Eternal City puts faith in Green man: Rome's new mayor is the people's choice to restore its glory. But he faces a quagmire of pollution, corruption and decay

THERE were moments last week when the new mayor of Rome could have been a pop star, hugged, kissed and cheered by adoring fans.

Certainly, Francesco Rutelli, 39, is handsome, with his light hazel eyes, curly hair, open, friendly face and pleasant manner - in marked contrast to some of his sleazier predecessors, who have milked the city.

More important, for the first time the man in charge on the Capitol Hill, whence the world was once ruled, is a Green. At last, he brings hope that the Eternal City can be made habitable again.

For Rome is a mess. It is suffocated by traffic, heavily polluted, noisy, overcrowded, dirty, lacking good transport, services and amenities, with more than 200,000 immigrants and a quarter of a million unemployed, badly policed, and run - if that is the word - by an arteriosclerotic bureaucracy.

Now Romans are abandoning their city. The population, which topped 3 million a few years ago, has shrunk by nearly 10 per cent. Those leaving are the poorest, who can no longer afford it, and the richer and more mobile, who can no longer stand it. Some, particularly professionals with young children, have moved to surrounding towns and villages and are learning the hitherto unfamiliar art of commuting.

Journalist Miriam Mafai was picking her way down her street between cars parked nose-to-tail on the pavement and spilled garbage when she decided she had had enough. She moved to Paris - to find a large community of like-minded Romans who were 'tired of the impossible traffic in Rome, the spreading filth, the ill-functioning services'. The society figure Princess Doris Pignatelli cracked on a day 'that I had spent trailing from one office to another and getting absolutely nothing done, knowing that the next day would have been equally futile and exasperating . . . and the next and the next'. She moved to Asolo in the Euganei hills near Venice. Mr Rutelli's predecessors, mostly Christian Democrats and Socialists, failed to cope with the problems of a city which has expanded since the Second World War from 800,000 inhabitants living in or near the city centre to 2.8 million covering 10 times the area. Instead of insisting on proper modern planning (ironically, the last well-planned district was the EUR satellite city, laid out by the Fascist regime), they allowed themselves to be hijacked by the palazzinari, builders who grew fat by throwing up densely packed blocks of flats for people who flooded in from the countryside.

Regulations could be circumvented with bribes, and where bribes did not work, building went ahead anyway. The city council would then be forced to accept a fait accompli and provide services. Italia Nostra, the conservation association, estimates that 18,000 hectares of built- up area - the size of a large town - were illegally developed.

This concrete fringe is a dismal dormitory area without amenities or attractions. A number of large parks, including one planned for the rich archaeological area of the Old Appian Way, have remained on the drawing-boards. Rome has only one-third of the open space per inhabitant prescribed by law, and if the city had not taken over beautiful old parks such as the Villa Borghese and Villa Doria Pamphilj created by the old aristocracy, it would not even have that much.

So those who live near the two inadequate underground lines flood into town in the evenings and weekends to stroll and window-shop in the old centre. Gracious old shops, craftsmen's workshops and elegant boutiques have given way to cheap jeans stores and fast-food joints.

With no efficient transport network, getting about is a nightmare and cars or scooters are essential. The noise is deafening. The maximum decibel level allowed by law at night is 55. In central Piazza Venezia, at 1am, environmentalists registered 84.8 decibels - a level banned even in engineering works.

The traffic is the main source of air pollution and regularly, even on cloudless summer days, private transport has to be stopped for several hours, and old people and young children warned to stay indoors. Traffic wardens and motorcyclists often wear face-masks.

Mr Rutelli inherits all this - and a huge personal responsibility that no mayor of the city has had since the war. His predecessors were the product of obscure party deals worked out in smoke-filled rooms. Under the new system, the mayor is elected directly by the people, and his party or coalition has a weighted majority in the council, giving him considerable stability for the four- year term. If he fails, it will be largely a personal failure.

Fortunately Mayor Rutelli knows Rome and its problems intimately. He is a former city councillor, and he and his team have long since had their plans ready, including a deal with the railways to link up an existing rail network around the city, to decentralise and give the peripheral areas a life of their own.

The first batch of new mayors, elected in June with high hopes of transforming their ill-run communities, have been driven to distraction by obstructive and Byzantine laws, lack of funds and municipal bureaucracies stuffed with political proteges, sometimes corrupt and set in their unhelpful ways. Mr Rutelli has put his deputy in charge of reorganising the bureaucracy, so that, for instance, someone who wants to open a shop no longer need trail through dozens of offices, collecting piles of documents.

Many people did not want Mr Rutelli to be mayor, such as the shopkeepers who believed that he would close the centre of the city to all traffic ( 'unrealistic', he says), and the many who did well out of the old regime.

Hardline Catholic groups prophesied that Mr Rutelli's Rome would be a den of iniquity. But the Pope is also the Bishop of Rome, and when John Paul II met the new mayor for the first time last week at the Feast of the Assumption ceremony in Piazza di Spagna, there was by all accounts an instant rapport. The Pope wished Mr Rutelli well and prayed to the Madonna for the city's 'just and solid renewal'.

(Photograph omitted)

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