Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

The world's most beautiful city has never been more threatened. But a passionate movement of locals is determined to keep it alive.

Venice may be putting on its party clothes for Carnival this weekend, but right now many in the city feel they have little to celebrate. Groaning under the weight of 30 million annual visitors, this most beautiful of places is suffering a degree of pressure that risks pushing it to extinction as a real city.

As visitors at levels reaching critical mass pummel the paving stones, housing for local residents is disappearing. The central city’s population has fallen to 54,000. While the winter months can be calm and even delightful, as my colleague David Dudley recently discovered, the city has still become an economic monoculture. Shops and businesses that provide services for residents instead of tourists struggle to survive; years of political corruption and what some locals see as official indifference have also taken their toll. Then, of course, there’s the gravest threat of all: the rising sea itself. But while Venice may be facing brutal obstacles, its peril is energizing local residents who are fighting tooth and nail to keep the city alive. CityLab talked to some of those activists who are fighting to keep Venice afloat.

Too Many People

Trying to fit 30 million visitors into a city as small and intricately laid out as Venice is effectively trying to square the circle. “This city is a finite area of islets ringed with canals, where many streets are no wider than alleys,” says Jane Da Mosto, executive director of campaigning group We Are Here Venice. “There’s a limited carrying capacity to the place that’s governed by bottlenecks. The city reaches critical mass almost every day from April to October. Are all those extra people going to walk on water?”

The daily siege of tourists doesn’t just make the logistics of managing flows of people complex: It has the tendency to flatten local life like a stampede of cattle in a flower meadow. Giovanni Di Giorgio, a 23-year-old native-born Venetian and member of pressure group Generazione 90, says that this pressure is fundamentally re-shaping the city, and not for the better. “Venice as it was 20 years ago just doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “Changes have happened so fast that it feels like waking up from a coma to suddenly find places you know are weird and ghostly, unfriendly. The population has dropped hard, theaters have closed, one of the largest bookstores has become a clothing store for visitors. Even though the streets are full to bursting with tourists, for us Venetians the place now seems empty. We feel like we are an endangered species.”

It’s not just a case of alienation. Day-to-day life has become more complicated, says Di Giorgio. “When I was a kid, Venice was full of historic, local shops, but now there are loads of stores selling mass-produced junk to tourists. Small silly things, like finding someone to sew buttons on to a shirt that’s lost them, are becoming impossible.”

It’s these kinds of day-to-day annoyances that are pushing Venetians—especially younger ones—elsewhere to make their lives.

Too Many Cruise Ships and Day Trippers

A cruise ship dwarfs the city as it creeps along a canal in 2014. Stefano Rellandini/Reuters

It’s not just the quantity of visitors that poses a problem for Venice, it’s the quality of what they deliver in concrete benefits to the city. Many visitors today are what Giovanni di Giorgio calls “smash and grab tourists.” They flood the city for a few hours and then leave, having bought little more than soft drinks and the odd souvenir. Among this group, locals get especially frustrated by those who arrive by cruise ship, a phenomenon that has really taken off in the past twenty years. From 1997 to 2011, the number of cruise ship visitors to Venice increased almost fivefold.

Indeed, Venetians have got so sick of them that they’ve taken to piracy. In September, a flotilla of small local boats guided by protestors dressed as buccaneers massed on the canals as a major cruise ship sailed towards the Marittima Basin terminal, harrying the ship to make their frustration known. Their anger is understandable. The sight of these huge craft looming Godzilla-like above the modestly-scaled canals and palazzi can feel as incongruous as a shark in a children’s paddling pool.

The current cruise terminal is within the city itself, and the boats come within to the delicate and historic ancient city center around St. Mark’s Square as they snake their way along the Giudecca Canal towards their moorings (kicking up damaging turbulence along the way). Then they disgorge visitors who have already slept and eaten on board, limiting their economic benefit to small businesses. Such is their intrusiveness that last summer, UNESCO vowed to put Venice on its list of endangered world heritage sites if it didn’t provide a plan to redirect large cruise ships from entering the lagoon by February 2017.

