Engineering Rome

Modern Accessibility in an Ancient City

1. Introduction

The city of Rome is striking in its capacity to hold some of the most ancient structures in the world yet remain a modern and densely populated city in present day.

Rome’s beginnings are dated back to 753 B.C., where it has existed as the center of the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, and eventually the Christian world as centuries have passed (UNESCO, 2015). Widespread infrastructure development and notable architectural styles associated with the Romans accompanied the empire’s growth and are even familiar to many of us in present day. If you were to walk through Rome’s historic district, you will certainly come across impressive arches, magnificent buildings, and intricately designed structures that have managed to last across lifetimes. And below you, sampietrini paving stones – famously challenging to traverse using modern transport due to their bumpiness, yet remain hundreds of years later, an integral component of the city.

Despite being hundreds or thousands of years old, and having existed through periods of different lifestyles and societal values, how and why have these structures remained when the people that surround them have changed?

1.1 Historic Preservation

The preservation methods of ancient Roman structures can be seen in various ways over time and is often intertwined with major historical events. After the fall of the Roman Empire, many structures fell into disuse and were often scavenged for masonry reuse (Laumonier, n.d.). Many were abandoned, but repurposed or resettled later on – notably without rules in place governing their continuation (Laumonier, n.d.).

However, preservation and continued use of Roman structures were imposed through more formal means in recent years. Mussolini’s regime from 1922 to 1943 left an architectural legacy in Rome still noticeable in modern day: the transformation of the city’s shape to put Roman antiquity on an isolated display (Siwicki, 2020). And through different means of historic protection in 1990, the historic center of Rome was established as a UNESCO World Heritage site to preserve its cultural significance and minimize further deterioration (UNESCO, 2015).

1.2 Longevity and Adaption

The value in maintaining parts of our past and choosing structural maintenance over demolition and reconstruction can be tied to maintaining a city’s identity and cultural integrity. We are allowed to face our history and how it came to be, the mistakes that we aim to prevent and values we may hope to uphold, from simply walking around our town.

Simultaneously, the needs of our environment and diverse populations have become better understood over time and prioritized in how we design modern infrastructure. From my observations of the U.S., we have often opted to redevelop infrastructure because we are more educated now on modern demands or are making a choice to change the culture of our city for the better – an example being the redesign of a street for better bicycle and pedestrian access instead of vehicles.

Over the few weeks our class spent in Rome, I found myself wondering if an ancient city can truly adapt to the needs of disabled populations in modern times, particularly when we are faced with this challenge of historic preservation. It is important to consider that the standards for what is considered accessible has changed over time, so applying our current understanding to infrastructure from 500 years ago does not necessarily work. Accommodations, our definitions of disability, and the way we travel have changed with technology, education, and culture. Still, when we live partially in the ancient world, I felt it was still worth questioning how mobility and access can be affected: if it is possible to maintain accessibility and the historical integrity of infrastructure simultaneously, how?

2. Case Study

During one of my regular commutes to the University of Washington (UW) Rome Center, I chose to make note of locations that provided mobility accommodations in a creative way, and simultaneously compare them to the standards we have in the United States. Student housing was provided in Trastevere, a lively neighborhood with ancient streets and aging buildings. The UW Rome Center was located next to Campo de’ Fiori, a famous farmer’s market, in central Rome as well. Being surrounded by ancient structures in densely populated historic Rome made this route an interesting way to explore how to answer that question.

2.1 Americans with Disabilities Act

Standards for accessible design were formally established in the United States through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, with the most current, enforceable regulations published in 2010 (ADA, 2010). Born from the efforts of the disability rights movement, the ADA has shaped the development of modern structures and changed the way many of us are able to interact with public spaces in the United States. While ADA guidelines may not perfectly match those of other countries, they exist to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities and still provide a useful method of evaluation, despite not being the codified law of Italy. It is important to note that there was not readily available formal documentation of accessible design laws in Italy for better analysis, so ADA compliance will be used as a definition for accessible.

