Saving a city's soul

As waters everywhere rise from global warming, Venetians engage in a passionate debate on how to keep their palaces from sinking into the Adriatic.

Published December 14, 2004 4:55PM (EST)

It is winter and St. Mark's Square is puddled, although it hasn't rained for days. The water has come roiling up through the drains, seeping through the stones, creeping over the banks of the canals. Plywood platforms on metal legs are stacked, school table-like, around the square; when the water is inches deep, as it often is, Venetians line them up and walk along them to keep their feet dry.

I am on my way to see Maria Teresa Brotto, a civil engineer who thinks she knows the answer to Venice's flooding problems. But then, almost everyone in Venice thinks they know the answer to the flooding. Few subjects here arouse such passion, not least because which solution you favor reveals much about what, and whom, you think Venice is for.

At the beginning of the last century, St. Mark's Square flooded on average 10 times a year. Now water seeps into the square more than 100 times each winter, and its paving stones are cracked and pulling apart. Venetians keep a pair of waders at home and another at the office. Their calendars show the height of the tides. There are phone lines for weather updates, and sirens warn them of "exceptional" (waters 110 cm above sea level) or "extreme" (140 cm above) events. They manage to go on living in their beautiful, drowning city. Or those who are left do; the population has halved since the '50s.

But everyone agrees that something has to be done. Saltwater is eating into the buildings as the lagoon follows its natural destiny, which is to be absorbed back into the sea. Without human intervention, Venice would eventually find itself isolated in a marine bay, exposed to wild waves. The city is subsiding, and always has been, as coastal sediment settles and the movement of the Earth's crust (on a geological time scale) pushes this part of Italy under the Alps. In the past, the Venetians simply piled new buildings on the ruins and foundations of earlier structures, creating a city like a lasagne. Most people would accept that this is no longer an option: In the words of Anna Somers Cocks, chairwoman of Venice in Peril: "The Venice we've got is the Venice we want."

The process of subsidence sped up in the 20th century as the result of the pumping out of water for industries on the nearby mainland. Too late it became apparent that the aquifers under the lagoon and the islands were a kind of cushion, buoying Venice. In the last century the land dropped 23 cm in relation to the sea, and although the pumping has stopped, the damage is done.

Natural changes in the surrounding landscape, such as erosion of salt marshes, along with man-made ones such as the cutting of a deep navigation channel for oil tankers, have conspired to exacerbate the tendency for the lagoon to take in water from the sea. And then there is global warming. The eyes of the world are on Venice not simply as the repository of some of the most stunning art and architecture ever created, nor merely as an area of outstanding biodiversity, but also because the city faces problems that may soon confront many other places as waters rise around the globe.

Brotto is a glamorous figure in suede trousers and high heels, with a deep tan, a ready smile and perfect English. Brotto is the coordinator of the final design of the Venice barrier, and her name arouses strong reactions in Venice.

The Venice flood barrier has been decades in the planning, has been endlessly debated and remains intensely controversial. Unlike in London and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where the barriers created anxieties but the population was broadly willing to trade some environmental impact for safety, the Venice barrier (or, strictly speaking, four barriers, which will be strung between the islands that separate the lagoon from the Adriatic) has split the city down the middle. Opinion polls sometimes show Venetians broadly in favor, sometimes against (depending, usually, on how the question is framed). Brotto assures me most people want the barrier, but acknowledges that "those who are against it are very noisy." They have, she says, created a false dichotomy between the barrier and other, more gradualist measures to deal with flooding. Both are necessary, she insists; and the consortium of engineering and construction companies that is building the barriers is also raising canal banks in the city, restoring salt marshes in the lagoon and dealing with the legacy of industrial pollution.

Brotto admits there will be some environmental disruption during construction -- "but we are taking mitigating measures, such as using an ecological dredger to reduce turbidity." She is adamant, however, that the gates remain necessary. They will be closed, she anticipates, five to seven times a year. "With this solution, we will solve all problems for Venice and the other settlements around the lagoon. Definitely."

"So," says Gherardo Ortalli, professor of medieval history at Venice University, "are you going to write that the barriers will solve all the problems for Venice? That is what the world wants to believe. A lovely story with a happy ending." I have come to meet Professor Ortalli at a palazzo close to the Grand Canal, the headquarters of an ancient institute of arts, letters and science, of which he is the administrator. In the fading light of a winter afternoon there is something gloomy about the building, an impression that Ortalli's mood does nothing to dispel. "This town is ending," he says. "When I arrived here 30 years ago, there were 130,000 inhabitants. Now we are half that. But the numbers are not so important. Young people are being priced out of the city, and those of us left behind are old and exhausted."

