Venice is struggling with both a shrinking population and a massive flood of tourists and cruisers. The Italian island has an unrivalled place in the memory of Europe. Today, its visitors number around 20m people a year, almost 100,000 each day; most of them are day-trippers. That number is roughly double than the 58,000 inhabitants the city hosts today.
The unique geography of the historic island, spanned with innumerable bridges and canals, reduces the city’s capacity to absorb and slow the visitor flows. Arrival and departure are concentrated in two gateways located within approximately, two minutes walk of each other: the train station of Venezia Santa Lucia, and the bus station Piazzale Roma. This situation creates high level of congestion: people and goods arrive mainly by boat or train, but 70 per cent of movement in the inner city is on foot.
Visitors are completely disorientated in a labyrinth of narrow streets, countless bridges and blind alleys, and disturb the residents’ daily life. The existing system of signage is confusing, and this “information disorder” contributes to the image of an inaccessible city”. Tourists don’t even realize they have even arrived in Venice when they reach Piazzale Roma, and ask themselves if it is a Venetian piazza or a parking lot.
Leaving the square, they tend to follow the crowd heading across the Constitution Bridge, which offers an open line of sight to the city, without really knowing whether or not their destination is actually across it. Since 2008, the Calatrava Bridge has completely reshaped the distribution of flows into the inner city, creating congestion along some well-defined streets and alleys, whilst others remain isolated and suffer economically.
The city’s original function is effectively under threat. Demographic statistics show a constant hemorrhaging of the city’s population: since the 1950s, it has fallen by more than two thirds. Venetians are abandoning the insular city for Mestre, situated on the mainland, to avoid ever increasing pressure from tourist numbers, soaring property prices and a significant reduction in essential everyday services. Venice, so spectacular by day, turns into a ghost town by night. Streets and piazzas stand empty, since inhabitants are very rare and increasingly tend to be old.
A “de-tourism” strategy is often presented by authorities, and endorsed by residents, as an obvious rescue plan. But would the transformation of Venice into an open-air museum with controlled access really be a healthy strategy for the city? Analysis of the Census data shows that most of people’s income comes from touristic services.
If plans to limit the number of tourists were to be taken forward, it would need to be done as part of a comprehensive strategy that involved replacing some of the lost income from tourism with other economic activities. It would also require some way of restoring housing affordability and essential services to the island. If not, this approach could end up reducing economic opportunity yet further, and thus reinforcing the pattern of migration to the mainland.
The worst case scenario, feared by all residents is the complete “Disneyfication” of Venice. How will future tourists be able to truly appreciate the city without its inhabitants? Notwithstanding the protection received from UNESCO, Venetian identity and cultural heritage must be further preserved too.
Could reshaping mobility and re-designing wayfinding be the key to relieving congestion, reactivating abandoned areas and rediscovering the rich cultural offering of Venice?
The Venice municipality is working on providing a system of terminals capable of managing the pedestrian flows. The municipality has also identified the need to diversify access to the island, by developing new entry points at Tessera and San Basilio.
But these solutions will remain ineffective in a context of fragmented institutional responsibilities, unclear city governance and pressure from the tourist economy.
The city needs a “smart solution” that reflects a real understanding of the city’s needs and a dialogue between city actors. A group of professionals and students from Urbego and IUAV University, in partnership with sensor systems provider Blip, decided to tackle the issue by assessing the “walkability” experience of pedestrians.
Venice from above. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.
The group’s aim was to integrate the concept of smart cities with those of human scale design and progressive governance initiatives. It made use of technology to refine the information related to pedestrian flows on the ground.
The researchers tracked people movements in terms of frequency and directions in the central station, and in the Piazzale Roma area, through a network of Wifi and Bluetooth sensors. In order to assess the real experience of users, pedestrian behaviors, they observed pedestrians’ reactions, and recorded their suggestions.
The data provided a basis for the creation of a new decongestion strategy, and for ways of improving users’ orientation as they explore the city. Experiments were conducted to test the initial prototypes, and the results were used to reshape the final proposals.
Despite its ambitions, the Venice Smart City vision poses the difficult question of how to link the global agenda of smart cities into a very specific urban context through a people-centred collaborative process. The experience shows the difficulty of acting in a fragmented political territory, and underlines the need for social innovation and in situ solution testing.
In order to embrace the complexity of the city development, local government, citizens, institutions and tourists must come together to achieve a resilient future of planning based on human capital, experimental methodologies and user-orientated design.
Farah Makki is an architect and PhD candidate at EHESS, Paris. She is the co-founder of Urbego.
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