The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design are comprised of multiple documents. The Standards for State and Local Government Facilities: Title II is accessible at Section 35.151 of 28 CFR Part 35 and notes that (a)(2) design and construction exemptions may need to be made due to “structural impracticability.” A similar exemption may be made for cases where alterations might “threaten or destroy the historic significance of the building or facility” (b)(3)(ii), but due diligence to provide alternative methods of access  (such as the addition of power-lift chairs) must be pursued first that meet the requirements of § 35.150.

While the ADA defines an extensive list of codes and regulations for all types of spaces and forms of transport (i.e. buildings and facilities), I will only use a few guidelines related to pedestrian facilities in my analysis.

2.2 Clarifications for Analysis

With many aspects to mobility to consider, I chose to use an approach for someone without full use of their legs that would require any of the following types of mobility aids:

  • A wheelchair (standard width = 36”)
  • A walker (largest standard width = 29”)
  • A cane (standard width ≈16.2”)

Basic dimensions and requirements for the passageways considered from my route are included in Table 1. Minimum widths were typically 36 inches, which is the minimum accessible width of most passageways for a wheelchair user based on ADA standards. It is important to note that these are not comprehensive and were limited based on what I was able to measure without any tools.

 WidthSurface Texture
Sidewalk32″ min at a single point
36″ min continuously
Ramps36″ minfirm
Table 1. Requirements of passageways for ADA Compliance.

2.3 Route

My planned route was from Via Luigi Masi, 7 to Piazza del Biscione, 95, as shown in Figure 1. Documented locations can be found in the embedded Google MyMap below.

Figure 1. Walking route from Google Maps.

Location 1a. Apartment Complex Entrance

  • Description: Doorway and step, travertine, approx. 36” wide
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min, ramp availability
  • ADA Compliant: No
  • Reason for Non-Compliance: The doorway here was about 36 inches, making it ADA-compliant in its width, but ultimately not because of its travertine step. The step here was much more slippery than the materials of the pavements around it, like asphalt. The ability to get through this doorway with a walker or cane felt dependent on the individual.

Location 1b. Ramp Outside Apartment Complex Entrance

  • Description: Ramp, asphalt, approx. 32” wide
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min, stable surface texture
  • ADA Compliant: No
  • Reason for Non-Compliance: Passage width was approximately 32” wide.
  • Commentary: Throughout my weeks in Rome, I found this ramp very interesting. I would not call this a particularly well-constructed ramp; it doesn’t exactly seamlessly integrate into the different materials of the street and the sidewalk, and it is very bumpy. Still, it allows access onto this sidewalk and even had a railing on both sides. Despite ADA non-compliance, I believe this could still be useful to someone based on their mobility needs.

Location 2. Streets of Trastevere

  • Description: Sidewalk, sampietrini, approx. 100” wide
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min, stable surface texture
  • ADA Compliant: No
  • Reason for Non-Compliance: Stone paving is irregular and sampietrini can be slippery when wet
  • Commentary: The streets in Trastevere are mostly cobblestone. The sampietrini paved streets are a piece of history in Rome; they are sturdy but uneven, and often have large gaps between stones. Walking or carrying things along them is not easy compared to today’s smooth asphalt or concrete, but were useful in providing smoother and stabler trips via carriage when they were introduced by Pope Sixtus V in the 16th century (Sampietrino, 2018). They were able to absorb water well in the spaces between stone blocks and move with the irregularities of the earth.
  • The image above shows what I would consider a relatively consistent section of cobblestone, but one that still clearly has large gaps that are easy to trip on. I saw many wheelchair users on sampietrini, but often wondered how dangerous this could be to travel on when you rely on a mobility aid like crutches or a cane. If we choose not to remove cobblestone streets in the interest of historic preservation, what are some ways to make them easy to traverse in modern day?
  • For these reasons, sampietrini has been replaced by asphalt in many streets outside of slow traffic areas and mostly remain widespread in the historic center. In some areas, the cobblestones appear paved over with asphalt, removing some of those gaps. However, it is likely that the irregularities in the earth and future maintenance would be difficult.

