The Venice Report

05/09/2009

The Venice Report


Venice is at a crossroads: choices now could be decisive, for good or for very bad

Introduction by Anna Somers Cocks

The chapters of the Venice Report, commissioned by Venice in Peril in collaboration with the Department of Architecture of Cambridge University, reveal that things are changing fast in Venice. After the great flood of 1966 until early this century, Venice became a city where policy was made very cautiously, where the authorities seemed to prefer to do nothing, or even oppose action, rather than do the wrong thing. Hence the many years it took for MOSE, the mobile flood barriers, to begin to be built. The Arsenale, the obsolete naval dockyard, is another case in point. After 50 years, the only, very limited, progress in adapting it to new use has taken place when outside private or semi-private bodies, the Biennale and the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, have twisted the arm of the authorities.

Lately, however, Italy has been trying to liberalise its economy and the dirigiste power of Rome has diminished as the regions have negotiated greater autonomy. The reduction in public funding has also been very influential. In Venice, the key moment was 2002, when the go-ahead was finally given for MOSE. On the one hand, Venice will be protected from the acque alte after 2014, its expected completion date. On the other, the lavish cushion of money that the Comune used to enjoy from the Special Laws for Venice has grown a great deal thinner, perhaps too thin, if work on maintaining the canals and fabric of Venice is put at risk. The current mayor, Massimo Cacciari, talks constantly about his lack of funds, justifying the huge ads in St Mark's Square and the proposal to put Coca Cola vending machines in the calli and campi on those grounds.
Venice is a fertile forcing house; it is remarkable how quickly growth has come as soon as the private sector has been given its head. In just seven years, the number of B&Bs and rooms to rent has risen 1008 per cent. The number of cruise ships sailing through Venice has risen from 200 to 510 a year since 2000, facilitated by the privatization of the passenger port management. Five years ago Venice was a city without noticeable advertising; now huge ads appear on most public buildings under restoration. Venice, whose economy is mysterious because so much of it is undeclared, nevertheless is estimated by CISET, a research body at Ca'Foscari University, to turn over ?1.5 billion a year. Venice is a cash cow for Venetians, but increasingly also for outside interests.

The Venice Report describes the plans for a very big development at Tessera, around the airport. This is not only to have a huge hotel by prestige architect Frank Gehry, but a casino, shopping centres and a stadium. It is as much directed at the mainland as at Venice, but the guaranteed attraction of the Serenissima, the apparently endless curiosity to see this city, certainly encourages the investors. Could this be a kind of antechamber to Venice, where tourists would stay, and, as the economist John Kay suggested in his speech to the Istituto Veneto in 2008, pass through a didactic preparation for the transcendent experience of sailing down the Grand Canal? Or will it be an economic machine dependant on forcing more and more people into the already crowded calli of the historic city?

Not for nothing does the airport have shares in the passenger port of Venice, which boasts of generating 10 per cent of the tourist economy of the city. Not for nothing is this port expanding; expect to see even more vast cruise ships dwarfing the Piazzetta of St Mark.

None of the above is irreversible, but the plans for a commercial port and transport hub, big enough to rival Trieste, at Marghera on edge of the lagoon would almost certainly be permanent in its effect on the city. Such a port would be very welcome for the mainland economy because the petrochemical works there are obsolescent, and central government is looking for an alternative source of employment to be able to cease subsidizing them.

But to make such a port economic requires the deep dredging of the channel from the Malamocco inlet to Marghera to let in the big bulk carriers, and it is precisely these deep channels that over the years contributed, with other environmental factors, to the degradation of the lagoon and the chronically raised water levels in the city. There is a great deal of scientific research and consensus on this matter, so it cannot just be brushed aside. The Autorità Portuale, in its submission to the Italian Senate this May about this project, not only ignores this evidence, but makes a completely unproven statement: "the situation regarding the lagoon is completely changed and the problem of its hydraulic equilibrium is solved because it will be possible to manage it through judicious use of the MOSE system". And with that statement, which confuses the role of MOSE in defending Venice from flooding events with the question of the degradation of the lagoon, the submission dispatches all the environmental risk to Venice of the port development project.

Who can speak up for Venice in such a situation? The mayor of Venice cannot be any more than a lobbyist with central government as he or she has no legal control over what happens with the port, it being an autonomous public body of the state. There is the Comitatone (big committee) for major policy decisions regarding Venice, made up of government ministers and representatives of local government, and presided over by the prime minister. But in Silvio Berlusconi's government, with its belief in big infrastructure projects, disregard for the environment and its political indebtedness to north east Italy, the Comitatone is unlikely to favour caution. And neither is the project likely to be opposed by the electorate of Venice, as only 30 per cent of it inhabits the historic city and lagoon islands, while 70 per cent is on the mainland and is more likely to benefit in the short term from the developments.

Of course, the whole economy of the Veneto, indeed of Italy, benefits from Venice, one of the greatest tourist attractions in the world, but this seems to be so taken for granted that it is not explicitly part of the political discussion. It is therefore indispensable and urgent that a realistic study (also taking account of the black economy) gets carried out, showing who spends the money and who benefits.

Especially now that a greater degree of free enterprise is being allowed in and around Venice, two basic economic tools also need to be applied by the authorities -and investors: risk assessment (particularly where the plans for the port are concerned) and cost-benefit analysis. For example, is it worth investing billions in a port and transport hub if, as a consequence, you have to spend billions longterm protecting the buildings of Venice from the water? Is it worth bringing in more and more day-trippers if they crowd out the tourists who stay at least one night in Venice and spend more money there?

It is exciting to see that the latest, excellent study by the research group COSES has for the first time, and at the request of the Comune (municipality), worked out what the maximum number of tourists in Venice might be (86,000 a day, but they do not recommend it).

It is fascinating reading for anyone who has experienced alley-rage in one of the main routes through Venice; the Tourism Chapter describes its methodology and gives a summary of its findings. This is the first sign that the Comune is thinking of how to manage the numbers of visitors, rather than continuing with the laissez-faire policy it has defended hitherto. The question is whether they will be able make the investors in the business interests around Venice into allies, so that a policy bringing dividends in the long rather than the short term will prevail. Nobody should forget: the prize is the most beautiful city on earth, one of the most marvelous creations of man. That is beyond price.

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