Engineering Rome

The Future of the Tiber River

-Lauren Feldmann

When one thinks about the neglected outskirts of a city, usually images of abandoned run down homes, silent alleyways, and overgrown vegetation appear. Most of all, one pictures the outskirts to be, well on the outer edges of the city. Rome is unusual in that one of its most neglected areas is at its center. The Tiber River, which runs straight through the center of Rome has always been a force to be reckoned with. Due to I will discuss the many problems the Tiber River faces and some of the solutions Rome should consider in order to reclaim its once great river.

Brief History

Rivers and major cities have often gone hand in hand. A water source is the lifeblood of major civilizations. From Mesopotamia to Egypt to Rome, cities are dependent on their rivers. The Tiber River has always been of great historical importance for Rome since hold back the river waters of the Tiber from the city of Rome. Today the river is isolated from the city because of these walls, resulting in a myriad of problems.

The Problems With the Tiber Today


Figure 2: Trash piled up along the Tiber.

The Tiber River has been polluted for over a millennium, tracing back to the ancient Roman sewer system. One of the first major sewers was the Cloaca Maximus which carried waste into the river. Over time this polluted it so badly that aqueducts were needed for clean drinking water. Today, not much has changed. Treated sewage is continuously dumped into the river, however according to architect and sustainability expert Tom Rankin that treatment only eliminates about 50% of the toxins, leaving E.coli and other harmful bacteria in the river. The Tiber empties into the port of Ostia, which has also become increasingly polluted over the years. This pollution has affected Italy’s aquatic ecosystem and fishing economy (Rankin, 2015). , nor has it even motivated the government to have a fishing ban in the Tiber delta (for the few fish that are left) (Cerantola, 2014).

A Study on the Tiber River Quality in the Stretch of a Sewage Treatment Plant

A 2006 study called the Tiber River Quality in the Stretch of a Sewage Treatment Plant: Effects of River Water or Disinfectants to Daphnia, delved into the greater effects of modern Rome’s pollution of the Tiber. In this study water samples were taken from three different sources in the river: upstream a sewage treatment plant (U), at the outfall of the sewage treatment plant (O), and downstream the sewage treatment plant (D). Daphnia magna, a small plankton crustacean, were cultured and exposed to the three different samples of Tiber river water. The Daphnia magna were also exposed to a variety of disinfectants used to treat discharging waters, including chlorine dioxide (ClO2), sodium hypochlorite (NaClO), peracetic acid (PAA), sodium chlorite (NaClO2), and hydrochloric acid (HCl), that are used to treat sewage in the sewage treatment plant (Mancini, 2006).

The results of the exposure to river water showed significant reduction of survival for the Daphnia, especially upstream in the spring and summer. 55% of juvenile Daphnia died after 24 hours of exposure to the water upstream of the sewage treatment plant, while water from the outfall of the sewage treatment plant caused 100% death of daphnia. After 72 hours these numbers increased as shown below (Mancini, 2006).

Figure 3: Tiber River map of the sampling area

The test of disinfectants on the Daphnia resulted in ClO2, NaClO, and PAA all causing 100% death/immobilization in juvenile Daphia (Mancini, 2006). This confirmed the role of disinfectants, especially during the summer, in contributing to river water toxicity.

This study demonstrates how modern measures being used to treat waste that enters the Tiber are not nearly effective enough. Not only is the waste full of bacteria, but the disinfectants used to treat that bacteria are extremely harmful as well. In order for the Tiber to become a usable river for the public and livable for wildlife, measures must be taken to remedy this.


Flooding has always been the biggest battle that Rome has fought with the Tiber. It was a catalyst that caused that building of the embankments and subsequently the abandonment of the riverside. For a millennium Rome lived, perhaps not in harmony, but alongside its river acknowledging the floods and accepting their occasional disturbance with everyday life. Today the river is forced back and the floods are confined by the embankments, utterly changing the atmosphere of the river from what it used to be.

