Venice – UNESCO At Risk Site. Until?

Is it any wonder that a lagoon and a city placed at the center of all sorts of interests have attracted the attention of UNESCO, which would like to verify the consistency of all this declared modernity with the integrity of the originally recognized site?

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Venice and its Lagoon, a site recognized by UNESCO since 1987 for its extraordinary combination of historical and cultural heritage and environmental value, has for a decade become part of the world heritage sites defined as “at risk” due to the recognizable involution suffered by its original components of value. In this trajectory we easily find the impact of factors that have marked the economic and environmental evolution of not only Venice, but of a thirty-year long story that has ended up taking the name of globalization, disrupting previous interpretive schemes of small and large scale relationships.

However, in Venice the intimate correlation between economy, history and nature does not allow considering them separately because it obliges us to recognize, in its fragile originality, the problems of the particular environmental whole on which the UNESCO reports of the last decade insist. Hence the pressure from UNESCO on the local and national institutional systems as guarantors of the protection and the integrity of the site at the time it was recognized. A value and a burden at the same time, but not directly connected to the economy.

In the UNESCO report of August 2023 all this is taken up with clarity, documented and forcefully highlighted in its individual aspects, according to a narrative in which the intertwining of the city, lagoon and infrastructure reveals an acceleration of transformations in progress which are rapidly leading to the distortion of a site in which a range of actors, both local and external, aim to guarantee themselves a share of the profits, big or small.   

For the first time a central focus has been dedicated to the issue of tourist flows which acknowledges the absolute dominance that the tourism economy has assumed, not only in the city, but also on the entire Venetian mainland linked to the historic city, acting as a key magnet for the four types of tourism the city is affected by today.

© Andrea MEROLA

We are talking first about hotel tourism, which between Venice and Mestre today divides visitors between the luxury and economy segments. Next is short-term rental tourism, which in a few years has now doubled its accommodation potential compared to the hotel sector, and is consuming growing shares of residential assets. The accumulation of the hotel and non-hotel accommodations on offer, now extended to the proximate metropolitan areas, has reached one hundred thousand beds. Then there is the commuter type of “day tripper” tourism, which daily unloads thousands of regional visitors from the historic island terminal of the road and railway bridge. And finally there is the evening-nighttime tourism of the metropolitan nightlife, which has made the historic city the location par excellence for the bar economy, arrogantly affirming the pre-eminent right for drinkers to make noise over respect for quiet at night for the citizens, to “liven up” the city until the small hours.

This entire tourist phenomenology, in constant expansion, is rooted in precise organized groups, a social bloc made up of large and small stakeholders, external and local, who operate as autonomous engines of urban use that no acclaimed municipal regulation of tourist flows has ever intended to regulate, let alone to contain. If anything, the aim is to convert to an accounting of arrivals that pursues growth as a measure of success, according to a recent doctrine of tourism as a panacea for the contemporary urban economy. This is something that UNESCO does not fail to strongly underline after years in which the issue of controlling tourist flows has been broadly administered with great originality on the part of the local political narrative. Without any results, even experimental.

But the issue of tourist flows is, however, an important element, in which the maritime economy is fully included due to the relationships that the lagoon environment maintains as an area of transition between land and sea, in which both the commercial and the environmental exchanges that regulate the ecological and hydraulic equilibrium of the large lagoon basin take place, and in which anthropic and natural production must coexist.

© Andrea MEROLA

Regarding this, the need for a genuine strategy for the lagoon based on a convincing morphological plan that allows working in the short term while looking to the long term remains unanswered to this day. Basically, this means looking at the effects that climate change is destined to impose on the lagoon environment in the coming decades. It’s a subject around which there is strong pressure from the existing interests to work in the short term to adapt the lagoon to the ships, rather than the ships to the lagoon in a long-term perspective.

However, the Venetian community has acquired the legacy of the thought that within a few decades the city will face the vital issue of how to either transfer the port to the sea or to give up the most historic function of the Venetian economy; the maritime one. 

If the relations with the maritime flows are the result of epochal choices, those of the lagoon with the land flows place the question of adapting infrastructure in the face of a growing demand for urban mobility at the center. This is a theme that is common to all the cities that the tourist pressure in Venice squeezes into an island town surrounded by a few canals and many shoals.

Reviewing the evolution of the administrative management of the local territory, it cannot escape anyone how between the lagoon and the mainland a reinterpretation of the historical meaning of the separation attributed to the water space is underway. The whole area is now thought of as a real metropolitan territory made of soil and water, to be normalized with infrastructure totally calibrated to serve the growth of flows, starting from its edges. In short, to classify the lagoon not as an environmental asset to be preserved but as a socioeconomic support available for a new urban development whose goals and protagonists are clearly visible.

What UNESCO defines as a buffer zone, the outer edge of the lagoon as a protective area for the site, will thus be converted into a new access point for the historic city. It is enough then to assemble the pieces that are being administered separately to see the expected result.

© Andrea MEROLA

The strengthening and creation of new lagoon terminals according to a municipal urban mobility plan, with the addition of new parking on shore and in the historic city. For the moment still no doubling of the trans-lagoon bridge – but that’s not for sure! An underground high-speed rail station – the third in the city – located under the airport runway to encourage the development of airport traffic, a public investment directly functional to the program of doubling the number of flights in the next three decades, which is waiting to move on to the construction of the second runway.

The airport plan also includes a direct connection with Venice via suspended cable-car or a sub-lagoon railway, proposals that periodically emerge in support of the airport expansion program, which remains the only real goal.

Likewise, there are proposals from the Veneto Region, which calls itself “The Land of Venice”, for which Venice represents the hub of regional tourism development. To connect the regional interior with the coast, it proposes either a bridge over the northern lagoon, or alternatively a sub-lagoon road tunnel. All of this can be summed up in a declared desire for sustainable modernity! 

© Andrea MEROLA

Is it any wonder that a lagoon and a city placed at the center of all sorts of interests have attracted the attention of UNESCO, which would like to verify the consistency of all this declared modernity with the integrity of the originally recognized site?

We have seen firsthand how during the years of Venice as a UNESCO site, which passed through thirty years of globalization, the city has emerged altered precisely in the intimate details that won it its original recognition. There are two possible consequences.

The downgrading of the site to junk heritage, an all-purpose mass theme park in a dormitory city with frequent rotation for all budgets. For this all we need to do is let things proceed as they are now. Alternatively, we need an idea of the city that is not dedicated to chasing the tourism market, but that makes cultural and technological modernity its own, in connection with the outside world. 

The difference can only be made by local protagonists willing to take a new and different look at the world.

Translation by Paul Rosenberg

Venice – UNESCO At Risk Site. Until? ultima modifica: 2023-08-06T12:40:45+02:00 da FRANCO MIGLIORINI
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