As Jane Da Mosto explains, the giant ships have an impact far beyond the number of visitors they contribute to the city’s total: “Cruise ships may account for just two of the 30 million annual visitors, but they’re concentrated in the summer months and they all come at once. Without counting the crew, cruise ships can bring 3,000 people on to land in the same spot. Belching out that number of people all at once has an incredible impact.”

There have been plans floated to ease pressure on Venice by moving the terminal away from Venice to nearby Marghera or to an offshore port at Punta Sabbioni. But the phrase “there are plans” recurs rather too often in stories on Venice, invariably without much action being taken to make those plans reality. After Venice’s Mayor Brugnaro (more of whom later) met UNESCO officials in Paris on February 1, the threats of endangered status for the city have gone quiet. Real action on the problem is nonetheless absent. Constructing new terminal facilities would take time, and no suitable site has been found or accepted either by locals or cruise companies. Agreement, let alone actual construction, remains elusive.

Too Many Airbnbs

A poster advertises Awakening’s Venexodus exhibitions, highlighting the departure of residents from the city. (Awakening)

Venice’s population isn’t falling simply because people are tired of the crush. Many people who would love to live here can’t do so because apartments are in extremely short supply. Competing with tourists for finite sleeping space has long made Venetian rents on the high side, but the rise of short-stay vacation lets is making things even more difficult. This is a common refrain throughout Europe of course, but while Airbnb may stand accused in Berlin or Barcelona of pushing up rents and making available apartments scarce, some activists fear that in Venice, they’re drying up the supply altogether.

Marco Secchi is a photographer who has worked with collective Awakening to create public art work highlighting Venice’s problems. He points out that the city’s 6,000 official vacation apartments (a huge number in a city of 54,000) are probably only half the total number, with many going undeclared to avoid taxes. This leaves little for locals, he says: “Today if you walk into an estate agent and we ask for an apartment, they will say, ‘Yes, we have a few thousand properties available.’ As soon as we mention that we're looking for something long term, they would close the book and tell us they have nothing.”

The reason is simple: Landlords can make more money in a week from tourists than they can in a month from permanent residents. Were these homes available to locals, Secchi insists that they would surely be snapped up fast. After all, over 60,000 people pour into the city for work every morning from the mainland.

For decades, Venetians have been resolving the problem of finding a home by voting with their feet. Far more residents now live in Mestre, a part-industrial city where the lone bridge to Venice hits the Italian mainland. Mestre is a decent enough, workaday kind of place, though placing it next to one of the world’s most beautiful cities makes it come across as grimmer than it is. But such is Venice’s over-exploitation that even the mainland is being lashed by tourist pressures. Awakening’s Marco Secchi says that, because space was so scarce in Venice proper, hotels and Airbnb landlords are now targeting the mainland for an expansion boom: Rents are rising fast in Mestre too, pushing people further inland in the search for affordable housing.

Meanwhile, historically less exploited parts of the Venice Lagoon, such as the delightful former fishing island at Burano, are experiencing their own property boom that makes living there ever-less affordable for the dwindling number of permanent residents. The idea of treating Venice as a theme park from which workers commute from humdrum mainland settlements may seem bleak. The current rent rises on the mainland suggest that even that future may not be sustainable.

Too Little Action

Police struggle to control throngs of tourists in St. Mark’s Square (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Italian politics may have a reputation for imperfection, but Venice’s representatives are still elected by citizens—as they have been (sort of) since the 13th century days of the Venetian Republic, one of the most durable democracies in the West. So why haven’t they voted in lawmakers who can get a handle on the out-of-control tourist industry?