These problems began because Rome was built on a marshy land in a flood plain. In fact, Rome is situated at the point of the Tiber with the most severe flooding. Throughout its history, Rome has experienced minor floods every four or five years, with catastrophic ones every 20-25 years (Aldrete, 2007). The most catastrophic of these floods had waters that reached up to 15 meters above sea level, causing chaos throughout the city.
A flood itself is defined to be a streamflow of water that exceeds the banks of a river. When rain falls on land, part of it evaporates into the air, while the rest is absorbed into the soil. At a certain point, the soil becomes saturated with water and cannot absorb anymore. Additional rain then becomes surface run off, which flows into streams and rivers. Once the water level of the rivers reaches the banks, a flood occurs. While very severe flooding can be caused by intense environmental events, such as a monsoon or a hurricane, the floods of the Tiber are generally caused by a milder combination of factors. Usually 90 days before a big flood Rome receives continuous rain which saturates the soil over this time. This is then followed by several days of heavy rain which produce run off into the river, eventually resulting in a flood (Aldrete, 2007).

Figure 5: Flood marker located on the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva marking the flood of 1530, the second highest recorded flood

Since the end of the middle ages, fairly consistent data has been obtained of floods in Rome. Marbles plaques as shown above, are all over the city and tell of the water levels of certain floods. Systematic record keeping truly began in 1782 but become standardized with the invention of the hydrometer in 1821. This allowed for daily observations of the Tiber River height. Rainfall and discharge averages of the Tiber have strong seasonal patterns. The months of September, October and December experience the heaviest rainfall while January, February, and March have the greatest volume of discharge. Tiber in general has fairly modest statistics, not being extremely long and having average drainage basin and discharge sizes. All of this data helps Rome better understand its river and make predictions for the future. Below are the broken down average monthly levels from 1822 to 1921 (Aldrete, 2007).

Month Meters Above Sea Level
January 7.15
February 7.19
March 7.24
April 7.14
May 6.87
June 6.46
July 5.77
August 5.84
September 5.98
October 6.40
November 7.01
December 7.17

There are four main commonly used structural flood control techniques that Rome had to choose from: levees, floodways, channel improvement and stabilization, and reservoirs. Here are modern examples of a floodway and reservoirs Levees, the method currently used for the Tiber, consist of embankments and walls which physically hold back the river from a specific area. Floodways are channels which divert water during times of high flow volume, thereby decreasing water level in the main part of the river. Channel improvement and stabilization involves modifying the bed of the stream itself. This involves removing obstacles and debris, altering the direction and shape of the river, and stabilizing the banks. Eliminating obstacles in the water allows a more smooth passageway for the water and increases the capacity of the river. Altering the river path is usually done to make the course more direct and thereby increasing the water flow. Stabilizing the banks ensures the bank won’t slip during high water. Finally, the reservoirs are created by dams to store water during floods. The reservoirs then slowly release this water over time (Aldrete, 2007). All of these methods have their benefits and drawbacks. O.

Travertine Embankments

By the 19th century, 2500 years of flooding had begun to wear the Romans down. One of the breaking points was the flood of 1870. This flood came at an inopportune time for Italy, as it had just formally been proclaimed a country and named Rome as its capital. The flood was the worst Rome had seen in over 200 years with waters up to 17.22 meters above sea level, leaving the city in disarray. This was particularly embarrassing for Italy as the public eye was upon Rome as the new capital of the unified Italian state. The first king of Italy, King Vittorio Emanuele II, entered the capital city on December of 1870 to sloshing floodwaters, stinking mud, and much of the city unable to cope with the disaster. Immediately after his unceremonious entrance, a commission was created to keep Rome safe from the flooding Tiber (Aldrete, 2007).

Figure 6: Depiction of Tiber River Before Embankments

Dozens of ideas were suggested for how to tame the river. An idea originally formed by Julias Caesar a thousand years before was suggested by a general and popular war hero named Giuseppe Garibaldi. The plan entailed cutting a canal from a point upstream in the Tiber, bypassing Rome and eventually emptying into the sea at Ostia. The idea was considered to be quite practical but extremely costly andthe Roman government failed to find foreign investors for the venture. However soon after a Roman hydraulic engineer named Raffaele Canevari proposed the much less expensive embankments, or , we see today (Rankin 2015). He proposed a uniform height of 18 meters above sea level and that the walls would be spaced 100 meters apart. In order for this to be done, several of Rome’s ports had to be demolished, including the elegant Porta di Ribetta and Porta di Ripa Grande. On top of all this, a great deal of housing had to be destroyed, including much of the former Jewish Ghetto (18). The Tiber was finally canalized between 1876 and 1910.

