Invisible City

by Charlotte Parker:

Looking out from streets on the edges of Venice, it is impossible to ignore the dark forms that dot the city’s lagoon. Dredging machines idle like large mechanical birds in the middle of calm water, auguring the development that Italian officials and the Port Authority argue will transform Venice into a central hub for the maritime trade of the 21st century. But to concerned activists, the machines represent a change that will irreparably damage the city of Venice and its ecosystem.

On May 11, 2009, Paolo Costa, former mayor of Venice and now president of the Venice Port Authority, submitted a proposal to the Italian Senate to further dredge the main channel into the port. The proposed dredging would expand the Port’s capacity to accommodate ships larger than 400 meters in length. The proposal forms part of a 260 million Euro plan for development of port infrastructure that aims to make Venice a rail, road, and sea hub serving Italy and East-Central Europe.

A cruise ship leaving Venice dwarfs the city. Cruise ship traffic in the Port increased from 200 ships in 2000 to 510 in 2007. (Parker/TYG)

The channels dredged for port traffic, however, have been “accelerating the ongoing natural erosion in the lagoon,” according to biologist and Venice resident Jane da Mosto. The prospect of intensifying port activities is “deeply worrying for those concerned with safeguarding Venice,” wrote da Mosto and Professor Luigi D’Alpaos of the University of Padua in “The Venice Report,” a comprehensive study by British non-profit Venice in Peril.

In 2009, D’Alpaos published research showing that port traffic and dredging have exacerbated the lagoon’s instability. Excavation erodes the sedimentary deposits that protect Venice by keeping the lagoon water lower than sea level. Disappearance of these sediments is linked to increased bouts of flooding and rising water levels.

The Port’s proposal deflects environmental concerns by asserting that “the situation regarding the lagoon has completely changed and can be managed through judicious use of the MoSE system.” MoSE (Experimental Electromechanical Module) is a flood defense system consisting of giant mobile underwater gates positioned where the Venetian lagoon meets the Adriatic Sea.

But MoSE is simply a tidal flood control system. It cannot protect the city against damage wrought by large scale excavation, wrote Tom Spencer of Cambridge University in “The Venice Report.”

The controversy surrounding the port enlargement proposal intensifies the ongoing debate between environmentalists and policy makers that began when the government first approved the MoSE project. Accusations of profiteering and data manipulation have flown back and forth, yet the two sides rarely enter into constructive dialogue and have not consulted the residents of Venice.

The city has not officially heard the port expansion proposal. Francesca Meneghetti, an employee of the Environmental Management Department of Venice, resignedly said that the municipality would doubtless be against it. Historic Venice and its inhabitants are politically impotent. The central Italian government has first say in most city matters because it supplies the majority of funding for public works projects. The municipality has only a 2.5 percent share in the Port and no legal control over the state-owned waterways in question. The hierarchy of political power – the Italian government at the top, followed by the Veneto Region, and finally the municipality of Venice itself – leaves the city’s government little room to work for its constituents. For activist citizens of historic Venice, years of protesting, mainly against the MoSE project, have led to little tangible action.

The already complicated situation is further convoluted by the fact that “the average Venetian doesn’t understand what’s going on,” da Mosto explained.

Yet the Port’s expansion project would have very real consequences for Venice. Da Mosto emphasized that it would “exacerbate and accelerate the degradation of buildings caused by higher water levels and continue the pressure of cruise ship traffic on Venice, which effects all kinds of distortions on the local economy and excludes the permanent inhabitants of Venice.”

Giovanna Benvenuti, a spokesperson for the Port, countered that the expansion would bring economic benefits, stimulating the local economy through increased ship traffic. She also noted that the expansion could have positive consequences for the environment; part of the excavation will focus on removing and treating sediment polluted by heavy metals. The debate over the future of Venice’s port has yet to yield a creative, forward-looking vision for the city, its infrastructure, and its natural environment.

Alternative proposals for the development of Venice and the surrounding region have garnered little airtime. Carlo Crotti, chairman of the non-profit Association for Hydraulic Protection of the Venetian-Paduan Territory, backs a potentially transformative model that would also safeguard historic Venice. He spoke of a “highway of the sea,” a network of inland canals plied by small river-sea craft. These boats would deliver containers, deposited on offshore platforms by large ships, via the waterways to inland ports, eliminating the need for damaging large-scale dredging.

Although construction began in 1965, the waterway from Padua to Venice – a key part of this alternative system – remains incomplete. The Port’s proposal acknowledged the value of a waterway system and suggested further development of existing canals. This commitment, however, rings hollow; the Port recently called on the central government to approve a project to build a highway where the Padua-Venice waterway was planned.

According to Crotti, there are around ten small, grassroots associations in the communities between Padua and Venice pressuring officials for completion of the waterway. These associations, however, appear fairly limited. Their challengers are the multinational companies who carry out the highway construction, and the central government, which stands to make a profit from tollbooths.

Hope remains that protecting the lagoon will become a priority, but da Mosto warned that time is running out. Ultimately, mobile flood barriers and large infrastructure investments will not solve Venice’s problems. Candid discussion between all sides – government, citizens, business interests, and environmental activists – is the only way to protect both the ecology of the lagoon and the living organism of one of the world’s great cities.

Charlotte Parker is a freshman in Calhoun College.