Tired? Don't Sit Down on Rome's Spanish Steps.

CC BY 2.0. Spanish Steps/ Lloyd Alter

Yes, they can get crowded, but they are public space. Streets and stairs are for people.

TreeHugger is all about active travel, about getting out and walking. And one thing you want to do, when you get out and walk, is to sit down occasionally, especially if you are older. Especially if you are in the middle of climbing stairs.

That's why I was disturbed to read that it is now illegal to sit on the Spanish Steps in Rome. They were recently restored and are no longer just a stairway, a means of transportation, but are now a monument. In 2016 Paolo Bulgari, whose jewelry company funded part of the restoration, told an Italian newspaper:

Restorers have done a great and difficult job. The steps were coated with anything from coffee, wine, chewing gum. But now I am worried. If we don’t set strict rules, the steps will go back to being used as a camping site for barbarians.

A policeman complains in the New York Times after pointing to a brown spot that was once a chocolate ice cream cone: “Those restorations cost. Why shouldn’t we watch over the city’s monuments?” But in the Guardian, others think it is an over-reaction.

“We agree that people shouldn’t ‘camp out’ and eat on the steps of monuments, as rubbish gets left behind,” said Tommaso Tanzilli, a director at the Rome unit of Federalberghi, the Italian hotels association. “But criminalising people for sitting down, especially if they are elderly, is a little exaggerated.”

Others point out in the New York Times that Rome is an "open air museum" and that visitors should treat it as such. The president of the local business associations says, “You couldn’t walk around the Metropolitan Museum snacking on food and slurping a Coke. We expect the same for the center of Rome.”

But Rome is not the Metropolitan Museum. It is a living city. Stairs are public space; they are not monuments. As TreeHugger's Katherine Martinko tells me, describing every weekend when she lived in Italy, "the young people would head to the piazza and hang out on public steps. It's not just tourists who do this; it's deeply cultural."

Beautiful bike accessories

Beautiful bike accessories/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The steps are also in a very fancy area where I thought even the bicycles were beautiful. It sounds to me that the problem is the wrong kind of people are sitting on those stairs.

Cars and garbage in Rome

Cars and garbage in Rome/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And for Romans to say that tourists should treat Rome like a museum, when they themselves seem to treat it like a parking lot and a garbage dump, seems a bit out of line. Tourists sitting on public steps would seem to be the least of its problems.

Spanish Steps in 2016

© Spanish Steps in 2016 / Sean Gallup/Getty Images

I admit that I saw those stairs off-season, and they look pretty crowded in some of the other photos. Having laws against jumping into the Trevi Fountain also do not seem out of line. But I get nervous when police start telling people to move along, not to sit down in public spaces. Streets – and stairs – are for people.