‘“Look,” they said, “in this one flood it has practically paid itself. Prevention is better than cure!”’ (Cortesi, 1901) This quote by Salvatore Cortesi in his 1901 article, The Flood in Rome, demonstrates the initial excitement some Romans felt at the idea of building their 25 million dollar wall around the Tiber to pretend that flooding wasn’t an issue. However some like Cortesi, believed that the embankments weren’t a true solution, but instead were staving off the inevitable. The embankments on the Tiber have had several negative consequences. The first and foremost is how the walls completely cut off the Tiber from the rest of the city, leaving the riverbed a quiet, abandoned wasteland. . Another disadvantage of the walls is that they trap water if the wall is overtopped. They are also aesthetically unpleasing. The walls have also contributed to making the area surrounding the river less permeable to water. Ironically this results in worsening the flooding because during flash floods the lack of green spaces to absorb water makes the flooding worse than it would be otherwise (Rankin, 2015). This demonstrates how while the walls have prevented flooding from being as catastrophic as it used to be, as Cortesi said, they’re not a cure and do not address the underlying flooding causes.

Figure 7: Travertine Walls on the Tiber River Today

Bureaucracy in Rome

One of the major problems that affect the Tiber River is the massive amount of effort it takes to overcome the bureaucratic institutions that control it. The Tiber is a sort of administration no man’s land. Many different rules and regulations controlled by government agencies prevent people from easily making positive changes, even like simple clean-up projects. In order to do anything new with the Tiber, multiple bureaucratic institutions must be contacted. These institutions range from The Regione Lazio, one of the twenty regions in Italy responsible for the river and its banks, Autorita di Bacino del Fiume Tevere, which is the organization meant to be most responsible for drafting an environmental plan for the river, Protezione Civile, an organization that deals with hydraulic emergencies for the river, and La Polizia Fluviale which sends boats up and down stream to check water levels and embankment conditions. On top of all these organization, any intervention on the river entails multiple commissioners to be called in to express their opinions (Rankin, 2015).

Kristin Jones, an artist whose life calling is to improve the world with “artistic interventions” (Hubbard, 2005) said of the process, “I once thought it would be interesting to make an organizational flowchart of all the different river authorities and their relationship to each other. But I realized that I could never draw it, because you’d need a dimension that hasn’t been discovered (Hubbard, 2005).” As a passionate proponent for saving the Tiber River, Kristin has met with nearly every public official in Rome to in order to make her Tiber River project a reality. Her first project, a picture of Roman She-Wolves on the travertine walls of the Tiber came to fruition in 2005 after years of perseverance and fighting government officials to simply allow her to clean part of the wall around her stencils.

Figure 8:  Kristin Jones "She-Wolves" Project
Figure 8: Kristin Jones “She-Wolves” Project

Solutions for the Future

Flood Predictions

Throughout the years, studies have been undertaken to make more accurate predictions about the flooding of the Tiber in hopes that this will help Rome better understand its river and how to best live with it. In 2007 a study was done to forecast water surface elevation of the Tiber River at the Ripetta gauging station in Rome. In this study, a mathematical model called the TEVERE model was developed. “This model consists of a semi distributed rainfall-runoff model and a flood routing model (Calvo, 2008). Within the TEVERE model are two different mathematical models: the TEVERE BASIN model and the TEVERE RIVER model. The basin model is a hydrologic model which takes rainfall and transforms it into hourly runoff. The river model replicates the Tiber’s flood propagation from the Corbara lake to the Tyrrhenian Sea. To read more about the detail of these mathematical models, click here:

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Figure 9: 2005 Flood in Rome – comparison between observed and forecasted water level

In order to test this flood forecasting model, three historical Roman floods were considered. The most recent flood tested occurred in 2005, followed by the flood of 1984 and 1976. For all three floods the predicted water surface elevations at the Ripetta station were compared with the actual water surface elevation. Below is the results for the 2005 flood. While there was some variation between the observed and computed meters above sea level, the results were all acceptable and within a 90% confidence level (Calvo, 2008).