One answer lies in the city’s electoral boundaries. Out of a total population of a little over 260,000, only 54,000 live in the city’s six Sestieri, the quarters that make up the historic city. Another 35,000 or so live on other islands in the lagoon, such as in the glass-making enclave of Murano or along the Lido, the sandbar that separates the lagoon from the Adriatic. The majority of Venice’s citizens, however, now live in Mestre, which was amalgamated with Venice in 1926. For them, job creation is more of a priority than the quality of life within the Sestieri, meaning that, say, the decay of local businesses in the area is hardly a vote-loser.

Across the municipality, voters are also somewhat stuck for a lack of good options. While center-right mayor Luigi Brugnaro’s election in June 2015 came with promises to tame tourism, there’s been little action. As of this autumn, the city was still merely “considering” such actions as a cap on the number of people allowed into St. Mark’s Square. To date, Mayor Brugnaro’s best known political action has been to ban books mentioning discrimination or homosexuality from city schools, a move whose bigotry is matched only by its total irrelevance to the city’s problems.

It’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for such a figure, until you realize that Brugnaro’s predecessor is currently standing trial for corruption. Giorgio Orsini, a member of the center-left Democratic Party, stands accused along with 35 other defendants of taking €20 million in kickbacks from contractors constructing the MOSE flood barrier, an astronomically expensive aquatic defense system that may not even work. Obliged to make a choice between figures like these, it’s not surprising that many Venetians are, as Generazione 90’s Giovanni di Giorgio puts it, “exhausted by the last 30 years of politics, and by a past decade that has seen the city trying to make right horrible past decisions with yet more bad choices.”

Venice Fights Back

A resident at a protest in November that calls for controlling the tourist population. His sign: “Goodbye Venice!” (Manuel Silvestri/Reuters)

Reading this litany of problems, you might be tempted to just let Venice sink into the sea and be done with it. This is, however, a singularly durable city, and its future is far from lost. The city’s mismanagement has spurred many people to action, with groups like Generazione 90, Gruppo 25 Aprile, We Are Venice and Awakening all pushing hard for change through lobbying, protest, grassroots organizing, and engaging the media. (Gruppo 25 Aprile, for example, were apologetically unavailable for an interview because they were in the midst of organizing a protest flashmob.)

On the more collaborative side, it’s partly thanks to discussions with Generazione 90 that the city is yet again debating an official limit on access to St. Mark’s Square. Meanwhile, international media scrutiny, such as this piece by author Salvatore Settis in The New York Times, is stepping up pressure on local and national authorities.

The demands that local activist groups are putting forward are numerous, but sensible. At the end of January, Gruppo 25 Aprile produced a barnstorming manifesto of sorts, laying out the actions they feel the city needs. Among many demands, they want a minimum two-year halt on permits to change residential units into tourist accommodation, as well as strict controls on tourist flows. They want to see funding to diversify local jobs, promoting such sectors as maritime research and traditional artisanry. They also want to use space in the civic hospital for a medical training center linked with the nearby University of Padua.

Twilight at Carnival. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

The group is petitioning for planning priority and tax breaks for businesses catering to locals; they also want more sports facilities. Finally, day-to-day life could also be made easier through simple pleasures such as reopening the old seasonal open-air cinema, or doubling the frequency of the Santa Marta Flea Market. It’s hard to disagree with such proposals, or even to question their feasibility in a city where tourist revenues remain vast, even if profits often end up elsewhere.

Given the current volume of problems Venice faces, getting all these demands realized may be a tall order. Saving Venice from submerging in a toxic mess of over-exploitation is nonetheless something that many people should care about, regardless of whether they have visited or plan to. Venice, after all, is concrete proof that, far from being completely awful, humans are in fact ingenious, cultured, resourceful, and creative beings. We’re capable of both engineering a great city from unpromising tide-lashed swamp mud and of making that city an unparalleled hub of architectural genius and social experimentation. It’s a happy miracle that this strange aquatic city is still a living organism, a place whose intricacy of invention and gut-punchingly intense beauty can make onlookers involuntarily giggle with sheer delight. Beleaguered as it may be, Venice is still the best of us. We can’t let it drown.

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