International
Federation for
Housing and
Planning

Water City

The ancient name, Water City, might turn out to be prophetic. The effects of climate change, rising sea levels and floods have accelerated the process.

Venice is sinking. And it has been doing so for as long as I remember. Somehow it is part of the dramatic myth of the city built on water. You get the feeling that even though it is archaic and eternal in all its historic grandeur, it is temporary.

The ancient name, Water City, might turn out to be prophetic. The effects of climate change, rising sea levels and floods have accelerated the process. On average the city is flooded four times a year. The response to this is the grand scale project MOSE to be completed in 2014. It consists of costly and controversial flood barriers, which will be raised when a flood is building up. 78 steel boxes, 20 meters wide, up to 5 meters thick and 30 meters high.

But it might not be enough to save the city. Sea-level forecasts predict high water above the ones calculated in the project. The most pessimistic prognosis suggests that by the end of the century high water might flood Venice between 30 and 250 times a year. If the flood barriers prove to be effective, Venice might face another problem: insufficient sewage treatment. If the barriers are in use too often, the waste water will be trapped in the lagoon instead of being washed out in the sea. The polluted water would turn the city in to an open sewer.

Another - desperate - attempt at saving the city is the proposal to pump water into a huge underground reservoir and thereby literally raising the city. But serious doubt whether it will be sufficient surrounds the idea. And the miserable Italian economy poses a real threat to the initiatives needed to protect Venice.

Old Europe

Even though it is almost unthinkable, the cost of saving the city might turn out to be too high, making Venice the most prominent victim of global economy and consumerism run amok.

Venice is a symbol of the costs of climate change. If the city becomes uninhabitable and the cultural heritage slowly decays, it is indeed a high price. In the heydays, Venice was the culmination of political and economic power. The city embodies the sophisticated decadence and superiority of the Europe that once was. But in all the misanthropic mourning, we must not forget that the case of Venice cannot be compared to the challenges people all over the world face due to climate change.

Venice Tourists Photo: J. Chapiewsky

Mass tourism vs. everyday life

Venice is a masterpiece and represents European cultural heritage at its best. The architecture, the art, science, adventure and the unique master plan of the city. It is a hot spot in global tourism, flooding the city with tourists squeezing out the last bits of everyday life. Venice has become ‘hyper’ Venice. Venice is not only drowning because of the floods. It is weighed down by its own identity and success as UNESCO land mark. Main land Venice is still alive but local residents of the Venice islands are forced to move away because of rising housing prices. In 1951 approximately 174.000 people lived in Venice. Today the number is below 60.000. Tourism is undermining everyday life the same way the fundament of the city slowly gives in. It is obviously not sustainable.

In 2009 a local businessman arranged a dramatic ‘funeral’ of the city, staging a parade carrying a coffin down Canal Grande to symbolize the death of the city. The restless consumerism of tourism is keeping the city in a dead lock. Tourism is both the economic lifeline of the city and part of the vicious circle emptying the city of local residents.

The destiny of Venice as a historic city is a phenomenon well known to Europe. Many cities face the same dilemma: How to uphold a tourist industry that does not destroy everyday life?


Epilogue

This year's Venice biennial was a show devoted to architecture. The problems on top of the agenda of city planners were almost completely absent from the programme. Climate resilience, social cohesiveness, and health issues to name a few of the most pressing issues planners deal with these years. The introvert nature of the show this year is a dangerous route. There is a serious risk of becoming irrelevant if the creative resources available at the show are not directed at real world problems facing us all.