This study concluded that the TEVERE model is a useful tool for predicting water surface elevations for the Tiber River in the future. This will benefit Rome in that it will be able to warn people and form evacuation plans in the event that there is a catastrophic flood. While research will continue in order to create even more accurate models, this study was a big step towards predicting the flooding of the Tiber and helping Rome have a more harmonious relationship with it.

Public Projects

Public Gatherings

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Figure 10: Summer Nights Along the Tevere

One public project that has attempted to bring people back down to the river banks is a festival called Lungo Il Tevere di Roma, literally translated as along the Tevere. This festival, which starts at 7 pm during the summer months, includes pop-up tents with restaurants, cafes, stores, concerts, art exhibitions and more. Many of the restaurants aim for a beachy theme, with bar names such as “Lost River” and Taverna Mediterranean. The atmosphere is certainly less authentic Italian then much of Rome, as the food selection ranges from classic Italian, to Mexican food and burgers aimed at tourists (Hurren, 2015). However, despite the festivals imperfections, it does a great job of invigorating the riverside with life and attracting people down the travertine walls to check out the sights along the Tiber. The festival has also brought attention how little the riverside is used during the non summer months.


Several associations throughout Rome have been attempting grass root efforts to revitalize the river and clean up parts of Rome as a whole. A project recently undertaken in order to bring more attention to the Tiber is a mural titled as “Triumphs and Laments” on the travertine walls of the river itself. The artwork is a 10 meter highpiece exhibiting over eighty figures from victories and defeats throughout Roman history (Povoledo, 2016). It was completed in 2016 after years of bureaucratic hurdles faced by theartists. What makes this project particularly unique is that it’s temporary, as the pictures on the walls are created from stencils around which the travertine was power washed. This technique was created by artist Kristin Jones, lovingly referred to as Kristin “Perseverance” Jones by those who see how determined she is to save the Tiber, no matter what obstacles. The projects creator, South African artist William Kentridge said of the project, “There’s no specific narrative except that everyone’s triumphs and glories is someone else’s laments and shamefulness (Povoledo, 2016)” This relates to the Tiber in an interesting way, as Rome’s “triumph” over the Tiber’s flooding has been a lament for the life of the river. In order to bring attention to “Triumphs and Laments”, and subsequently the Tiber, there was a grand opening for the piece.Kentridge created a live theatrical program complete with shadow play and multiple musical processions. Thousands of people showed up on Rome’s 2769 birthday along the Tiber with the frieze as a backdrop.

Figure 11: Triumphs and Laments grand opening
Figure 12: Triumphs and Laments in August 2017

However, this was not the first artistic event along the Tiber. In 2007 Tevereterno, an organization founded by Kristin Jones, put on a public program was put on at the river titled “Flussi Correnti.” This event consisted of performances and music all along the Tiber River. The backdrop of the performances was a frieze of 12 she-wolves etched into the dirt and grime on the Tiber embankments in the same was the “Triumph and Lament” piece was nine years later. Over 10,000 people attended this event as well (Kristin, 2017).

In the case of both events, large crowd gathered along the banks of the Tiber. For a brief moment, the Tiber was brought back to life as the people of Rome reunited on its riverbed. While these events are the exceptions rather than the norm, they are undoubtedly bringing attention to the river that hasn’t been there for hundreds of years. With any luck, this event was a stepping stone to change the public perception of the river.

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Figure 13: Luminalia, a line of flame along the Tiber during Flussi Correnti (Flowing Currents)


Tiber Personal Rapid Transit


Tiber Taxis

In 2003 Roman officials inaugurated a water taxi service along the Tiber. This service hadn’t been used for more than a century before the travertine walls were put in place. The goal with the water taxi is to give tourists and Roman citizens alike a new perspective on the city away from the traffic filled, noisy streets above. In order to prepare the river for the water taxi, the river was somewhat cleaned by city officials 38 tons of trash were hauled out of the river and weeds in the walls and along the path were cut down. There was even an attempt to scrub away graffiti (Bruni, 2003). While this service certainly attracts more people to the river, similarly to the metro line in Rome, it tends to often not be on time, as an attempting rider observed. Also, garbage and graffiti began to return soon after the cleaning efforts were made.