Location 3. Exiting Trastevere

  • Description: Curbs, ramps, travertine, approx. 32” wide
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min, stable surface texture, ramp availability
  • ADA Compliant: No
  • Reason for Non-Compliance: Ramp was only ~32” wide and made of travertine, a slippery material when wet.
  • Commentary: Next was approaching the Ponte Sisto pedestrian bridge at the edge of Trastevere. Since leaving our apartment, none of the roads I had been walking on had sidewalks. All pedestrians in Trastevere walk in the street, up until we get to the Ponte Sisto bridge. There is a road along the River Tiber that vehicles generally travel on to actually drive quickly through the city, so it is also one of the few crosswalks most would actually wait to walk through.
  • There was a very small ramp here that would have allowed me to get onto the curb, where I would have to navigate around the signposts to reach the other small ramp to get back onto the street. It was a lot faster to just stay in the street and go around the curb to reach the crosswalk. I did not have a tool to measure the slope, but it was a steeper ramp than most others I had seen as well.

Location 4. Crosswalk and Ramp to the Ponte Sisto

  • Description: Ramp, asphalt, approx. 80” wide
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min, stable surface texture, ramp availability
  • ADA Compliant: Yes
  • Reason for Compliance: While I am not positive this achieves all ADA standards, it does meet the requirements for what I was considering: it is at least 36” wide and the asphalt provided a stable surface texture.
  • Commentary: After crossing the street, I came across another ramp to get back onto the sidewalk. The ramp is very wide and despite irregularities, I could see how many people would be able to use this ramp to access the sidewalk much easier than they were before.

Locations 5 & 6. Barricades to Enter and Exit the Ponte Sisto

  • Description: Passageway/barricade, approx. 42” wide
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min
  • ADA Compliant: Yes
  • Reason for Compliance: The shortest width of the barricades was about 42 inches, making it a wheelchair accessible passageway by ADA standards.
  • Commentary: To get onto the Ponte Sisto bridge, I had to maneuver through barricades on both ends of the bridge. The Ponte Sisto is a pedestrian bridge, so you can see a long chain across the barricades that prevents a motorcycle or car from getting on the bridge.

Location 7. Crosswalk and Ramp by the Ponte Sisto

  • Description: Curb ramp, asphalt, approx. 80”
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min, stable surface texture, ramp availability
  • ADA Compliant: Yes
  • Reason for Compliance: This ramp was approximately 80” wide and made of asphalt. It also appeared to be constructed with less irregularities than the one from the other side of the street as well.
  • Commentary: A sidewalk without a ramp for access can be seen on the opposite end of the crosswalk. Like most other pedestrians, I just stood on the edge of the street and walked through the center of the road to continue. Throughout these neighborhoods in Rome, it is probably more common to walk through the street than use sidewalks, even if they are there.

Location 8. Via dei Pettinari, 54

  • Description: Sidewalk, curb ramp, asphalt, 54, dimensions N/A
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Passage width = 36” min, stable surface texture, ramp availability.
  • ADA Compliant: Unsure/No
  • Commentary: Although I did not have better measurements for this sidewalk and its ramps, I found this to be a good example of a sidewalk being available, but it being much more inconvenient to use. After I walked between several cars and motorcycles after crossing the street, I found a section of the sidewalk that was not really a ramp, but flat enough that it was almost flush with the road.
  • The sidewalk ended with another strange ramp that allowed me to get back onto the same street I was on before. The sidewalk was not particularly long, so the sidewalk did not seem particularly better unless I wanted to avoid the occasional car or access one of the shops. It also had many irregularities, and the ramp was not very wide.
  • The remainder of the route was along relatively flat cobblestone streets, similar to the ones I walked on immediately after leaving our apartment in Trastevere.

Location 9. Entering the Rome Center

  • Description: Step, possibly marble, dimensions N/A
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Stable surface texture, ramp availability
  • ADA Compliant: No
  • Reason for Non-Compliance: I went to enter the Rome Center and wanted to take note of the small step into the corridor. The step appeared to be made of marble or another smooth stone. I saw this is another interesting example of something that may not be ADA-compliant, but depending on individual comfort and ability, could still be accessed if you were using a mobility aid.

