July 5, 2011

Venice: An Endangered City

Mass tourism, environmental neglect and rampant construction have a devastating effect on the lagoon city of Venice, warns Italy's leading heritage group Italia Nostra.

Italia Nostra on Monday urged the United Nations to put Venice on its endangered list.

"Today, this exceptional place risks seeing the destruction of its character and what is left of its natural condition," head of Italia Nostra's Venice chapter Lidia Fersuoch, told Reuters.

She said that "because the Italian government has not lived up to its commitment made to UNESCO to safeguard Venice and its lagoon," her national group seeks the help of the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO to put Venice on its endangered list and consider taking it off of its World Heritage sites.

The majestic palaces and churches of Venice are built on low-lying islands, mud piles and stilts. Social, environmental and structural problems threaten the city.

Flooding from high tides in the Adriatic occurs 80 days out of the year in low-lying areas in places like St. Mark's Square, where millions of tourists visit every year. The water further damages structures that are already fragile.

In addition, landfill and construction, industrial ports, dredging, and huge tourist and merchant ships further attack the lagoon's delicate eco-system, conservatives argue.

Although Italians are building a multi-billion dollar flood barrier in an attempt to save the city, the technology will only be a stop-gap measure, environmentalists fear.

"In 100 years the sea level will be such that the barriers will have to remain closed all the time, blocking the natural exchange of sea water that is (the lagoon's) very life source," Fersuoch is quoted as saying by Reuters and The Telegraph. "This will change Venice as we know it."

Instead, Italia Nostra wants to see long-term solutions such as the revitalization of the lagoon's natural eco-system, regulating tourism, and blocking construction.

Cristiano Gasparetto, a former member of the city's Commission to Safeguard Venice, says that the proposed six-mile-long construction of an underwater subway that will link the mainland to Venice would be an "ecological disaster."

"If we lose the lagoon, we lose the city," he says.

Italia Nostra also would like to see the number of tour groups dramatically reduced, even though it realizes that doing so "would momentarily lead to a drop in trade flows" and a "decline of the local economy" will occur.

Every day, tens of thousands of visitors invade Venice. Gasparetto says that a 1988 study indicated that while the acceptable maximum number of tourists for the city is 33,000 daily, the average figure for today is around 59,000.

Head of the Italia Nostra Alessandra Mottola Molfino says that the figure "is too high for such a fragile city."

The organization wants to cap the number of tourists allowed in each day, and wants large groups to make reservations before their visit.

In addition, large ships need to be banned from entering the lagoon and sailing into the Grand Canal. Their wake leads to the damage of the already delicate foundations of the city's historic buildings, reports Reuters.

In its place, the group suggests that other activities such as ecotourism and university research should be encouraged to "create a richer economy than one solely based on (mass) tourism."

Venice is really under threat," Molfino says. "We must find a balance between immediate needs and the future to ensure sustainable development."


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