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The Compleat Wetlander: Venice, Resilience and Pondering What’s Next for Coastal Communities

By Jeanne Christie

Venice, Italy, a World Heritage Site, is often identified as one of the cities most vulnerable to sea level rise.  Built 100’s of years ago entirely on wetlands, it’s been on my list of places to visit for many years.  Earlier this month I got to do just that, and to think about some of the similarities and differences between Venice’s challenges and those of our coastal cities.

cw41715-1Venice is both beautiful and also in a visible state of decay.  In many of the buildings along the Grand Canal, first floors are no longer inhabitable due to higher water levels over time.  Seaweed and algae cling to marble steps.  Many doors have flood barriers left in place in anticipation of a high water event.

cwvenice241715In addition, the city itself presents many challenges to its inhabitants.   There is no motorized transportation anywhere in the city. It is necessary to walk or use a boat to get everywhere.  Everything must be transported by boat along one of the canals and then offloaded and placed in carts that are pushed up and over bridges over other smaller canals as they are moved into the city.  The process is reversed to move trash and other materials out.  While the buildings and art and beauty of Venice provide a wonderful and unique experience for tourists, it can be challenging for residents in this day and age.  And the city is losing thousands of residents annually.

cwvenicepop41715“The population of Venice decreased from 184,000 inhabitants in 1950 to less than 90,000 at the beginning of the 1990s; at present the resident population is reduced to 70,000 inhabitants, with an increasing percentage of old people. This demographic decline is due to various causes; one of the most important is the progressive reduction of industry with an attendant increase in unemployment. In addition, because of the state of decay of the houses, the increasing frequency of floods, the relatively high cost of living and the peculiar Venetian way of life, which is not always appreciated by the younger generation, increasing numbers of inhabitants are moving from the city to the urban centers of the terra firma…Tourism is Venice’s most important economic resource, but also a major source of pollution, and negatively influences the quality of life of the inhabitants.

                        —From Coastal Flood Risk Italy (see section on Venice)                                                                        

cwvenice541715Venice is located in the Adriatic Sea along the eastern shore of Italy.  This whole area of the coast, not just the islands, is very vulnerable to sea level rise. In addition, subsidence and plate tectonics create additional threats.  There is a very expensive plan underway, called the Moses project, to erect a series of barriers and gates to block the major inlets to the lagoon where the city is located. Venice, Italy tests $7 billion flood barriers.  This effort may or may not ultimately be successful in saving the city itself. cwvenice741715But what about the local population?

The beautiful parts of Venice that I visited were inhabited largely by tourists and the stores and hotels and restaurants were in historic buildings now entirely geared to a tourist industry.  It wasn’t a theme park. But, for me, it didn’t have the feel of a living city either.

My stay in Venice led me to wonder about whether our focus on building sustainable infrastructure in response to sea level rise and climate change perhaps falls short of anticipating the difficulties that will ultimately be experienced by people living in those areas even when those efforts to slow and hold back the cwvenice841715sea are wholly or partially successful.  Venice offers some unique challenges it’s true.  But will people be willing to continue to live in coastal areas as the oceans encroach and affect their quality of life?  I don’t know the answer to that, but it is a very important part of the equation when we think about sustainability. We need to anticipate that ultimately residents may abandon these communities in large numbers if our definition of sustainability fails to consider livability as well.  Design resilient cities: don’t assume resilient people.  I was delighted to visit Venice, to glide up and down the Grand Canal, to watch the gondolas cruise by, to walk the narrow streets and encounter not only Italians, but people from around the world there like me to have the opportunity to see this extraordinary place. But I was also saddened to see firsthand what a community looks like that is experiencing the exodus of its population in response to changing conditions.  It’s an experience I’ll never forget.



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One Response to The Compleat Wetlander: Venice, Resilience and Pondering What’s Next for Coastal Communities

  1. bill.morgante says:

    Enjoyed your thought-provoking perspective and weaving of history and current facts about Venice — especially since I visited Venice in 2014. The Venice lagoons are a striking greenish-blue color — more indicative of pollution than SAV? A brief web search was not conclusive — both appear to be present now. Can we glean direction for future coastal communities or is Venice so unique a place that its lessons do not apply?

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