The Thames

Figure 14: Thames River

Like the Tiber, London’s Thames River has undergone the typical mistreatment that rivers experience in big cities. For years it was polluted with sewage and waste, and by 1957 the river was proclaimed biologically dead by the Natural History Museum. This was partially caused by wartime bombings which destroyed some of London’s oldest sewers that had helped keep the river clean. Bacteria in the water that broke up sewage had used so much oxygen that it was very difficult for other life to be sustained in the river. In 1959 a member of the House of Lords was quoted as saying that cleaning up the river was unnecessary and that letting the Thames break up waste was giving it “something to do (Hardach, 2015).” Fortunately, this mindset changed.

In the 1960s the river began to improve as London finally updated its sewer systems. In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental groups become concerned about the pesticides which washed into the river during rainfall. Charities like Thames21, who are dedicated to bettering the Thames and other waterways, helped implement stricter regulations to control the use of these chemicals. In the early 2000s pollution from toxic metals decreased in the Thames. This was in part because of increased industry regulations, but also due of changes in technology. For example, silver pollution decreased when the photography industry went digital. All these factors contributed to life returning to the Themes. Today there are 125 species of fish living in the river, compared to the almost none that lived there in 950 (Hardach, 2015).

However, the Thames problems are not over yet. In recent years a new problem has emerged for the river: plastic waste. In 2015, a study by Royal Holloway found that 70% of flounder in the Thames had bits of plastic in their guts. The river also faces the issue of its wildlife being pushed out by boats and other water traffic. And while the sewage problems have greatly improved, occasionally heavy rainfall will cause the sewers to overflow and spill into the river (Hardach, 2015). While the Thames is by no means perfect, there is a great deal that Rome can learn from it and apply to the Tiber. For example, London’s improved sewage system is something that Rome should aspire to. The current method of dumping treated waste into the Tiber is not sustainable.

The Seine

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Figure 15: Attractions along the Seine River

While the Sein River differs from the Tiber in many ways, there are some striking similarities. Both rivers have embankments that separate part of the city from the riverbank. Both rivers also experience flooding, although the Tiber floods much more often. And both rivers have at times cut the city off from the riverbank. However, in the 1960’s expressways for vehicles were built along the banks of the Seine, cutting off pedestrians from the river and changing the atmosphere of the banks. Because of this, the city of Paris, France has undertaken a public works project called Les Berges, to attempt to bring the citizens of Paris back to the riverbank. This project includes reclaiming the quays alongside the river. (Young, 2013) In 2013 a mile and a half of riverfront was transformed from expressway to a public space for pedestrians. This area, called “les nouvelles berges” or the new quays, now includes gardens, restaurants and bars, concert spaces, running tracks, recreational activities for children, and much more (Schofield, 2013). Such activities attract tourists and Parisians alike and are invigorating new life into the river. The Tiber is in desperate need of attractions such as these. Paris’s approach would also work well for the Tiber in that there is a “requirement for flexibility” (Young, 2013). This entails that all venues and built interventions are capable of being moved in the cases that they’re not popular, or if there are environmental issues such as a flood.


Retake Rome

Rebecca Spitzmiller, a law professor at Roma Tre University, cofounded the group Retake Rome in 2009. The environmental groups goal is to help eliminate the excessive amount of litter and graffiti across Rome. They already have over 30,000 members who have weekly cleanups in neighborhood piazzas and streets as well as along the Tiber. Their moto has been “Wake Up, Clean Up, Speak Up,” helping to try and empower Romans who have become complement with the condition of their city and river (Povoledo, 2016). While they still struggle to change the opinions of Roman citizens, who are cynical about any change, they continue to grow in size and expand their efforts.

Tevereterno Onlus

Tevereterno Onlus is a grassroots, nonprofit aimed to revitalize the urban Tiber riverfront by creating a public space dedicated to contemporary art. Specifically, they wish to create an extensive public park along the river with Piazza Tevere as the central meeting space (Tevereterno, 2016). While supported by a wide variety of international constituencies including artists, designers, and environmentalists, the project has struggled to gain recognition by administrative authorities (Rankin, 2015). Along with its central project, the nonprofit also holds educational classes to reach out to the Roman community and teach them about building a clean, sustainable urban environment for future generations.

