Engineering Rome

Sustainability in Rome


“Sustainability” is a commonly used words today. The concept of sustainability is relatively new; it was only recently introduced politically in 1987 but its impact cannot be underestimated. It has become a main focus in the engineering field and it has a direct impact on many countries’ policies.
There is no universally agreement on what sustainability means or how it is achieved, for each country has its own uniqueness and naturally its own way to sustain itself. This article will attempt to define the word and provide reasons for the emphasis of sustainability.
Rome is the city that will be analyzed in this article due to its fascinating history and approach to sustainability. How can an idea as new as sustainability be incorporated into Rome, an almost 3,000 years old city? And it seems that the city is doing well in terms of sustainability, for Tom Rankin, an architect in Rome, claims Rome to be Europe’s most sustainable capital (Rankin, 2015). This article serves to analyze the validity of Rankin’s claim, using Basilica of San Clement as an example because the construction of the basilica represents the common sustainable practice in Rome very well.

What is Sustainability?

United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WECD) broadly defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Our Common Future, 1987). More specifically, sustainability can be focused on the environmental, social and economical aspect (Sustainability Briefings, 2013) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Triple Bottom Line – Sustainability consists of Economic, Environmental and Social Aspect

Environmental Sustainability

Protecting the environment is part of being sustainable, for the environment affects the health and lifestyle of the current and the future generations.
According to The Natural Step, the environment can be protected by following these steps:
1) “We cannot dig stuff up from the Earth at a rate faster than it naturally returns and replenishes” (The Natural Step, 2015)
Our goal is to make sure that we do not consume more than nature can produce. If we consume more or faster than nature can produce, resources will eventually run out. This especially applies to non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels.

2) “We cannot make chemical stuff at a rate faster than it takes nature to break it down” (The Natural Step, 2015)Humans are continuously creating more pollution and damage to the environment. We produce carbon dioxide when we breath, for instance. It is true that we will always produce waste. However, we can help protect the natural laws by limiting the damage we create whenever possible. An example is to use less automobiles to lower the emission of greenhouse gasses.
3) “We cannot cause destruction to the planet at a rate faster than it takes for regrow” (The Natural Step, 2015)An example is deforestation. By creating excessive physical damage to the environment, humans can damage the ecosystem. We must damage the environment less than it can handled, or at least cure the environment after it is damaged. In the deforestation example, we can replant the trees after deforestation to help nature recover. Notice that even after we replant the trees, it will take a long period of time until the environment fully recovers to its state prior to deforestation. This is why we should try to limit degradation by physical means; nature may take a while to recover and it may not return to its initial state.
In term of protecting the environment, a role model we humans can look up to is cherry tree. Cherry trees help the environment by consuming carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and producing oxygen. Also, they produce thousands of blossoms every spring to reproduce. Cherry trees do good to the environment because they help reduce greenhouse gases and create little to no waste (McDonough and Braungart, 2002). Another role model is ant. Ants do good to the natural laws overall. The biomass of ants on this earth is more than that of humans yet ants do not damage the earth as much as humans do (McDonough and Braungart). They eat decaying organic matter, aerate the soil, can be used for medicine and many others that benefit the environment (McDonough and Braungart). Humans, on the other hand, create more damage than good to the environment. Humans use more natural resources than needed to survive, produce wastes that do not completely integrate back to nature and worst of all, we change nature. To be sustainable, we must take actions to create less harm to the environment. Protecting the environment is the right thing to do, for the current and the future generations.

Social Sustainability

Sustainability also means satisfying quality of life, for the current and the future generations. Just like The Natural Step lists, ” we cannot do things that cause others to not able to fulfill their basic needs” (The Natural Step, 2015). There are a lot of people on this planet and we are all striving to improve our quality of life (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Current World Population and U.S. Population

The concept of sustainability in building infrastructures is increasingly enforced in engineering because engineers can have a direct impact on sustainability through design, construction, operation, maintenance, and demolition. Thus, engineers can have an impact on the environment as well as the quality of life for the individuals.

Economic Sustainability

Sustainable practices help protect the environment, ensure the quality of life for individuals and at the same time have to be financially affordable. If sustainable practices are expensive, there would be less incentives to be sustainable. It turns out that sustainable practices can be affordable and even cheaper than less sustainable practices.

” We believe green buildings are not only good for the environment, they also provide immediate and long-term economic benefits for developers, building owners and occupants.”
Turner Construction

In Roman and modern engineering, integrating sustainability into building practices is cost efficient. Such example can be seen in Basilica of San Clement in Rome, Italy.

Background: Basilica of San Clement

Basilica of San Clement, built in 1123, is a Roman Catholic Church located 300 yards north of the Colosseum (Sacred Destination, 2015) (Figure 3). Today, it is one of the most famous basilicas in Rome, Italy, not only because of its richly adorned interior with golden mosaic apse and gold- decorated ceiling, but also its availability for tourists to explore the multiple layers of history beneath (Sacred Destination, 2015) (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Picture of Basilica of San Clement(Photo by Author)

Figure 4. The interior of Basilica of San Clement. It includes the golden mosaic and part of the ceiling(Photo by Author)