Venice is not being saved for its people, Professor Ortalli believes, but for the tourist trade, which is not owned by Venetians. His institute recently bought a palazzo across the square to prevent its falling, like so many others, into the hands of an international hotel group. Every year, 15 million visitors pour into Venice, where they buy fake Murano glass and carnival mask souvenirs that Ortalli says "are all made in Taiwan." In his view, business interests are dictating the future for Venice in a way that leaves Venetians with very little control.

Venice woke up to the grave threat it faced in the first week of November 1966, when a violent storm surge from the Atlantic swept into the city, flooding it to nearly two meters above sea level. The population was left with no electricity, with black oil oozing out of cisterns and with alleyways strewn with rubbish and the corpses of pigeons and rats.

The Italian government designated the safeguarding of Venice a national problem. The possibility was mooted of a barrier against the sea (something that had initially been suggested as early as the 17th century), and a "competition of ideas" was instituted. The winner was an underwater barrier, which would be invisible most of the time but could be lifted to resist the tide as necessary. Then, in 1984, a group of Italian construction and engineering companies was amalgamated into the Corsorzio Venezia Nuova (CVN), or Consortium for a New Venice, and charged with planning and executing the project.

CVN is the organization for which Brotto works. Depending on your point of view, it is either (as the Italian government insists, and the European competition commission appeared to accept in May of this year) the only body capable of managing such a complicated scheme or a private-sector monopoly whose responsibility for planning the solution is in conflict with its role in carrying it out.

Opposition to the barriers divides broadly into three camps. Some Venetians consider the gates unnecessary and believe that other, less radical measures could prevent most of the flooding. Others argue that the "softer" measures should at least be tried first. And some, who are not necessarily against a barrier in theory, are nevertheless opposed to the way in which the current barrier system has been handled. "The safeguarding of Venice was handed over to a private group with a monopoly," says Ortalli. "They are legal interests, not bandits, but they are working for themselves. And they have come up with a solution that is enormously expensive. If it had been possible to find a more expensive solution, they would have done it. The expense is part of the attraction."

Many share Professor Ortalli's view that Venice is "no longer a self-determining town." (CVN, Brotto is quick to point out, is not a law unto itself but comes under the jurisdiction of the Venice Water Authority, the local branch of the Ministry of Public Works. Its opponents argue that this group of private companies is so wealthy, is so powerful and has so much leeway to act that this nominal local control is more or less irrelevant.) For Venetians, with their history as a glittering, world-dominating republic, the sense that matters are out of their hands is particularly painful. Venetian politicians have always had an uneasy relationship with Rome, not helped at present by the fact that Venice is center-left, and the government, under Silvio Berlusconi, is not.

The following morning I take a boat out to the northernmost of the three inlets through which the lagoon flushes into the sea, and the sea washes back into the lagoon. The Lido inlet is the closest to Venice, and the largest; it's so large, in fact, that it will be divided into two when the barriers are built, with a man-made island in the middle. Work was given the go-ahead in April 2003, but there still isn't much to see: a small cement batching plant on the island in the distance, a caterpillar truck moving stones along one of the groines. We bob about in the motorboat near where the man-made island will be. Brotto has told me that three different architectural teams at the University of Venice are working on schemes to make the island attractive. But to some locals, that isn't good enough. The island will be built over a sandbank where, traditionally, Venetians like to come on weekends in summer and fish for razor clams. That this ancient tradition in the lagoon is about to disappear symbolizes for many Venetians the way that they are being discounted. "None of those people in the Consorzio is Venetian," one local told me. "I don't suppose they've ever been out there. They have no idea of the real pleasures of the lagoon: They aren't connected to Venetian culture."

The barrier design features 78 hinged gates that will normally lie flat on the seabed, filled with water. When required -- when Venice is about to experience a flood tide -- they will be pumped full of air and rise to an angle of 30 degrees to hold back the sea. Figures for the cost of this change all the time, but Brotto told me the scheme is currently budgeted at $5.3 billion. It is estimated the barrier will cost $10.6 million a year to maintain. This is an enormous amount of money, and many in Venice are suspicious of such a large investment in something that has never been tried before, that poses enormous engineering challenges and that cannot be modified. Giorgio Sarto is a Green Party politician who represented the Venice metropolitan area as a senator in Rome from 1996 to 2001. "First," he says, "we should have had medicine, then surgery."

In his view, there were simpler strategies that could have been explored first, such as making the three inlets to the Adriatic shallower; positioning breakwaters against the sirocco wind, often a major factor in flooding; and strengthening groines. This, he argues, would have reduced the water level by 20 cm, so buying time for Venice to explore alternative schemes that were adjustable and reversible. (One much-discussed option would be ships moored at the inlets, which could be filled with water and sunk when flooding threatened.)

