Readers of this blog may assume that my favorite city in the world is New Orleans. It isn't, it is Venice.
I first saw Venice when I was 5 years old. Since then I've been scheming ways to return. It took almost 20 years but I finally convinced my family to go back.
As a 5 year old I was blissfully unaware of Venice's water situation but as a 23 year old, months away from earning a master's degree in Emergency Management... yikes.
My entire perception of Venice as a floating city shifted
to Venice as a sinking city.
On this trip I found that my newfound knowledge of flooding, structural engineering, mitigation, risk, sustainability, resilience, vulnerability, sea level rise, climate change, tides, windows of opportunity, and situational context hindered almost all ability to enjoy the beauty around me. I was left with a feeling that I was not being dramatic in thinking it could be the last time I would see Venice.
I was the unlikely tourist, taking pictures of doorways, makeshift mitigation efforts, overflowing canals, and waterlines around every bend; only photographing bridges and gondolas if they helped illustrate the rising tide. (My family did a good job shielding their eye rolls but I could still feel them as I all but laid down in the middle of walkways to get the best angles.)
It is easy for outsiders to not immediately realize the fragility of the city -- the floating city is very much a novelty, a spectacle. Venice is a city that is itself a piece of art; the city, itself is the destination, the museum, the cultural artifact. Venice does not just occupy a place of national significance within Italy but is also a prized city of international importance. Outsiders from around the world have a stake in "saving" and "preserving" Venice.
Everywhere we went there were signs of adaptations, Venetians and tourists alike are making in response to the more frequent influx of water. Thigh high rain boots (or waders) are casually sold by vendors alongside sneakers.
Raised walkways staked and set up around each bend, as much of the landscape as cafe tables and chairs.
Gondolas and other boats are now lack the needed clearance to pass under many bridges during high tide.
A plethora of internal and external drainage pipes and gates on nearly every doorway can be found throughout Venice.
Seemingly small, relatively insignificant, and at most inconvenient adaptations are all around the city and have been for several years now. Of course the best way to interpret the present and predict the future is by understanding the past. When I came home I immediately purchased two books on Venice. A few months later I actually got around to reading them. The following analysis is informed by these books as well as online research (websites cited where appropriate).
Land Formation and the Founding of Venice
6000 years ago the Adriatic Sea pushed north following the last ice age and the Venetian lagoon was created. The lagoon is saltwater separated from the sea by a sand barrier. The lagoon (and others nearby) were settled by only a few fishermen for centuries. Mainlanders would seek sanctuary in the lagoons when armies came through their towns (ex: Attila the Huns, The Germanic Lombards, etc) because they provided natural defense from armies unfamiliar with the shallow boats needed to navigate the waterways. As barbarian raids became more frequent some mainlanders decided to develop the lagoon.
In 1846 the railway was built connecting Venice and the mainland.
Venice is a city with a good situation (regional context and how the city connects with the rest of the world) but bad site (the actual physical footing). Venetians claim their founding date as 421 (March 25th at noon to be exact).
Constructed/ Built Environment
Buildings in Venice rest upon wood pillars driven into the ground. Impenetrable to sea-water, marble serves as the base of the buildings. A brick layer then beings just above the height of the tide. Bricks easily succumb to repeated interactions with saltwater. Herein lies a major problem and the focus of much restoration activities. As the sea-level rises in the Lagoon, overtime the brick layer has encountered repetitive interaction with the sea, and in some cases complete submersion, has led to severe erosion.
To address the continual flooding in Venice a series of flood gates have been built along three inlets to the Venetian Lagoon. The gates remain underwater and are raised when the water rises. When raised the gates essentially shut the Adriatic Sea out of the Lagoon.
Venetian culture is one of a laid back attitude. This "wait and see" approach, typical to Venetian culture, is frustrating for scientists and engineers who understand that waiting could have detrimental impacts on the city. Recently, Venice was hit hard in the European Debt Crisis with Venetian businesses closing and 86,000 Venetians loosing their jobs.
If you think the political system in the US is complicated and corrupt, you ain't seen nothin' yet. In the home country of Machiavellian politics, the atmosphere surrounding the "saving of Venice" is no exception. In 2014 over 30 politicians were arrested for corruption related to the MOSE flood gate project, including a former mayor of Venice. Recently political relations with Rome have gotten so bad that Venetian Nationals are pushing for independence from Italy. Relatedly, the legalities surrounding efforts to "save Venice" are complex and intertwined in local, regional, and national politics.
I remain a little unclear as to what official emergency management looks like in Venice. There is talk of a warning system that gives residents a good 6 hours to prepare for tidal inundation. This system prevents lives from being lost during flooding, and serves as evidence by some that major intervention is not needed.
Reflections and Analysis
As a case study, Venice is rich with historical data. Given its prominence of a beautiful city paintings dating back centuries are used as a historical record to measure the changing tides. Archeologists have uncovered 7 layers of raising and re-pavement in Piazza San Marco, indicating that over the centuries the city has been raised to prevent frequent flooding. Venice is a city that has been packaged, sold, and exported as an attraction to places like Disney World and has been appropriated as a "theme" around the world.
Inevitably the question is raised, is Venice worth saving. The costs, politics, engineering vs. the culture that would be saved. If we accept culture is important to us and our future there is a clear argument that it is not just the cultural artifacts housed inside the walls of Venice museums that are worth our money, time, and attention, but the city itself.
It is difficult not to draw comparisons between New Orleans and Venice. Both are cities with good situations but bad sites. Both serve as cultural meccas and economic contributors to their nations. And, both cities are themselves cultural artifacts with international respect and importance. Both cities face economic, political, and cultural barriers to implementing the mitigation necessary to prevent continual and prolonged flooding.
This article compiled the Instagrammed photos of tourists all but frolicking in the calf-deep Acqua Alta (high water) that comes with high tides during the fall and winter. While a novelty, and part of the experience for tourists, the locals (though I'm sure not jaded to think there would be minimal interactions with water in a water-surrounded city) likely find this much less entertaining.
[And yes, it did take me a year and four to get around to writing this post.]