The association has also partnered with organizations in Rome to collaborate on other projects. For example, the founding artists and architects of Tervereterno Onlus was involved in the creation of a new Master Plan for the City of Rome in 2004. This plan involved a bicycle path which is now very actively used on the Tiber today, providing 20.5 miles of road (Tevereterno, 2016). They also partnered with ReTake Roma to organized the cleanup of public spaces throughout the city. Slowly but surely, their efforts to revitalize the Tiber are making a difference.


The big question that remains unanswered is how do we change the public perception of the Tiber River? This question is so crucial because the only way to truly reinvigorate life into the river is by reminding Romans of its existence and getting the people to truly care about it. Once the river has Rome’s support, the people and the government, progress will finally be made. The Tiber River has been mistreated by Rome since the cities birth. Pollution has always plagued it, and while there are current efforts being made to clean up the walls and riverbanks they haven’t caught enough attention yet to make a huge difference. Even sobering results from studies on the putrid river water generally don’t cause any public outcry. People are happy to forget about the rivers copious problems as they go along their day several meters above it. The embankment walls create so much separation between the city and the river as to cause Romans to be ambivalent about it. After the great flood occurred in 1870, had the powers that be in Rome been willing and able to spend the extra money to create a floodway to divert excess water into sea at Ostia, the river would likely not be in the state its in today. Coming face to face with the river every day, Roman citizens and leaders alike would be far more motivated to find new ways to clean the river. Ports would also still be located along the river, bringing even more people and cargo along its banks.

As the Tiber is today, the travertine walls pose as a staggering barricade to cleaning the river. However, cities like Paris and London are inspirations as both their rivers, especially the Thames, were nearly given up on as well at one point. If Rome can push past its own bureaucracy to create strictor but more straight forward regulations for the pollution of the river, it might stand a chance. This tiny slimmer of hope rests in the hands of the incredibly dedicated people who work day and night, committing themselves to organizations to help Rome’s urban environment. Without those people, the Tiber would truly be lost.

Works Cited

Aldrete, Gregory S. Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Accessed 14 Sept. 2017.

“An International Team.” Tevereterno, Tevereterno, 2016,

Bruni, Frank. “Rome Journal; Holding Its Nose, the City Launches Tiber Taxis.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2003,

Calvo, Benedetto, and Fabrizio Savi. “Real-Time Flood Forecasting of the Tiber River in Rome.” Natural Hazards, vol. 50, no. 3, 22 Nov. 2008, pp. 461–477., doi:10.1007/s11069-008-9312-9.

Cerantola, Alessia. “The Last Eel Catcher of Rome.” BBC News, BBC, 8 Oct. 2014,

Cortesi, S. (1901). The Flood in Rome. The Independent…Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts,53, 80.

D’agostino, Diego Carlo. “Leisure Sustainable Mobility in Rome: Tiber Personal Rapid.” TeMA, vol. 3, no. 4, Dec. 2010,

Hardach, Sophie. “Earth – How the River Thames Was Brought Back from the Dead.”BBC, BBC, 12 Nov. 2015,

Hubbard, L. Ron. “DOWN BY THE RIVER.” The New Yorker, 4 July 2005, p. 033. Literature Resource Center,

Hurren, Danielle. “Summer Nights Along the Tevere.”Romeing, 2015,

“Kristin Jones.” Ear to the Earth, 21 July 2017,

Mancini, L., Tancioni, L., Migliore, L., Mattei, D., & Cataudella, S. (2006). Tiber River Quality in the Stretch of a Sewage Treatment Plant: Effects of River Water or Disinfectants to Daphnia and Structure of Benthic Macroinvertebrates Community. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, 177, 441.

Pastoressa, Luigi. “A City within a City: the Hidden Life of Rome’s Tiber River – in Pictures.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Mar. 2016,

Povoledo, Elisabetta. “A Roman Legion of Volunteers Retakes the Tiber.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Apr. 2016,

Rankin, Tom. Rome Works. Peruzzi Press, 2015.

Schofield, Hugh. “Reclaiming Paris’s River Seine Quayside.” BBC News, BBC, 15 Oct. 2013,

Young, Michelle. “Urban Interventions on the Seine: Paris Plage, Floating Barges and a Life Size T-Rex.” Untapped Cities, Untapped Cities, 9 July 2013,

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