Environmentalists are worried about the effect that closing the gates might have on the lagoon. They fear that raising the barriers (in a 1966-type event, they would be shut for about 20 hours) will reduce the tidal flushing system and damage a complex ecology. More commonly, the barriers would be shut for four to five hours, which most scientists agree would have around the same impact as a low tide in summer -- in other words, not much. But some scientists take a gloomier view and, until it happens, no one can be completely sure. The barrier, meanwhile, will be embedded in concrete, and irreversible.

There is no doubt that the engineering challenges are formidable. No other barrier scheme like this has been tried anywhere in the world. CVN has experimented with a prototype gate and is constantly working on refining the design in the laboratory. Brotto is entirely confident that the barriers will work, but not everyone agrees.

In 1996, the Italian government commissioned two reports on the project: one from the Environmental Impact Study and a shadow report from an "International College of Experts," including scientists from Brussels, the Netherlands and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I happen to be reading the EIS report when Andreina Zitelli, associate professor of environmental evaluation at Venice University, and a key member of the study, joins me at a table by the Grand Canal. She turns up her nose. "This College of Experts represented nothing in terms of legal procedure," she says. "On the national commission, we had 40 members, of whom 10 dedicated two years to evaluating all the points. We read about 11,000 pages and wrote 400 pages. This is the judgment." It thuds down in front of me like a telephone directory.

The national commission came out against the barriers; the International College found in favor. Zitelli is still smarting at the fact that her group's objections were not taken seriously. She argues that the environmental impact of the construction will be very high, because deep, transverse channels must be excavated for the gates' foundations. She enumerates several technical objections, such as that 20,000 pilings must be sunk 30 meters into the mud, "and must stay in a straight line to resist the weight that will be put on them. But the bottom is not flat. There are small, discontinuous lumps of limestone at different levels. How do you get these pilings straight? And if the substrata are not stable, the gates could move apart."

She gestures to some gondolas, bobbing about in front of us on the water. "You see those? They don't move in the same way, at the same rate; they don't reach the same height. This is called disharmonic wave resonance, and this disharmony could be so strong in windy conditions that the gates could pull apart." She is worried too about biological encrustation under water, which she estimates will be "around 30 kg per square meter per year." I ask if this could stop the gates from working; she shrugs.

She also points to what she believes are uncertainties in forecasting when to raise the gates. "Computer models predicting high tides currently have a margin of error of plus or minus 20 cm. Only last week the sirens failed to predict how high the tide would go." (Brotto disputes these figures, citing a 10 cm margin of error.) "That means that if you decide to close for tides of 110 cm, the actual tide could be 90 cm or 130 cm. During winter, this includes all medium-high tides in Venice. Today, high tide is 90 cm, and there is no flooding. So you can't accurately predict the tide until an hour and a half beforehand, but they will have to decide before that, in order to warn shipping."

Brotto does not accept these figures: She says that the first information comes in 48 hours before a high tide, and that "it is possible three hours before the high tide to have a forecast that is within 10 cm of error, 97 percent of the time." She adds that mathematical modeling is improving all the time.

Zitelli concludes that even the International College of Experts said the project would need to be reviewed in 2050. "Yet this is being sold to us as a project with a 100-year technical life."

If the Venice barriers are completed on schedule, they will be finished in 2011, nearly half a century after the 1966 flood. For Dominic Standish, a British academic and journalist who lives near Venice (and who has connections with an international think tank that has been linked to the Bush administration's position on the environment), this represents an inexcusable delay. "I feel a little bit jealous of London for having got its barrier before these things became such a political issue," he says. "It's a sign of our times that we feel so hesitant about protecting something that is so important in the history of the world. Governments have now adopted the precautionary principle: There is a desire to prove that any action is risk-free before proceeding. It's a way for them to seem to be interested in emotive issues: a way of connecting with people."

No doubt the sums of money involved have troubled successive Italian governments. But Italy's often sclerotic politics has not helped: In the '70s, there were doubts that Italy would even survive as a state; in the '80s, shifting coalitions were preoccupied by their internal state, as Christian democracy and communism faded and declined. In 1998, a Green environment minister halted the project; the Amato government subsequently revived it with conditions that took account of some of the environmentalists' concerns. It is finally happening now because Berlusconi has based his plan for economic recovery on the implementation of a number of grand projects.

