezia. Overlooking the square, a 400-foot monument celebrates the reunification of Italy. It was here, at the piazza, that Mussolini hung over a balcony and declared, to the electrified crowds below, a new Italian empire. Both the republican and imperial forums, with their triumphal arches and ruined temples, stand a few steps away. And at the end of the road leading southeast from the piazza, against the sky, looms the Colosseum.

But something else in the corner of this historic city center illustrates the spirit of a place enamored with the old while striving for the new—a metro stop turned excavation site.

For the past three and a half years, Rome has been building a new subway line underground to link the city's two other underground lines. Instead of skirting the historic center, Line C will drive right through it. The plan is convenient for locals and tourists alike, who currently have to ride the bus or walk to get from, say, the Colosseum to Piazza Navona, a distance of 1.6 miles. But by carving through the underbelly of the centro storico, the line also passes beneath neighborhoods that made up Rome's commercial and political center 2,000 years ago.

Most of these ruins—the heart and soul of ancient Rome—are 12 to 35 feet underground. To avoid them, the city planned to dig the subway tunnel nearly 100 feet below street level. However, entrances into the system are problematic. One stop originally planned for Largo Argentina, the site of four Republican temples and the theater where Julius Caesar was murdered, got scrapped. And when preliminary digs found ruins where planners initially wanted a Piazza Venezia metro stop, the city judged the remains so important that the Venezia stop will be built elsewhere.

The result? The proposed Line C that was meant to serve the centro storico may make hardly any central stops at all. Some locals aren't happy. "All of Rome has underground archaeological finds. So if we remain prisoners of manic conservationists, we cannot dig anywhere. Farewell subways," Mauro Suttora, an Italian journalist and editor, wrote on his eponymous blog. "A metro without stops—what sense does that make?" asked Mario Staderini, secretary of Italy's Radical Party.

Many of Rome's residents aren't surprised by the changes to the subway plan. They know it has to be this way. In a city that's littered with historic sites—the ruins of an empire that once made the Mediterranean into its private lake—the balance between modern development and historical preservation has never been easy. Urban planners and locals alike are used to facing down an increasingly prescient question: How to develop and modernize while still preserving a rich cultural heritage?

Not Just for the Elites

Without a city's residents fighting to protect their cultural heritage, even the best preservation policies can founder. Given their roots among the educated and wealthier classes, preservationists have had a historically difficult time appealing beyond elites. Many assume that urban preservation is just about aesthetics, an issue for people who don't have to worry about paying their rent or putting food on the table. But urban planners and conservationists insist this is not the case. Preserved buildings and neighborhoods help more than just the upper classes.

Some of it is simple math. Since knocking down an old building to build a new one costs money, the investor is faced with the challenge of how to recoup that outlay. A new structure's purpose, therefore, will likely be commercial or residential—in both cases targeting wealthier tenants. "Just using the existing buildings means you can actually afford to have poor people living in them, and that generates greater diversity, greater variety of cultural traditions. That in itself is worth value," says Sean O'Reilly, director of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation in Edinburgh. Historic areas also tend to have a greater variety of buildings, adding to the diversity of uses. This creates a range of professions and classes coming together, all making for a...