On October 10, Penn IUR Faculty Fellow Tom Daniels, Professor of City and Regional Planning, School of Design, gave a talk on Venice Charms and Challenges. He explored contemporary economic, environmental, and social threats that many historic cities face today. Focusing on its challenges, as well as its opportunities, Daniels presented insight and photographic visuals taken from a recent trip to Venice in the hopes of facilitating a conversation on the possible sustainable solutions for the city’s ominous future.
Venice, once known for its great maritime and cultural power in the late Medieval and Renaissance era, is otherwise referred to as La Serenissima, or the walking city of human scale. However, due to the continuous rise of sea water and an unprecedented influx in tourism, the city built on mud flats has been put on UNESCO’s imminent list of World Heritage in Danger. Throughout his presentation, Daniels highlighted the challenges that come to an area completely surrounded by water. Such as the effects of rising water levels on the centuries-old built fabric that occurs during Acqua Alta, or the tidal surge that brings rain and runoff from the mainland, to the of extensive development and the dangers of a possible petrochemical refinery spillover. Daniels states that as tourism pressures increase, and environmental deformation continues, Venice needs to strategize creative solutions to address Venice’s pertinent obstacles.
In a city where nature and history are closely linked, Daniels argues that an exponential rise in tourism is a large contributor to threats of the city’s viability. Made up of approximately 160 square miles, Venice holds a density of about 30,000 people. However, the city sees more than 25 million foreign visitors each year - an average up to 60,000 per day.
“How do we maintain a sustainable city?” was the evolving question proposed throughout the discussion. One visible eyesore that contributes to the multilayered complexities are the daily cruise ships that stir up the water in the canals and attract a case of “Eat and Flee tourism.” These types of visitor produce a transitory, pervasive tourist trade that is constructed to cater to a fleeting population and not the dwindling local market. Subsequently, the influx in foreign populations creates soaring property values that cater to an international crowd. Locales are finding that it is more lucrative to rent to tourists, forcing Venetians to live on the mainland and commute across the causeway. Following this trend, the local population has fallen greatly and if it reaches a point of under 40,000 people, it would no longer be the viable, living city that it once was. Daniels points out the critical need to make Venice sustainable, not only environmentally, but culturally and socially as well.
Speaking of possible solutions, Daniels presented on Venice’s current sustainability project, MoSE. A sea barrier that will, once completed in 2019, block the rising sea. The project, begun in 2003, is costing the city $8 billion to construct and its success is questionable. There have also been discussions in Venice to limit the amount of foreign visitors the city sees. However, as the city continues to rely on the economic market that tourism brings, limiting it financially may prove to be unsustainable. Additionally, Daniels suggested restricting the purchase of Venice real estate to foreigners and building affordable housing units for Venetians, crucial in order to maintain its local fabric.
The discussion concluded with questions on the role of the national government in amending current legislation to answer these problems. Would looking at the political and systematic failures, bring innovative solutions the city desperately needs? The current view of Venice is often seen from a foreigner’s perspective and is still very romanticized, in order to recreate a viable community, the role of the Venetian needs to be elevated and prioritized. Empowering a new population to flourish is key, as one audience member stated, shedding light to the importance of the local fabric as the ecosystem in a time where its natural, cultural, and historic environment is threatened.