Throughout this, as Green M.P. Giorgio Sarto admits, the center-left has been hopelessly divided, not only on the wisdom of having the barrier at all (which, given the technical arguments raging around it, is understandable) but also on whether to oppose the role of CVN. As water seeps into the city, life is draining out of it. Today, CVN rents a palace belonging to General Insurance. There are no insurance companies working in the city anymore -- few major employers at all, in fact. Even the public-private partnership responsible for urban maintenance is moving out to the mainland. Somers Cocks, of Venice in Peril, believes all this is directly related to the flooding, and that if the waters could be controlled, businesses might start investing once more. "How acceptable is it for Venice to flood? My view is not at all. It is damaging not just to the buildings but to the way the city is lived in. The only way you can deal with Venice in the short term is to close the gates relatively frequently. Then do you get a stinking, rotting lagoon? The data differs."

For some environmental groups, that's too big a risk, certainly at this stage. Some would rather see pavements raised first, although pavements have already been raised as far as most architects and art historians are comfortable with, and any further lifting would spoil the proportions of the architecture, making doorways impossibly low.

Until recently, until postwar industrialization and port development, environment and architecture have lived in symbiosis in Venice. But that point of equilibrium appears now to have passed, and what needs to give depends on one's priorities. The trouble, though, is that tampering with one end of things affects everything else: Venice is only Venice thanks to the vigorous natural dynamics of the lagoon system. Most scientists, it is probably fair to say, think that the gates are a solution, certainly for the time being. Brotto argues that they will work "up to a 60 cm rise in sea levels. There is considerable dispute about how far global warming will cause sea levels to rise, but if it is as much as 60 cm, we will also lose Ferrara and Ravenna. Venice will be the only dry place in the northern Adriatic." For Somers Cocks, too, the argument that global warming may make the gates obsolete by the middle of the century is a red herring, "because what happens between now and then? Flooding 80 times a year and the constant worry of another extreme event?"

A three-year collaboration between Cambridge University and Corila, the Venice-based lagoon research consortium, resulted this autumn in the publication of a book, "The Science of Saving Venice" by Caroline Fletcher and Jane da Mosto, summarizing everything currently known about the ecology of the Venice lagoon. A wonderfully clear statement of what scientists currently understand, this eschews the political posturing of so much of the debate about the barrier. The authors do, however, note rather tartly: "It is remarkable that an enormous amount of data collected by numerous institutions (but mainly by the Venice Water Authority) has not been circulated nor made readily accessible to the scientific community, nor the public at large. This has obstructed the comparison of research results and findings from different modeling approaches and the development of a non-ideological, constructive, science-based debate."

So much money has been funneled through CVN and the Venice Water Authority into research that it is difficult to find scientists locally who are genuinely independent. And with the fruits of all this research not widely disseminated, there remain engineering and ecological uncertainties. For Somers Cocks, though, much of the opposition -- whether it takes the form of environmental or engineering objections -- is rooted in ideology: "an objection to private companies, a sense that there is a capitalist plot." She thinks that antipathy to the barriers is symptomatic of Venetians' failure to face up to the reality of their future. Since the lagoon would, left to its own devices, merge with the sea eventually, Venice is faced with an unpalatable choice: Abandon itself to the tides, or wall itself off and turn the lagoon into a lake.

"The greens say if you fix the lagoon, you fix the problem," says da Mosto. "But it's not an either/or, not least because one day we're almost certainly going to have to turn the lagoon into a lake. We need to know everything we can about its ecology by then. The more we know, the more we realize we need to know, especially given the decreasing role of natural dynamics in the lagoon."

The barriers will almost certainly be built, even though no one yet knows who will operate them, nor how the government will manage the funding (currently being allocated only on a year-by-year basis). Romano Prodi, who will oppose Berlusconi in the next election, recently came out in their favor. Venice will hold back the tides for a little longer -- and after that, who knows? (Engineers in London are already working on the successor to the Thames Barrier; in Rotterdam, they are planning for the next barrier but one.)

The tides of economic globalization are another matter. At present, Venice is a city close to being swamped by the international tourist trade, and finding no other identity it can assert. If it is to avoid being turned into merely the museum quarter of the Venice metropolitan area, it has to engage with globalization, not avoid it. In theory, it ought to be easy enough for Venice (rather as Dubai has done) to offer incentives for appropriate businesses, those based mainly on computers and the exchange of ideas, to set up in the city. But it remains to be seen whether there is the political will to engage with modernity in this way. For Professor Ortalli, the city is already becoming like Babylon. "Venice cannot survive," he says, standing on the palazzo steps. "I think it has died already. I am spending a lot of time fighting this barrier not to save Venice, but to save my soul."

By Geraldine Bedell

MORE FROM Geraldine Bedell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------