The Urban Pontificate

Urbanists have a powerful new ally in Pope Francis.

It’s easy to forget that the Pope wears many hats (or, should I say many miters?). In addition to heading up the richest institution in the world, he moonlights as de facto mayor of Vatican City and head of the local Catholic diocese. So while he’s the head of a global religion, he’s also a big fish in the urban pond of Rome.

Until Pope Francis, the Vatican’s secondary role as a major civic institution flew under the radar of the non-Italian public. But Francis has gone out of his way to incorporate urban issues into his advocacy — and not just when speaking to local Italian audiences.

Just this week he hosted 60 mayors from around the world — including New York’s Bill de Blasio, Boston’s Marty Walsh, and Paris’s Anne Hidalgo (no sign of Mayor Nutter, who will of course host the pope at the end of September) — for a two-day conference on modern slavery and climate change.

The conference comes on the heels of last month’s encyclical letter, in which Francis outlined a broader urban-planning agenda that included a nod to government-subsidized solar energy:

Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance, and financial resources.

And that’s only scratching the surface of the Pope’s foray into urban policy. He’s spoken about the need to collapse symbolic and physical boundaries that segregate low income neighborhoods from wealthier ones, advocated for improvements to public transit, and called for more spending to aid the urban poor.

Plus, Francis is arguably the best urban-planning fundraiser around. As City Lab writes, every 25 years, the Vatican proclaims a holy year celebration known as the Jubilee. Jubilees typically inspire a rush of municipal spending to upgrade infrastructure to handle the crush of pilgrims who descend on Rome in Jubilee years. The last Jubilee was 15 years ago, but Francis doesn’t want to wait another decade.

He’s announced that this December, the next Jubilee will begin. And Rome’s city government is responding in a way Francis surely appreciate; with a $50 million euro investment in “fringe neighborhoods” that are often neglected by tourists and political patronage.

If only his visit to Philadelphia was sparking $50 million in new infrastructure spending here.