Today the idea of Venice as a city and as a human environment and ecosystem is at risk

Venice has not been listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger, but in light of what has happened, reflection is needed: indeed, today the very idea of Venice as a city and as a human environment and ecosystem is at risk. How to reverse the trend?

In Fuzhou, China, at the 44th session of the UNESCO WHC, representatives from 193 countries discuss World Heritage Sites. An extraordinary picture of a united cultural diversity that places traditions, memories, communities, monumental areas and natural sites of outstanding beauty on a level of common belonging. Wonders of man and nature to be preserved and made accessible for future generations, all of them, across nations, across borders. But also of the challenges that involve us all in protecting this common collective memory from wars, natural disasters and excessive economic and tourism functionalization.

And it is within this framework, and with these assumptions in mind, that the experts and delegations of the UNESCO member states, in recent months have found it useful to devote a specific focus to the Site Venice and its Lagoon, considering “moving” it to the list of endangered sites, that is, among those in need of special care by the member state, then by the Italian institutions and also by the international community. An attentiveness (not unprecedented, but never so resolute) that recognized Venice as a “Site at Risk,” but only unofficially: the lagoon city in fact was still “postponed to September” by the assembly, which nevertheless appeared as resolute as ever in its call for Italy to take decisive and resolute action to protect and revive the Site.

Not a rejection, then, but an intervention, and more than one, however sharp, calling for a rebalancing of the whole attitude towards the Venice dossier and for restoring with every resource the character of authenticity that gives the city its uniqueness and exceptional status.

Explaining the situation was Mechthild Rossler, Director of the World Heritage Center: “The list of endangered sites is not a place of expiation of punishment, either for the site that enters it or for the member country to which the management of the site belongs. The 1972 Convention for the Protection of the World Heritage serves precisely to support, by every possible means, the preservation and enhancement of the outstanding universal value of the site in question: listing it as an endangered site therefore means that the international UNESCO community is putting itself at the service of the site, to support the activities and policies that the member state and local institutions alone cannot achieve. It is not a judgment but a proposal for implementation and more collaboration, mentoring.”

So, with all that being said, a reflection needs to be made: when we talk about these things, what are we really talking about? In order to better understand the scope of the discussion, it is necessary to make a parenthesis and elaborate on how and why the experts and delegations of the UNESCO member states, thought it would be useful to have a dedicated focus on the Venice and its Lagoon Site.Here I reproduce a note published in recent days signed by theASSOCIATION OF ITALIAN HERITAGE WORLD HERITAGE in which the starting point of the Committee’s reflection is punctually explained: "we share the excerpt of the document produced by the Committee with the opinion of the advisory bodies, >>VENICE AND ITS LAGUNA; we quote in translation some excerpts from it with the reasons for the request for inclusion in the Danger List and possible future actions, explaining the critical factors recognized by the experts of the World Heritage Center and ICOMOS in recent years.

  • Effects resulting from transportation infrastructure

  • Inadequate planning tools

  • Impact of the phenomenon of mass tourism both in terms of damage to buildings and to the cultural context through the conversion of private residences into accommodation and/or commercial use

  • The proposed large maritime infrastructure, with massive construction projects, including a new offshore platform, new terminals for grand cruise ships, a new marina, and large tourism and leisure facilities within the Lagoon or its immediate surroundings

  • The potentially negative environmental impact brought by boats, cruise ships and oil tankers

  • The management and institutional factor, Governance, coordination problems among multiple governing and controlling bodies, institutional and non-institutional, involved in the conservation, management of the asset and tourist flows

  • The impact of adverse climatic events, the management of Climate Change on the Lagoon ecosystem and real estate."

Noting the critical points of concern reported over the years, assessed the outcomes of the 2015 Reactive Monitoring mission and the 2021 Joint World Heritage Centre/ICOMOS/RAMSAR Advisory mission, at the conclusion of the assessment process, the request to place the site of Venice and its Lagoon on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger therefore emerged.

Now, we often underestimate the idea of the city, and what it means. We remember it more when we hear a lot about it, especially on the subject of suburbs, or as in the emblematic case of Venice, terrible downgrades or threatening inscriptions on phantom punitive lists by UNESCO. Yet in the cities we live. Then perhaps the issue is more nuanced and less sectoral. A city is cause and effect of the values expressed in it, intangible values (citizenship being one of them) that have material consequences (livability and economic impacts). And how to judge or direct interventions on the one and the other? Should aesthetic values (a place to look at) or ethical values (a place to live) prevail? It is then necessary to try to broaden the spectrum, not segment it; it is necessary to take responsibility and find commoning elements not distinguishing ones. One above all is the culture that in those spaces, from those territories, finds expression. It is there, where “urban environments” become human affairs, that culture can (must) be understood as a complex productive infrastructure. Connecting infrastructure, not only related to museums and libraries, but a civil infrastructure, giving access to the cultural stratifications of a territory and its identity.

Venezia, Piazza San Marco
Venice, Piazza San Marco

Our cities represent a unitary system made up of unique cultural and productive heritage, inseparably integrated with the activities, sociality, culture and characteristics proper to the places. It is necessary to remember that. Squares as common good, fulcrums of meeting, exchange, collective action, an open territory of sharing, central node of a fundamental social network. And it is from these assumptions that we need to “read” the concerns of the international community that we witnessed at the 44th WHC: at risk today is the very idea of Venice as a city and as a human environment and ecosystem.