Location 10. Staircase to the Rome Center

  • Description: Chair lift upstairs, possibly marble, dimensions N/A
  • Applicable ADA Standards: Stable surface texture, ramp availability
  • ADA Compliant: No
  • Reason for Non-Compliance: This is not ADA-accessible because a wheelchair user would need to leave behind their mobility aid to go upstairs. The surface is also slippery.
  • Commentary: The building the Rome Center is in was very interesting to me because it had a chairlift, something I had not seen in any other buildings I went through in Rome. I had trouble recalling a building as spacious as the Rome Center’s as well, which had a long hallway and long staircase. Because it was only a small set of stairs, it made sense to me to include a chairlift here. Installing a ramp or elevator would be very difficult. Including a chairlift here makes it much more likely someone with a mobility aid could access the building.

3. Conclusion

Table 2 provides a summary of the noted features and ADA compliance. Four of ten locations were ADA compliant based on the standards used for my analysis. Note: these standards were not comprehensive of all ADA standards related to passageways, ramps, sidewalks, etc., and were limited for this project. For a lot of these cases, I did not feel I could conclude whether something was completely ADA compliant without the ability to do precise measurements.

LocationFeatureADA Compliant?Reason for Non-Compliance
1aDoorway/StepsNoNo ramp, slippery surface
1bSidewalk/RampNoNarrow, unstable surface
2PavementNoUnstable surface
3RampNoNarrow width, slippery surface
7Ramp/Street CrossingYes 
8Sidewalk/RampUnsureNarrow ramp width, unstable surface
9Doorway/StepsNoNo ramp, slippery surface
10Chairlift/StepsNoSlippery surface, wheelchair inaccessible
Table 2. Summary of analysis by location.

3.1 Reflection

I find it important to note that many of the non-compliant cases still showed evidence of an accommodation being made. While the ramps may not have been wide enough or made of materials that did not provide ADA-sufficient surface texture, they were still accommodations that I had seen many locals and tourists using to navigate Rome because it met their needs. I tended to find ramps located in areas with higher foot traffic with more sidewalks available, such as near the Ponte Sisto or in shopping districts. We also had a working chairlift and elevator available in our school’s building – something that isn’t true for some of the buildings on our main campus.

Rome’s infrastructure tends to be inconsistent, but this is not dissimilar to Seattle or any other major city in the U.S. with countless projects to manage. I see these inconsistencies more so as a state of progress and compromise in providing more accessible infrastructure. Making widespread change is not a quick process, particularly in a city as old as Rome where any reconstruction teeters on affecting a historical structure. What qualifies as a historical structure or even “old” in Washington is certainly going to be different than a European city, as our history and cultural approaches to infrastructure developed so uniquely from one another. And as engineers who will have only ever worked with ADA regulations, altered expectations to what should be standard is fairly certain.

The challenging question of how a city can remain accommodating but keep its historic integrity still remains. As someone who greatly values and wants to see both, I can understand why alterations were made at these strategic locations to avoid too much reconstruction. Particularly because a large part of Rome is a designated historical region and there is a lot of value in keeping its ancient infrastructure, it seems unrealistic to retrofit to the level of current ADA standards. It is for this reason the ADA has exemptions that address the destruction of historic properties and their character-defining features. However, I do believe that many of these changes can continue to happen slowly over time, and accommodations be integrated with the architectural styles that are associated with a city’s identity, particularly if they impact pedestrian mobility.

While we largely stayed and visited areas in tourist areas with lots of able-bodied young people, outside central Rome, neighborhoods do look different and so do their demographics. I would assume that where more locals live, there are different demands to consider. Requests for infrastructure changes and accommodations often come from community members looking for change in a specific place that directly impacts their daily life. It makes me question if in a neighborhood with more long-term residents, this could be observed. However, I would also expect that when there is funding, it would be directed towards the structures that generate more money for the economy – famous ancient structures like the Colosseum over the curbs I walked past to class. If I were to study this again, I would hope to look at Rome more as a whole and how its pedestrian infrastructure changes further from the historic district, in addition to finding better answers to how these decisions are made.

4. Citations homepage. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2022, from

Ambler, J. L. (n.d.). An introduction to ancient Roman architecture – Smarthistory. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from

Associazione Culturale Sampietrino. (2018, April 10). Storia. Sampietrino.

Fascist Archeology in Mussolini’s Rome. (n.d.). Art & Object. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from (2020, July 2). Changing Landscapes: Roman Infrastructure in the Early Middle Ages.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre. (n.d.). Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from

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