Unique amongst cities, Rome has been an urban centre for more than 2000 years. Sigmund Freud, in 'Civilization and its Discontents', compares the human mind to the city of Rome, with its intriguing series of historic layers and preserved memories. Its urban present embeds itself in its deep structures, with every modern building sitting snugly on top of a Renaissance one, under which is a medieval building, and then, of course, ancient Rome itself. Rome is among those cities which owing to their history, architecture and culture are quite exceptional indeed. Apart from its aesthetic and architectural heritage, Rome's peculiarity is derived from its historical development over years and its consequent urban structure; and it is this urban structure that becomes the source of its peculiar problems.
Politically, the history of ancient Rome is marked by distinct periods. With the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the population of central Italy was increasing. Large nucleated settlements, mostly located on hilltops, began to develop, and Rome was one of them. Owing to its strategic location along the wide and easily navigable Tiber River, Rome soon developed from a village to a city ruled by kings, who contributed to the development of the city and its countryside with their skill at urban planning, engineering, and waterworks. After the abolition of the regal system, a new political order was instituted, and Republic Rome was born. Originally more adept in engineering and construction than in decorative arts, roads and aqueducts were common and monumental buildings such as baths, amphitheatres and markets were not only public amenities, but important aspects of the city's cultural institution. However, the encounter with Hellenic traditions and the widespread wealth among the aristocrats, encouraged the use of marble colonnades in villas, temples and tombs. With the Roman Empire, came a period of public squares and urban amenities as the centre of Rome and its activities. It was the conversion of Constantine to Christianity that merged political history with religion, and as seven patriarchal basilicas emerged in the peripheral countryside, the centre of Rome was shut down and Rome became a city, turned inside-out at the end of antiquity. The century that followed witnessed the spread of the cultural movement of the Renaissance, characterized by a general renewal of arts. The city underwent a period of restoration, the defence walls were repaired, palaces built, and churches preserved. As artists and architects contributed to embellish and give a new splendour to Rome, a dense, confused, medieval urban pattern began to make itself visible. With the 'Sack of Rome' by German mercenary troops, the city suffered great damages, population fell to around 30,000 inhabitants and Rome lost its prestige as a centre of humanism, followed by a period of the Counter-Reformation, artistically expressed by the dramatic Baroque style. It was under Pope Sixtus V that renovation and construction had a great effect not only on the Vatican, but also on the city of Rome. Three major streets were laid out to radiate from Piazza del Popolo to the centre of the city, many squares and fountains were commissioned, the Acqua Felice aqueduct was restored and the Saint Peter's dome completed. The population was, now, around 100,000 and Rome became the most cosmopolitan city of its time. After the declaration of Rome as the Italian capital, the city underwent a feverish growth. The new status and the increase of the population called for to the construction of whole new quarters, the entire area within the ancient wall had been built up, and the city began to expand outward. The dictatorship of Mussolini was marked by the destruction of old quarters and the realization of very pompous projects in terms of roads and boulevards that were to celebrate this dictatorship, through a grandiose conception of Fascist Rome. But, the post-war growth included residential developments far out the Roman countryside; and it is only since then that Rome, overtaking major cities as Milan and Naples, returned to assume the status of the leading Italian city.
Rome's economy remains dominantly based on two activities, government operations and tourism. Besides being a central point in Italy's railroad system, Rome is connected by highways with many parts of the country. Rome is easily divided into two regions: the inner city of the 3rd century AD and the sprawling outer city, with its suburbs. The historical centre is a small area, enclosing the traces of a never-ending history, steadily renovated by various characters, each of them leaving a lasting sign of its significance. Even the street pattern of the city bears the marks of its long and complex history. The monuments of Rome's past are predominantly within this historical centre, in stark contrast to the peripheral modern districts. As a city, Rome's problems are no different from great cities across the world; congestion, pollution, traffic problems, lack of green spaces, degradation of the urban landscape, and the disintegration of social and human relationships. Though the problems are ubiquitous, their Roman context is, indeed, unusual; for these typical factors of crisis and degradation, are applied, in Rome's case, to an unusual historical and environmental situation. With an increase in population in post-war Rome, a strategic response to its problems was needed, for there was an unprecedented need for new building. While a sensible response of establishing a modern functional alternative to its old historic centre, or the creation of another centre and the anticipation of additional centres with city growth would have been apt, this was deliberately resisted. Its considerable continuity with the past and its policies, the prevailing urban culture that is resistant to innovation and the focus on the conventional 'improvement' works, rather than engagement in systematic long-term urban strategies, resulted in an illogical imbalance between the historic centre and the rest of the modern growth. This absence of planning strategy further resulted in unprecedented socio-economic effects.
Rome, whose 'postcard' reputation ignores the realities of modernization, remained blind to its pressures on the fabric of the city. In an attempt, with an obsessive narrative, to freeze an existing situation in time, they were also freezing with it, the urban problems that accompanied that situation - increasing populations, mounting pressures on land, automobile congestions, socio-economic cycles, restricted technology and the list goes on. Stagnation. While it was understandable that modernity offered lesser and lesser scope for nostalgia, it was equally true that holding on to the nostalgia of the past, beyond a certain threshold, is regressive. In effect, Rome, as an entire city, became rather similar to a museum - collecting artifacts no longer of relevance, an entombment of a once-lived activity, attempting to keep that activity alive, only to paradoxically collapse into itself and become an object of the past, no longer belonging to the real world of the living, no longer alive. And yet, having opted for the conservation of its historicism, what characteristics made a particular structure a monument worthy of preservation; and who decided the case? What are the steps that can solve its peculiar problems while maintaining its peculiar character? The immediate and modest hopes of the city extend no further than a ban on cars within the older city and vigilance in the restoration of the historic buildings. The law is lenient about interior remodeling, and externally the skin can be demolished provided that it is reconstructed in the original form. In '2000 Master Plan for Rome: A plan without a Strategy', Franco Archibugi, suggests an effective distribution of urban services, creation of alternative centers capable of alleviating pressure on the historic center, dedication of the historic centre to functions that would increase its value, and protect its cultural heritage, establishment of a balance between settlements and patterns of traffic, maximization of the city's artistic, cultural and environmental heritage and the decentralization of the modern business and administrative core with sustainable territorial development, as Rome's solution. Expressing his respect to the stance that Rome takes towards this tackling of its ancient roots even in the face of modernity, Spiro Kostof, in 'The Third Rome, 1870-1950: An Introduction' says "We may end up with an urban illusion, a kind of Roman Williamsburg. But in our age even that may still prove plenty to be thankful for".