Venice is a city that lives by paradoxes and that paradox is itself, it is the supreme example of a transition from the order of nature to that of man and culture: here the link between natural, cultural, artistic and architectural heritage is unique and inseparably integrated with activities, craftsmanship, the inseparable relationship with the sea, the peculiarity of ritual and festive events, theimportance of language and oral expressions as a means of transmitting the identity of the city in its community of heritage, and this makes the Unesco site “Venice and its Lagoon” a unified and paradigmatic system of both Italy and the entire list of World Heritage Sites. This is why it is so important to preserve its identity and heritage: cultural heritage and historical legacy are nothing if disconnected from the communities that have shaped them over time. A city unique not only because of the trite rhetoric of beauty, but because of a unique balance in the world that needs to be protected and safeguarded. Then we need to work not only to revive commercial Venice, or to protect it with emergency solutions, we need to radically change the paradigm that interprets it as such, moving away from the mercantile logic of tourist attraction and back to interpreting it as a city, with the actions thought out and implemented starting from this assumption.
Unesco has been present in Venice since 1966, on the occasion of the flood, the year in which it mobilized international attention on the city, gathering around it over time, not only a role of monitoring but also of active mobilization, of human and financial resources, as no’other organization, national and international, has ever done (and which UNESCO itself has never done anywhere else and anywhere in the world), and the international committees operating in the city only the most striking example. The Venice and its Lagoon site management plan, the last one drafted, and also the only one in existence, was created to support the development of the city by listening to the city itself. And the heartfelt call of the past few days stems from this commitment, and must be interpreted as an important opportunity (the umpteenth) that can no longer remain a dead letter for long, unheeded (if not also attacked by the local government), with important damage also to the city’s international credibility. Then we need to start again with this call for the international community’s availability, and the resources that exist and are available. Perhaps starting by ensuring that the UNESCO office already present in Venice (the only other European office besides the one in Paris) becomes a stable observatory, an operational hub that relaunches on the international level the demands of local politics and the city, its community. Let the opportunity offered by the international community be seized and a commission/working group be created to support, review and implement a new, more incisive management plan that accommodates the demands of the Assembly and the city (the Great Ships are just one among many critical issues). Because it went well, again, but it could have been much worse, and if this time it came down to proposing that the site be put on the “at risk” list, there may not be any more referrals in the future. After all, in the same hours we saw Liverpool lose its World Heritage status, through neglect and speculation, and that this decision (this one historic) is a real warning.

We need to make sure that Venice remains a city and not a museum; we need to re-establish immediately a “healthy” balance first of all between citizens and visitors, reinterpreting the relationship between welcome and permanence; and then investing with courage and foresight so that the city (all of it) becomes attractive again as a place to live and work. Venice and its extraordinary heritage of culture and creativity, but also of tradition and education that characterize its history contains the key and all the resources to relaunch its future. A future that generates value through people. In this sense, designing new ways of diffusion and accessibility of the lagoon territory should be today more than ever the central objective in the new idea of a city. A change of pace to foster real Sustainable Local Development of against a pre-pandemic normality that was not quite normal. In this sense, there is an urgent need to quickly get out of all rhetoric and define models of growth that enhance local resources, models capable of placing the relational dimension of welcome and knowability at the center, capable of making culture its own subject and not only the object of its actions, through in a new systemic offer, qualitative and not quantitative, with proportional impacts, material and immaterial (and only then economic), measured over the medium to long term. Because one cannot talk about Venice (or even think about administering it) without being fully aware of its cultural and artistic value. An offer unparalleled in the world that must be promoted and protected as the bearer of cultural, social, historical and economic values closely linked to the city. Collective resources that cannot be commercialized in a superficial and reductive way.

They have understood this well elsewhere, where the very idea of diffuse culture is thought of and implemented first and foremost for the resident population, to encourage cultural interaction, offering new perspectives on contemporaneity and interculturality, actively involving the territories and not considering them passively as sterile locations, but actively as participatory habitats, stimulating their ability to redesign their own development, revolutionizing even their attractiveness as new tourist hubs. There is an urgent need to quickly move away from all rhetoric and shortcuts that harken back to (wrong) marketing models of the last century. To do otherwise is to pander (again) to a logic that debases the public function of culture and the city itself, as a service born of and for the community, by crushing it under the weight of tourism as the only positional income. Yet, past the gloom, all concern still seems to slip into a sad faded album of political, cultural and civic memories. A fuzzy dream, an anecdote to flaunt as needed, be it tourism, propaganda, pride or protest. Yet the Venice dossier has not closed.

Let then the “escaped danger” of these days not be provincially a source of confrontation or parochial satisfaction, much less be trivialized: what emerges from the World Heritage Committee is a clear call to act with resolve and with a new and real assumption of responsibility, today, for the good of Venice. For if Venice loses its identity ties it risks becoming, at best, an open-air museum, and the civilization that created and kept this unique place alive is destined to be lost. And with it a small part of all of us.

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