Destruction by Scale

Finally, talks are beginning on moving the 15-story cruise ships away from Venice’s Piazza San Marco and out of the shallow waters of the lagoon. These floating behemoths loom over Basilica San Marco, giving passengers a sense that Venice, “La Serenissima” is a Lilliputian city spread out for their pleasure. Meanwhile, the draft below water of these 40,000 tonnage cruise ships has forced the Venetian Port Authority to dredge a 10 meter (33’) deep canal across the lagoon to accommodate them. This deep canal also permits the Adriatic to pour into the lagoon at high tide, causing ever more floods in this historic city.

It took community activists of the “No Big Ships” movement to finally get official talks started. On Saturday, September 21st, fifty protesters swam in the Giudecca Canal to stop 12 cruise ships from passing.   Silvio Testa, spokesperson for “No Big Ships”, points out that, in addition to increasing the problem of flooding, the wake and undertow of these huge ships erode the city’s foundations, and their emissions pollute the air and water. The vast number of passengers – 1.7 million last year - clog the narrow streets and overburden the city’s resources. On September 25th these 12 ships unloaded 35,000 passengers into the city (and the population of Venice is only 58,000.)

Acqua alta (as the frequent flooding is called) has been caused not only by the cruise ships, though they are the most recent, and most devastating culprits. The natural environment of the lagoon originally consisted of innumerable marshy islands that acted as sponges to soak up water at high tide. However, to create the vast port and oil processing plant at Marghera, the marshes on the mainland side of the lagoon were paved over.

To allow oil tankers to reach Marghera, a deep channel was dredged across the shallow lagoon south of Venice. This was the route that first allowed the high tide waters to flood the city. For years there have been efforts to close the oil refining plant (which also pollutes the air and water) in order to save Venice, but this effort has been unsuccessful.

15-Story Cruise Ships cause powerful wakes that can damage the fragile banks (Original here)

The cruise ship industry now proposes using the Marghera channel, and then dredging another 3 mile channel to approach Venice from the north, avoiding the Giudecca Canal. Obviously, as Silvio Testa has pointed out, this will not solve the problem.

Most people agree that Venice is the most beautiful city in the world. For the Venetians, it is also their home. For centuries, they have preserved this jewel of a city and the unique and sociable way of life it supported. They restored the irreplaceable 500 year old buildings, strengthened the wooden foundations, and raised their children to love and tend their city. But the insatiable mass tourist industry is swallowing Venice, building by building, transforming homes into hotels and grocery stores into souvenir shops. The younger generation are being forced to move to the mainland1. There are fewer and fewer children playing tag around the well on the campo (neighborhood square). There are fewer neighbors crossing the campo on their way to work or shopping, stopping to chat, catching up on news, strengthening social bonds and community ties. The structure of this city has created a people with incomparable social skills, who pay fine attention to every interaction, and remember details of conversations years past that most people elsewhere would forget. By forcing Venetians to move to the mainland, a unique value system and way of life is being destroyed.

The whole city is built to human scale. You can walk clear from one end to the other in 40 minutes. Buildings are 3-5 stories high, allowing someone at the top floor to call down to a friend on the campo. Venice consists of six neighborhoods (‘Sestiere’), each with a strong sense of identity and invested social capital. Historically, each neighborhood is semi-autonomous, with all its own shops, businesses, schools, services, cultural resources clustered around its main campo, so everyone lives within a 10-minute walk of everything they need for everyday life. Now, when the rest of the world is beginning to grasp the idea of a “10-minute neighborhood”, the original city of perfect 10-minute neighborhoods is being devoured by a global appetite for profit and a quick photo op.

While other cities around the world are finding their human scale historic heritage destroyed by gigantic buildings, it is the inappropriate scale of these cruise ships that is killing Venice.

1When I first stayed in Venice in 1973, the population was 143,000. The current population is now below 58,000, and declining daily.